You can divide African pop music's brief life as a force in the international marketplace into three general phases. Starting around 1980 came the roots phase, championed by King Sunny Ade's percussion-heavy juju music. Then, around five years later, we got the polished offerings of Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita and others -- high-tech African music designed to cross over into the progressive rock and dance pop arenas. That phase crested around 1993, and recently, a new genre has emerged -- call it Afro soft-rock. The best of it is indigenous music with natural sophistication and a mostly acoustic sound palette, like Cesaria Evora's mournful mornas, a sort of Cape Verdean blues, or Oumou Sangaré's funky but sensitive Wassoulou music. Far less persuasive music by would-be Afro-folkies like Lokua Kanza of Zaire also fall into this category.
Enter Senegal's Cheikh Lô. West Africa has produced the continent's most powerful singers, and Lô easily earns a high position in the pantheon. His debut international release, "Né La Thiass" (World Circuit/Nonesuch) does the new genre proud. A true original, Lô grew up in Burkina Faso, far from the music industry bustle of Dakar, where he lives now. By the time Lô moved beyond his career as a freelance drummer, percussionist and singer,
and broke out as a singing star in 1990, he was determined to advance the musical aesthetics of Senegalese pop. Mbalax, a dense weave of keyboard chirp-and-moan, lightly strumming guitar rhythms and pummeling Sabar percussion, rules the airwaves in Dakar. When Lô went into the studio in 1995 to record "Né La Thiass," he axed the keyboards, toned down the percussion, substituted acoustic for electric guitars and brought in a flute and a small horn section. His producer, none other than Senegal's biggest star Youssou N'Dour, helped him get an exquisitely well-realized sound, but the genius here is all Lô's, and it goes well beyond these changes in the lineup. Lô spent years playing what the Africans call variété, an international mix that has changed with the times -- jazz and Afro-Cuban salsa in the '60s, Congolese rumba and more salsa in the '70s, reggae and more salsa in the '80s. Lô internalized all of this, and when he invests his arrangements with these influences, he does it so subtly that you can't quite pin them down. The music really moves, proving that good arrangements rather than force or bluster are what makes a groove deep. On the flamenco-flavored title track, Lô's clear, slightly rough-edged voice rises from speech into song, and the music rises with it, cooling off periodically with each repeat of the song's delightful, descending refrain.
If Lô's keening vocal in songs like "Dokandeme" or "Cheikh Ibra Fall"
suggests a spiritual bent, that's because Lô is a Baye Fall, a member of an
Islamic mystical brotherhood that champions hard work and simple living. Most of
Lô's themes here stem from his faith, and that sense of visionary certainty
fuels the music the way Rastafarianism fuels the best of reggae. Track after
track, the music's brisk levity and Lô's sensationally committed vocals
make for pop that soars, transcending all confinements of genre.
Back to Cheikh Lô's profile