He’s received the BBC World Music Awards, been nominated to the Nordic Council’s Music Prize, released hailed albums, played with Youssou N’Dour and Ali Farka Touré and toured relentlessly in Norway and abroad. Oslo-based Solo Cissokho has come a long way since he built his first kora at the age of seven.
Solo Cissokho belongs to the Mandinka-people, a Senegalese minority that makes up for 3% of the population in his country of birth. Solo hails from Ziguichor in the Casamance district, and was born into a family that has seen the art of kora playing being passed from generation to generation through more than 700 years. Other well-known performers from his family include Baka Beyond’s Kausu Kouyate and Seckou Keita. Cissokho maintains a strong and vivid tradition as a griot, a scald that transmits his people’s history, comments on various aspects of his community and accompanies key social events. Solo was introduced to the 21-string harp at the tender age of 7. Says Cissokho on the early days: “I began my career by building my own kora. That way you really learn the characteristics of your instrument.” The first attempts at playing it were accompanied by cries of frustration: “It was so difficult to reach all 21 strings with just four fingers!”
After living in France and the UK, Cissokho arrived in Norway in 1995. “In contrast to such cities as Paris, the kora neither was nor is a well-known instrument here in Norway, so I figured I had to stay to make it more widely known.” Solo networked well and soon found himself in demand as a live-musician and studio contributor. “Frå Senegal til Setesdal” was the first album that showcased Cissokho’s ability to bond with Scandinavian folk music performers. The release features respected Norwegian folk singer Kirsten Bråten Berg in a sparse setting with voice, kora, munnharpe (Jew’s harp), do-do (African mouth harp) and djembe creating a highly aesthetic backdrop for the fusion of Senegalese and Norwegian elements. The result is a simple yet stunning recording – quiet, unusual and plain beautiful music. Listening to “Frå Senegal til Setesdal”, one is struck by the feeling that the musicians seem to intuitively know each other and their roots, thus bringing out one another’s best impulses.
Earlier this year, Solo Cissokho was awarded one of his career’s highest distinctions: the BBC World Music Awards in the Boundary Crossing category. The release that earned him this prestigious award was the 2002 “Tretakt Takissaba” album that featured Cissokho and Swedish fiddler Ellika Frisell fusing spacious Scandinavian folk music with the African harp’s rich timbre. The unlikely partnership of fiddle and kora was initiated at an impromptu 1998 jam-session: the two had never met nor played with each other upon entering the stage of a Stockholm club for an improvised concert. The two connected well despite the fact that they shared no common repertoire and the successful jam led to recording sessions that in turn resulted in “Tretakt Takissaba”. Frisell’s lurching Swedish polkas lend themselves perfectly to the rippling phrases of the kora - even the waltz-time fiddle accompaniment fit like a glove with Cissokho supplying some strong and elastic compositions. “Tretakt Takissaba” features real and open dialogue between the two musicians with each thriving on the other’s energy while still having the space to be themselves and never losing their Swedish or Senegalese identities. To say that Cissokho welcomed the appreciation is a mild understatement: “From time to time, you need to be told that you’re good! The BBC World Music represents a form of honour that I really wish all other musicians could experience.”
2003 also saw Cissokho being awarded another distinction in the form of a nomination to the Nordic Council’s Music Prize. Said the Nordic Council’s music committee on Cissokho’s career: “With the mix of tunes from Norway, Sweden and Senegal, Solo Cissokho has struck cultural gold in the mountains of the north.” The prize was eventually won by well-known Norwegian/Saami vocalist Mari Boine.
Solo’s latest release is the acclaimed Cissokho System album Kaïra that was recently released on respected Norwegian independent label NORCD. Kaïra features an African/Norwegian line-up of highly competent musicians exploring the rhythmic and harmonic opportunities inherent in the West-African mbalax style. Mbalax features rich polyrhythmic patterns and infectious melody lines – almost an African counterpart to Brasilian samba given the joie de vivre the two styles share. Kaira also showcases some more quiet and introspective passages with spirited guitar/kora interplay and highly melodic vocals.
With his UK-based family outfit Jalikunda, Cissokho has toured extensively and appeared at such central festivals as Womad and Glastonbury. Naturally, Solo has also travelled frequently domestically, and courtesy of the Norwegian Concert Institute’s touring programme, Solo has played more than a thousand concerts at Norwegian schools. “I’ve been all over the country, except the Svalbard islands. I’m too afraid of polar bears,” the kora master concludes with a smile.
Frå Senegal til Setesdal (Grappa) 1997
Tretakt Takissaba (Xsource/MNW) 2002
Kaïra (NORCD) 2003