Musician and songwriter Diali Cissokho was born into a long line of West African griots, who have been passing down history through song for seven centuries. From a small fishing town in Senegal, he followed his heart across the sea and landed in Pittsboro, N.C. where he lives on a small farm with his wife Hilary, their six month-old son Abdulaye, his nephew Sidya and their three goats. He is now creating a rich new story of his own and emblazing it with the musical influences of his adopted country. All while remaining steadfastly loyal to his heritage.
Diali is the bandleader of Kaira Ba, a six-piece that includes indigenous percussion sideman Cheikh Njigal Dieng (also from Senegal) and “four fair-skinned rock ‘n’ roll musicians from the Piedmont:” guitarist John Westmoreland, drummer Austin McCall, percussionist Will Ridenour and bassist Jonathon Henderson.
Watch music video.
These college-trained musicians from the North Carolina Piedmont had more experience playing the blues and folk than they did African forms. Their collaboration is a “communal and creative cross-cultural conversation that uses polyrhythmic frameworks for explorations into lengthy and heady jams that have equal footing in musics African and American,” says the Columbia Free Times.
Yet it is Diali’s tradition of storytelling that is the band’s anchor, along with his kora, “whose plucked notes prance like those of a banjo or harp.” (Indy). Kaira Ba has released two albums so far.
Upcoming local gigs include the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh, Shakori Hills Music Festival and the City Tap in Pittsboro (see the full listing below). Diali also leads drumming classes, teaches at area schools/summer camps, repairs drums and leads annual cultural exchange trips to his hometown in Senegal (the next one departs December 26).
Here is Diali’s intriguing story in his own words:
Full name: Lamine Cissokho but people have been calling me Diali Keba forever. I was born into a griot family. It’s a tradition that has been passed down through many many generations, through my grandparents and parents, to my generation, and soon on to my son. My mother and father each wanted to name me after their father. My father won and named me Lamine, after his father, but my mom always called me Diali Keba – that was her father’s nickname. I guess the name stuck! Diali Keba means “big griot”.
Originally from: Mbour, Senegal, a little fishing town an hour from the capital.
Your childhood in a nutshell: I come from a big big family of musicians so when I was young there was always music going on. Both of my parents were musicians – my mom was a singer and my father was a kora player. Growing up it really was music music music all the time in my house. My brothers and I are all musicians, kora players and percussionists, and a lot of my sisters are singers and dancers. I have a LOT of siblings, more than I can count! As a kid I was always getting into trouble with my brothers and friends from the neighborhood – stealing mangoes from the neighbor’s tree or sneaking down the road to play soccer. I loved soccer but for my father there was only music.
How do you describe your music? I used to play in a more traditional style when I was first starting out but I’ve been influenced by a lot of popular styles like Mbalax, Afropop, and Reggae. When I play solo I still play a more traditional style but with my band we are bringing more modern styles into the traditional music. The guys in my band bring their own influences to the group and we tie all that together to create our own style.
Who has been your biggest influence? Musically and personally, my mom, Moussu Keba Diebate . She was a great singer. She didn’t sing just to sing and make a pretty sound – there was always a story or a message. She always told me that as musicians we hold a great responsibility. We have an audience, people listen to us, our words have influence; we need to respect the position and influence we have in our community and use it to spread positive messages.
I try to follow that advice in the songs I write. I tell stories about family, what is happening in the world, songs about the human experience and how we should treat each other. I sing a lot about peace and unity. That’s all from my mom. Music is medicine. I try to always remember that.
How did you and your wife Hilary meet? One of my cousins was living in the U.S., teaching at a college in Colorado. He organized a program to bring people to Senegal to study drumming and dance. My wife traveled to Senegal on one of his trips and that’s how we met. Right away we had a connection. She had to go back to the U.S. to finish her last year at university so we dated long distance for that year.
She came back as soon as she finished school and we got married in Senegal. I met her parents (Charley and Ann Stewart, both retired educators in Chatham County) for the first time the day before our wedding. I guess I’m lucky they liked me! We were separated for the first year that we were married while we waited for my visa. Finally I got it and here I am! After a couple of years we bought a little house in the country in Chatham County (just outside of Pittsboro). We love it!
Briefly tell us about your band: When I moved to the U.S. in 2010 my wife and I lived for a short time in Minnesota while she finished up an internship in Music Therapy. As soon as she finished we packed up our things and moved back to Chatham County to be closer to her family. I was performing solo at that time but really wanted to connect with a band. My wife introduced me to John Westmoreland, the guitarist in my band. She and John went to school together here in Pittsboro and she knew that he was a great guitarist. She also contacted Austin McCall, our drummer. She knew Austin through friends and knew that he was an awesome drummer. We got together and played a few times and knew right away that we were on to something. From there Austin invited Will Ridenour, our percussionist, and Jonathan Henderson, our bass player. They were all involved with the Paperhand Puppet Intervention and had known each other for years. We became Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba and from there things just took off!
We have two recordings – Resonance, our first album, and The Great Peace, which we released about a year and a half ago. Our first album was sort of our opening, and by the second we were really growing into our own style. I can’t wait to start on our third project! We’ve grown a lot as a band and are working on some really interesting new sounds. We’re also working on a music video.
Anything else you want folks to know about you and your music? I’ve connected with some other Senegalese percussionists and we’re planning a big Senegalese Soiree at the Palace International in Durham on Saturday, September 26th. It should be a lot of fun! We’ll be playing traditional Senegalese dance rhythms so there should be a lot of great dancing that night too!
I love to perform but I also really like to teach. I teach community drum classes in Bynum and Chapel Hill, work at summer camps and contract with local schools. I did a really fun residency at Perry Harrison Elementary School here in Chatham County this past winter! My wife, my nephew Sidya, and I taught drumming for several weeks. We really love working with school children! I’m also part of the CAPS (Community Artists in Public and Private Schools) program, through the Durham Arts Council.
What are some jobs you have had? Music, music, music! All I’ve ever done is music. I traveled to Italy in my early twenties and spent some time working in a mental hospital, playing relaxing music for patients. Some friends and I started a performance group in Senegal with the local “Centre Handicape,” a resource center for adults with physical disabilities. We choreographed dances for people with all varieties of physical ability. It became a really popular project and we got contracts to perform in Europe. That group is still together – that’s something I’m really proud of.
What do you like to do when you aren’t playing music? Exercise, cook, spend time with my wife and baby, take care of our new goats, and Skype with my family and friends in Senegal. We spend a lot of time with my wife’s brothers and parents – both of my parents have passed away so I’m really close with them. It’s awesome to have family close by. My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby just before we did so we like to get the babies together as much as we can!
Five words that describe you: Serious, honest, focused, a joker, a family-man.
Now ask Hilary to describe you in five words (don’t show her your answers): Passionate, strong-willed, funny, serious (at times), genuine.
When you have a food craving, it is usually for: Chebujen! It’s the national dish of Senegal. Sometimes we cook it here but it’s just not the same as when my sisters cook it in Senegal!
On becoming a father: Becoming a father has changed my life. I have to be more focused, more responsible. Being a professional musician isn’t an easy way to make a living but it’s what I do, it’s who I am, it’s in my blood. These days I have to really focus on what’s important to me and go after it. I’ve got an awesome little boy and I’ve got to do the best for him.
Most people don’t know: I really have three wives – my kora is my first wife because I met her first. Hilary is my second wife and mayonnaise is my third wife. I love mayonnaise – I put it on everything!
Your favorite spots in Chatham County: I love Bynum, my wife’s parents’ house, the Haw River near our house, the farm across the street from us.
Chatham County artists who inspire you: Other than obviously the guys I share the stage with – Julian Sikes from the band Deep Chatham. I love his voice and his style! He’s also just a great guy to be around.
Ten years from now: I will have peace in my life and good health and happiness in my family. That’s really all we can wish for, isn’t it?
Kaira Ba upcoming shows:
Sept. 30: Showcase through the Creative Alliance, Baltimore, MD
Oct. 9: International Festival, Raleigh
Oct. 10: Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival, Pittsboro
Oct. 19: NC State Fair , Raleigh
Nov. 14: Motorco Music Hall, Durham
See current listing of events here.
Sundays 5:30 – 6:30 pm
Bynum General Store
950 Bynum Rd, Bynum, NC
Tuesdays 6:00 – 7:00 pm
Community Church of Chapel Hill
106 Purefoy Rd, Chapel Hill, NC
No experience necessary. Drums provided. All levels welcome. Join a beginner or intermediate class, negotiate a new class or arrange private lessons. Sign up.
Cultural Exchange Trip to Senegal:
December 26-Jan. 10
Stay in Diali’s home town, learn West African drumming, dance, language, and customs; savor traditional Senegalese cuisine (and learn how to cook it if you like); and experience Incredible entertainment, exotic wild-life, beautiful beaches, and local culture.
Educational Programs: Diali offers assemblies, workshops, residencies, and cultural arts presentations for students, including school-aged children and youth, university students and life long learners in our community. Contact Diali.
Drum Repairs: Diali repairs, reheads, tunes, and maintains djembes. Contact him with the size of your drum and the nature of repairs needed for a quote. He can repair your drum for your or teach you how to keep it tuned and well maintained on your own. Contact Diali.
Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba:
Album Streaming: kairabamusic.bandcamp.com
Performance at TEDxUNC: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa7G_YFXRRw