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 great...like 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 world...you 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 diplomats...you 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 Africa...you 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 dollars.....to 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.