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Connecting countries musically

Nightlight celebrates Senegalese music

West African musician Diali Cissokho recalls a time when, during a stint abroad, he and a friend went to play a show at a restaurant. After a while, Cissokho noticed a man in the audience listening to his songs and crying.

During a break, Cissokho approached the man and asked why he was crying. The man replied that he had a girlfriend who he loved very much, even though she was always stringing him along. He told Cissokho he heard him singing about love, and it made him cry. Yet Cissokho, who is Senagalese, was singing in his native Manding.

“This man couldn’t understand any of the words of my song, but from the sound of the music, the tone and the melody — from my body language and facial expressions, my language didn’t matter. He could hear my message in this song despite the language,” says Cissokho. “This is what I love about West African music.”

Audience members will get to experience a similar dissolution of cultural and language barriers Friday night during The Senegal Connection, an event celebrating the musical and cultural traditions of Senegal at the Nightlight.

The show will also feature Chapel Hill’s The Lizzy Ross Band and The Brand New Life, a band from Greensboro that creates world-music fusion.

With the recent addition of Mamadou Mbengue, a West African musician known for his skill on the talking drum, The Brand New Life has added Mbengue’s West African influences to the sound. Bassist Seth Barden of The Brand New Life is the principal coordinator for the event.

The event is also a showcase for the kora, the 21-stringed instrument that is sometimes described as a cross between a harp and a lute.

Cissokho has been playing the kora since he was six years old, and he says that while the kora has always had an important place in traditional celebrations, it has only recently found a place in Senagalese popular music.

In Senegal, Cissokho was born into a family of Manding griots, the musician caste. Mande society holds the griot to be a historian, advisor, praise-singer and storyteller. Cissokho says that these inherited traditions have been passed down from generation to generation and are said to have deep connections to spiritual, social and political powers.

He also says that the kora has started becoming incorporated into genres like hip-hop, jazz, reggae and blues. As for himself, Cissokho is the first in his very traditional family to electrify the kora and mix it with Western instruments.

“I find that I don’t like to stay strictly to the traditional style. It’s difficult to find the correct mixture of styles and instruments, but I think it helps me really experience my music,” he said. “Any instrument you want to try, I like to try to mix with the kora — any instruments can go together some way.”

This kind of creativity will be more than welcome on Friday.

“At Nightlight, our mission is always to support creativity and experimentation, and I think it’s really awesome to take this traditional instrument and show how it’s continued today,” says venue owner Alexis Mastromichalis.

And even if you have never heard West African music before, Cissokho promises a good time.

“West African music can be very expressive, and I try to express my message or story clearly regardless of language,” says Cissokho. “I was always taught that musicians carry a lot of influence, a lot of power, and that it’s not right to abuse this power. I don’t believe in singing about things that are bad or not important.”

Much like his experience with the crying man, the Senegalese musician hopes to transcend barriers this weekend.

“I want to teach people important lessons from my life experiences and share good messages of love and peace. Used in the right way, music can have incredible power and influence, and this is what I like about sharing this style of music with audiences new and old.”

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