Senegalese guitarist, harmonica player and singer Ismael Lo is a rising star of world music. With his smooth multi-textured voice and low-key folky style, he and his 12-piece band play strong, complex, percussion-laden mbalax songs that discuss important topics in Senegal ranging from racism and respect to immigration.
He was born into a Muslim family in Dongo Buti, Niger, the son of a Senegalese father and Nigerian mother; they moved to Rufisque, Senegal while Lo was still quite young. His father had two wives and between them they had 18 children. Lo is the only one who became a musician. He loved music from an early age and got his start playing a homemade one-string guitar. Early American influences included Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Etta James, and he learned their songs by listening to the radio. At first he only played for the joy of it and never considered performing, but then an older brother, who owned a club, asked him to play on a local television show, "Tele Variety." Lo said no the first time, and continued to study decorating and painting at a trade school, but a few months later he reconsidered and appeared on the show. He was an instant hit and this inspired him to think about performing full-time. One week later, Lo again appeared on the show and was paid $300 for his work.
In 1979, singer/songwriter Omar Pene invited Lo to play in his popular group Super Diamono de Dakar, a band that played mbalax-blues, a mixture of Cuban and Senegalese rhythms. Lo, with his talent for guitar playing and songwriting, quickly established himself as a key figure in the band and soon became the second lead singer, backup singer and rhythm guitarist. By the early '80s he found himself wanting to launch a solo career, but felt like he would leave a gaping hole in the band that could destroy it. In 1984, the pressure became too much and he left for Spain to do some painting. He began recording as a solo artist upon his return. His first albums included Xalat, Xiff, Natt, and Gor Sayina, and a self-titled album released on Mango in 1992.
Two years later, Lo released his second full-length album, Iso (named for Lo's childhood nickname). The album was met with critical acclaim in France, and Lo toured Africa the following year in support of the release. His first compilation disc, Jammu Africa, featuring a duet with Marianne Faithfull, was released in 1996, and soon after Lo was invited to perform at L'Olympia with Jane Birken. After touring the globe for a few years, a third solo effort, Dabah (named in honor of the Senegalese artist Dabah Malik) came out in 2001, and in the following year the French government dubbed Lo a Knight of the Legion of Honor. He toured Europe and Africa over the course of the next two years, and in 2006 he released Senegal and African Nights. ~ Sandra Brennan