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Dashiki Nights

by Lindokushle Nkosi / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 23.03.2012

Groups of people mill around outside the City Hall. Snippets of French and heavy European accents. Broken wine glasses on the pavement, cigarette stubs. I feel like I’m at a gallery opening on the Champs Elysées, maybe Times Square – anywhere but South Africa. Everyone else is here, but not many South Africans. Tall men with British accents in Dashikis are trying to impress each other with their knowledge of Ismael Lo and M’balax music – the rest are just pretending to know who he is.

Ismael Lo City Hall Sessions

The last time I was at the City Hall, I complained about the set-up. They’ve made some adjustments: standing in the front, seating in the back. Like a reverse mullet, with the VIPs in the gallery above. Like the peroxide. The Azania Ghetto Sounds Band is up first. SAMA nominated Lwanda Gogwana is on the trumpet and Azania are all the better for it. They need the horn section, without it, they’re just another reggae band making homogenous “groovy” music that could slide easily into the soundtrack of any Caribbean-themed movie. The fourth track is a love song that would be very appropriate for the moment Stella sets her cougar eyes on a young, ripped Taye Diggs. Guest vocalist Fancy Galada accompanies Azania for three songs. A stellar performance marred by an untidy cover of “Paradise Road”. She searches for the words, looks to the backing singers for re-assurance before finally finding her feet in an electric end. The show builds up. A slow crescendo into something more real. Heavier, more substantial, saving them from being, well, the house wine of reggae bands. It’s not bad, but it’s not first choice either.

Ismael Lo City Hall Sessions

The auditorium goes dark. Multi-coloured beams of light dance and bounce off the stage. Rapturous applause boom through the audience. Claps and cheers, a standing ovation even before Senegal’s Bob Dylan approaches the microphone. He opens the show with a tribute to his homeland and, as the crowd sings along in Wolof and French, it dawns on me. As I mouth my re-imagined version of the lyrics, the singsong, lazy drawn accents that filled the auditorium make sense. He greets and the couple next to me nudge each other. “Oh, I didn’t think he’d be able to speak English”, whispers the wife.

Ismael Lo’s performance is enchanting, engaging. A fusion of the hard-hitting, pounding Sabar beat with M’balax melodies, layered under a ghostly falsetto. I first took note of Iso with the release of compilation disc Jammu Africa in 1996. A highlight reel of the best, it spanned what had already been years of international success. “Dibi Dibi Rek”, “Tajabone” and title-song “Jammu Afrika” topped world charts. A national Senegalese export, like Youssou N’Dour, and more shamefully – Akon.

I wish I spoke Wolof or French. I wish I could confirm that the burden, revelry, excitement, grief that pulsed off the stage with the lyrics. This, itself, is testament to his music. The message intoned in song, passed language and culture. Ismael Lo creates understanding.

*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith/ City Hall Sessions 2012

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