Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Afro-Manding Band Practice

Early that evening, the three of us, me, Haddy and Mariama, taxi off to Westfield…
Mariama has stopped talking, which means she’s gone off into ‘serious’ mode.
Who knows what thoughts are going through her eleven year old head right now ?
She’s been invited to watch some of the guys she admires playing music that she knows, understands and loves, and that’ll do for her.
We arrived early at about half past six.
A couple of the guys are already there with their prayer mats out and nothing will be happening until they have all arrived and made their devotions, and so we grab a couple of tables and three chairs facing the band.
It’s a funny thing… The musicians are all praying outside in the car park before they practice which is not something that the vast majority of musicians would do back in the U.K. but it seems so natural and unforced ?
I can’t say I totally understand the reason behind why they should do it, but it just seems so natural here, like it’s the right thing to do ?
The difference between cultures has thrown a total curve-ball, but is it so different from me telling everybody to sod off about ten minutes before my time onstage ?
I just want to be by myself with no distractions and think through what I’m going to do.
It’s not necessarily what is going to come out, but I want and need that time to mentally prepare a framework for the gig’s set without any interruptions, so although it might sound as if it’s two totally different things, I think it’s a totally natural thing.
Somebody more knowledgeable than me would have to clue me in on the finer points, but somewhere inside my head I know it’s the right thing for these guys to do.

I quite like Jokor as a venue.
Haddy and I had been there before to see a couple of gigs.
It’s a raised outdoor stage with covered sides as a roofed area, and the bar runs along the left hand side, and we are sat facing the band, just in front of the bar area where the guys can plug in their microphone and two amps.
Makumba comes over to greet us and to tell us that they have two missing members tonight, a singer and a drummer, but that they will be running through their album as a warm-up before heading off into their newer tracks which have not been recorded yet. Hadim gives us a smile of acknowledgement as he sits to tie his drums to his legs, and
Bubacarr (Jally) the kora player calls over to Haddy to ask if she has any money for a taxi back, and Haddy replies that he hasn’t done anything yet, which gets a laugh from the others…
I just feel honoured, if that’s the right word, to have been asked along to watch ?
Unfortunately I haven’t got my minidisk recorder as the damn thing broke, so there will be no recording at all on this trip.
And suddenly Makumba counts in, and they are away…
We all recognise the track from their album ‘Duniyaa’, and three sets of feet start tapping in tempo.
Ok… Just so everything is clear, here are the participants in the evening’s action

Makumba Nyass. Lead Djembe

Muctarr Bittaye. Dungdung Drum
Arafang Faal. Tama Drum
Hadim Nyang. Bukarabou Drum.
Lalo Sarr.   Singer and dancer

Bubacarr (Jally) Suso. Kora and Doudou Bittaye, the band’s manager.

Sambou, the other singer, and Mam Jam, the Sabarr drummer have not managed to get here for tonight’s practice.
Midway through the second number, Lalo dances over to our table and grabs Mariama’s arms, pulling her to her feet and telling her to dance with him.
A very nervous little eleven year old moves into the centre with Lalo, and starts dancing until the track ends, then she moves back towards our tables, but Lalo is having none of it and takes her back as the band go into their third number.
When it finishes Makumba calls her over.
We are too far away to hear what is said, but she is taken to Lalo’s chair next to Arafang where Lalo’s drum stands, and an even more nervous little girl sits in front of a drum…
Poor thing… She looks absolutely petrified.
Makumba counts off and they’re away…
Mariama’s hands stay on top of the drum…
I keep looking at her and try to catch her eye and make drumming movements with my hands…
And suddenly, just like that, she is off and away, her small hands finding the rhythm of the band and locking her body into it.
Her legs are clasping the drum closer to her body as she hunches herself over it, finding the most comfortable position for the drum size and then slowly loosening her grip when she knows where it is best suited for her body.
My concentration is now totally on Mariama, filtering out all of the other drummers.
She’s found her groove and now she’s playing with it.
Now the others…
Arafang, sitting next to her, is playing a totally different rhythm…
Hadim, closest to us, is playing something totally different to Arafang and Mariama.
Muctarr, punctuating the sound with what to western ears, sounds close to a tympani, and Makumba, the rhythm master, keeping the basic beat, but taking it where he wants it to go.
Bubacarr’s kora, playing out a melody over all of the drummers, and Lalo, vocalising with Bubacarr over the top of it all through their one microphone that Doudou is holding for them.
It sounds like musical chaos trying to describe it verbally, but nothing could be further from the truth.

A word or two about rhythms…
African rhythms are poly-rhythmic.
They are not linear like a western rhythm, in that there is no accent on the first or third beat.
Most western rhythms as we know them, especially in rock or pop music are in 3/4 or 4/4 time.
An African rhythm on the other hand, might have three, four, five or six differing rhythms occurring at the same time.
This creates confusion in most listeners who tend to just put it down to ‘drum noise’.
The fact that it is more complex than western music doesn’t even occur to them, but it’s fact.
What Mariama did, very nervously to begin with, was to create a rhythm of her own, and then merge it with the other rhythms being played around her, a sort of counter-rhythm, which only she is playing.
This merging of her rhythm into the rhythms of others is what creates a true drummer in the African sense.
The fact that she is listening to maybe three other rhythms at exactly the same time is what creates that poly-rhythmic sound, and when it is done seamlessly without jarring, is what natural African drummers do as a matter of course.
Rhythm sharing is one way of putting it, and it is a reasonably accurate description.
The fact that most western drummers tend not to play with other drummers, leaves them way outside the scope of the Africans.
Think of your favourite bands ?
How many use two drummers ?
Some use a drummer and a percussionist, but two drummers ?
No, it’s a very few.
The other thing is that it is not improvisational.
Most of the rhythms are traditional and this does not really give any space for improvising or experimentation.
It is the merging of the rhythms that creates the complexity where you have threes beating against fours and this creates a form of harmonic tension.
This, as most Africans will tell you, is best resolved by dancing or by singing.
The more I learn about this subject, the more interesting and fascinating it becomes.
So now you know… Ok ?

By the time the band have finished playing the last track on their album, Mariama has been totally integrated into their sound.
At one point she looks as if she’s concentrating on something totally outside of what’s going on, but her hands are still beating the drum.
The new material, which none of us have heard yet, is the clincher.
The last three or four items played on the night are all brand new to us, and to be honest, a much harder, rockier sound, if we are using a western musical expression ?
And she’s there…
She’s never heard these tracks before in her life, but her rhythms just slot in effortlessly with the rest of the musicians.
At one point in a song, Bubacarr, the kora player, starts singing a verse addressed to Haddy, who grins and shakes her head, before putting on her ‘headmistress’ face and admonishing him by shaking her finger.
I’m grinning, knowing exactly what is to come when they finish.
By the time it’s over and the band are packing up before the nightclub has to open, I finally get a word out of Haddy.
‘Well… What did you think of your daughter ?’
‘She did well… I did not know…’
And her voice tailed off…
One thing about my wife…
She has the most expressive eyes I know, and they were shining.
Bubacarr calls over to us for his taxi fare and the others all start laughing.
His nickname is ‘Mey ma pass’, (pronounced may, mar-as in Martha, and pass as in passive) It means ‘I am begging money for my fare’.
‘Hey ! You think just because you sing to my wife, you get money ?’
He laughs and says ‘I am a family man…’
‘Yeah man… So am I…’
More laughter from the rest of them…
I pull out two hundred Dalasi (taxis are five and ten, remember ?) and hold it up so they can all see it, then hand it to him.
‘Get home safely my friend…’
The moment he takes it he is surrounded by all the others, who are all telling him that since they have no money, they need their fares too…
Honestly, it’s like sharks around a bleeding surfer.
When Makumba comes over, he asks what we thought of the newer material, and I tell him that it sounds harder since the band slimmed down, a harder, rockier sound if we were we talking in western terms ?
He seems satisfied with the answer.
‘Now all we need is the money to record’
I ask him how much, and am amazed that it’s going to cost about the same as it would in the U.K.
That is going to be a serious stumbling block.
We say our goodbyes and look around for the little one, but Mariama has vanished with some of the band, and is helping them load up their vehicles around the back.
It has definitely been a pleasant intermission in our break, but it has also been a definite eye-opener for someone.
We walk around the back and wave our goodbyes to the drivers, then head back to the main road with Hadim.
He’s walking back to his place, and we’re taxiing back to Fagikunda.
Before we leave him I tell him to give us a couple of days and then pop into the compound if he’s passing, and I’ll have burned the photo’s we took onto disc, and he can share them around the band.
When we finally get a taxi, I asked Mariama if she enjoyed her time drumming, and I got her ‘serious’ face again, and a one word reply…
Says it all, really.
To be fair to her, I think it was probably a little overwhelming and Lord knows what thoughts are going through her head right now ?
I’m not sure I would have known what to say after something like that if I were eleven ?
Just let her calm down inside herself... Right now the adrenaline is probably still pumping and she needs time to re-adjust to the world. 
But the thing is, she has the talent.
Haddy was definitely surprised at how well she did.
That certainly took her by surprise.
I know she asks the older girls sometimes when they ‘phone each other, ‘How is Mariama doing’, and the answer is usually the same… ‘Drumming’, or ‘She has finished her homework and now she won’t stop drumming…’
But being told is very different from witnessing it yourself, especially when it’s your own daughter.

As soon as we get back to the compound, the lights go out…
It’s a power cut.
Bummer !
The only light outside is now from the lights of the taxis plying their trade up and down the road.
On the plus side, Hassanatou is back from her college course, and so the whole family is back together again.
I think I’m going to sit quietly at the back with a beer and think about what I've just seen while Hassa’ goes through her week…
Anything for a quiet life, that’s me.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Think This Through With Me...

The best thing to do is stay away from them but unfortunately we all now live in a political world and if you don’t take note of what is going on around you, then you find there are problems further along the line.
We’re not talking party political politics either, family politics cause just as many problems, if not more ?
Hassanatou is due back from her college trip tomorrow, and Hassanatou is not talking to Amadou, Ida’s husband and Omar’s Father.
She’s not just not talking to him, she’s blanking him totally.
The guy might just as well not be there for all the notice Hassa’ takes of him.
The problem has apparently been going on for a month.
So what caused the problem ?
That’s what caused the problem.

It arose one morning on the President’s clean up day, when everybody clears all the rubbish from in front of their compound and the municipal trucks come along to collect the bags of rubbish.
Hassanatou had showered and was still in her wrap-around towel and Sainabou was towelled-up and about to dive into the shower when the truck turned up.
Now with two complete sackfuls of household rubbish plus all the rest that had been swept up previously, there was quite a weight in the bags, and because both girls were not dressed for going outside, Hassanatou had asked Amadou to help them get the bags outside and lifted onto the truck.
Amadou’s answer was to tell Hassanatou that he didn’t do ‘women’s work’ and that they should carry the bag out themselves…
Now it’s one thing to say it…
But it’s quite another to act it !
Amadou wouldn’t lift a finger to help and so the two towel-clad girls had to manoeuvre two sacks of rubbish outside and between them lift the bags onto the truck, causing all manner of mirth and admiring looks from the truck gang and totally embarrassing the pair of them in the process.
If you don’t believe me, try lifting a sack of your own household rubbish above your head whilst dressed in only a towel ?
It isn’t that easy to do without an accident happening to the towel...
As far as Hassanatou was concerned it was the last straw, and so she blew her stack...
Lazy… Pays no rent… Pays nothing for our electric… Pays nothing for our water…Eats our food… Gets us to baby-sit his child and won’t even lift a finger to help in cleaning up or taking out his own family’s rubbish ?
That stops now.
And she did.
From that moment on, she refused point blank to have anything whatsoever to do with any of it, if it appertained to Amadou, Ida or Omar.
As far as Hassa’ was concerned, Ida was Amadou’s wife and she could do it all.
She was not going to lift a finger to help any of them.
She wasn’t prepared to cook food or share her food with them, neither was she prepared to let Ida use the family’s charcoal to cook with.
‘Amadou is your husband, let him work to provide you with the things you need, it is not for us to keep you fed’.
And we’ve just walked in on all of this ?
Great !
Sainabou and Husainatou are doing their best to try and keep the peace while  Hassanatou is not there, but it has been an uphill battle.
Amadou thinks ‘women’s work’ is beneath him and refuses to do any,
Ida needs somebody to keep an eye on Omar because he is into everything right now, plus, Omar’s nose had been put out of joint by Jalika coming into the family, and so he is behaving as all bullies do, by being as spiteful as he possibly can toward Jalika.
Jalika won’t take any form of bullying when it’s directed toward her and is apparently fighting back in her own sweet way, although to be fair, we hadn’t seen it occur since we’d arrived.
Mariama and her best friend Ida are both getting older, and neither of them particularly want to baby-sit Omar because they have their own things to do.
In Mariama’s case, she daren’t even get her drums out unless somebody else is playing with her, because otherwise Omar will attempt to muscle in and mess about with them.
And what’s more, she is right when she says that they are her ‘tools for her job’ and she does not want people to play about with them.
Until she decides not to be a drummer, then I think she is perfectly correct to have that attitude, but then, that’s me…
Gambian politics are not my thing unless they affect me directly.
I have enough problems with U.K. politics to want to get involved in another country’s politics… Even another country’s family politics...
The problem is, I am involved whether I like it or not ?
Problems, problems, problems…

So with all that in the background Haddy and I are heading off to Banjul to visit Uncle Pa, and then to see if Hadim is about in the market ?
We spend a pleasant hour with Pa in his office.
He has a larger one now, on the top floor of his compound, and thank the Lord for that.
The previous one suffered from a total lack of space.
I think it had previously been a walk in cupboard ?
This one is beginning to feel the same but at least he can get another chair in it, and, it has a window to let some light in.
That is a definite improvement.
Finding his mobile under the clutter on the desk, or the computer mouse without following the connecting wire is virtually impossible, but it’s definitely a major improvement on the last one.
Visit over, we go back downstairs and walk to the market.
Hadim has his own stall now in Banjul’s craft market.
His younger brother Badou has one also, and since they’ve both become friends and what shall I say ?
Colleagues and teachers, I think is the right way of putting it, in Mariama’s drum education ?
I’m always happy to see them.
The craft market in Banjul is around the far side so the easiest way is to literally follow the road around the left hand side from the entrance and then turn right when you see the wooden or cardboard signpost, or whatever they have up on the day ?
This is where the travel companies bring their tourists and coach parties.
You can haggle to your hearts content over the price of anything and sometimes you can get a serious bargain.
But… The political problems of the world’s banking system and the resulting recession has hit hard, and the tourists are not coming as they used to, and now everybody is scrabbling around for a little money.
Things are hard everywhere, but in a poor country things are hardest of all.
Hadim is not there.
Apparently he had a gig last night.
Ok, fair do’s, that’s understandable.
Badou is, and he greets us both with outstretched arms and a big hug, before telling us that we are welcome and that he hopes we brought along lots of friends and tourists with us so they could buy lots of gifts ?
Is it really that bad ?
Apparently it is.
Shit !
That ain’t good.
Those in the craft market are just about scraping a living.
I’d done thirteen and a bit years as a market trader in the U.K. and gone through one major recession so I’m a little bit clued up on what their problems are.
It’s pretty much like it is in the U.K. but unfortunately nobody believes that in The Gambia if you’re white.
To them you are just a ‘tourist’ and you have money to spend because you come from a rich country and can afford your flights and hotels etc…
Nobody believes that you can be in the exact same position as they are, if you’re white.
So they play the ‘screw the toubab’ game, and screw them for anything they can get.
It’s difficult not to feel insulted when they try it on, but I can at least understand why they persist in doing it.
It’s just difficult to live with, when it’s happening to you.

I left Haddy to talk to Badou while I went for drinks at the small café, and what do I get ?
‘Hey… You’re back… Do you recognise me ?’
It’s a big guy sitting at one of the tables…
Think, think, think…
‘Drum practice right here, right ?’
‘You remembered…’
I ask him how is it going with the band and he tells me it’s not so good ?
The band has slimmed down somewhat to an eight piece and they’ve had to let the singers and dancers go, but the eight piece is practising hard and has some new material that they want to record for their second album, when they have managed to save the money.
They are not quite ready yet, but they are practising every Friday at Jokor, the nightclub at Westfield, and would I like to come and watch ?
Oh yes…
For sure I would, and could I bring Haddy and Mariama, because she’d love to watch the guys playing ?
‘Ah… The little girl who wants to drum… Yes, please bring her, too…’
‘You’ve heard that she wants to be a drummer, then ?’
‘All the local drummers know that she wants to be a drummer…’
Well don’t that just figure ?
I tell him we’ll be there, but right now I must deliver the drinks or Haddy and Badou will be pools of grease if they don’t get something cool in them.
He laughed…
‘I am Macumba… I will see you tomorrow.’
‘It’s a date… See you there at about seven-ish’
Now I know why I like going to Banjul ?
Stuff just happens.

When we arrive back home we find that the guys have been round to fix the water pipe, so thankfully we can wash the dust off.

Cold water only, but any water is better than none at all.
Then we greet the constant stream of visitors to the compound…

Fatou had sent Sainabou some shoes from the U.K. and Sainabou was in absolute hysterics just looking at them.
They were ladies fashion type, and had a high heel that was at least six inches from tip to shoe.
The precarious balancing act required to walk in them without going over and breaking an ankle or two was keeping everybody in absolute stitches of laughter.

Awa, who had popped over for a visit on her day off, was going to be the bravest of the brave…
She was actually going to attempt to walk in them.
Everybody has their fingers crossed as she straightens up and takes a couple of faltering steps before wobbling, stopping, re-balancing and trying again…

Hmmm… Not sure they are suitable for even the fashion conscious younger members of the family, but what do I know ?
Haddy is off trying to sort out a meeting for one of her committees, so it looks like I’m the dj for the rest of the afternoon ?

That evening we tell Mariama about the invitation and ask her if she’d like to go ?
She just looks up at us with her ‘serious’ face and utters one word…
She certainly wasn’t expecting that, I know that much.
Still, It’ll be an eye-opener for her, watching the guys play.
We’ve probably ruined any form of concentration in lessons at school for tomorrow, but hey ?
She doesn’t get invites like that every day, so she might as well make the most of it.
It feels like it’s been a long day when we finally crawl into bed.

The guys turn up early to fill in the hole above the pipe, which is nice.
At least that means Gordon can go back to his normal wall and not have to keep a wary eye out for a marauding cat.
Gordon ?
Gordon is the house gekko, and he lives inside or outside the bathroom window depending on the weather or his mood.

He’s a godsend when the mosquitoes are out in force, so nobody attempts to harm him except Princess, but so far Princess hasn’t yet learned to climb a vertical wall…
Oh come on…
He’s a gekko for God’s sake, so what would you have named him ?
I think Oliver Stone would be quite pleased that his ‘creation’ lives and breathes in reality ?

We spend the morning with Haddy’s sister, who has come to visit.
In the afternoon we are visited by two of her Aunts.
I get the feeling that they are looking for handouts and presents above and beyond the shoes and material that Haddy has brought over ?
It’s strange…
There is no way that we can afford a monetary handout, it’s been hard enough to get the fare over here, but that ‘screw the toubab’ thing is always at the back of my mind.
Why is it that because you live and work in the U.K. you are supposed to be rolling in money ?
I don’t know and I don’t care.
What I do know is that we are finding it hard enough over there and I have a full time job.
Nobody who has inferred that we have loads of money is either maimed or sick, so why not find a job yourselves ?
I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s not impossible.
When we get back, we are going to have to up the amount we send to the kids just to keep the younger ones in school and everybody fed, which leaves nothing for anybody else…
It’s hard times on the planet, believe me ?