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Senegalese guitarist brings diverse influence to Montpelier concert

Karen Briggs and Cheikh Ndoye perform Sept. 19 at Montpelier Arts Center's Fall Jazz Series.
Karen Briggs and Cheikh Ndoye perform Sept. 19 at Montpelier Arts Center's Fall Jazz Series. (photo courtesy of cheikh ndoye)

He never took a formal music lesson until he came to the United States when he was 20 years old, and now at the young age of 35, Senegalese bass guitarist Cheikh Ndoye has played with the likes of pianist Russell Ferrante,  violinist Karen Briggs and drummer Dave Weckl.

Ndoye's debut album, A Child's Tale, received good reviews when it was released in 2009. He's performed annually at Blues Alley in Washington, but mainly plays to crowds on the West Coast. However, on Sept. 19,  Ndoye's the Cheikh Ndoye Group, featuring Karen Briggs, is the headliner at the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel.

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"I've played with other bands at Montpelier before, but never as the headliner," Ndoye said. "The acoustics are great and I love playing there."

Montpelier Arts Center Director Sonya Kitchens said they chose Ndoye for this season's lineup because they like to feature talented regional artists whenever they can in the concert series.

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"We also like to have something different and present artists with new styles," Kitchens said. "I love his CD and when we had it playing the other day at the front desk, we got a lot of good comments from patrons."

Influenced by the likes of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and other great jazz musicians, the Alexandria-based musician says there's more to his style than jazz.

"My music is a fusion of jazz blended with West African music. You can hear a little of the Senegal style called Mbalax. It's a rhythmic style with a lot of percussion," he said referring to the Senegalese popular dance music. "I listened to well-known jazz musicians, but also to classical musicians and artists from Cuba and other places. I write a lot of music, especially for the guitar, and I'm influenced by just good musical composition."

That diversity of influences heard in Ndoye's music also reflects his upbringing as the son of Chams Eddine N'Doye, a diplomat and Senegal's ambassador to Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

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"I lived in those places and see myself as a world citizen. My music is a cultural affair and the cultural aspect for me is the most important thing," he said. "I want people to be open to that mission of mine to promote diversity. I have always had a mix of cultures in my band with musicians from places like Japan, Armenia, Senegal and Nigeria."

For the Montpelier concert, drummer Tosin Aribisala of Nigeria will perform with Ndoye, as well as guitarist Dan Leonard, saxophonist Ted Baker and pianist Eli Staples.

Probably If someone had asked Ndoye 15 years ago if he saw himself as poised to be a successful musician, most likely he would have shrugged off the suggestion. After all, no one in his family was in the entertainment field. Like his father, his brothers followed the diplomatic route, but Ndoye's love for music emerged early in his life.

As a small boy, he loved playing with a toy piano and other musical gadgets his parents bought for him and his seven siblings. Later in his teen years, he fell in love with the bass guitar after hearing an album by the jazz fusion group Weather Report.

"I was 14 years old and when I heard Weather Report's Jaco Pastorius playing the bass I really got into it. I was influenced by that whole group," he said.

Ndoye taught himself to play the bass guitar and performed with a few groups in Senegal, but when he came to the states, his main focus was to get a degree in computer science. He enrolled at Montgomery College and while pursuing his degree, he signed up for the school's jazz ensemble.

But he had a major challenge he had to overcome.

"I couldn't read music, so I was behind the other musicians," he said. "My conductor pushed me and told me I'd go far if I learned to read music, so I worked really hard for six months, learned it and began to get last-minute gigs. Knowing how to read music is the most important thing with those kind of gigs because most musicians use sheet music last-minute."

But even while performing around the area, Ndoye still stuck with completing his computer science degree.

"The trick with my parents was that I did very well in school. I had good grades so they didn't say don't do the music, but were supportive," he said. "I also started getting lots of calls from musicians to play with them, and later on, world-famous musicians."

Those musicians included violinist Karen Briggs. He said he met Briggs when she was looking for a bass guitarist to perform with her in Aruba. Although he wanted to accept the gig, Ndoye was not available.

"But we kept in touch and eventually began playing together," he said. "I was her music director at times and I still put bands together for her when she performs. She always plays with me when I'm at Blues Alley and in November, I will perform with her and [singer] Patrice Rushen in Norfolk."

As his career continues to thrive and he gets more exposure here and abroad, Ndoye has not forgotten his second love, computers.

"I was into computers a whole lot before and I enjoyed it; I still do and it helps me a lot with my music, especially when I'm in the studio," he said. "I also use those skills in designing my own fliers."

Ndoye is doing the bi-coastal thing, playing most of his gigs on the West Coast while still living in Alexandria. He and Briggs recently did a West Coast tour with Lao Tizer's band and in April they performed with Tizer's group in South Africa.

When not performing or working on his next album, Ndoye gives lessons to a few students as time permits. He said it's been two years since he's visited Senegal, but performing there is on his agenda.

"I will go this year to play in Senegal and I want to take Karen and the whole band to perform with me," he said. "It would be a first for us. I'm really looking forward to it."

The Chiekh Ndoye Group performs Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. at the Montpelier Arts Center, 9652 Muirkirk Road. For tickets and information, call 301-377-7800.

This story has been updated.

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