Monday, February 25, 2008

Wednesday, Feb. 20th

Pretty mellow day. The cold that I felt was coming on before I left and then got in Madrid resurfaced and I was pretty wiped, especially after the late night recording session. So, we did some kora lessons and chilled a bit, tried to make it to the internet cafe to send that last post, but the power was out....we came back to Konteh Kunda and did another recording session, this time with the same musicians but no singers. All instrumental. It was easier to mic in that live situation, since I am limited in my 2 mics inputs, not having to position things to capture vocals as well.
As before, the balafon was outside with the jembe, and this time I had the shakers(“castanets” I believe they’re called) and a hollow wood shell hit with a stick out there as well. The balafon is so loud, it’ll get picked up pretty much anywhere it is placed. I had one mic pretty much just on the kora and the other one with a semi circle of the rest of the instruments around it. Also in the room were the bolong and the bongo(which is not a drum but a likembe/mbira type thing). It sounded really good...but still not like a total “studio” recording...I’m just learning as well. I think when we do the real sparse stuff where I can put both mics on the kora, or one on kora, one on guitar or balafon, we will get a real clean sound.

Thursday, Feb. 21st

Today we went to Sanyang Beach. I believe the closest beach to Brikama. It was about a 1/2 hour trip, not counting pushing the car out of a dust pit creating by big trucks carrying dirt on the last stretch to Sanyang. This is the same beach we went to last time I was in the Gambia, and it was sublime to be back there. It became clear to me once again why this country is so popular with the tourists. The beaches are fact this one is nicknamed “Paradise Beach.” There were dozens of long colorful fishing boats lined up on the beach down the way where there is a small fishing village and a little resort bar thingy for toubabs on the way there. It was Jali and Buba and John ( Buba’s student) and myself, as well as the guy who owns and/or maintains the little cluster of thatched shade structures there.
Jali and Buba are a 2nd generation duo, Jali’s father Dembo was the name i was given, and then the number, that got me down here the first time and he is a pretty famous kora player, having toured around the world, and always being cited in any academic work on the kora. The day before I left London on that first trip, I went to the Virgin Megastore and found a cd of Dembo Konte & Kausu Kuyateh. Kausu is Buba’s father. So its pretty cool to be hanging and listening and even jamming with this generation. Definitely going to do some recording of the 2 of them as well.
They headed down the beach for some fish to go with the onions and other ingredients we’d brought. John and I stayed behind because they’d get charged toubab prices if we were sited. They came back with a ridiculous amount of fish...for SO cheap, which were cooked and turned into a feast with fresh onions and a few different pepper/mayonaise sauces.
It was great to be at the beach because i was still feeling the effects of my cold and the ocean breeze and cool air was refreshing. I took a swim and a little later some kora playing ensued, mostly some lessons, but I busted out the guitar and we jammed out 3 or 4 really sweet tunes. All sort of (minor)pentatonic in nature, and when I realized we were in the thick of a nice jam, I went and grabbed my video camera and handed to john. Some good footage was captured. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring the adapter to convert them to my computer, nor do I really want to spend too much time tweeking with’ll be left for the Documentary.

Later Jali and I walked down to the fishing village, a bustling cluster of short, thatched huts flanked by dozens of fishing boats. We headed back to I can remember the night was mellow.

Friday, Feb. 22

I’ll just come clean and say that I go back and write about 5 days at a time, so if my tenses change without warning, that is the reason....
Today, I was practicing kora in the morning but was told there was a big program right down the road at a major intersection where there is a park. It turns out it was the Soiree for the Tribal Chiefs of the Gambia. I’m realizing that although Banjul is the capital, and the tourist center is Bakau, Brikama is the real heart of western Gambia. Its about equal in population, and these big events seem to happen here a lot. Simbi, a regular here at Konteh Kunda, though he lives at another compound, told his father is the governor of this region and is charge of the tribal council. cool. There were all the same dance troupes from the Independence Day celebration I saw on tv. Jola drummers/ dancers/ sax player, Fula bands, Wollof drummers/dancers, these 2 guys that were dressed up like what seemed like old tourists/clowns with white face paint, who were apparently part of a christian tribe. The president even showed up.
We came back, and I practiced more Kora and got ready to go to another program with Jali, but it was cancelled because one of their biggest fans had died that day, and out respect Manding bands refrain from playing when something like that happens.
We ended up going to the marriage ceremony anyway and saw some great wollof drumming. Let me say that any student of drumming would be in heaven here. I’ve seen at least 8 either manding or wollof or jola drum/dance sessions on street corners or in front of compounds in as many days. They always accompany any kind of celebration.
We came back and chilled, if my memory serves me right...

Saturday, Feb. 23rd

There was already Jola drumming by the time I woke up, just right down the street maybe 50 yards. Go to youtube and type in “jola drumming” or “jola dancing” and you will see what its like. So we walked down and checked it out. Most of the day was spent playing kora, but the guitar was busted out and it seems every time this happens a new chemistry is developed with Jali. A guitar kora album is also very much in store it would seem. Playing guitar gives me another perspective on manding music, because I am used to feeling upstrokes and downstrokes at sort of set places in the rhythm, and in Mande music its just not the same, so I have to untrain literally years of muscle memory to accent what I always thought was the upstroke, but may actually be the down stroke, and I’ve just always started counting at the wrong place...Also, I’m not sure how useful “counting” is. Whenever Jali starts me on a song, he starts at the easiest place to catch the rhythm, not where the downbeat is placed. Since I assumed that the downbeat is the beginning of the song and that he would have started me there, I was feeling my first tune, allah la ke, with a totally different placement of downbeats. It took me tapping out the rhythm (actually a clave rhythm) on his foot for about 1/2 hour for me to feel the song right. But at the same time, he said it doesn’t matter where you come in. Thats the thing, you can start anywhere in the cycle.
I’ll elaborate more on all these musical aspects as the trip ensues, I just want to try to wrap my head or my foot or whatever around it a bit more before I do.
Jali’s program was cancelled again, so we hung around and listened to M’balax again. Once again, I had Jali show me where the down beat was....totally NOT where I thought it was. Mbalax is jumpy pop in Wollof from Senegal, its current sound being pioneered by Yousou n’Dor, though he didn’t start it and definitely is not the only force out there. The key element in mbalax though is the non stop Wollof drumming (typically 3 sabar wollof drums, hit with one hand and one stick, and one tama, the squeeze drum that you hold under your arm and hit with a small curved stick). Definitely the key factor. I was forced to dance by Yassi, Jali’s older sister, and was surprised that they were actually impressed. At first, I thought they were just making fun of me, as anyone in their right mind probably would do seeing me try to do west african dance, but apparently unlike salsa, swing, or 2 step, I actually have the right moves for west african least mbalax. It helps that some of the male steps are very similar to Thriller era Michael moves...think “Billly Jean,” and that still is my main reference point for all dancing.
I still was not quite convinced. Then we followed the clacking of the Jola drumming down the road and once again, I was called into the circle, this time in front of dozens of strangers. I did my best interpretation and once again was told that I was a great dancer. It was a rush for sure, and participation is expected if you are going to be there. Its either dance or be an outsider, and seeing my white ass out in the circle there in itself I think is entertaining for them.
We returned tired and ready for bed.

Sunday, Feb. 24th.

Played a bunch of kora, and went to another program. I got a better sound this time out of my minidisc. I think its better to be behind the drums and soundsystem, since they blast the vocals so loud. One speaker is turned back as a moniter and that is enough to capture all the miced and plugged in instruments. I’ll definitely be compiling a best of Salaam Band live compilation. This time I was called out for the “last dance,” in front of over a hundred people this time.....I’m losing my self consciousness in these situations now, whether I’m actually good or not. Like I said before participation is the key factor. But once again, I was told I could definitely dance.....whatya know.

“My name is Not Toubab”

A little antecdote for you concerning the term “Toubab,” meaning white person. Someone popped by with a white lady from Germany shortly after I arrived. She was nice enough, here playing sax in “copyright” (ie cover bands) in the hotels, although it was not the music she really wanted to be playing...When one of the kids called her Toubab, she retorted that her “name is NOT Toubab.”
Yassi thought this was quite funny, she thinks everybody, especially white people are funny, especially John in his green karate pants (he is a karate instructor back in Newcastle)...but anyways, she asked her why she was so offended, and the lady said that in Germany if she called an African “Black Person” it would be a racist remark, and that it should go both any rate, if it really bothers her, its too bad because I’m am referred to (99% of the time by kids) as Toubab at least 10 times a she must be stressed!
After she left, it was explained that “Toubab” is not derogitory at all and in fact means “gentle” or “kind” in Mandinka, as well as simply “white person,” and that it would be totally acceptable to refer to a black person as “morfingo,” meaning, uh, black person.
So, at any rate, the ideally of it being racially charged in a judgmental sort of way is not there. In fact, I feel very accepted and taken for who I am here in Gambia, and for the most part, since at this point a toubab is not a rare site, I rarely get a second glance and am often greeted in Mandinka. I love it. Though my Mandinka still needs some work...
Ok...caught up.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

OK. HI EVERYONE! I made it to the Gambia and as you will see the first week was amazing and exhausted...I'm not even going to attempt to express the last 2 nights of recording sessions until the next entry... Make sure to scroll down to Feb. 15th to get the story from the beginning!

Tuesday Feb. 19th

Well, today we went to go look at some land that could be purchased for the music school. It is some land that was given to Dembo by a patron and that he would sell for maybe $2500...I don’t know. There were no trees...thats my first misgiving about it. It is close to the beach, and out in the country, so very nice at that. It could definitely be developed, some trees planted, a well dug and powered by solar, and turned into a nice garden/school....but I guess I was hoping for something with built in shade, and maybe a little closer to Brikama, this being the focal point of traditional music in Gambia. I’m always worried I’ll offend if I say no to people, but I’m told that it is totally acceptable in most situations...I just need to get over myself really. Life is not easy in the Gambia, they survive on less than even some of the poorest Americans do, and its not in any way strange that they want me to buy things from them. Also, as the school is in the Brainstorm phase still, and will be dependent on investors and donations, I need to make sure what I end up with is attractive, yes?
So we came back and played some kora. There was another impromptu jam session, this time with Sanku, the best guitarist in Gambia, as described by Jali, and the same kora player from the last session...I need to take some Manding guitar lessons from Sanku..I can’t express how much music is just oozing and seeping from every part of this society, at least in the niche that I have settled for the next 5 weeks. Its music all day and night. There’s drumming on the street, theres constant kora jam sessions here, and every one is ready to play, all the time.
The night brought such a musical cartharsis that I could’ve just died then and it would all be cool. Jali brought his band from Bakau, a 7 piece mostly from Guinea including balafon, kora(jali), bolong(3 stringed bass/gourd), bongo(likembe), castanet(2 bell shaped shakers), djembe and vocals(2 girls 2 guys). We set up my 2 mics and spread out thoughout the tiny little room and the front porch. The sound was a super high quality field recording, we are only working with 2 mics here. And for 2 hours there was a Mande “rehearsal” that was just incredible..Outside I could see people piling in beyond the porch, dancing and clapping and singing...and when people clap here it is part of the song, not just “clapping along.” This is what I’ve been dreaming about for so long and here I was last night, headphones on, tweaking the virtual faders on my Mac with my mouse...they touba music man with his recording equipment. All night we recorded, and played back on a little stereo I bought to power Jali’s little speakers, and we hardly even tapped the batteries. Once again, solar is the Way!

Monday, Feb. 18.

Ok....almost caught up here. Jali wanted to try out the TV, see if it could be powered by the inverter....Answer, YES. In fact, without ever going below “full” on the battery, and while charging the entire compounds cell phones. I’m pretty excited about this system. Really with the extra battery I plan to purchase before I leave, it could easily power this whole compound and we are going to have lights installed in every house before I leave. We watched the festivities for Independence Day on the TV which involved all sorts of pomp and circumstance and were followed by all sorts of awesome dances and performance by various tribes or groups for President Jammeh. The whole event was made surreal by the fact that through out the president was being extolled for his “ground-breaking” Cure for HIV/AIDS, asthma, high blood pressure, etc. through herbs and his touch...There was some laughing amongst my friends here so I asked them what they thought of that...turns out they were laughing about the Danish guy who was here a few weeks ago that DIDN’T believe the president had these powers, and they all truly believe this President can cure AIDS basically just by his presence....I decided not to pursue the issue further...One guy chimed in that the people he “cured” were just being paid....but in the end, I don’t think people really want to risk shit-talking their president as he sort of rules with an iron-fist.
I did some Mandinka lessons with Pabi (or Uprising, as he is called around here) and his friend Bakary. Uprising wrote some conversational phrases out, and they spoked them and translated onto minidisc. Later that night we went to see a homecoming show by Rebellion da Recaller at a nightclub...It was packed and the Dancehall reggae with thick and loud for this mostly male audience. One selector/mc was this German guy in a polo shirt with a perfectly manicured Jamaican accent...quite surreal...
One thing I noticed the night before and had thought was just faulty equipment turned out to be the way they do it....It being, they’ll play the first 30 seconds of the song, and then start it again. Every time. So strange....When I asked the next day if that was just how they did it, they thought it was funny that I presumed the equipment was faulty....
Rebellion was pretty rocking, though I think you just have to get into the Gambian groove when it comes to the pacing of live music shows/Discos...lots of stops and starts, the PA always goes out at least once, and if its a nightclub...all the songs start twice.

Sunday Feb. 17

Ok, the main event of today was going to see Yousou n’dor in Bakau. He is easily the most famous living African artist today in the may have heard him singing background in Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” But he is also the most famous musician in Senegambia, and the place was packed...but lets back up....It turned out that our ride couldn’t make it, and having already established that I had a California drivers license (which works fine here apparently), but that Bakau for Yousou N’dor would be too crazy for my first driving experience, I was told the only way we could go is if I drove. Easily forgetting their initial trepidations on me driving to a stadium concert, I was recruited as driver....HOLY SHIT....Its a little different driving here....African Style I suppose. dodging donkeys, goats, little kids, bikes, other cars, mostly Potholes.....towards Bakau there were some actual streetlights and even a motorcade of the Zimbabwean see today(and tomorrow) was also Gambian Independence day...
We finally made it, and it wasn’t so bad driving....We got there at 6. Yousou finally came on stage at 1am.....yes folks, thats how they do it here. for the preceding 5 hours there were a ton of Gamcell/Gamtel raffles, the big final one being for a SUV. Also, about 5 local Gambian bands lip-synced their songs, though some were actually audibly singing ALONG with the cd...very strange...Finally Yousoo came on stage and people not surprisingly FREAKED! Maybe about 5000 people all singing every word Yousou did. He was really awesome, and though a lot of his studio work is overwrought with what I consider super cheesy 90’s synth work, his thing works great on stage. Keep in mind that most of these people are Mandinka but are singing along with every word in Wollof.
And as far as I can tell almost no one drinks. When someone is drinking they are pretty much drunk as far as I can tell....But this is a Muslim country and drinking is frowned upon in Islam.....spliffs seem to be much more common and acceptable even by some devout Muslims.
Anyways, the drive home involved 2 police stops and both involved Jali trying to explain why there were no insurance papers in the car. Though I was a little freaked out, they never even asked for my license and apparently if Jali hadn’t been able to talk his way out of whatever infraction had taken place, a small bribe would be expected. Finally made it home and eventually crashed...I haven’t gone to bed before 2 or 3am since I got here...I had some notion of my body getting back to its “natural rhythm” while I was in know, rising with the sun, sleeping when it gets dark...but seeing as how thats not even how they do it here.. there’s no hope...I guess I’m already in my natural rhythm.

Saturday, Feb. 16th

I woke to crashing sounds on the roof, and Jali came in to tell me they were pruning back the giant mango tree to get more direct sunlight for the solar panels. As it turned out, the entire 100 foot tree was pruned back to the trunk, and I must admit it was hard to watch all that shade go, as I thought about where everyone would sit during the sweltering heat of every day. I voiced my concerns as tacitly as possible and was told by Jali and others that the tree was old and not producing very good fruit, and ideally they want to take the whole tree down and replace it. This was reassuring as I felt a little wierd, being this “toubab”(white person) coming in with machines and tearing down trees. I’m having to let go of a lot of these kinds of self-conscious feelings here. Its not a very self conscious country in that sense. If people want something they will ask, and I’m not expected to stew in what I think people may be assuming, as I don’t think any of them think the same. It was actually quite an event and the brothers and some of the kids, and myself all dragged branches to a pile, though I was told not to help out of politeness.
Before too long a minivan full of about 8 men arrived with all the supplied for the system. Every event here is a family event, I think this is the African, not just Gambian, way. I took lots of pictures and video footage of the installation, to show all the kind contributors back home how the whole thing took place. The timing for the system couldn’t be better as the compound had to shut off the electricity last month because one month cost over 600 think of that compared to the income being made here, and I’m even talking the combined income of 20 working people, and its just ridiculous. Thats what we’re paying in the states. This solar system will easily provide lighting and some other basics (radio, occasional tv, one refridgerator, cell phone charging, other battery charging.) for this whole larger section of Konteh Kundah. So, guestimating that about $400 a month of electricity from that bill was going here, for the price of 6 months energy, they will have a solar system that will last at least 10-15 years if not more, trading out batteries once every 3 years. I feel so grateful that so many people were so generous back home and I want you to know that your contributions are making a real difference here. Just think of all the things you use electricity for.....With so many people living here, all money goes straight making sure everyone is fed, then maybe gas to get to gigs(as is the case at the family compound of musicians) and to pay for cell-phone “credit” which is absolutely not cheaper than in the US. It may even be more expensive.
So.....anyways, the solar panels were installed and there was LIGHT! Very cool. More kora lessons ensued. One of Jali’s friends came over with another touba, John, from Newcastle, who is studying kora as well. We graced with a back porch concert of 2 koras, and vocals...I recorded to minidisc. I’m quickly realizing that 10 mini-discs was not even close to enough for this trip as these impromptu jam sessions are constant and spontaneous. There is ALWAYS a kora being played here at Konteh Kundah. Its amazing.
Later in the night I went to a “Night Program” that Jali was playing with Salaam Band. When he is in town, Tata Dindin, Jali’s cousin and a pretty famous kora player currently living in Germany heads this band. But, Jali is currently the kora player and the program was rocking.
So, bands here in Gambia, at least those that play Manding Music play mainly about 3 or 4 different kinds of events. Naming ceremonies, circumcisions, marriage ceremonies, for kids at schools, and “fundraising.” The latter is a big concert where everyone is invited and last night was one of these. There were at least 4 “girls clubs,” all with matching colorful dresses, as well as everyone from elders to little children. As the band kicked in (being 2 koras, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, balafon, various hand-drums and singing), these girls clubs would stand up and leave the audience area and then come back in a line with money to put in a pot. The entire show was like this. People putting money in the pot and dancing. The fundraiser is for the band though each member may only walk with 2 dollars from such an event. The bulk of the money goes towards helping buy equipment and providing for the families of the members.
They turn everything in the system up to 11 I presume, and everything that can have natural PA distortion does. Gambians like things LOUD. And each song is about 13 minutes long. It was an experience in and of itself, taking place outside right down the dirt road from Konte Kunda right there in the intersection of 3 roads, buy some water faucets. I’ll be attending a lot of these shows, as this is Jali’s regular gig.
After this we had considered going to see Yousou n’dor in Bakau but decided to wait to see him tomorrow.


Wow. I’m finally in the Gambia. The flight from Madrid was crowded and was a fitting re-introduction to “Gambian Time,” which is kind of like “Steve Time” but even later. Literally half the space I had on the other planes, on this Spanair flight. Moving legs once in flight could only be achieved by standing up. But finally, at 2:30am, we arrived at YumDum airport on the outskirts of Banjul. After another 45 minutes of standing in lines, to stamp my visa and to re-scan our bags (I guess for customs reasons), I was reunited with Jali Bakary and our driver brought us back to Konte Kunda.
This time Jali has his own little house, attached in a long line of 5 2 room apartments, all occupied by other family members. There are are 3 other buildings on this half of Konteh Kunda, which is separate from the part I stayed at last time, all with at least 2 apartments. This half is occupied by Jali’s generation, of which there are so many I can only hope to have all the names memorized by the time I leave.

We woke up and had some tea and bread, and I was reintroduced to some familiar faces, although I must admit, after 9 years I forget some of them and as the trip goes on I have flashbacks with certain people and it all comes back. I regret not bringing the pictures from last time. We then went to go see Dembo at the other part of the compound. Room I stayed in last time is abandoned and the building that was in construction, where I took most of my lessons, on a rug on the dirt floor had been completed (years ago I’m sure) and is now where Dembo and his family stays. I think there must be at least 35-40 people total on the compound, though it could be more.
It was good to see Dembo again, and the formal greetings to him and Jali’s mother and some others of that generation were made.

Most of our time is definitely spent on Jali’s half though, where there is at least 20-25 people staying. This is where the solar panels will be installed. After a trip to the market to get some slippers, the little plastic and foam kind that you really have to break in but cost like 2 dollars, we called Papa Sanneh the supplier of the Solar equipment here in the Gambia and arranged to meet and discuss later in the day. It turned out that the best option was to upgrade on the panels to 2 85 watt panels and get another battery, and that a 3rd battery would be ideal, though I decided to hold off on that for now, since the extra battery has put me a little over budget.

Jali and I started our kora lessons tonight with “Allah la Ke,” which coincidentally is the last song I was learning when I left last time, although I didn’t have time to really dig in then with it then. By the time I had returned to the states after the last trip in ’99 after roaming around Europe (albeit with my kora) I had forgetting most of my “kumbengo”(songs). But it came right back to me....for the most part. There is a lot muscle memory to train into my fingers, since there are 21 strings and the scale is split between both sides of the kora. We played into the night and the solar people were to arrive in the morning.