With his fusion of world music traditions, Senegalese-born musician King Ibu has become a Las Vegas mainstay
Ibrahima “King Ibu” Ba was never supposed to become a musician — at least according to the social norms he grew up with in Senegal.
Ibu was raised in a family that was a part of a noble caste of scholars and intellectuals in Podor, the northernmost town in Senegal. His caste is traditionally entertained by the country’s lower griot caste of musicians. Around age 12, Ibu broke tradition by picking up a guitar, and later taught himself how to sing and play other instruments, including bass, keyboards, djembe, and the sabar.
Music eventually brought Ibu to Los Angeles in 1996, and then Las Vegas, where he found success playing in a cover band on the Strip during the early 2000s. Since living in the United States, Ibu has released three solo albums, toured internationally, and has collaborated with world-renowned musicians, including Carlos Santana during his first Vegas residency.
Ibu sings his music in English, French, and ethnic languages intrinsic to Senegal, but he aspires to make his music a universal language to be enjoyed and understood by everyone by fusing traditional Senegalese folk with other contemporary genres, including soul, reggae, and jazz.
Desert Companion spoke to Ibu about honing his eclectic sound, playing music in Senegal, future aspirations, and how he uses his music to break cultural barriers.
How do you describe your sound, besides the industry term “world music”?
The way I look at it is it’s a mix of all the styles I’ve been exposed to, and (am) still exposed to. I just mix them up. I’m an intuitive artist, so I’m self-taught. I never went to school to learn music. I’m more driven by feelings about it, and of course my background and what I bring to the song. It’s a mosaic. Instead of it being pictures, it’s almost like musical mosaic somewhat.
What were some of your early musical influences while growing up in Senegal?
I would just listen to what everybody else was listening to in the household when I was younger. We listened to so much stuff. First, soul music ... Wilson Pickett. We used to listen to music from Cuba, from Spain, and, of course, American music.
When I started kind of having an idea of what I wanted to do, that’s when I started listening to guys like Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, and, of course, traditional music. Every ritual, every holiday, every ceremony was accompanied by some type of music. Even soccer. When you go to a soccer game you have people drumming and singing.
What was it like stepping out of your caste to pursue music?
I was born in a family where mom was from Mauritania and dad was from Senegal. So, just growing up in different cultures and being surrounded by different languages has made me very comfortable in doing different stuff. At first it wasn’t as rebellious as I realize now, but I’m the only one who plays music in my family. My mom was alive then. She was a very cool lady. “Hey, as long as you bring me straight A’s, I’m fine with it.”
But, of course, I could sense the others ... looking at me with a different eye. But it didn’t stop me. The love for it was so strong that I wasn’t going to stop.
Are there any challenges with playing world music in Vegas?
Vegas has been very challenging, still is challenging playing the kind of music that I play. When you talk about world music, it’s huge in Europe, it’s huge in Canada, and certain parts of America, but not Vegas yet.
How I overcome the challenge is when you come to my show or you listen my music ... you’ll find there’s great effort that I make to reach out and to compromise so that you can understand it. You get the message through the music, even though you don’t understand the words I’m saying.
What are your future plans?
The most important thing is gigging more. I think we’ll (with collaborator Dirk K) record some more stuff that will ... reflect more on what we do live now. Two guitars and vocals, and just having fun with it. In the end, you start really realizing that less is more as you grow in anything you do. You realize you don’t need much. Just the two of us, but we bring in so much sound and so much power, it’s amazing.
What do you want people to take away from your music?
What I really pray for people to get from my shows is the moment of happiness and joy that we bring to them, and sharing with them some aspects of Senegalese, or generally African culture and concepts. It’s really that opportunity to connect with people without speaking the same language.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
King Ibu December 5, 7:30p, free, UNLV’s Barrick Museum, unlv.edu/calendar. December 14, 6p, free, West Las Vegas Library, lvccld.org