An interview with Diabel Cissokho

By Isabel Bedford

I meet Diabel Cissokho in The Tent at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in the City of London, an oasis, incongruously nestled between the tall, shiny office blocks. Cissokho is performing here tonight alongside blues guitarist Ramon Goose. He shows no signs of pre-performance jitters but instead exudes an aura of calm, reflecting our spiritual surroundings. Cissokho is a member of the Baye Fall, a faction of the Muridiyya (Mouride) brotherhood, itself a branch of Sufi Islam. I wonder how his religious beliefs affect his music and outlook on life in general. He tells me they are very important: “whatever happens is made by God; destiny, happiness… We leave everything in God’s hands. Keep life easy, take everything simple.” Cissokho carries the image of Mame Cheik Ibra Fall, founder of the Baye Fall brotherhood, on a necklace and wears his hair in ndiange (dreadlocks) another distinctive trait of the Baye Fall.

Cissokho is a versatile and highly skilled instrumentalist, playing a wide range of instruments from kora, ngoni and guitar to tama, calabasse and djembe. His deepest bond is with the kora and he plays this instrument with both dexterity and grace. Cissokho is also blessed with a powerful and resonant voice. It is no surprise that he is a dab hand musically, given that he was brought up in a griot household. Griots are the endogamous artisan caste in Mande society; Cissokho is one of the surnames that indicates griot lineage. Cissokho’s deep musicality developed through being steeped in this unique and extraordinary culture from birth. Cissokho tells me about his family: “we are one of the most important families in Dakar; we support all the big musicians… If you look at all the album covers my family is always there.” The Cissokho family band, Bannaya, has toured on the international stage to great acclaim while Cissokho himself has played kora all over the world for West African household names including Baaba Maal and Kandia Kouyate.

Musika

Cissokho’s debut album, Kanabory Siyama (“Don’t run from your ethnicity”), is a beautifully crafted piece of work recorded half in Senegal and half in the UK. He draws on the considerable talents of family members and friends to create an album which is soulful, groovy and unashamedly rootsy. A combination of arrangements of traditional pieces and original compositions, Cissokho sings in five different languages on the themes of faith, love, peace and family. He weaves together the rich tapestry of Senegalese music cultures which he was surrounded by growing up in Dakar; from mbalax, to yella and tassou. If you close your eyes while listening to the tracks ‘Dialiya’ and ‘Yorromama,’ you can imagine being transported to a lively musical gathering at Cissokho’s Senegalese family compound. The stand out track for me is ‘Koto Kawding,’ a heartfelt and mellifluous composition for solo kora, which contrasts sharply in texture and mood to the other tracks on the album. It both demonstrates Cissokho’s command of the kora and reveals the depths of his musical sensitivity.

Cissokho divides his life between Senegal and the UK, successfully straddling two very distinct musical spheres. He is open-minded about collaborating with musicians who play in different styles, and his recent project with guitarist Ramon Goose is testament to his receptiveness to cross-cultural collaboration. Goose was looking for a West African musician to work with. Cissokho agreed to “have a jam” with Goose and the two found they had an immediate instinctive understanding of each other’s musical styles. Cissokho explains this by the fact that the root of the blues can be traced back to West Africa; “when I hear the blues, I hear Africa… I feel like this is my music.” Cissokho and Goose went on to record an album together entitled Mansana Blues, which was released in 2010 on French label Dixiefrog Records. To date, Cissokho has also collaborated with soukous, hip hop, folk and jazz artists, including guitarist Justin Adams, who coincidentally wrote the sleeve notes for Kanabory Siyama.  

I ask Cissokho to tell me about a highlight of his musical career so far. He fondly describes an annual gathering held in Dakar, where he plays music with family and friends in memory and honour of his late father: “just to be there on the stage, it gives me a lot of emotion.” Despite spending considerable lengths of time away from Senegal, Cissokho’s heart and soul firmly remain with his family and home there. He certainly isn’t trying to run away from his heritage or ethnicity, but rather is carrying his traditions with him wherever he travels and expressing these traditions through his music.

Kanabory Siyama is available from April 16 on World Village/Harmoni Mundi

Diabel Cissokho and Ramon Goose’s UK tour starts on 6 April