Kora All Africa Award winner and Legion d’Honneur recipient Ismael Lo returns to South Africa with a full band – and this time it’s for a single Cape Town show at the rekindled City Hall Sessions.
First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 03/17
Ismaël Lô is no stranger to South Africa (he’s played at Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday celebrations and at Johannesburg’s “Africa Day” celebrations, to name a few) but, although he’s graced the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and Kirstenbosch stages, it’s been a while since the legendary West African musician has ventured all the way to the southern tip. Lô is in Cape Town for a single gig next Tuesday at the City Hall Sessions, brainchild of stalwart music promoter Steve Gordon in partnership with Creative Cape Town and the Cape Town Partnership, and intended to return the “grand old lady” that is the City Hall to its former stature.
Lô answers the ‘phone after a repetition (rehearsal) at his studio in Dakar and immediately, although unnecessarily, apologises that his English is not good. Only once is there a communication difficulty, and that is when this recipient of France’s “knighthood” (the Légion d’honneur) talks animatedly about the peril Africa faces from presidents and dictators who cling to power. His views on the matter are crystal clear, though – but more of that later.
“It is a real pleasure to be coming back to Cape Town again,” he says, joking that perhaps he should spend a few months in the city to improve his English. I take it upon myself to represent the metropole and beyond by saying that we would heartily welcome the temporary relocation of the man once dubbed as “Africa’s Bob Dylan”, and who helped put Senegalese music on the world map and fuel a global interest in West African rhythms and sounds. “In my mind, South Africa is a country that is also my home; I have been there on many occasions and always had a beautiful time – and also a lot of fun. I will play songs from my newest album (“Sénégal”, 2006) but, for sure, I know we have to play songs that are popular and people want to hear.” He mentions hits like “Dibi Dibi Rek” and “Jammu Afrika”.
Lô conducted this interview at around 11pm after an energy-sapping rehearsal, and in his third spoken language. Rather than translate a word he used more correctly as “throne”, I have left the term he chose, as there is something about the late-night word substitution that conveys his point all the more poetically. “My most important message for Africa is that we have to fight and to pray for peace. We have many places with war, and these are often the places where the presidents don’t want to leave the armchair of the presidency. There are people losing their lives in the streets in protest, while these presidents sit in luxury houses, and that is not normal.”
“I think people understand now that we are African and the frontiers between countries should not be there,” he continues. “You have the United States, and the European Union – why is Africa not one? We need to have the right priorities – Africa is a rich continent, and we have to trade more between ourselves to bring wealth to the people. The presidents who want to sit for ten years, and another ten years, and another on their armchairs of power – they need to move on and stop holding onto power. People are starting to understand this also.”
Ismaël Lô was born in Rufisque, Senegal, to a Senegalese father and a Nigerian mother, and first grew up in Niger, before his parents returned to Senegal. He was raised on the mbalax music of the region, and also American Motown, and learned to play on a homemade one-string guitar. Pursuing music as a hobby while studying painting and decorating at a trade school, he developed a small solo performance career singing and playing guitar and harmonica before being asked to join Omar Pene’s mbalax-meets-blues outfit Super Diamono in 1979 and then launching his solo career in 1984.
“I started very early with music, playing one-man shows with the guitar and harmonica,” says Lô. “I had a tour in Senegal and I met Super Diamono and I had a contract with them to play for six months or a year, but I played with the group for four or five years before I continued my solo career. It was a very good opportunity, the first time I played with a big band, all staying together; living and working together. We keep good relations and, for me, it is a rare pleasure to meet them. When I see Omar, we discuss music, and we joke and we remember the times we were together. In my hear I still love that band, especially when I hear them playing the songs that we wrote together – those songs still talk to me now.”
Ismaël Lô and his seven-piece band share the City Hall Session stage with Nyanga-based musician, promoter and studio owner Wakhile Xhalisa and the Azania Ghetto Sound Band, in an exciting cross-promotion of African music. Xhalisa’s rehearsal facility in Nyanga has played host to greats like the late Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Ezra Ngcukana and Duke Ngcukana, as well as forming the hub for recordings by the likes of Chad Saaiman and Crosby, provided backing for UK’s Vivian Jones tribute to the Gugulethu Seven and recorded with international reggae artists Kashta Menelik Tafari (Ras Ites, UK), Obeyjah (USA) and Jamaican artistes King Kong, Yellowman and Yasus Afari, amongst others. Vocalist Fancy Galada is the featured guest with Azania Ghetto Sound.
Ismaël Lô, Wakhile Xhalisa, Azania Ghetto Sound and Fancy Galada play for one night only at the Human Rights Day City Hall Sessions, courtesy of Creative Cape Town, on Tuesday 20 March
(Cape Town City Hall, Grand Parade, 8pm; details 021 4191881; tickets R75 (unreserved) and R120 (reserved upstairs seating upstairs) from Computicket.com, 0861 9158000 and Shoprite/Checkers counters.First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 03/17