Mariama

Pape and Cheikh, 2002

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 principle 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.

Reviews

  • Pape & Cheikh : Mariama - CD £7.99 Senegalese duo Pape & Cheikh are set to become one of the most exciting new African acts this year. They are immensely popular in their homeland with one track from this album "Yatal Gueew" being adopted by 24 out of 25 political parties during the recent elections. It was also mentioned by the new president in his inauguration speech and has become an anthem for tolerance and peace in many west African nations. Piccadilly Records (UK)
  • ...delightful as the story is haunting. A stellar debut. '...together Pape & Cheikh are making socially resonant music that has garnered major recognition in West Africa and, now, England. The title track tells a tale of sorcery and subsequent tragedy. The arrangement is as delightful as the story is haunting. The following 11 tracks are every bit as memorable. A stellar debut.' Billboard (USA)
  • Breezy urban African protest sounds. Q Magazine (UK)
  • World CD of the Week '...two good voices in sweet harmony...the passion of the singers is unmistakeable...And if you caught Pape & Cheikh supporting Orchestra Baobab earlier this month you'll already know how appealing this music is.' The Birmingham Post (UK)
  • 'Pape and Cheikh are currently lighting up the world music horizon like a couple of belisha beacons with Mariama, an international debut that may well be reissued with "multi-award-winning" written all over it.' Jazzwise (UK)
  • Yet another impressive new album from Senegal, but with a difference...Pape and Cheikh are newcomers with an original take on Senegalese pop. The Guardian (UK)
  • 'Senegal's Pape & Cheikh will be one of the acts of the year, their debut album for Real World demonstrates just why they're so popluar in their homeland.' Piccadilly Records (UK)