Cheikh Lô – Balbalou

On Saturday I popped into the local record store and was having a dig around the discounted section where i found a brand new album for £4.00. When there are 7″ singles priced at £11.00 this comes as quite a surprise. I knew nothing about the artist at all but it was classified as ‘World’ music and looked worth a listen, so I decided to buy it.

The artist is Cheikh Lô, and I found the following biography at this site: born to Senegalese parents in the town of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, West Africa. His father ran a jewelry business and the home was always packed with people. Cheikh Lo himself says that this is perhaps the reason why he is so open as a person, something that is reflected in his music.The young Lo developed an interest in music at an early age, playing drums and singing. His father was accepting of this, but his mother disliked it. The other sons in the family had all studied, and his mother was not happy at the thought of Cheikh Lo becoming a musician and playing in all sorts of sleazy clubs. Yet he continued to practice (obviously) and became a member of the Orchestre Volta Jazz, that played Cuban and Congolese hits plus pop versions of traditional songs from Burkina Faso. In 1978 Lo moved to Senegal and performed with several mbalax bands. In 1985 he bought his first guitar and began composing his own songs.

At that time he was working with musicians from the Ivory Coast and France, and they went to Paris to record a disk in 1987. Eventually the band split up but Lo sayed on for two years and worked as a studio musician. He came in contact with, among others, Papa Wemba. In 1990 he recorded his first cassette in Dakar. The music caught on and this marked the beginning of his career.

A year later he made another cassette but didn’t release it because he was displeased with the sound quality. But Cheikh Lo’s music began to take shape: a gentle form of mbalax that uses impulses from reggae and soukous. The opportunity to record an album came in 1995 when Youssou N’Dour expressed a willingness to produce what was the debut album, “Ne La Thiass”. Cheikh Lo’s first performance in Europe was as the warm-up band for Youssou N’Dour.

Cheikh Lo is a Muslim and member of the Baye Fall brotherhood, a part of the larger brotherhood Mouride. The founder of Mouride, Cheikh Amadou Bamba, had as his maxim: “Pray to God as if you should die tomorrow, work as if you would never die.” The Mourides are now responsible for up to 80% of business life of Senegal. Members of the Baye Fall brotherhood sport rasta hair, and Cheikh Lo is often perceived as a Rastafarian, something he is not. The Muslim Baye Fall tradition predates Rasta tradition in Jamaica.

So know you know as least as much as I do.

I am not really a collector of World music and am somewhat confused by the term to be honest. In Senegal is Lady Gaga classed as ‘World’ music for them? It’s such a wide ranging classification and seems, to me, to have too much lumped into it. Indigenous Folk music doesn’t really work either as much of what was once just called folk music has a whole host of influences that move it away from traditional folk music of any specific region or location. Perhaps it’s too complicated, but if it is to be categorized I think I’d like it to be where it originates and then what it is, using the normal categorizations that we use for western music. For example:

Sengalese/Traditional Folk
S.African/Folk Blues

Or some idea along those lines. Lumping everything as ‘World’ seems somehow dismissive. Below is the categorisation for Tiniwaren that pops up on the right of a google search:

Origin: Tessalit, Mali (1979)
Genres: Tichumaren, World music, Blues, Folk music, Rock music

There is no categorisation for  Cheikh Lô.

Back to the album, actually, I’ve said little about the album so I really should start. I think it is mostly sung in French or at least some of it is. I understand almost none of the lyrics, which is fine, the voice is an instrument and words are not always necessary (growing up listening to the Cocteau Twins is a good primer for not worrying about lyrics).


The Guardian: The album was recorded in Sweden and Paris, it’s packed with sleek mbalax grooves, mixing funk horns and talking drums, and fronted by Lô’s sweet, dancing vocals, at times falsetto, at others husky. There’s a lovely cross-Atlantic fusion on Degg Gui, with Brazilian chanteuse Flavia Coelho, a duet with Mali’s Oumou Sangaré, and a sultry title track threaded with the Miles-like trumpet of Ibrahim Maalouf. A follower of Baye Fall, a mystic Islamic sect, Lô is a peace warrior on a mission, the light to Boko Haram’s darkness, as Baissons les Armes suggests.


Bamba 3:48
Degg Gui (Album Version) 4:03
Doyal Naniou 5:55
Gemou Ma Ko 5:13
Suzanah 2:51
Balbalou 4:40
Lutax 4:25
Baissons Les Armes 4:03
Leer Gui Fall 6:10
Kouma Magni 2:11

I’ve listened to the album about 10 times now and love it, it is quite possibly the best £4.00 I’ve ever spent on vinyl. Press play on the video above and have a listen to the track, it’s worth it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: