Kaira Ba adds to the musical dialogue between Africa and America

by John Adamian


The sound of the kora, a harp from West Africa, is central to Kaira Ba, a Senegalese/American band out of Chapel Hill.

Diali Cissokho, who came from West Africa to North Carolina six years ago, fronts the band, singing and playing kora. In addition to being eye-catching, with its calabash body and spike-column construction, the kora has a clear, glassy tone.

Patterns are plucked out in polyrhythmic configurations, with cascading bursts of high notes tumbling over the cyclical figures in the lower register. Players deploy offbeat phrasing, syncopations and a kind of internal call-and-response approach that makes the instrument like a mini ensemble all to itself. You could pick apart kora patterns and transpose them to guitar, or other instruments, grabbing a snippet to play in contrast against other bits that twine around the loping grooves.

That’s kind of what Kaira Ba has done, in some cases, with complex percussion and impassioned singing, infusing a jammy, reggae-tinged and jazzy element to music that would be at home on the dance floors of Dakar. Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba play a free concert at Barber Park in Greensboro on Thursday, June 30 as a part of the Levitt AMP music series.

Kaira Ba is part of a fruitful and long-flowing dialogue between African and American musical styles and traditions. The interaction between European and African aesthetics and techniques has been part of American music for well over a century. Another way of saying that is to say that African-American music is at the core of what most of us think of as American music. Gospel, blues, jazz and rock all flow from those cultural and historical cross currents. You could view Kaira Ba as an extension of that backand-forth, with more clear and recent ties to Africa. The band went to play in Senegal in 2011, shortly after forming, and was well received by the locals there. They plan to return for portions of their next recording project.

Kaira Ba don’t play traditional Senegalese music, exactly, but they make hybrid sounds, with players who are steeped in the music of West Africa. The frontman and bandleader, Diali Cissokho, comes from a hereditary caste of bards and musicians. These praise singer/historians are known as jalis or griots, depending on the region and the ethnic group. Cissokho does employ that exhortatory energetic style associated with griots, and he sings praise songs (like “Bomba Wotana,” dedicated to the early 20th century Senegalese Sufi saint and leader Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood), but this music is about dancing and unity.

One might not generally associate harps with energetic dancing, but the propulsive rhythmic and percussive element of Kaira Ba is key to the music, with hand drums and drum kits adding a drive and hypnotic pulse to the songs. I spoke with percussionist Will Ridenour by phone from the group’s practice space, as the band prepared to rehearse material for its next record. We talked about the group’s formation, its unique blend of styles, and their upcoming projects.

Ridenour, 39, is originally from Greensboro. He was a drumkit player who played in punk and indie rock bands in the region before taking an interest in West African music. Adding to Kaira Ba’s hybridized essence, in addition to playing Senegalese sabar drums and rasp scrapers, Ridenour brings some instruments and techniques from Mali and Guinea (both of which border Senegal) to the group’s mix. Ridenour is one of the four American-born North Carolinians who round out the group and back Cissokho, in addition to Cissokho’s Senegalese nephew who has recently been playing with the band as well, serving as something like a hype man, adding dance, additional percussion and backing vocals.

Kaira Ba formed in January 2011, the year after Cissokho came to the U.S. Ridenour, bassist Jonathan Henderson and drumset player Austin McCall had been involved in the Paperhand Puppet Intervention and other musical projects together.

McCall had heard about Cissokho being in the area and sought him out for a musical collaboration.

One day Ridenour came home to some of his housemates rehearsing with Cissokho and asked if he could join in with some percussion. “Boom — it was magic,” says Ridenour of the band’s start.

Ridenour says that he and Henderson had discussions and meetings “about the band of our dreams” at the time. “I thought that this might be that band,” he says.

As a percussionist who’d been immersed in West African drumming for years, one can understand why Ridenour got excited. The near-ecstatic rapport between the players comes through on the band’s 2014 record “The Great Peace.”

The percussion is given a lead role in the band’s sound, with the drummers making elaborate breaks, accents and solos. Many of the songs sound partially derived by, or anchored on, the elaborate sabar rhythms and the dense interplay with the djembe and dundun drums from Guinea. The interplay between kora, bass and guitar makes for a rich mesh of interwoven lines. The band can play body-moving grooves all day, but they can also slide into a lovely rippling mellow zone, like on the flamenco-ish and folky “Sida,” (a song about H.I.V. and the need for medicine) which closes out the group’s record.

Some bands are content to simply play music to an appreciative audience, but Kaira Ba seems to have larger, more ambitious aims.

“We are entertainers, but we’re not here to be solely entertainers,” says Ridenour, “we’re here to spread peace and joy through music and culture.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.


See Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba at Barber Park in Greensboro, Thursday, June 30, music starts at 6 p.m. 1500 Dan’s Road. The concert is free.