Cheikh Lô [pronounced “Shake Low”] is one of the great luminaries of African music. A singer, songwriter, guitarist, percussionist, and drummer, Lô has personalized a variety of influences from West and Central Africa to create a style that is uniquely his own. Born to Senegalese parents in the West African country of Burkina Faso, Lô’s musical journey has been touched by a number of rich cultural influences, including his spiritual commitment to a Senegalese form of Islam known as “Baye Fall.” Distinguished visually by patchwork clothing and long dreadlocks, Baye Fall is oftentimes confused with Rastafarianism.
Cheikh Lô was born in 1955, to Senegalese parents in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, not far from the border with Mali, where he grew up speaking Bambara (language of Mali), Wolof (language of Senegal), and French. His father was from a long line of Muslim religious teachers known as “marabouts.” Lô has continued in his paternal heritage, dedicating both his life and music to Baye Fall, a specifically Senegalese form of Islam and part of the larger Islamic brotherhood of Mouridism. Mouridism was established by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba M’Becke at the end of the 19th century. His close disciple Cheikh Ibra Fall established the Baye Fall movement, distinguished by patchwork clothes and long dreadlocks which are still trademarks today. Cheikh Ibra Fall trained Cheikh Lo’s own religious teacher, Maama Massambe N’Diaye, who is said to be over 100 years old; Cheikh Lo wears his picture in a pendant around his neck.
From an early age, Lô was interested only in music, running away from school to teach himself guitar and percussion on borrowed instruments. During his teens, he listened to all kinds of music, especially the Congolese Rumba, which was popular throughout Africa. Cuban music was also popular in West Africa at the time, so when his older brothers started up their 78s and danced to “El Pancho Bravo,” Cheikh, without understanding a word, would mime exactly to the Spanish lyrics.
At 21, Lô started singing and playing percussion with Orchestra Volta Jazz in Bobo Dioulasso. The band played a variety of music from Burkina Faso and its neighboring countries, as well Cuban and other styles.
In 1981, he moved to Dakar, Senegal, where he played drums for the renowned and progressive singer Ouza before joining the house band at the Hotel Savana, drumming and singing an international repertoire.
In 1984, he moved to Paris and worked as a studio session drummer. He recalls: “Studio-sleep-studio for two years. I love Congolese and Cameroonian music, and I absorbed a lot of it during this period.” On his return to Senegal, he found that his (now very long) dreadlocks made him no longer entirely welcome at the Hotel Savana, so he concentrated on his own music.
Lô continued to develop his own repertoire, holding out for the best recording conditions for his next production. On hearing Lô’s new songs, Youssou N’Dour immediately offered to produce Lô’s 1995 album Ne La Thiass.
Ne La Thiass was released internationally on World Circuit in 1996, followed by a debut European tour from Lô and his band. His early performances prompted rave reviews, with the Times of London describing Lô as “a rare talent destined to become one of world music’s biggest stars,” and the Guardian calling him “a compelling performer with energy and personality to match that of the early Bob Marley.”
In 1997, when the album had its North American release on Nonesuch Records, Lô was named Best Newcomer at the Kora All-African Awards in South Africa, and the following year he toured the US, as part of the Africa-Fête line-up that included Salif Keita and Papa Wemba. In 1999, he received the prestigious Ordre National de Merite de Léon from the President of Senegal.
For the next few years, Lô withdrew from the international stage and immersed himself in the Dakar scene, playing regularly with his own band; this return home is reflected in his 2010 World Circuit release, Jamm, released the following year on Nonesuch. His signature blend of semi-acoustic flavors—West and Central African, Cuban, flamenco—has been distilled into his most mature, focused, yet diverse statement to date.