(Originally published in The Blink Magazine, August 2012)
KIGALI – We were already late when the taxi dropped us off nowhere near where we needed to be. The driver gave us a final confused shrug and sped off into the distance, leaving us head-in-hands and hurrying along a dirt road somewhere in Gaculiro.
We had ten minutes to find a hidden compound that hid Senegalese superstar Islamel Lô’s secret living accommodations; a veiled temporary residence with no signs or marks to distinguish it from anything in the area. The clock was ticking and we were running out of time and patience. His people had been reluctant to grant an interview and clear on nothing but one thing: “Punctuality is Mandatory.” But luckily in Rwanda, you can always count on punctuality to be a few minutes late to the party.
The sun was beating hard and I felt like Charles Marlow from Heart of Darkness, trudging through dirt roads and unknown territory in search of a man that everyone seemed to know by name and reputation but few by any other means. Lô was an enigma, a shadow hiding somewhere in the heart of Africa; only my Mr. Kurtz wielded a steel-string guitar instead of a whip, something for which I was extremely thankful.
We had nothing to go by but a hotel name and the mention of a heavy green gate on an ambiguously marked winding street, which meant absolutely nothing in Kigali.
“Qui?” asked one guard as he caught us lurking suspiciously outside his gate. “Non, non, no. No Ismaël Lô. No here,” he said as he shooed us away children looking for a lost football.
Peeking through bushes and metal fences like burglars in broad daylight, I asked what any sensible man would ask himself in this situation:
“If I was Ismaël Lô, where would I stay?”
But the reality was that none of us really knew much about Lô. We’d seen the balding, balading, swooning, crooning senior headlining the KigaliUp music festival a few nights before, but not much since he’d vanished offstage. A man of ninja-like swiftness, he’d foregone the expected phony backstage meet and greets and snuck off into the night, doubtless somewhere quieter.
After all, Lô was no stranger to anyone here, at least, not his stage persona. The veteran pseudo-rocker has been making music for over 20 years with over 10 albums and more than a handful of world-wide superhits under his belt. But for all the man’s international fame, few could tell me anything at all about the ever-enigmatic Lô… I didn’t even know if he wore a belt at all.
“He sings in French sometimes” one helpful fan had told me.
“Ummm…I don’t know, he sings that song, Jammu Africa,” declared another would-be enthusiast.
But unless we suddenly came across Lô draped in fleur-de-lys bed linens and belting his repertoire from a balcony, it looked like we were out of luck. But just in case I peeked over at a few nearby porches.
The man remains not only one of Africa’s most popular musicians, but also a knight of the French Legion of Honour, a society established by Napoleon in 1802. If anyone could swing half naked from a veranda shouting his own tunes to the world it was Lô, and the worst part is, people would probably let him, I doubt he’d even charge.
Lô hit international superstardom in 1990 with the release of his self-titled album which contained Tajabone, the hit that skyrocketed him through the French pop charts and across Europe. He is one of the few African artists since Lucky Dube to power through the continent’s musical veil and grab the international community by the collar with swinging beats and songs that touch on home and beyond.
Finally, with a little help from our friends, we found his place, only to realize we’d already been there. The guard who’d waved us off earlier now opened the gate, nodded and flashed us a toothless grin like he’d never seen us before. Apparently Lô was here now.
“Bonjour, Bonjour,” he smiled and waved at me. I smiled back and hurried along the path.
Asshole, I thought to myself.
But the inside of the compound started to shed some light on the cryptic crooner; Lô and his people liked their privacy and they liked it a lot. The place looked like a secret Garden of Eden carved into one of Kigali’s hills; a perfect paradise of greenery surrounding a stone mansion that made Hotel Chez Lando look like grungy youth hostel.
I didn’t still didn’t know much about Lô, but this was definitely the kind of place he’d stay.
And there he was, my very own musical Mr. Kurtz, sitting quietly at a table, chewing on a light lunch, a cigarette quietly burning on a nearby ashtray.
“What took you so long?” he smiled at us, cool and confident.
Sitting there in front of us, Lô had an aura about him, the kind of intangible presence that acts like a gravitational pull on everyone around him. He looked like a man on the move, the kind of guy who could take over the world if he really put his mind to it, if he really wanted to. But something told me that wasn’t going to happen, something told me Lô preferred lunch and a smoke instead, sitting quietly in his little lost paradise.
The Lô I met that morning was unusually different than the powerhouse I had seen commandeer the stage a few nights earlier. He was calmer, cooler, but I could still see that fiery balladeer buried somewhere under his loose West African clothing.
The veteran’s music deals with everything from personal experiences to broader themes of peace, love and the resilience of the African spirit.
“Inspiration happens every day. In the morning, at night, moments of happiness, moments of sadness, romantic moments, melancholic moments. Sometimes I’m very happy, and I write, sometimes I’m very sad and I write,” he says. “I think you can tell the songs I’ve written while I’m happy like Tajabone, and those I’ve written while I’m sad.”
What comes through in Lô’s music is the sense of a mature musician, well aware of his intention and what he’s doing, a man different but not entire unlike the young smiling face that graced the cover of his first album.
“I make music differently now,” he says, shooing off our photographer – we may have found him but Lô is still no diva and more than a little camera shy.
He says he used to make album cyclically, in six then eighteen month writing and recording rotations, to keep things fresh. Now he says he’s hit a maturity, a kind of wise age where he can chose when to make music. “Now, I make an album when it’s ready. I don’t rush into it.”
Lô says the keys to success for young musicians lie in hard work, humility and knowing how to take advice for their elders.
“You can’t force music. When it comes to you, either it speaks to the public, or it doesn’t. If you’ve got talent, don’t have a big ego and don’t look for big hits, they’ll happen on their own,” he says. “Never think you’ve hit your peak, because when you do, there’s nowhere to go but down.”
As we left the hotel and followed the stone-layed dirt path towards the gate, I nodded again quickly at the guard, who shot me another look as if he’d never seen me in his life. I glanced behind me back at Lô, who had resumed his original lunch spot. His managers, circling around him, looked panicked, talking hurriedly at one another about upcoming dates or meetings. Lô sat quietly through all of this, a layer above, poking quietly at his lunch and starring off into Kigali’s distant hills.
“We must contribute to the development of peace, we must fight for peace, so that peace can be installed indefinitely across the world,” he’d told me before we left. “I am Rwandan by heart, I am Malawian, I am Ivorian; all to say that simply, I am African.”