Pape and Cheikh

From Senegal

Biography by Andy Morgan, July 2003:Looking back at the truly lamentable attempts by Britain’s political parties to inspire their electorate with naff pop songs (remember the cod euphoria of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ during Labour’s 1997 campaign), the extraordinary effect of the song ‘Yatal Gueew’ (‘Widening The Circle’) on the course of Senegal’s 2001 election campaign seems doubly remarkable. The song extols the importance of tolerance and cooperation between ethnic, social and political groups and was adopted, to great effect, by 24 out of the 25 opposition parties. It was written by Papa Amadou Fall and Cheikhou Coulibaly, aka Pape & Cheikh, two singer-songwriters who have been friends and collaborators since their boyhoods in the central Senegalese town of Koalack. After various studies and apprenticeships, Pape in tailoring and Cheikh in law, the pair came together in the capital Dakar to research the music of their own Serer people, delving deep into its mythological riches and unique polyrhythmic structures. Their expansive knowledge of Senegalese music in all its forms was compounded by a growing love for the radio-fed sounds of Bob Marley, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens, and above all, Bob Dylan. After a brief stint at the Dakar conservatory in the early 1990s followed by membership of various Serer groups, Pape and Cheikh began to write their own songs and invent their own sound which blended the classic vocals of duets like Simon and Garfunkel with the riches of Senegalese roots. The pair were signed to Youssou N’Dour’s Jololi label in 1999 and released their debut album ‘Yakaar’ just in time to capitalise on the election fever of 2001. A trip to the Barbican in London early the following year brought them to the attention of Real World Records with whom they released their European deubt ‘Mariama’. This is acoustic folk in the post Dylan sense of the word – relevant, challenging, funky and inspiring. PAPE AND CHEIKH Everyone knows the majesty of Africa's traditional folk music. But few in the West would have connected Africa with 'folk' in the guitar-toting, protest-singing sense - not until two dudes with guitars slipped on stage between sets at last year's Dakar night at the London Barbican Centre's Urban Beats Festival. Few recognised Pape and Cheikh, whose powerful melodic songwriting had already set their native Senegal alight. But they immediately began strumming up a storm, their poignant airs and driving acoustic energy sending a wave of excitement through the packed house. Steeped in the traditions of their Serer region of central Senegal, but citing Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Joan Armatrading among their prime influences, Pape and Cheikh brilliantly encompass both concepts of folk music. And they're the latest in a line of Senegalese singing sensations that includes Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal and Cheikh Lo. Back home in Senegal they've already had a political impact beyond what the likes of Dylan and Baez could ever imagine, and their first international release, 'Mariama', is destined to be one of the albums of the year. Papa Amadou Fall and Cheikhou Coulibaly, born in 1965 and 1961 respectively, grew up in the central Senegalese town of Kaolack and have been close friends since the age of eight. Pape, lead singer and principal lyricist, is the poet and romantic extrovert; Cheikh is the more introspective, yet practical of the two. While Cheikh stayed on at school, eventually progressing to studies in law, Pape moved to the capital Dakar, becoming apprenticed to a tailor at age thirteen. Later, at the suggestion of a foreign aid organisation, he moved back to the Kaolack region to take part in a batik-printing project, spending seven years in a village in what was once the Serer kingdom of Sine. The unchanging savannah landscape, bleached by remorseless sunlight and dotted with immense baobab trees in whose hollow trunks griots - traditional praise singers - were buried in times gone by, had a profound effect on Pape as did the spirit of the Serer people and their music. Disillusioned with his academic studies, Cheikh joined him, and the pair began researching traditional Serer music, whose elemental polyphonic singing has influenced other modern Senegalese musicians, most notably Youssou N'Dour. It was all a world away from the youth revolution that was sweeping the West as they grew up - powered by folk-protest songs such as 'The Times They Are Changing' and 'Blowing In The Wind'. Yet as well as absorbing a wide variety of traditional music and the dynamic sounds of modern Senegalese pop, Pape and Cheikh were also exposed, through the radio, to sounds from much further afield: Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and - most importantly for them - the reflective acoustic sounds of Dylan and other singer-songwriters. After continuing their musical research at Dakar's Conservatoire during 1992 and 1993, Cheikh went on to play bass with the veteran Senegalese bandleader Ouza, while Pape joined a Serer acoustic group, Santamuma, on the hotel circuit, singing everything from traditional songs to Maxi Priest?s version of Cat Stevens' 'Wild World' and Elton John's 'Sacrifice' - and it was to prove excellent experience. In 1997 the pair established themselves as a performing act, consciously modelled on Western duos from the Everly Brothers to Simon and Garfunkel. Signing to Youssou N'Dour's 'Jololi' label in 1999, they recorded an album with some of Senegal?s top musicians, including Oumar Sow, the brilliant guitarist of Cheikh Lo and Super Diamono fame, and guitarist Jimi Mbaye and percussionists Mbaye Dieye Faye and Assane Thiam all from N'Dour's Super Etoile de Dakar. Canadian musician Mac Fallows' production gave their earthy rhythms a sleek modern feel, with the powerful and magnificently soulful larynx of teenage singer Mamy adding a devastating touch to the song 'Mariama'. The duo were initially frustrated that the album, 'Yakaar', was not given immediate release in Senegal, but the eventual timing proved fortuitous. Appearing at the beginning of the 2001 election campaign, their song 'Yatal Gueew' ('Widening the Circle'), a plea for tolerance and co-operation between Senegal's many different ethnic, social and religious groups, so caught the public imagination that opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade adopted it as his official theme - and all but one of the other 25 parties followed suit! Upon winning, Wade acknowledged that the song had had a powerful effect on the running of the election in which the party that had ruled Senegal since independence were removed from power in a completely peaceful and democratic manner. Pape and Cheikh's brief appearance at London's Barbican drew them to the attention of Real World, and in Spring 2002 they re-paired to Real World's Wiltshire studios with producer Ben Findlay, to work on the original 'Yakaar' tapes and record new songs.The resulting album, 'Mariama', is a powerful and extraordinarily coherent slice of Africa traditional and modern, full of driving, funky rhythm and poignant, yearning melody. It combines a deep feeling for the enduring themes of African culture, with an understanding of all the elements necessary to create a truly universal modern song.'MARIAMA' - THE ALBUM'Mariama', the opener is just such a contemporary classic - the tragic tale of a Mandinka king who made a pact with the devil to ensure a male heir. A son was born, but on the condition that the boy would die if he ever slept with a woman. An aunt, eaten up by jealousy, brought two girls to the palace, Sere and the beautiful Mariama. All were killed in the fire that followed! Pape's vocal brings tremendous urgency to this tale of fatal passion, with accordion from the Afro Celts' James McNally fleshing out Mac Fallows' haunting synth groove.Oumar Sow's wah-wah guitar powers the driving semi-acoustic funk of 'Yaay', Pape's homage to his mother and to mothers everywhere. 'Forgive me mother,' he sings. 'You carried me on your back and fed me at your breast. If we appreciated all our parents had done for us, we would treat them with kindness and respect.' 'Kokoliko' is left completely acoustic - a plaintive tale of rustic life, in which a cock is asked by a hyena why he crows for his chicks, only to find that it is the hyena himself who has eaten them. In the animal kingdom, as in so many other spheres, he who is strongest wins. 'Kamalemba', is a prayer for peace in the Casamance, Senegal's forested southern region where a brutal civil war raged for much of the last decade. Clapping, to the rhythms of the region?s Jola people, lends a festive, flamenco feel, muscular guitar picking meshing with Lath Mbaye's needling talking drum beats. 'Pelipeng' takes a swipe at that bane of manhood, the grasping woman! Pape draws on his experience as a tailor in this account of an avaricious woman, whose demands for credit ruin local traders. 'Your beauty and charm have betrayed you! Now the tables are turned!''Jello' is an exquisite acoustic love song, the ancient echo in its pared down guitar riff evoking an Africa of vast open spaces and timeless emotions. 'Jello'I will do everything I can to ensure your happiness, for marriage is sacred before God.' 'Yatal Gueew' is the song that rocked the Senegalese elections, Pape and Cheikh's political credo set to a rocking mbalax beat with a trace of Simon and Garfunkel in the ascending guitar riff. 'Let us widen the circle,' they sing. 'Our differences are our strength.' There is an anthemic feel to the mystical 'Soni' (The Call), with its beautifully moody blend of piano and accordion - the snapping sabar percussion still present in the background. 'Youth for all its joy has an end. Power will inevitably leave you. Forget all earthly things and follow God's laws.' 'Ma Ansou', addressed to an aged marabout or holy man, continues the spiritual theme in a more light-hearted vein. Over urgent acoustic picking, Pape tells us that fishermen spirited the sage away in their motorboat!'Kekilo' (Jealousy), about a man scared of losing the youngest and most beautiful of his three wives, builds around Laye Babou's gloriously sunny kora groove. 'Lonkotina' brings the theme of love right up to date, the easy-flowing guitar riff creating a catchy, radio-friendly summer vibe. ?I swore that I would never love another girl,' wails Pape. 'But I have fallen into the same trap!' 'Fanick' (The Elephant), closes the album with a tribute to two great Serer Musicians - Sombel Faye and Mbissane Diagne - homage both to the mighty animal and to the indefatigable spirit of the artist, set to the booming clatter of typically Senegalese sabar drums.And that's the unbeatable duo that is Pape and Cheikh: twelve strong, beautifully crafted songs full of African instrumental subtlety, with all the hooks and big anthemic choruses you could want. Songs that explore universal themes - of love, ambition and the struggle for freedom and dignity - while remaining imbued with the respect for tradition and the mystical spirituality that are still everywhere in modern Africa. www.realworldrecords.com/mariama

  • Womad Ltd.
  • Company registration number: 2734599
  • Place of registration: England
  • Registration address:
  • Box Mill
  • Mill Lane
  • Box
  • Wiltshire
  • SN13 8PL
  • United Kingdom