Senegalese transplant King Ibu defied his heritage to become a musician

Playing proud: King Ibu wants to share his musical energy—mistakes and all.
Spencer Burton
Max Plenke

Seventeen years have passed since Ibrahima “King Ibu” Ba left Podor, a town at the northernmost point of Senegal, for the United States and the career he always wanted.

In the years since, he’s moved to Las Vegas, joined Carlos Santana onstage at the Joint and created collaborative songs with African artists over the Internet. He’s achieved what a boy from a noble Senegalese caste, was never supposed to—he’s become a musician.

Why weren’t you supposed to play music growing up? In Senegal they have the caste system. Some are supposed to be playing/singing, the griots. They sang the king’s praises, and before war they’d advise the king or the king would consult with them. Then you have blacksmith families, fisherman families. My family was from the nobles. I don’t believe in that, personally, but that’s what they were called. They were involved in leadership, teaching ... they used to be the intellectuals. But those guys don’t play. People play and sing for you. But once music hit me, man, I didn’t care about those boundaries.

Do you consider yourself a griot? A lot of what I do, I learned from them. But the one thing I didn’t notice in griot repertoire was bringing up issues, going against the tide; that’s why I don’t identify myself with them. My aim is to touch you in a way that pushes you to think. Political awareness, or knowing the politics of Africa. I’ve always told [musicians from home], music won’t be the thing that makes Senegal a better country. It won’t solve our school problems. But when it comes to the basics for better living, they’re way behind. They need to take what we’re given.

You have pretty recognizable drum beats and even drum machines in some songs. Was that the Western influence? Music is astute. To communicate with people, you have to go and meet them on their own turf. If I tried to talk to you in my own language right now, it won’t work. But if I make an effort to study and learn the language and talk to you in English, I’d be able to communicate with you. It’s the same with music. For people to enjoy what I do in the West, I have to meet them halfway. I still sing in Pulaar and Wolof. But I try to write like a pop song is written, using chords you can identify with or using some jazz elements.

You still make music with friends in Africa. How does that work? That was the hardest part at first. But now it’s all data sharing, and that has made it very easy. I’ll come up with a melody on the guitar and record it. I’ll think about my friends and who I need to express what I have in mind. Is it mandolin, is it a kora player from Senegal? Sometimes I play a verse or the whole song and send it to someone I want on it, and they record a second track. They send it to me, and we listen to it together on Skype. That way I can get percussion from Senegal without going to Senegal. I can get guitar from Norway without having to go there. It’s helped me a lot.

What’s it like playing back in Senegal? I’ve never played my own music solo back home until June of this year. It was very different. Thank god for the experience. The only problem was trying not to speak in English. Even though I’m from there, the music I play is not the primary music they like, which is why I’m not big over there. It’s almost like being a foreigner in your own land. But the coolest part was I didn’t have to explain the songs. I’d say something and in the middle of the song they would be clapping or screaming, and I’d know they got it. Here I could sing a song about the Senegalese president and have to explain what he did. Over there in the middle of the song, you say something, they know what it means and you get a reaction. I wasn’t expecting them to react.

What do you want to do from here? I want the ability to do a lot of shows per year. I mean 150-200 dates. I like live stuff; I don’t care about making it pretty in the studio. I want you to hear me with my mistakes. I want you to get the energy I wanna give you, and I wanna receive the energy you give me. And if no one throws shoes at you that means they like it. ... I just wanna play, man. I wanna play.

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