Let’s party for peace! Here in the U.S., we haven’t known how to do this since Woodstock. In the UK, it’s been since the rude boys (and girls) of the new wave era borrowed from Jamaica and skanked against social inequality. The Western mind has since bifurcated completely, only able to dance to frivolity and to care about causes in a minor key. Let’s go to Africa, then, to reunite the hemispheres of our brain and, perhaps by some small increment, the hemispheres of this big messy world.
Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô possesses the necessary musical prowess to kick the plan into action. And Lamp Fall is his means and his vision. He describes his third (and finest) album as “a plea against war and poverty. But it’s also about love, religion and spirituality.” And you would hear this, feel this, know this, simply by listening to the music. Lô needs no gospel choir to impart his spiritual passion. He doesn’t even need to sing in a language that most of his intended listeners are able to understand. This album is all about that higher power moving through you and making you shake your hips. God, love, light, music itself. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. The power of rhythm is a uniter, not a divider.
The rhythmic foundation for Cheikh Lô’s brand of Afro-pop is mbalax, a Senegalese and Gambian style evolved from the Wolof people of that region. Youssou N’Dour, familiar to most of us as the guest vocalist on Peter Gabriel’s boom box-hefting anthem “In Your Eyes”, first popularized mbalax, embellishing and transforming its tradition by incorporating the instruments and sounds of Western rock. Lô carries his predecessor’s approach further out into the world, folding in the flavors of Cuba, Jamaica, Brazil, and the African nations of Burkina Fasa (where he was born) and Mali (its neighbor). Drums, of course, play a central role in mbalax, as well as in the arrangements on Lamp Fall. Both the tama and/or the sabar drum are listed first in the credits for each song in the CD’s liner notes, and rightly so. The former is also known as the “talking drum”, because its pitch is changeable by increasing the tension on the drumhead; the latter is played with both a hand and a stick, offering two distinct timbres. Guitar, bass, keyboards, horns, backing vocals, and even more percussion fill most every track on the album.
Based on all this, you might expect Lamp Fall to be non-stop, up-tempo, packed-tight, a veritable salsa-meets-samba high-energy parade. Fortunately, Cheikh Lô is not at all given to excess. His arrangements are tasteful and smart, allowing just the right amount of breathing room for less propulsive and more grounded, acoustic moments to shine. It’s during these times that the sorrow of living on a poor and war-torn continent leaks through. This melancholy, however, is what makes the happy, horn-blasted moments poignant. Without sadness, why would we need to rise up and rejoice? So, while the beautiful track “Sante Yalle” is quite pensive, it’s actually just a breather following the funky march of “Senegal-Bresil”. This sense of balance permeates the album. Lô’s music is always relaxed at its core, regardless of tempo. Mostly sunny, while still retaining the bite of musicians playing with intensity, and well-produced without any gimmickry, Lamp Fall is at the top of the Afro-pop ranks.