Cheikh Lô is a man on a never-ending path of musical exploration, making stops along the way to pick up and place enriching souvenirs in his trunk. His trunk, overflowing, is festooned with decals witnessing each sojourn. Lô’s way is guided by the beacon of his spiritual guide, Ibra Fall, founder of the rapturous Bye Fall sub-sect of the Mouride Brotherhood of Islam.
Raised in Burkina Faso, Lô was taken with music when he was still very young. At 10, when he picked up the traditional drums of his Senegalese ancestry, he’d already been exposed to the varied rhythms of the continent thanks to itinerant Africans who came to call at his family’s adopted home. Loading guitar and vocals into his trunk, Lô made his musical way through Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali and on to Paris, where his course was further charted by other kindred pilgrims who found concert in the thriving music scene there in the ’80s. Among them was Papa Wemba, an often-credited influence on Lô’s already stunning voice.
Today, Cheikh Lô is one of the most accomplished performers around. His soul, his identity, his passion is Africa – it is his African quest that defines his straight and narrow path – but his keen ear admits influences from further afield that set the jewels in the crown.
After two artistically successful CDs, Nè La Thiass, and Bambay Gueej, Lô recently issued Lamp Fall, his most ambitious work yet. It’s a knockout patchwork of elements, as bold, bright, and meticulously arranged as a Bye Fall bubu. The painstaking assembly of Lamp Fall took Lô to Bahia, Brazil, where, after sending on ahead the musical rushes, he put on the finishing touches with his long-time producer, Nick Gold, and hotshot Brazilian percussionist/producer Carlinhos Brown, in Brown’s studio. Speaking by phone from Holland about the innovations, Lô frequently and aptly employs the metaphor of color. “We worked at adding nuances, at changing the colors; the results always depend on your approach – on what you add and how you add it to change the color of the music,” he says.
Lamp Fall gives substance to Lô’s advice to young Senegalese musicians: “Don’t get stuck in mbalax.” Senegal’s signature pop idiom, institutionalized by Youssou N’Dour, features plucky electric guitars overridden by the talking drum. While nearly all the CD’s tunes are underpinned with mbalax or its precursor, traditional sabar rhythms, they ride above and beyond, sweeping up influences of soukous, rock and roll, Afro-beat, reggae, even some calypso and “llanera” music of Colombia/Venezuela. “Sou” (Night of Love), perhaps the strongest cut, harmonizes a myriad of sounds, while showcasing his romanticism. Lô’s vocal, reaching to a breathy falsetto, is deeply penetrating and simply beautiful.
Lô says Brazil was a homecoming rather than a discovery. “Brazil is a country of exported Africans,” he says confidently. He took to the rhythms instantly, dismissing the idea that Afro-Brazilian music may have influences other than those of back home. “L’Afrique c’est L’Afrique,” he says. Africa is Africa. “The culture is so much the same,” he continues. “I felt as if I were in Africa.” Proof of the pudding can be found in the most Brazilian of Lamp Fall’s cuts, “Sènègal-Brésil,” a mid-Atlantic meeting of mbalax and the samba-reggae rhythms of the Bahia street. Here, Lô’s typical genre-bending becomes a bold statement of identity.
Lô’s journey has been at times an affecting one. Ever-mindful of human suffering and injustice, social consciousness informs his work. In 2002, he stopped to address AIDS in Africa, paying homage to Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, a musical icon and renegade felled by the disease. Lô laid down, on the powerhouse Red Hot and Riot tribute CD, a medley of two Fela tracks, “Shakara” and “Lady.” Amidst a gaggle of heavy hitters like D’Angelo, Baaba Maal and Taj Majal, Lô’s “Shakara” stands out as t