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The bar on the first floor of the Grand Theatre building, home of Opera North, just next to the Howard Assembly Room, slowly began to fill as I made perfect good use of a cup of coffee before the show. I'd never before noticed the two grand chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling above the bar nor the unlit lantern tucked away in an alcove above the doors, which were being guarded by a uniformed attendant until the sound check was done. I say 'uniform' as if a black shirt and maroon waistcoat counts as such. A young music student newly arrived at the Leeds College of Music sat next to me and enquired where the Howard Assembly Room was. "It's through those doors right there" I said, before embarking on a pleasant conversation with her. I didn't catch her name, but I soon discovered she was a musician who had worked in West Africa, hence her visit to the venue tonight. This is one of the things I like about this venue; it doesn't take any effort to spark up a conversation with those around you.
Tonight, the young student, myself and around a couple of hundred other people were at the Howard Assembly Room to see the Senegalese singer Cheikh Lô, together with his six-piece band. Completing his short three-date UK tour, the other two shows being staged in both London and Glasgow, the singer and multi-instrumentalist slowly approached his centre stage position, his brightly coloured tunic hiding an extremely slender frame, echoed by those worn by the rest of the band. His familiar dreadlocks were tucked away under a large beanie hat, beneath which his weathered rumpled features were almost entirely eclipsed by gold-rimmed John Lennon shades. Cheikh Lô armed himself with a couple of drum sticks and for the next ninety-minutes, beat out some of the most uplifting rhythms the venue has ever witnessed. With no support band, the sound of Senegal soon filled the theatre and people were up dancing both at the back of the hall and up on the balcony.
Opening with the soulful Sante Maam from the singer's mid-Nineties period NE LA THIASS album, the band demonstrated from the start their impressive and empathetic cohesion, especially within the percussion section, the band boasting both a drummer and a percussionist, together with Cheikh Lô himself leading many a furiously flamboyant flurry by way of his twin timbale, cowbell and splash cymbal set up. The guitar and tenor saxophone added the melody lines throughout, with the singer occasionally picking up an electric rhythm guitar, as the band traversed the prolific Cheikh Lô repertoire, with earlier songs such as Boul Di Tagale, Ne La Thiass, Guiss Guiss and Doxandeme, together with one or two selections from the singer's latest release BALBALOU, including Degg Gui, Doyal Nanu and the title piece.
Speaking only six words in English throughout the set, "Will you sing with me please?", Cheikh Lô found some fellow Senegalese fans in the crowd, who shouted up a few encouraging words, creating some friendly banter, especially when the singer discarded his jacket before taking to the drum seat for a riff-laden jazz workout, which the audience greeted with provocative whoops and hollers. At 60, the Dakar-based singer embodies a wealth of musical influences from Cuban rhythms to Afro Beat with a nod towards reggae, which at times leads to confusion that he might actually be Rastafarian. Cheikh Lô is in fact a member of the Baye Fall, a movement within the Mouride Sufi order of Islam, whose followers also wear dreadlocks as part of the order's customs.
After about ninety-minutes of highly infectious syncopated rhythms, jazz-inflected sax solos and uplifting songs to dance to, the band left the stage to thunderous applause, followed by demanding hand claps and determined foot stomping for what seemed like minutes rather than seconds. Heeding to the audience demands, the band returned for the one encore, the singer having removed his specs for the first time. No one left the auditorium tonight in the slightest bit unfulfilled that's for sure.