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African Legends

Ismael Lô

By Tom Pryor
Published November 17, 2006

Ismael Lô is one of Senegal’s great voices, a powerful and versatile performer who came of age alongside Youssou N’Dour and others during the m'balax explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Later, Lô would make a name for himself as a solo artist; often called “The African Bob Dylan” for his emotive songwriting and acoustic guitar and harmonica-driven performances.

Though Lô was born in Niger (in 1956), his father was from Senegal, and the family soon relocated there, to a town near the capital of Dakar. Growing up, Lô built guitars from scrap wood and soaked up as much music as he could. His parents discouraged him from a career in music, so Lô enrolled in art school instead.

But Lô’s talent won out, and his hobby became a career after his “discovery” on a Senegalese television show in the late ’70s. Soon he was packing in audiences at his older brother’s nightclub in Dakar, and touring Senegal and Gambia backed by his brothers. In 1979 he was invited to join the legendary band Super Diamono, with which he recorded a string of hits. Super Diamono’s m’balax sound was a fiery blend of traditional Wolof rhythms and instruments with additional, plugged-in electric firepower, and Lô’s sweet vocals, cool stage presence and startlingly delicate guitar work helped elevate the band above the rest of the m’balax pack.

But by 1984, Lô had struck out on his own, churning out worldly hits that drew on a variety of sources. As a songwriter, he was deeply committed to social issues that resonated far beyond Senegal. In 1990, Lô made an international splash by signing with a European label (Barclay), releasing his self-titled international debut to critical acclaim and chart success in Europe, and embarking on major European and North American tours.

This tactic helped catapult Lô to the forefront of the shortlist of Senegalese artists well-known in the West. In the early ’90s he released a flurry of records internationally, including 1994’s classic Iso, while becoming increasingly involved in the fight against AIDS at home. His last album, 2001’s Dabah, was a tour de force.

Recommended Recordings

Ismael Lô (Mango)
Iso (Mango)
Dabah (Wrasse)