Top-flight African pop singers form a select club. Roots talent abounds
across the continent, but the list of singers who can connect with a
broad international audience is short. One of the few names added to
that list in recent years is Senegal's Cheikh Lô, whose Bambay
Gueej, his second international release, secures him lasting
membership in the guild.
Lô synthesizes an appealing range of West African styles on
Bambay Gueej (Bamba, Ocean of Peace). The fiery mbalax sound of
Lô's famous mentor, Youssou N'Dour, is a basic ingredient, but
Lô also goes in for Cuban rhythms and Congolese rumba, as well as
American funk and Nigerian afrobeat. The result is a highly original
sound, the mostly acoustic soundscape of which is electrified by its
far-flung influences. The opening track, "M'Beddemi" (RealAudio
excerpt), marries Senegalese and Cuban idioms at a deep level,
with one of Lô's trademark hooky melodies presiding over the
union. "Jeunesse Senegal" (RealAudio excerpt) features a playful horn arrangement by James Brown horn-section veteran Pee Wee Ellis. Nodding to Nigeria, Lô evokes both King Sunny Ade's orchestrated juju as well as Fela Kuti's tougher afrobeat. On the pensive "Bobo-Dioulasso" (RealAudio excerpt), Lô blends his voice with that of Malian Wassoulou star Oumou Sangaré.
But neither the gimmicks nor the guest spots make this album as great as it is. Credit for that goes to Lô's sure, seasoned vision, his
masterful songwriting and his voice, which is without a doubt one of the more inspiring in contemporary African pop.