Ismael Lo ‘Best of’ (Universal France) 4/5

ismael-loTo be called the ‘Bob Dylan of Senegal’ is quite a title to live up to, but singer-songwriter Ismael Lo is a special musician whose focus on acoustic guitar and harmonica has invited comparison with the great American troubadour and wordsmith. That is where the comparison ends, however, because Lo is very much his own man with different frames of reference and this excellent overview of his career from the mid-1990s through to mid-2000 provides some explanation why.
If there is just one song that typifies Lo’s entire career, then it has to be the atmospheric ‘Tajabone’. It featured on the soundtrack to Pedro Almodovar’s ‘All about my mother’ film with the epic overview of the city of Barcelona forming the dramatic backdrop. Here both the original and a later version featuring strings are included. Ismael Lo excels on the gentler numbers and one fine example is ‘Lotte Lo’ where the piercing vocal range of Lo’s voice is not dissimilar to that of Baba Maal and one can hear the blues inflections of Ali Farka Touré in the use of guitar. He continues in a relaxing groove on ‘Nafanta’ while on the tasteful keyboards and guitar accompaniment of ‘Dabah’, Lo sounds quite similar in tone to Salif Keita. Both Keita and Maal have surely counted among the singer’s influences, but these extend beyond even West Africa. An attempt at the English language co-written by Pink Floyd member Roger Waters on ‘Without Blame’ is handled professionally and is a duet with none other than Marianne Faithfull. That Lo has been listening to other singer-songwriters elsewhere is self-evident and in France Bernard Lavilliers has made a successful career out of exploring African and other world roots music. Lo pays homage to Lavilliers when covering the 1990s anthem to a more diverse and plural France in ‘Noir et blanc’ and this laid back, largely acoustic version features stunning joint lead female vocals which make this a truly inventive interpretation and the lyrics in favour of a more tolerant French society are ideally suited to Lo’s own outlook on life..

One major caveat that needs to be mentioned here concerns the absence of any lyrics in the all too basic accompanying inner sleeve which prevents the non-native speaker of Wolof, or occasionally French, to be able to properly contextualise the lyrics of the songs. This shows a profound disrespect for the singer and especially one who prides himself on the quality and universal nature of his lyrics. To be deprived of his words is a major oversight that requires urgent attention.

Tim Stenhouse