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Cheikh Lô: African Maverick

Cheikh Lô—who plays Zankel Hall on April 20—is one of the great mavericks of African music. A superb singer and songwriter—as well as a distinctive guitarist, percussionist, and drummer—he has personalized and distilled a variety of influences from West and Central Africa.

Here, we introduce the man and the music.

Cheikh Lô in His Own Words

In Baye Fall, we have something called a jarasse. [The Baye Fall are a spiritual sect founded by Cheikh Ibra Fall, a renowned West African marabout or religious leader, based on the precepts of Sufism and Islam. The Baye Fall believe in work as a form of adoration and in devotion to their spiritual guide.] It’s the multi-colored clothes that I wear most of the time. And the music on my album Jamm is a kind of jarasse because it has many colors. If you unite this patchwork of colors, what do you get? You get harmony and harmony is life.

Musically, I’m very open to new ideas, new colors. That’s the source of the variety in my music. I could compress myself, box myself up, and adhere strictly to some notion of what Senegalese music should be. But I want my music to touch people all over the world, to travel all over the world, to communicate with the world. So in order to do this, you need to have something that the world can understand. I make African music. I might be Senegalese, but I’m touched by many far-flung corners of Africa and by its different countries and languages. With each new album, I try to present music that is in some ways, dare I say it, pan-African.


Check out some of the songs that Cheikh Lô performs at Carnegie Hall on April 20.

Il n’est jamais trop tard (It’s Never Too Late)

"Il n’est jamais trop tard" from the album Jamm on Nonesuch

This is a song from 1971 by the Bembeya Jazz National from Guinea Conakry, which they called “Doni Doni.” This version has a mix of Manding and Congolese influences. Lô has added some of his own lyrics, including the phrase, “My friends have all gone, but I’m still here, always here, to serve my country.”

“Many youths leave Africa to seek their fortune in Europe using dangerous methods of travel,” Lô explains. “What drives people to such a journey, just to haul themselves out of poverty? In a sense, this song is a warning directed at those youth. It says, ‘Listen, you mustn’t fantasize. Don’t think that Spain or France is El Dorado. We’ve traveled in those places and we know what goes on there. You have to work very hard to earn your living.’ Sometimes it’s worth leaving your country, but not at the risk of dying to work washing dishes. There are plenty who die en route. They dreamt of finding their paradise, but they found themselves in hell. If all the youth were to take off on their adventures, what’s the future for our country?”

M’Bedemi (The Street)

"M’Bedemi" from the album Bambay Gueej on Nonesuch

This is a version of the classic Cuban tune “El Carretero” by Guillermo Portabales that became an anthem for all of West Africa in the 1950s and '60s. Using the melody and rhythm, Lô changes the original Spanish words and explains to us in Wolof, his language, that there are so many homeless on the streets today. No longer just the few madmen, now the streets are full of the angry and the poor. The street is tired and it cries. When you see them, do something for the homeless.

Jamm (Peace)

"Jamm" from the album Jamm on Nonesuch

Jamm means “peace” in Wolof, the main language spoken in Senegal.

“Everybody needs peace in order to live a better life and to achieve serenity,” Lô says. “Even if you have all the gold in the world but don’t have peace, you won’t have a life. But some people say they want peace and then they go and kill other people. Peace is also necessary in the home, between a man and his wife, in the office between workers, everywhere. It must inhabit the person. If it lived in everyone—something that would require a huge effort today—then we wouldn’t be fighting all these wars.”

Guiss Guiss (Take a Good Look)

"Guiss Guiss" from the album Ne La Thiass on Nonesuch

This song is dedicated to Maam Massamba N’Diaye, Lô’s spiritual guide and marabout, who was reputedly over a hundred years old in 1996 when the Ne La Thiass album was recorded. He is the last surviving direct disciple and contemporary of Cheikh Ibra Fall. Massamba made knowledge of God a prerequisite for all other knowledge and he believes that tolerance is the key to wisdom.

Doxandeme (Immigrants)

"Doxandeme" from the album Ne La Thiass on Nonesuch

Lô makes a defense of immigrants in front of those who don’t take seriously the matter of leaving their own country. He is asking the audience, “Won’t you take pity on someone who belongs to no place? ... Show a little tenderness to the immigrant, deport me if you will, but have some respect for the immigrants.”

This text is excerpted from materials provided by World Circuit Music. Several texts written by Cheikh Lô and translated by Andy Morgan. All tracks courtesy of Nonesuch.

Related: April 20, Cheikh Lô

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