MUSIC OF THE GAMBIA

JUFFUREH BAND
ABARAKA BAKE (Chicken Attack Records)

The further disembodiment of music with digital files released (where? into the web, the net, the aether?) with no packaging or actual info often leads to perplexity for reviewers. There is a cover image of an African guy with a guitar; we put it on and hear zippy guitars and drumming that might be East African, vocals on echo, an electronic keyboard that could be from Cameroun. So I am stumped. Tanzania? Angola? I like it and am starting to focus on Kenya or environs though I don't recognize the language. Wait, Gabon? since it sounds a bit like Ngoss Brothers. Is this a keyboard or a baritone sax? Track two has a distinct sax but the beat is reggae so that doesn't pinpoint their home. Two more tracks, very good music but impossible to locate. Then two added tracks called "B-sides live" which suddenly are mbalax, pure and simple, so now my focus is shifted to West Africa and in desperation I do some googling to discover they are from Gambia. They were formed 30 years ago but due to usual struggles (penury, migration), they have only one previous recording. This is essentially an EP of 4 songs plus two added live tracks. It is really fine.


GUELEWAR
HSLLELI N'DAKAROU ( Teranga Beat PTB CD014)

Guelewar, from Banjul in The Gambia, is one of those legendary West African bands that people may have heard of, or heard one or two tracks from thanks to the internet. Now for the first time, here is a whole CD dedicated to this wonderful music. Guelewar was the experimental rock band of their era, using the mini Moog synthesizer to add psychedelic washes of spacey effects to their organ and guitar sound. This CD presents a live show, captured at the Senegalese Canari de Koalack club in 1982. Periodically the synth and guitars drop out and they take it down to a rock-solid hand percussion groove. Then the other instruments lurch back in behind the singer and the heat builds. With Ifang Bondi, Guelewar was part of the Afro-Manding revival of the late 70s that revitalized traditional Sene-Gambian music (both bands came from Gambia) but were a hit in Senegal also. The fine guitar and bass are courtesy of two brothers: Moussa Mbodji Njie on guitar and Njok Malick Mike Njie who plays his bass like a lead guitar. There are four more brothers in the line-up: Moussa Ngom the lead singer later joined Super Diamono, and Laaye Ngom is effective on keyboards, while Koto Sunu Ngom on sabar and Alive Badara Ngom are two of the three percussionists. There are also a pair of saxophonists: Bas Lo Biram on alto and Laaye Sallah on tenor. One of the defining bands of West African pop from the 70s, in a hot performance, not to be missed.


DAWDA JOBARTEH
NORTHERN LIGHT GAMBIAN NIGHT (Stern's STCD112)

The Gambia is one of African's smallest countries, surviving on peanut exports and tourist imports. Witchcraft and drug trafficking are rife. It is ruled by an iron-fisted leader who was recently re-elected in dubious polls. The traditional music is similar to that of Senegal, which surrounds it, and also of other Manding countries like Mali. Despite (or because of) the dictatorial nature of the government it seems like a stable place and has a rich tradition of music passed down from generation to generation by its griots. Dawda Jobareteh is the grandson of one of the greatest recorded kora players, Alhaji Bai Konte. His father and uncle are also famous kora players, but Dawda started off playing calabash at the feet of his famous uncle Dembo Konte before becoming an expatriot. This is a mellow album, more jazz than folk, then what sounds like a raucous electric guitar revs up in "Dinding Do" and really takes you by surprise, without seeming out of place. It's in fact an effect pedal that turns the kora into a lethal weapon of heavy metal. Indian musicians on flute and mridangam blend in unobtrusively on "Nkankele." The bass, played by Nana Osibio from Ghana, Preben Carlsen's electric guitar, and even sax that pop up all add colour to the flow of the music and make it a really enjoyable trip. Backing vocalists are two ladies from Mali that formerly toured with Salif Keita. This is so accomplished you would not suspect it is Dawda's debut album.


JALI BAKARY KONTEH
KONTEH KUNDA (Akwaaba Music AKW016)

Jali Bakary Konteh, as his name implies, is a musician. He plays the kora which, with the rise of Malian music & the Grammy success of Toumani Diabaté etc, is becoming a well-known sound in the West. There are some videos of him in action on YouTube to give you a sense of his style. He comes from a long line of Gambian kora players and both his father and grandfather recorded and helped popularize the sound. His grandfather, Alhaji Bai Konte, one of the greatest exponents of the instrument, recorded Kora melodies from the Gambia (which Rounder released in 1973 -- and recently reissued on CD). His father, Dembo Konte, added more strings to the 21-string instrument and recorded widely, including a trio with Mawdo Suso (balafon) & Kausu Kuyateh (also on kora) called Jaliology (Xenophile) that was a hit in 1995. On his debut album, J. B. feels right at home with trap drums and slide guitar backing him. Hell there's even reggae drums and echo on an otherwise very traditional sounding "Jaraby"-- all credit to the fine production by Steve Pile (who overdubbed the Western instruments himself). There's also Afrobeat horns and flute on "Combination" the single from the album which is getting airplay, even back in Gambia, which pleases Konteh because not only his father and grandfather, but even his cousins have albums out. All that aside, a fair amount of the album is devoted to just the kora and it is a joyous sound, pure and simple. Several of the traditional tunes have been recorded by both his forebears. Recorded live in Konteh's compound (the album title means House of Konteh), you hear night insect sounds with their own natural percussive insistence as the heat rises from J.B.'s fingers.


SUPER EAGLES
SENEGAMBIAN SENSATION (Retro 17CD)

SUPER EAGLES: SENEGAMBIAN SENSATION is the latest in the fine line from RetroAfric and documents the late sixties/early seventies sound that rocked West Africa. Super Eagles came from The Gambia and hybridized everything they heard: pop, soul, Afrocuban, bluebeat, Congolese Rumba, and Highlife, blending into their ndagga rhythm that laid the foundation for mbalax, the up-tempo Senegalese pop sound made famous by Youssou Ndour in the '80s. Because of the varied influences, this compilation sounds like a dreamy mix of great African pop of thirty years ago: you might think you are listening to African Brothers on one song and Grand Kalle on the next. "Dauda Sarge" is on a par with the dreamiest of Baobab ballads. There's also singer Touray who does credible Otis Redding style vocals (though he veers a bit toward Joe Cocker). There's an oddity called "Love's a real thing" that attempts to blend Beatles and Cream guitar riffs and reminds me of garage bands I was in as a teenager (my close brush with musical fame was auditioning to replace my school chum Mark Knopfler as keyboard player in one of them, called Ides of Mad). There's also a version of "Hey Jude" that could have been forgotten but it's not as bad as Rochereau's "Let It Be." Even the Super Eagles themselves were bothered about being a cover band of such white material for, at the height of their popularity in 1972, they disbanded and reformed as the roots band Ifang Bondi. The tracks where they imitate African Jazz are great, they manage the squeaky sax of Essous and even a credible Dr Nico-style guitar, but from the point of view of the story of Senegambian music, the album is worth hearing for tracks like "Aliou Gori-mani" where they are sowing the seeds of the Etoile de Dakar sound.


IFANG BONDI
GIS GIS (World Roots Collection 8 MWCD3019)

Ifang Bondi come from the Gambia, their name means "Be yourself"! This album celebrates their 25th anniversary. It's not new, or promoted or talked about, but I find myself playing it a lot. The tunes are memorable. The set is varied and the singing and playing highly engaging. Their culture encompasses Fula, Wolof and other West African castes, and their musical diversity is rich in these many styles. They have one-string violin, tama drums playing mbalax rhythms, 5-string Xalam guitars, balafon, kora, as well as electric guitars. Their sound is purer than the Western-pop-influenced mbalax of Senegal. However there is a Western-sounding saxophonist on here. Nevertheless the whole album reminds me of the classic West African albums of the 1970s that used to enthrall me. They were formed during the Afro-Cuban craze of the late 60s by a businessman to play more traditional Mandinka styles, and pioneered what was known as the Afro-Mandingo sound, along with Guelewar. For a while they were known as the Eagles of Banjul, then Super Eagles. Ifang Bondi were big all over West Africa, notably Ghana, and had successful European tours and were resident in Holland in the early 80s. This album was released in 1998 but I just came across it. It's wonderful and showcases their own unique brand of music.