Cheikh Lô – review

Scala, London

The mind boggles at what a blazing row – over musical differences, say – in the thick of Cheikh Lô's six-strong band might sound like. Tall, lanky, dreadlocked, clad in a pair of giant shades and sporting a beret that, cumulatively, make him a dead ringer for Don Letts, Lô himself speaks French, Wolof, Bambara and enough English to charm. His bass player, Washington "Pito" Rosas Pintos, meanwhile, is Uruguayan.

Not only that – the feted Senegalese singer's music begins with his national groove, the ticklish polyrhythms of mbalax. This postcolonial fusion of funk, jazz and indigenous sounds is also indelibly tinged with the rhythms and plaintiveness of the music of Cuba, and saturated in other west and central African traditions. It makes you want to pat indie-rock bands on the head fondly when they say they are eclectic.

Tonight there are no less than three different drummers in the band: fierce conga player Samba N'Dokh, who even goes at it with his elbows; the wiry, aloof Khadim M'Baye, who swaps between congas, sabar and the tama – or "talking drum" – which is lodged in his armpit; and Cheikh Lô himself.

Four albums into a successful international career, the 50-something singer – C-Lô, perhaps? – started his musical life behind the kit. He spends a distressing amount of time at the back of the stage, unshowily keeping time, because there was supposed to be a fourth, official drummer here as well.

An intra-band row on the eve of this tour has meant that Lô's fluent, laid-back, largely devotional music comes to Europe without its appointed kit-man or, indeed, its keyboard player. An outfit this fluent and diverse ought to be able to aqueously remorph itself around any doctrinal blip. So it must have been quite a spat.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful, the keyboards are no great loss here. It's hard to hear what they might have added to a busy sound already embellished by Baye Diop's impeccable guitar, played light and high, and Wilfrid Zinsou's considerably less subtle saxophone.

Perhaps it's a northern hemisphere hang-up, but Lô's songs are best when parsimony and space reign. His debut, 1996's Ne La Thiass, was an instant classic in world music. Lô's latest, the Grammy-nominated Jamm (2010), returns to a more acoustic, discrete sound after a couple of albums in which Lô's gentle way became slightly lost in a tangle of influences, over‑weening production and field trips to Brazil.

For the first third of the set, Lô's band feel like they might just be warming up, playing fluently but without fireworks. "Jamm", the title track of Lô's latest, passes in a gentle blur.

"Il N'est Jamais Trop Tard" is a treat for Francophones, who at least get to grasp at the edges of Lô's lyrics. Honeyed but a little meandering, the song is addressed to young Africans who would brave the perilous voyage to reach Europe illegally, arguing that perhaps staying put and building something bit by bit might be better ("Petit à petit/ L'oiseau fait son nid").

When Lô finally comes out from behind the kit, the evening comes alive. Clad in a kind of technicolour dreamcoat approved by the Sufist subsect to which Lô adheres, he takes control of a pair of timbales, and the microphone, grinning. Soon, during a particularly joyous workout, a woman appears stage right, clutching a Senegalese flag and dancing up a storm. You would assume she was a plant, there to make plain the links between the emphatic thwack of the sabar and the jointless human body, but the band seem genuinely surprised to see her.

The most invigorating passages of music tonight involve intense instinctual exchanges between the three percussionists, laced with guitar filigree. Kicking at his flowing robes and tossing his hair, M'Baye, the sabar player, gets to steal the show every time Lô ducks back behind the kit. By the end, though, you want to stuff a sock in the alto sax.

What you really want more of is Lô: his physical presence at the lip of the stage, playing a little guitar or playing a breathless conga solo. Moreover, you want more of his mournful yet serene voice, one that seems be stern in its admonishments on how one should live one's life, but consolatory too, implying that as long as you are patient and moderate, and generally don't go around being an arse, everything will probably be OK. Despite the fierce appearance of an ideologue, Lô's output is exceedingly sweet, conciliatory and easy on the ear. His willingness to take a backseat is admirably egoless for a lead musician. But it's also a little self-defeating.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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