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 Compound Sounds - The Gambia

Select the musician whose biography you wish to read:

Jali Sherrifo Konteh - kora
Suntou Kouyate - balafon
Ismaela Marong - djembe


Here is an article that Vic Smith wrote which appeared, in a slightly abridged form, in fROOTS magazine :-

You only have to listen to a few notes of his music and you can hear that family sound in his playing. He is the half-brother of Dembo Konte, youngest son of Alhaji Bai Konte and a brilliant musician in his own right. At the age of 27 surely it should be easy for Jali Sherrifo Konteh to make a major impact. Well, not so, apparently; this masterly singer and kora player has no recording to his name and is currently unknown outside The Gambia. Life is not easy today for the young jali. Why this is you'll find out after a short biography.

Sherrifo was born in Brikama where he still lives. He is almost certainly the "young kora player - Brikama" pictured in Ian Anderson's 1987 article on Dembo (Folk Roots No. 46 page 29). Like a lot of members of griot families, he started to learn his music at a very young age. He took up the kora at the age of six and his father was his main teacher until his death when Sherrifo was twelve. His uncle Lamin Ngom also taught him. "I learned with the others; sometimes other members of the family will give you lessons and so you go on. Sometimes you learn for yourself. From the start I was playing the traditional music, traditional songs. After a while I started to compose my own songs. I am still trying to develop my music. When I do write a song, I do it in the traditional way to compose my songs."

Choices were made at a very young age and Sherrifo was only educated to junior school level. "My life was set out as that of a griot. My time had to be spent learning and practising my music. I can write my letters for myself and make all my own arrangements but I stopped my schooling in primary 6th." That meant five hours a day practice when school ended at 2pm. He seems wedded to his kora and played it throughout the interview, conducted in the sweltering afternoon heat of his small room in his compound.

His professional career started at a time when society in his country was undergoing changes. He played at the places a griot would always have played: naming ceremonies, marriage celebrations, parties for birthdays, for relatives and friends returning from abroad, for families at Tabaski (the Muslim feast of sacrifice and a wonderful time to be in The Gambia). "At that time we would go around the town to play for people, but there is not so much work for kora players now because the generations are changing. Some people, they like it, but some people, they don't. They want something different."

Tourism plays a leading part in the economy of The Gambia today and most of the work for musicians is in the tourist hotels. This takes a variety of forms. In a smaller hotel Sherrifo plays three times a week. In the early evening, he plays for Happy Hour (Happy? Ecstatic for these two listeners - unfortunately the only ones paying him any attention) and then he spends a couple of hours walking around the tables playing quietly whilst the diners' attention was on their food. Now, I know the Happy Hour sounds very Sad, but there seemed to be little compromise in his playing in this situation. Certainly, his music sounded in a much better context when he was playing under the wonderful shade of the huge mango tree in his compound, with the goats, chickens and children scrambling and scratching around his feet, but essentially he was giving it his all in both situations. With him trying to sound unobtrusive in the restaurant it seemed very wrong. I know we have all seen brilliant musicians in this country in musically compromising situations, trying to scrape a crust, but seeing this made me uncomfortable. "Well, some people listen to your music, some don't want to listen because they cannot understand the music you are playing. It's a great joy when you get people who will listen to traditional music and appreciate it."

His other regular gig was with his eight-piece band, Roots Manding, playing weekly in one of the larger hotels, though this band no longer exists. Most of them lived in Bakau, near the hotels whilst Sherrifo prefers to travel in each day. Having visited several crowded compounds in Bakau and Serrekunda, it is not difficult to see why a musician would prefer the relative spaciousness and quiet of compounds in more rural Brikama. "We just played African instruments, unlike most of the hotel bands, kora, konting, flute, tam-tam, bass drum and there's two girl dancers." He enjoys both band and solo work, but prefers to be able to play on his own. He also gives some kora lessons, but has no Western students, which would be more lucrative.

Sherrifo was quite open about how much (or in fact how little) he earned in the hotels. If he totals up how much he earns from all his regular hotel work in a month, it came to less than the standard sort of fee we pay at our folk club here each week. And that's when he can get the work, for the main tourist season only lasts about half the year, from November until April. After that he has to rely on the established griot work at weddings etc. There is no set fee for these engagements, just a collection for the musician, which is usually in the range of 20 to 50 dalasis (about £2.50).

This was just one of the many reminders we had in many conversations with the wonderful people of Gambia of the grinding poverty in which they live out their lives. Possibilities for self-development are severely restricted. Then there is the seemingly endemic corruption. "It is a very difficult life for a Mandinka musician in The Gambia. We have no studio, we get no promotion, we just play for ourselves. The little we have, the little we survive. The chance to play is very difficult to earn money for survival." "It is not easy at the moment to get your music heard in The Gambia. Before, when my father went to play at the radio station, he was paid; he was collected from his home and brought back. He played his music for the nation. But right now, you have to get there yourself and you have to pay money if you want them to play your music every time. You have to bribe them for your music to be on the air. That we cannot avoid." He has been heard on the radio, been on the infant television station but for very little or no reward. In the context of the wider bribery and financial scandals currently making headlines in Gambia and elsewhere in West Africa, this may seem pretty small scale, but at the moment all this is effectively stifling a very considerable talent.

There have been other experiences that would have dampened the enthusiasm of all but the most determined. Four years ago, he was in the Kangbeng Band. They seemed to be making an impact. There's no dedicated music recording studio but the band managed to record enough for a CD in a Gambian radio studio. He has heard tracks from this on the radio but has not seen a penny in session fees or royalties - or even a copy of the album. The same band had a great break in May 1997 when they were asked to play the opening concert of the "Roots Homecoming" festival. A brilliant concept, this event is aimed at American and European Africans offering them a sort of cultural reprise. Try just being in the full sun there for three hours from 11am, never mind playing and singing for that time. The fee for this concert? Well, you've guessed it. Sherrifo never saw a penny of it. He left the band over this and they broke up. Well, how could they survive without their lead instrumentalist and singer, their songwriter and musical arranger?

 Jali Sherrifo Konteh  On the pink walls of his room, next to a poster of his father he has written the words, "Downfall of man is not the end of his life." There have been many times when he has needed to believe that message.

Sherrifo is the main breadwinner in his compound of twelve people. Then there are two half-brothers living in an uncle's compound - his mother remarried after Bai's death. He is trying to support them through high school. We met his mother, who is now blind, and he is trying to save for a cataract operation for her. Most unmarried musicians in their twenties, trying to build their careers, have only to think of themselves. In our long conversations, he sometimes seemed weighed down by all of the responsibilities he has taken on, but his sparky resilience, his enthusiasm, his natural joy meant that this soon passed and his jokey lively company was a great pleasure.

This range of emotion also came through in his kora playing and singing which at times can be dark and sombre, at others sparkling with delight and elation. He showed endless patience with our basic enquiries about the structure of his music and his instruments. He demonstrated that there are four different tunings of the kora, Silaba, Tomora, Hardino and Sowta, the last-named being the most compatible for playing with keyboards and other western instruments.

He carefully outlined the processes and stages of kora-making. Jalis are expected to construct their instruments and Sherrifo thinks he has made around ten so far. Each would take around two weeks to make. "You can only make it during the dry season because of the sun and the water. The box is a sawed calabash with sound holes cut into it. The neck and hand posts are a hard wood, usually mahogany and the skin is from a cow." Sherrifo's had two thicknesses of cow skin cut and attached at different places with a pattern in the attaching pins denoting the name or individual pattern of the maker or player. A strong metal ring makes the tailpiece and there is a ridged bridge for the 21 strings. Plaited cow skin attaches the strings to the neck and these are adjusted up and down for the tuning. At one time the strings would also have been made from very thinly cut cow skin but this has now been replaced by three different thicknesses of nylon fishing line. "My father was known as the best kora maker in The Gambia and I learned making as well as playing from him. Now there are many kora makers, making it as a business and selling it to the tourists, but if you want a kora that could be played professionally, you must go to a griot family."

He also took us to a number of places, travelling in "tanka-tankas", the overcrowded dilapidated minibuses and taxis that ply the roads between the main settlements, hooting for potential passengers. Surprise still registers on the face of the locals when they see "twobabs" travelling in this style.

 Suntou teaching  We visited the Swedish-sponsored music school near Serrekunda. It wasn't actually a good day to have called. Three people, including the local imam from that village, had died three days before in a horrendous car crash on their way to a naming ceremony and as a result many of the music pupils from these compounds were not at school. We did get the chance to meet and hear the superb balafon playing of Suntou Kuyatah, another Brikama man, who teaches the making and playing of balafon at the school. In the past Sherrifo had learned his balafon playing from Suntou as well as playing with him in the first band he had been in, the Babylon Band. Sherrifo also plays the djembe, keyboard and box guitar but the kora is his undying passion.

I thought it would give a perception into his music to ask him about other musicians, so I asked him to name his three favourite kora players and then the three greatest influences on West African music. He seemed to enjoy the question and smiled as he took his time to consider his answer carefully. The kora players were Toumani Diabete, Foday Musa Suso and his brother Dembo. The other three were Baaba Maal, Kasse Mady Diabate and Salif Keita.

The jali rightly showed great pride in his heritage. His great-grandfather was Jali Ndaba Konteh who played the 3-string konting and who brought his family to Brikama from the Kankaba region of Mali. His grandfather was Jali Ebrima Konteh. He became a kora player and taught his famous son Jali Alhaji Bai Konteh who in turn taught his four sons, Mamadou, Dembo, Bakiba and Sherrifo. The respect for the griot tradition extends beyond his own family. Walking with him through Brikama one day, we came on an old couple sitting outside their compound. He let it be known that he was very pleased to see them, spent time with them and introduced us to them. This was Amadou Samba, a narrator jali and his wife Yafatou who had been a noted singer in her day.

What did this articulate, polite, friendly, kind and hugely talented man want from life now? "I want to record. I feel ready. I want to develop my music. I would love to play in Europe. That is my aim and my passion; to follow my father and my brother." If this article can begin that process then it will have served its purpose.

Vic Smith

May 2001

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