Band On the Wall, Manchester, 14 January 2011
On a chilly January evening, an expectant Friday night audience harking back to the old days of Band on the Wall was in the mood to party away those post-Christmas blues. Cheikh Lô and his six-piece band delivered in every respect before a virtual full house. For the first part of the evening, Lô played a somewhat more reserved role as band drummer at the back of the stage, even though he continued to be lead vocalist throughout.
Senegalese musicians back home are quite used to playing concerts of several hours at a time and so in a European concert venue setting they were thoroughly relaxed and this laid back atmosphere was immediately transmitted to the audience. A sedately paced opening song from the excellent new album ‘Jamm’, arguably Lô’s best in over a decade since the exhilarating debut ‘Ne la Thiass’ from 1996, got proceedings off on exactly the right footing with frequent shifts of pace within a same piece. This was a technique the band would deploy to perfection as the evening progressed. In general there was a distinctive 1970s retro feel to the music, sometimes accompanied by wah-wah guitar and funky rhythm guitar riffs, the latter of which could have been right off a Nile Rodgers solo from the classic Chic repertoire. Of particular note were the wailing saxophone solos that were influenced in part by the soul makossa man Manu Dibango, but equally and closer to home for the musicians, by the seminal Orchestre Baobab sound of the 1970s. What was especially impressive was the ability of the band as a whole to create a pan-African groove that took on board elements of western music, yet was nonetheless thoroughly rooted in West Africa with the truly amazing and often ear-shattering sound of the talking drum. The sound of this alone delighted the extremely receptive audience. This being said, there is a good deal of sensitivity displayed by the band’s ensemble performance. This was no better illustrated and showcased than on the gently paced new album title track. Indeed it was on the slower numbers that the extended riffs created by the musicians really took off and lingered long on the mind and ears. Simply put, Cheikh Lô’s band are consumate live performance artists. On other, more shuffling beats, it was the percussionists who came to the fore as on the French language song, ‘Il n’est jamais trop tard’ with a wonderful guitar riff woven in. In fact on the very subject of guitar solos, Cheikh Lô and his musicians have clearly been influenced by Congolese rumba in terms of the incessant use of extended guitar riffs and allied to the already intoxicating Senegalese rhythms, this made for an unbeatable rhythmic combination. Some of the best rhythms were reserved for towards the end of the evening with the classic ‘El manisero’ rhythm being used for the number ‘Seyni’ while a reworking of the Buena Vistas epic ‘Chan chan’ went down a storm. Here the tune is given a thoroughly Senegalese treatment complete with talking drum, timbales solos and interminable guitar riffs. Audience participation provided additional percussion with regular call and response chants and handclapping. In super cool dark glasses and with high pitched tone voice, Cheikh Lô looks and sounds at least ten years younger than his mid-fifties, but on the evidence of this evening alone his music is simply timeless. A joyous occasion for all who had the privilege to witness proceedings.