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.

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