When King Ibu needs to add a sabar drum to a song on his latest album, he logs onto a Mac in his Las Vegas home and sends a digital file of his vocals and electric guitar halfway across the world to Aziz Faye in Dakar, Senegal. The song is as likely to be in English as in French, or even Pulaar, an ancient African language.
Another file will hit Ibu's inbox a week or so later, containing the conga-like drum passage he needs. A few mouse-clicks here, some typing there, and Ibu's song is finished. It rises from thounsand-year-old Senegalese sounds and 21st century technology. Yet it sounds seamless. "The most challenging thing (is) to make music that is easy to listen to," says Ibu. "You open the door and invite them in."
His method isn't exactly the same as jamming in the studio with friends, but then again, the West African music scene isn't exactly thriving here in Las Vegas; you're not likely to find another Senegalese musician ready to hammer out complex West African polyrhythms in a Craigslist ad.
Indeed, a musician like Ibu is forced to make odd choices when knotting together the two cultures he's come to inhabit -- the culture of his birthplace and the culture he adopted when, in 1996, at age 27, he came to the United States to "make music that will reach people here," explains the soft-spoken, six-foot-four singer and guitarist.
King Ibu's real name is Ibrahima Ba. By day, he manages a retail store. By night he practices, plays and records. Occasionally he ventures to other cities and countries to perform his music. He sells CDs through online services such as iTunes and Rhapsody. Since moving to the U.S., he's recorded two CDs and a single, all of which reflect a musical journey that's included Norway, Peru and Las Vegas. It's journey that's had him share the stage with artists such as conga player Poncho Sanchez, flautist Tim Weisberg and rock icon Carlos Santana.
And yet in Las Vegas, Entertainment Capital of the World - where he originally moved in 2003 to play in a Strip cover band - King Ibu is not quite a king.
'Make it universal'
King Ibu is one of countless niche musicians who find their brands of homegrown music a tough sell in Las Vegas, but are nonetheless inspired at finding fellow musicians to work with - and galvanized by the borderless communities created by new technology.
[HEAR MORE: Listen to "KNPR's State of Nevada" where King Ibu talks about the next wave of composing online, and how he's mixing Afrobeat into Vegas music.]
George Rhee is a musician and immigrant from Switzerland. By day, he teaches physics and astronomy at UNLV, but his real love is bluegrass and folk music. He's performed several dozen times with Ibu, and marvels at how all this "really good stuff under the radar" doesn't get that much notice here in Las Vegas.
"Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined being here," Rhee says, invoking the valley's "terrible image" when it comes to culture. But after nearly two decades, he says, "I've met virtuosos here" - like Ibu.
Papa Malick, a fellow Senegalese musician who has played gigs with Ibu in New York and lives in Washington, D.C, says Ibu's stateside home base is a good thing, because it allows him an opportunity to share their home country's music with a whole new audience.
"People playing music in Senegal right now, they're not making it universal," says Malick, a drummer. "If you're not from Senegal, you're not going to understand it. It's not going to get out of Senegal. Everybody has their own roots, but you have to find a way to make it universal."
That's what Ibu is trying to do. As his e-mails straddle continents, so does his music. He sings in both English and Pulaar. Electric guitars complement traditional handmade drums. Western, verse-chorus-verse song structures reveal folk melodies of Western Africa. The idea is to "mix (Senegalese music) with music here & to communicate with music, like a language," Ibu says.
It's a commitment that might have never developed had he continued performing on the Strip, where, for two and a half years, from 5 p.m. on, he would play lead and rhythm guitar and sing background vocals for two, one-hour sets.
"It was a great gig, almost like a dream come true. Everything from Christina Aguilera to Etta James," Ibu says.
"It was a school in American music."
Your roots are showing
But that school didn't last. "I started to see the Paris hotel and others get rid of bands and bring in piped-in music. You knew it was over." After that, "I went back to my roots. It forced me to look at playing my music," he recalls. He also soon found there was not much of a local audience for what the industry calls "world music." Undeterred, King Ibu kept recording, producing two CDs. His new material is more acoustic and stripped-down than those titles. "It reflects the way I've been traveling," he says, meaning you get used to making do with less when you're a solo act on tour with a limited budget. It also reflects the troubled times, which have caused him to look inward. "A nation can't grow if the individual doesn't grow," he explains. As for the local audience - or lack of it - Ibu hopes the growth and diversification of Las Vegas over the past decade-plus eventually results in a city with broader musical appetites.
Meantime, he focuses on what he can control, such as recording, performing and selling CDs - and doesn't stress about the rest. He resorts to a Senegalese adage that says as much, and seems at home in the desert: "Once you pour water on sand," Ibu says, "it's gone."
Hear King Ibu's music at http://www.myspace.com/kingibumusic.