Tuesday, 19 March 2013


And then we attempt to film the band…
I’d enlisted Kawsu’s help in having a word with the local community centre

just outside the main mosque

because they have the space, and he’d managed to negotiate a reduced rate because we weren’t putting on a concert for a fee paying audience, and, because all the members of the band know exactly where it is.
I would have liked to do it in a ‘live’ situation, but at least there we have the space and can get on and do it without any major interruptions.
Of course the first thing that happens as soon as the drums are heard is that we are assailed by the local kids who all want to come in and watch, but since we’ve promised that there is no audience they are all locked out behind fifteen foot walls.
This doesn’t stop them however, and soon we have a bunch of them balanced precariously atop the wall, boys and girls alike.
So it’s Haddy doing the filming and me doing the recording.

Mariama and Jalika have been allowed to come in and watch but not participate, because it’s quite possible that we’ll need ‘runners’ to go to the shops for anything that needs replacing if the local shopkeepers have it.
I think we’ve thought of every possibility but you never know ?
After an hour of fidgety waiting we are still awaiting Jally, the vocalist and kora player, and it’s beginning to annoy…
Even though this has been arranged for nearly a week it becomes obvious that he’s not going to turn up, probably because he’s taken on a fee paying gig somewhere else ?
It also transpires that the guys have come straight from work and are quite literally starving, so Mariama and Jalika are despatched back to the house for food and to get a ‘Tapalapa’ (That’s a bread roll) for each of them also.
Half an hour later and the guys are wolfing down probably their only meal of the day so far, but it does the trick and they soon set to work in their respective drum capacities.


Because Jally is not there they have no vocalist and no microphone, but we’re going to try and get what we can.
With the availability of instant stardom on the internet via Facebook, YouTube and all the rest, these guys deserve their chance.
Reason being that they happen to be one shit-hot band.

They’d released one album so far with help from a grant from a small firm in London, but they had slimmed down the band and were now tighter and harder rocking if you can apply that sort of term to a traditional Mandinka drum band ?
With the current visa restrictions being enforced in Europe, there is no way we could get them over to play in the present circumstances.
To be able to do that they need a registered European agent and that they just do not have.
If I had the money I’d do it for them myself, but I don’t.
Still, we’ll do what we can.

We’d borrowed the film equipment from Marcus and Sarah at Big Ideas Productions back in the U.K.
It was pretty basic but functional and Haddy had been given a fifteen minute lesson in its use.
She’d been playing with it around the compound and at Sainabou’s hen party for nearly a week and was as ready for this as she’d ever be, so let’s get to it.
The highlight of the whole thing was Hadim going into the big finish rock vocals on one number.

It was quite jaw-dropping to those who don’t see him that often because it was pure theatre (Think Plant’y out of Led Zep’) but apparently he does it occasionally at live events, too.
It’s an obvious ‘crowd pleaser’ so why not ?

We get about forty five minutes of footage on camera and although I’m dubious about the sound levels on the mini-disk we get that also.
As we begin to pack away, the guys are very apologetic about Jally’s no-show but I do understand.
I may not like, but I do understand.
A working musician in a poor country needs to work and so he cut the practice session to earn money.
Ok, it’s a pain in the arse, but what do you do ?
Anybody in his situation as a working musician would probably have done the same so let’s not have any hypocrisy here.
This is not ‘The West’, this is one of the poorer nations in Africa.
Macumba says he’ll sort out another one for later because they need Jally, and Haddy tells him to please make it the last week, because wedding arrangements are beginning to intrude on anything else that we’re doing.
Ok guys, we’ve got what we can…
Ring-tones ?
Someone’s ‘phone needs answering.
It’s Hadim’s… And it’s his family…
His Father has just died.
Right, let’s get packed up and back and Hadim to where he needs to be right now.
Everything else can wait.
Don’t worry, we’ll be in touch.

The compound seems to have filled up with people since we’d been out.
It’s getting difficult to move around in, let alone speak to anybody because all the visitors are talking to each other at some serious volume.
It seems strange to anybody brought up in The West when normal conversations are shouted because a certain harshness occurs to the words but over in West Africa it’s quite natural.
It does take a bit of getting used to.
I’m not sure I’ll ever really get used to it ?

The following day I finally get the two little ones on their own.
Right, come on kids, let’s see what Uncle Chris has brought with him to play with, shall we ?
I’ve dragged Mariama and Jalika into the bedroom to get away from the hubbub and locked the door.
Hopefully if they’re not seen then nobody will interrupt us…
Headphones, mini-disk recorders, microphones, a huge tangle of spaghetti’d leads and a four-track tape recorder.
Slowly unravelling the leads and plugging everything in, I make a first attempt to show them what each piece does.
Jalika is amazed at the four-track when I record her four times and play it all back as one, but she’s only nine years old and she’s not really been exposed to the madness of musicians and recording.
Mariama, nearly four years older, is quite blasé about everything.
It’s a good act, but it doesn’t really come over.
She’s as much in the dark as Jalika, but she’ll learn.

Ok, kids… Now you know what we’ve got.
Your first lesson in how to work this stuff is tomorrow so make sure you can give yourselves an hour or two… And don’t tell your friends about it… Yet.
That comes a bit later.
Make sure all the jobs you need to do are done and the time is yours, we don’t want or need any interruptions, ok ?
Nodding of two very interested and very serious little heads.
Ok, now you can do what you like, and remember… It’s our secret for now.
The cloak and dagger stuff is going to have to last a little longer.
If it doesn’t, then at some point they’ll have the lot stolen by some opportunist and I don’t intend for that to happen.
There is precious little of this stuff in the country outside professional studios of which the nearest  is the one at Westfield, and once Mariama has a working knowledge of how the things work then as far as recording locally is concerned, she’ll be one up on everybody else because she can try things out in her own time and play things back to compare them without having to pay for every session just as we all do over here, and bearing in mind that recording costs in The Gambia are pretty much the same as they are in the UK, that’s pretty expensive bearing in mind what people earn here.
But unfortunately things go missing on a regular basis out here.
Half the kid’s Harry Potter dvd’s have vanished from the house, and it’s annoying to say the least.
They’ve probably been lent to a friend who hasn’t returned them, but either way, they’ve vanished and it’s doubtful that we’ll ever see them again ?

It’s all go in the compound from the time we wake up until the middle of the afternoon, but finally Jalika gets hold of me and tells me that she is ready.
Ok, I’ll lock you in the bedroom from the outside, just wait quietly, pleeeease… Until I can get Mariama.
Ok ?

See, it’s that easy ?
Half an hour later I’m hovering and Mariama knows it, but finally I get a chance to tell her that we’ll be in Mum’s bedroom, just get away when you can but don’t make it too obvious…
She smiles.
Good.  She knows…

Half an hour later there’s a quiet knock on the door and she’s in.
‘Hey… What are you doing ?’  To her sister, who is sitting tapping rhythms out on her drums.
‘Quiet…   Let’s make sure you haven’t been missed first…’
In the half-hour before she’d managed to extricate herself from fittings, hairstyling tryouts and general cleaning jobs, Jalika and I had got everything out including Mariama’s drums,  plugged things in, and just started having a mess around to try and get a suitable recording level.

This was easier said than done because we were having to cope with the full-tilt conversational choruses from outside the window (no glass, just mosquito grille and curtains) and without getting Jalika to go full out, which would only draw attention to what we were doing, and that we definitely didn’t need.
‘Ok, let’s just sit calmly for a minute and talk through what we’re going to do…
I’m going to record you straight, without using the four-track and so the microphone will be hanging here… (Indicates mic’ hanging from ceiling joist)  I don’t want either of you to be closer to it than this (Indicates space on floor) What you do is let the microphone do all the work and not your voice. In other words you don’t need to sing loudly to be recorded, the microphone WILL pick it up.  
Ok so far, do you both understand what I’ve just said ?

Bang, bang, bang on the bedroom door…
Damn !   Who’s that ?
Frantic shushing noises towards two giggling girls and we hear little Omar’s voice calling for Jalika…
Finger to lips, shush…
The door is locked and we’re quiet.  
The last thing we need is Omar getting wind of what we’re doing because he’ll blab it everywhere.
That child has no discipline whatsoever, and his Mother, Ida, indulges him totally.
I indicate five minutes on the wall clock and we sit in total silence.
Omar leaves the other side of the door in approximately two minutes.  We know that because we can hear him.
At which point Mariama loses it totally and has to bury her head in the quilt to stop herself laughing…
It is funny I suppose, and anyone reading this must think we’re mad, but please try it before you make judgement.
‘Ok girls, as soon as we can hear Omar screaming at one of the other children outside then we’re ready, so go round the corner into the bathroom and in whispers, please have a think about what you’ll be singing and how you’re going to play on it.  That is, if you’re going to put the drums and things on ?   We’ll be recording it in one take.  This means that when you stop, then you tell me and I’ll turn it off, but I won’t turn off until you tell me.  If you make a mistake then don’t worry, just carry on. If it’s a really bad mistake then I’ll stop you and we’ll start again, Ok ?’
Nod’s of heads.
‘Ok kids, go and get sorted…’
It took them about two minutes of shushing and quiet arguments with some definite brow-beating of Jalika by Mariama before they came back.
‘Ready ?’
‘Ok, let’s get it on…’

Mariama seats herself on the chair with one of the djembes and moves the chair slowly towards the hanging microphone which I now lower by about twelve inches.
Jalika hangs the calabash shakers around her neck before moving forward toward the mic’ which I then drop another six inches.
Looking at them you’d think they’d done this before, but there’s a nervousness to their actions.
They’re quite deliberate in what they are doing but you can see the strain.
They want to do well and they don’t want to screw up.
It wouldn’t matter if they did, but how do you tell children that and get them to believe you ?
Practice makes perfect anyway, and this is just a first practice.
Trouble is, they are taking it as the real thing.
Oh well…
‘Right… You’re on…’
They start… Very hesitantly… And Mariama immediately stops herself.
‘Ok, no worries… Start again…’
They do, but it is plainly apparent that nerves have got them.
‘Ok, let’s stop for a minute and talk this through…  You’re nervous.  Don’t worry, we can always stop and go back and start again, now let’s all just be quiet for a minute and calm down and when you are ready we can all start again…’
‘Uncle Chris, we can’t start until you turn it on’ says Mariama.
‘I didn’t turn it off… It’s ready to go whenever you are ?’ 
Mariama turns to Jalika, says something in Wolof, and the pair of them just look at the microphone hanging in front of them and start singing together.
They are all over the place harmonically for about fifteen seconds but it suddenly coalesces into something approaching harmony.

Mariama suddenly remembers the drum and as soon as she starts tapping out a basic rhythm to what she is singing, Jalika starts the percussion going on the calabash.
I am, quite frankly, amazed.
I have always told Mariama to sing with her own voice and not mimic the vocals of the singer she’s listened to.
Just for once, she’s doing it.
Jalika, on the other hand, has a high keening sound and her vocal compliments her sister’s.

The only way of describing it, to those who follow music to any extent, is to imagine a Linda Ronstadt type voice with an Emmylou Harris voice floating over the top. 
Bearing in mind they are both young children and neither voice is yet fully formed, they have that sort of blend.
About three minutes after they’d started they were finished and I turned off the recorder.
‘Ok… Now let’s see what you sound like ?’
And I played it back…
Mariama immediately starts laughing and belittling their efforts while Jalika is silent, concentrating on listening.
‘Don’t laugh, Sibo… Everybody has a first time and this was yours…  You probably think it sounds horrible, but it doesn’t.    To tell you the truth, I’m pleased with it because the pair of you actually sang together…  It wasn’t what I expected and I honestly thought you’d mess it up, but you didn’t.  You started and you finished.  Ok, you forgot the drums at the beginning, but that was because you were nervous.  You might think that it sounds horrible, but it doesn’t.  It sounds like two girls trying to sing together… And what are you if not two girls trying to sing together ?   Well done, both of you.’
Suddenly I can’t move because Jalika is giving me a big hug and I realise somebody is banging on the door…
‘Sibo… Are you in there ?’
It’s Hassanatou, so I unlock the door.
Apparently Mariama is wanted by her Mum.
‘Ok kids, we’ll come back to it at some other time… I’m going to put everything away now out of harm’s way.’
I’m grinning inside as I do.
They don’t realise what they’ve done ?
They’ve actually recorded their own song, admittedly very raggedly, but they really did it.
And… when Mariama is singing in her own voice, Jalika seems to instinctively sing over her.
This isn’t them messing about, this is them actually getting it right first time, and I’m still shaking my head in amazement.
They’ve been with me for just under forty five minutes.

The thing I find really refreshing about my African family is their affinity towards music.
Since I’d married their Mother they had been exposed to so much more music that just doesn’t pass the Gambian radar.
The nearest thing on Gambian radio is a morning show that sounds very much like a Radio Two show (Any English readers would know what that means)
It’s a ‘Pop’ music show.  Nothing too contentious.
You might hear The Beatles, you might hear The Rolling Stones, but you’ll be listening to Lady Madonna and not Strawberry Fields Forever, or Angie but definitely not Midnight Rambler.
It’s pleasant, and it makes a change from Rap, Hip-Hop and Reggae which the youth have taken to out here in a big way.
Of course they have their own West African ‘stars’ too.
People like Youssou N’Dour and Toumani Diabate and their own Jalex AKA Akuntu.
Now the kids in our compound are listening (and dancing like demented dervishes) to bands like Fairport Convention, listening to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, The Grateful Dead and all of these artists and a lot more besides have become part of compound life.
They don’t get all the hype that follows artists like that, so they just get to hear the songs without any of the superfluous media crap that follows them around.
And it’s so refreshing.
Amadou started off blagging as much rap and Hip-Hop from me as he could, now he's asking for any Jackson Browne's that he hasn't got.
Haddy's fave's, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, are on heavy rotation on the cd player and the little drummer girls are already hitting the Grateful Dead's version of 'Iko Iko' and wondering if they can mix it into 'Man Smart, Woman Smarter' because they like the words ?
They should be able to without any help from me.

They still like what is currently termed R&B, although to us older members of the family it’s more like soft sappy homogenised brainrot in that Etta James and Aretha Franklin it definitely ain’t, but there’s now more variety.
They are discovering more.
When I came here to do a couple of gigs about three years ago, the younger kids had practiced their own version of Bruce Springsteen’s version of  ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (Which you can find on ‘The Seeger Sessions’ cd)
They had no instruments, so the vocals chimed in for the instrumental  bits.
Why ?
Because there was something in the rhythm and the words that attracted them, and we had a ten piece kiddies choir belting out their own arrangement at the top of their voices.
Strange ?
Yes, when you consider it’s a Christian revivalist song and the kids are all Muslim.
But they liked it, so what the hell ?
I asked Mariama once, what it was about that particular song ?
She said, using words I know she's got directly from me because I have definitely been known to use them,
'A good song is a good song', and that was it.
The older ones had gone for Fairport Convention’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Percy’s Song’ from ‘Unhalfbricking’ because they liked the story and the chorus.
They'd been harmonising with me, Joy T, Jally, Hadim and Sainey.
Now, they’ll listen to anything and make up their own minds.
To be fair they are still not convinced by Nirvana or Ac/Dc or any of what we in the West would class as ‘heavier rock’ but they’ll give it a chance and music is a personal taste thing.
Not everybody likes the same sort of thing.
Once, when outside the compound on the street, I’d watched a bunch of little girls skipping, passing the rope back and forth between them and singing away quite happily in their own language.
So imagine the shock to my system when they went into ‘The Cuckoo is a pretty bird and ‘wobbles’ when she flies…’
Seriously, I was shocked.
That song comes from way back in the history books and these kids couldn’t be more than six or seven ?
The fact that it’s still being sung by folk musicians on two continents is testament to its power and now it’s being sung as a skip-rope song by West African children ?
My friends in The Ballachulish Hellhounds, a three piece from Glasgow in Scotland, had just recorded it for their album ‘Songs from the Great Atlantic Ocean’
Here's a link to their own site

There really are some strange things going on in this world.
That whole ‘Old Weird America’ as critic Greil Marcus put it when writing about the Harry Smith American Folk Anthology is even bigger than he thought.
Where would these kids have got that from ?
To be fair and I’m guessing, there probably weren’t more than ten people in the population of one million eight hundred thousand in The Gambia that would know that song and most of them would be from the West.
Odd ?
Damn right it is, but there it was and sung by children too.
So on this trip I’d raided the archives and along with the new Fatoumata Diawara cd


which has to be the best female vocal album of the last six months, put together about sixty songs on three compilation cd’s ranging from The Ramones through The Beach Boys to Dylan and Jamiroquai to give to Mariama.
Most, if not all, could be adapted from their rock, folk, country or funk arrangements to a choral thing.
What was it about some songs that the little drum monster liked ?
I knew she liked songs that have a story or something to say about things but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the result.
When I gave them to her I just said something along the lines of ‘Here you go, have a listen to some of these and let me know what you like and I’ll make up a cd for you…’
The next day she was back.
She liked them all, but she liked some more than others.
‘Ok, well you make a list and tell me which ones you like best and I’ll do those…’
Famous last words.
It’s a funny thing… Sometimes you know when you’ve made a glaring error in perception and when the list came back I knew at once that there were going to be problems.
Big problems.
The songs she’d picked were mostly by recognisable names.
Dylan, Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Sweet Honey in the Rock, The Byrds, Youssou N’Dour, even Little Feat made the cut, but… It was the content that shocked.
At least 80% that she’d picked were hard and heavily critical protest songs, even going for a couple by people I actually knew like Tom Pacheco who lives in Woodstock, New York, and who I’d put on in concert a lot back in the 1990’s, and Robb Johnson, a British singer songwriter out of the old protest tradition.
Bloody Hell !!!
And that doesn’t even come close…
That girl certainly knows how to shock.
‘Ok, so what’s your favourite ?’
‘This one…’

It was Labi Siffre’s ‘(Something Inside) So Strong’.
‘And your second favourite ?’
Oh Sweet Jesus !!!

Jackson Browne’s version of Little Steven’s ‘I Am a Patriot’.
‘Are you sure about this ?’
‘Yes… I want to learn these…’
It turns out there’s a political activist in the family… and she’s twelve years old.          
Be afraid… Be very, very afraid…

She’d gone for one indigenous track.
Youssou N’Dour’s version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’.
It had been on heavy rotation on local radio when it had been released (It’s on Youssou’s‘ ‘Wommat’ cd) and even the twins had grinned when they heard it.
‘Youssou…’ They said, and smiled.
Now I like that track a lot.


It’s the West African equivalent of Jimi Hendrix doing ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
It’s hard enough to do a Dylan ‘cover’ anyway, and to actually make it your own as Hendrix had done previously with ‘Watchtower’ was hard enough, but Youssou had done exactly that with ‘Chimes’.
He’d taken the song and made it his own.
This was no crappy cover version where someone sings words because they think people might recognise it or like it that you can hear in clubs every day of the week.
This was a major re-working of a sadly neglected track, and, it was sung in Wolof, and, it was known over most of West Africa.
Youssou had first recorded it and sung it on the Amnesty International tour in the company of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Tracy Chapman and they had all shared the verses.
A few years after the tour he’d recorded it with his own band and he’d recorded an absolute stonking version of a song that even Ol’ Bob never sang too much in concert.
She’d had a choice with the Little Feat track I’d stuck on, ‘Voices on The Wind’.

There’s a great version by The Soweto Gospel Choir which shows up the choral possibilities, but she preferred the arrangement on the original rock version.
Ok, fair enough.
If that’s what she wants to listen to and learn then who am I to say no ?
But in the culture she lives within, you can’t help but think that she’s courting problems.
I knew she quite liked Bruce Springsteen because she was always sticking the ‘Live in Dublin’ dvd on.
Actually the whole family seemed to like that one.
Oh well, go with the flow and see what occurs ?
'So why pick those tracks, Mariama ?'
'A good song is a good song'
I wouldn't have minded but I swear the little minx winked.

Mariama's stated ambition, which in the years I’ve known her has never deviated one iota, was to become ‘The Best Mandinka Drummer in Africa’
Her first drum had been made for her by ‘Slice’, the village drum maker, and also the first person to spot her affinity to the drum.

Mariama with her kit, one year previously.
He’d known about that at least two years before she’d admitted it to me, but he’d kept it to himself because the drum is a ‘Male’ thing.
Girls become singers and dancers maybe, but not drummers.
That is for men.
So ‘Slice’ had watched her around the drums of himself and his friends and he’d laughed inside himself and kept his own council.
He knew.
And he knew it was a good thing.
Times were changing, and if the traditions the musicians held dear were to go forward with the times then things must change.

Mariama (right) practicing with the Afro Manding guys.

Maybe this little girl would change them ?
He didn’t know, but he did know that of all the children in the village she was the one that held that deep respect for the instrument that all natural drummers have.

A year ago I'd brought over three copies of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's book 'Planet Drum'

which is probably the only current book about where the drum came from and where it fits in different societies around the world.
It should be made compulsory for every drummer to read it.
Hadim and Slice had been given one each and Mariama the third.
It is now very well thumbed and never leaves her bedside table and instead of having parts read to her, she tries her hardest to read it herself.
A drum was not a toy to Mariama.
It was life.
And this is my stepdaughter ?
Problems, problems, problems…
Now she was flexing her muscles, branching out, feeling out the ‘roadblocks’ which we all go through at that age.
It happened to me and a pound to a penny it happened with you, too ?
We all go through it.
It’s life.
All her Mother and I can do is to help guide her through the pitfalls by giving her advice and pointing out any problems that might come up.
At the end, the choices will always be hers.

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