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 paradise...in 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 it....it’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 town....as 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 dance...at 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 ways....at 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 day...so 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.

4 comments:

Duggan said...

Steve -- great report. Sounds like you are recruiting drummers for your next trip over. Wish I had video of your dance moves to show the "ladies" here in A-town. Keep up the good work!

Duggan said...

OOPs -- forgot the e-mal link

James said...

Love the updates! I'm glad to hear things are going well. We look forward to the next one!
Cheers!
-James

calito808 said...

Esteban,
It sounds like such an amazing experience. Not that you have ever been "heavy footed", but I you know as well as I do that your self-consciousness is only you wanting to be respectful and unimposing. I bet they love you as much as we do.
Peace,
Rico