Delightful West Africa – Senegalese Live Music in The Gambia
Contrary to some clichés, I don't hear much reggae in Gambia. Most taxi drivers, vendors and tailors play the popular, nervous mbalax pop from Senegal – known as ndaga in Gambia. Big and small Senegalese mbalax musicians perform in Gambia. In The Gambia, I see Senegalese A stars like Viviane N'Dour, Alioune Mbaye Nder and Thione Seck in very agreable open-air concerts. You also get Senegal's second league, like Pape Ndiaye Thiopet; I hear him in Saly, Senegal, and meet him again in Gambia.
Typically, Senegal's second mbalax/ndaga league is still more interesting than Gambia's own first league; but Gambia has "kora music" master Jaliba Kuyateh who I see two times in upcountry Gambia. Excellent also Gambia's own Ifang Bondi with a variety of regional styles.
In Gambia, I miss mbalax super uber over star Youssou N'Dour by a few days, but would have shied away anyway from the commotion around the veteran and still most popular singer (he visits Gambia each year around Independence Day on February 18th).
The Gambians have a few home-grown, Gambian mbalax/ndaga artists like Pa Omar Jack or Yusupha Ngum (Jollof Man). But the mbalax (mbalakh) from Senegal is mostly superior – and more popular even in Gambia. Senegalese as well as Gambian performers usually sing in Wolof, the regional lingua franca for both countries.
Live Music on the Coast
Many Gambian hotels serve live music for dinner. As in Thailand, these tourist-oriented shows are abysmal, in Gambia sometimes only consisting of drums and a dance animator. A few half open-air tourist restaurants offer at least entertaining house bands with western pop (at Bucarabu on Palma Rima road) or percussive jazz rock (the 22.30 band at Chosaan on Senegambia Road).
For the real thing, spicy Senegalese mbalax live music, the Senegalese capital of Dakar might be the best place of all. But Dakar has serious crime, traffic and dirt problems (see West Africa 1). Gambia in the cool season is a useful alternative for live music aficionados. On their visits to The Gambia, Senegalese stars typically play three shows in three different venues from Friday to Sunday, often open-air, for example in local open-air night clubs, in an expensive hotel and in a hall. I of course prefer open-air; at an estimated 18 degrees Celsius, the temperature is just right for a night of spicy hot, refined West African live music. With Jokor Westfield, Jokor Brikama and Lamin Village, coastal Gambia boasts at least three agreable "live music gardens". Big hotels open their lawns and pool areas for live music too. Recently the new Duplex disco grabbed a lot of live music action, including one of Viviane N'Dour's Gambian shows, but Duplex is a noisy concrete pillbox.
These mbalax/ndaga concerts are on or near the tourist coast; that's also Gambia's most developed and affluent region. The concerts see one or three whites including the inevitable Hans Meier, otherwise mostly well-dressed young Gambian ladies are the main audience. I am told that only reggae concerts draw more men. I never get special attention. The entry fee is between 2,8 and eight Euro, soft drinks cost 0,5 or one Euro, alcohol plays almost no role. It is easy to get tickets on the evening of the show and it's easy to get a good place within the audience.
The event is not only about listening, but very much about dancing, about showing off your dancing and yourself in your best garb and about showering your star in small notes and getting photographed with him or her. In the audience, I see people dancing for hours without looking at the stage once.
For concert reports from Senegal's Saint-Louis, see my West Africa part 2. My experiences with buying African music CDs in The Gambia will follow in West Africa 23.
Around new year, Banjul, Gambia's less than capital capital, sees two big festivals. And both are free. Long-running Gambian President Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh prides himself in inviting artists from all over West Africa – plus reggae artists from Jamaica and the US – and sharing them with his subjects; these are neat photo ops as well.
The first concert is on a blocked road next to the Arch 22 monument and concentrates on Gambian musicians. I come for Omar Pa Jack and other mbalax/ndaga bands. Only when I arrive I understand that this event has the title "No to Drugs" and tries to attract teens. The first two hours is hip-hop only, and mostly playback. During a break I ask the moderator if the mbalax/ndaga stars will perform playback too. When he confirms that, I go to bed.
The next concert on January 1st is on July 22 square, a former cricket square near Royal Albert Market, and much bigger; reportedly it lasts from seven p.m. to seven a.m. Big names like Luciano and "my star", Senegalese Coumba Gawlo Seck, are said to come, but the details remain vague. The huge digital billboard could list the artists and their estimated time of performance – instead it praises president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh's miraculous achievements.
During my hours at the new year open air festival, I only see an Ivorian hip-hopper in playback and uninteresting Gambian newcomers. Around 2 a.m. I leave. Even now, people stream from everywhere towards the park and there is a long traffic jam towards Banjul – for once, a jam not caused by police check-posts.
In the paper I read later that Coumba Gawlo Seck indeed performed, and with a full band, not playback. The photo shows her smiling next to president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh. In the article, she praises his miraculous achievements; maybe it was good that Coumba and I missed each other.
Dancing with Alioune Mbaye Nder
Senegalese star Alioune Mbaye Nder performs at Willy's night club in Lamin. This hunk from Senegal plays relaxed, well-structured mbalax pop less nervous than usual, because he omitted the typical, hectical tama drum. But who cares for the musical arrangement: The ladies love Nder's suave smile and his mean, mean dance steps with ragged lumbar activity; Nder finishes his dance extravagancas by rapid-lifting his knee-long short to reveal – the trousers.
Two hundred Gambian and probably Senegalese ladies in scant evening garb gather immediately in front of the stage. Nder bows down and looks them deep into the eyes – simultanously singing, smiling, touching hands and collecting local currency. Some ladies walk up to him, dash out small note after small note, do a few dance steps for the crowd, pose for a picture with the beau from Dakar and run away. In some cases they don big note after big note, with at least 25 Euro changing hands in one case. Sometimes they put the money into his mouth or onto his shaved head. Nder dedicates songs to the biggest spenders.
Nder asks Gambian artists onto the stage and lets them sing: Musa Ngum, father of current Gambian pop musician Yussuf Ngum (Jollof Man), who once inspired Nder to seek a musical career. After Nder encourages the crowd to give money, Ngum harvests many bank notes too, but this time they are red and green – the smallest denominations. Nder fishes a big handful of ruffled notes out of his wide shirt pocket and stuffs the money into Ngum's hand. Pa Omar Jack is another Gambian ndaga star who sings a song with Nder's microphone; Pa Omar Jack will have more performances over the weekend, but doesn't mention it (also see following submission).
Repeatedly Nder waves his newest CD, "Bul Yapp Sa Palakh", which is sold on-site for four Euros, while in the shops it might be seven Euros. I hear the word "original" many times in these announcements; pirate copies cost 1,3 to 2,7 Euros. One of the mobile CD vendors in the night club tries to sell me a CD even before Nder is on stage. I tell him to come back after the concert has ended. And right on the band's last note, in the middle of a large crowd, the vendor appears again in front of me. "Bul Yapp Sa Palakh" is one of the few "original" CDs I buy in Africa.
Willy's night club is nice enough with a covered bar and dance floor and an open-air concert area. Like any decent West African family compound, the concert area has a shading mango tree with seats. Just all these stone seats are thickly covered in dust. I ask Aliou, my night-time taxi driver and music event scout, to test the toilets for me. Upon return, he reports they might be suitable for toubabs (whites). "But wait", says Aliou and fumbles with his cellphone until the built-in torchlight starts: "Take this, there is no light at all in the toilet." The urinal is also a ruinal. A man and a lady stand there next to each other, blinking unhappily at my cellphone light. I try to do my business while handling Aliou's torchlight-cellphone.
Dining with Viviane N'Dour
Smoothie Queen of Senegalese mbalax Pop, Viviane N'Dour, performs in Gambia's Seaview Garden Hotel on New Year's Eve. (She is, was or is again married to super star Youssou N'Dour's younger brother and producer, Bouba N'Dour).
Viviane has a huge following in Senegal. In Gambia as well, she is adored by an estimated 90 per cent of the male population and at least 80 per cent of Gambia's ladies. Every Gambian waitress and maid plays Viviane N'Dour from her cellphone.
A certain Hans Meier finds Senegalese mbalax diseuse Coumba Gawlo Seck certainly not uninteresting either, but adores Viviane's high-polish, americanized, double-frappucinoed Starbucks version of Senegalese mbalax pop (oh, and her ooomph voice).
For dinner and music with Viviane, I hand 40 Euro in advance to Lisa, junior manager at the Seaview Garden Hotel. Lisa writes a voucher.
"When does it start", I ask Lisa?
Lisa: "Hm, maybe around eight? Well, I don't know. Here's my mobile number. Just call me anytime."
Only hours before the concert, Lisa exchanges my hand written voucher into a real ticket. That's usual in Gambia, they don't give out tickets earlier: For the important football match Gambia versus Guinea many tickets had been sold in advance – some genuine, and lots more faked. That was quite a tumult in and outside Banjul's Independence stadium.
Says Lamin, my receptionist at the Tinikunda Lodge: "Now we have many Nigerian boys in the country. They are too clever copying anything. You won't get a real ticket some days in advance any more."
Seaview Garden Hotel's Lisa had finally advised me to come around 19.30 for the New Year's Eve Gala Dinner with Viviane N'Dour. But nobody else arrives before 22 o'clock. Most tables are reserved for company and government delegations and rich families. And there's Lisa, in a stunning evening gown, directing waiters and other staff. Her voice is completely broken after many days of preparing the event and she seems on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Still caring Lisa instructs her boys to put another another table into a nice corner, to give me the promised good view.
Many tables stand precariously close to the swimming pool and I hear bets that someone will fall inside before midnight – but nothing happens.
The Seaview Garden's guest rooms look onto the pool and concert area. Elderly western couples sit in front of their rooms with faces in disbelief: They had booked an expensive package holiday around Christmas and new year. And now their new years eve will drown in noisy negro music.
Groans one Englishman to me: "I hope to get my food soon and then escape before the show starts. Can't hear that music."
But he is not lucky. A few dignitaries get food delivered to their table, all others have to line up at the buffet. That opens around 23 o'clock and soon has a 30 meters long queue. At midnight – New Year – when you would want to raise a glass with your loved ones – the queue is still 15 meters long.
A few band members now play muted jazz rock – well-known Chick Corea and Miles Davis tracks. That's interesting as I always felt a connection between 70s jazzrock and current Senegalese mbalax pop.
With Lisa's approval – she's now in another evening gown – I move to the pool side bar, that gives an even better view. The bar staff is completely overexerted handing out the drinks for hundreds of dinner guests. All baristas are highly aggressive. For one hour, you can't get a drink with ice. Ten minutes before midnight I order a glass of wine. The bar man looks at me, hears me, then looks away and doesn't do anything. Maybe they ran out of glasses, but he just refuses communication.
The Lonely Planet guide book about the Seaview Garden Hotel: "This tries hard to be a top-class place."
Four rich-looking Americans join the bar and order expensive drinks. After a while one of them asks the waitress:
"You take US Dollars?"
"No, we only take Dalasi."
"Da- what?" He looks at her as if he had seen something distasteful. He might not even be aware of the country he's in.
It would not have been necessary to pay the expensive gala dinner ticket. Many people simply walk onto the premises, buy a drink at the bar and listen to Viviane N'Dour – or they buy nothing at all. There is no ticket control.
The concert is nice, but not gorgeous. The nine-piece-band performs very professional, rattling off their breathtakingly syncopated tunes effortlessly, even motionlessly, and with reasonable sound. Viviane N'Dour doesn't seem enthusiastic about her own music. She brings two resident dancers who perform extremely acrobatic – and erotic – stunts on stage; this dance doesn't look choreographed, but it entertains. Onlookers walk freely onto the stage to dance and shower Viviane in small notes. There is almost no applause after the songs, not even after Viviane's current top-hit "Waaw Waaw" ("Yes yes").
I haven't cared to stand in line for the food. I remain hungry and concentrate on the show. Some time after midnight, I walk close to the stage and mix with the big noodles and a small dancing crowd. Someone falls against me and croaks "Happy new year, Hans!" I work myself out of meters of (I guess artificial) black hair and blue silk and have a chance to look at the wellwisher – "Oh, Lisa, happy new year to you, and your third evening gown is stunning again!"
Two days later, Viviane N'Dour performs in the Dream Park amusement park, next to the Seaview Garden Hotel. This time tickets go for only four or eight Euros. I will take an eight Euro ticket to get into the normally less crowded, so-called VIP area (discos have the same two-tier scheme).
At the ticket booth, I stand in line 15 minutes before I can order my VIP ticket. And who sits in the booth: Seaview Garden's Lisa, with a big smile and thumbs-up. She informs: "Hans, sorry, you won't get your VIP ticket here. You have to go down that other walkway." And that's the only privilege this time: VIP guests get another, less congested entry gate; but inside, VIP and ordinary fans share the same area. I find a perfect place anyway, standing next to the mixer unit with free view (I ponder muting the slightly noisy djembe drummer).
This time – in front of very well dressed, but ordinary locals and not Gambia's haute volee – Viviane N'Dour and her Joloff Band perform much livelier and obviously have a good time. By their arms, children and adults are dragged onto the elevated stage to dance in the lime light for a few seconds. Some move stunningly, and creating amazement and laughter seems the main goal.
On her numerous albums, Viviane N'Dour recorded not only the typical Senegalese mbalax pop, but also many hip hop and Rhythm & Blues tracks. On both her live concerts she plays it save and gives the audience what tickles their dance nerves most – furious, hectical, Dakar-born mbalax.
But while most of Viviane's studio recordings ooze class, the impression of her two live performances is less favorable. Whenever she sings, several people with no clear function loiter on-stage. On both concerts, the light is worse than a village disco, no moving spotlight tracks her steps. On the Dream Park gig, her very high heels and very tight jeans look slightly inappropriate.
Dining and Dancing with Thione Seck and Theresa
Senegalese A1 mbalax pop star Thione Seck does a gala dinner show in the "five-star" Kairaba Hotel's wide garden; individuals pay 20 Euro for food and music, groups get huge discounts. At least 1000 very well dressed people (around three of them white) sit around tables in front of the big stage. GRTS, the Gambian TV, reports with several cameras.
But this concert also supports flood victims. Gambia's vice president Isatou Njie-Saidy (Aisatu N'Jie-Saidy) and other politicians populate the VIP stand. Several hold verbose speeches in flawed English. "I could sink under the table", bursts my Gambian friend Theresa unhappily: "This is on TV, foreign dignitaries sit all around, and these Gambian provincocrates blabber nothingness in pidgin English. Oh shame, oh shame. Please bring on the music."
The bragging moderator in his black suit reads from paper, still several times interrupts himself for a thorough thinking process. He also pauses his announcements to listen to bystanders on the stage.
I talk to a waiter. He is hired only for the evening and receives 5,4 Euro for twelve hours of work. This is not enough, he declares, thus he needs a sponsor. He also has a good idea: The buffet will first be opened for a few numbered tables only. To get any food, he says, I should hit the buffet right with the first tables, even if my own table would be called much later. But kudos to the Kairaba Hotel: They have enough food for all the customers even hours after the buffet opens; the queues are well bearable right from the beginning. It is much better organised than the Viviane N'Dour concert at the Seaview Garden Hotel (see above).
From tape comes a children's song that repeats the name of Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh's name endlessly; then, a military brass band plays out of tune. Local Gambian stars Sambou Sussu, "the voice of Mandinka", sing a few songs with playback instrumentation, partly even the voice isn't live. Listening to their songs, you understand why most Gambians themselves prefer Senegalese over Gambian music.
That's especially true for unremarkable C star Nancy Nanz. According to Theresa, Nancy Nanz received a car from Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh. One time Theresa spotted Nancy Nanz in her vehicle at a red traffic light in Bakau. Theresa approached and said "I love you" through the open car window. "I love you too", said Nancy Nanz. They parted with big smiles.
I smile when Nancy Nanz finally departs the stage and gives way to the only impressive artist, Senegalese Thione Seck and his ten-piece band. Seck could almost be on playback too, because his music sounds so perfect and clear, without the slightest distortion or painful overdrive.
If super star Youssou N'Dour is the friendly uncle of mbalax pop, then Thione Seck is its fierce prosecutor: With a tense, razor sharp voice, Seck sings stretched out phrases over a tumultously percussive, yet intently subdued, perfectly controlled stampede of drums and harmony instruments. At the concert on the Kairaba Hotel lawn, Seck wears a wide yellow khaftan and almost doesn't move in his preacher-like pose – except for irritated looks when band members don't perform as expected. Seck speaks a prayer for Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh, but doesn't greet or address his audience.
Thione Seck sings in Wolof, Senegambia's regional lingua franca. Theresa follows the lyrics closely. "That's a good text", she translates: "If you see your mother working in the kitchen, look what she is doing there."
"So he addresses other family members", I ask?
"Only the girls."
Striking and flawless as it is, Thione Seck's performance shows some of the typical weaknesses of West African pop: The songs often last a lengthy 5:30 to over eight minutes, because they are quite repetitive. And in Seck's concert, many songs sound alike – much more so than on his CDs where he experiments with big band and Bollywood soundscapes.
Probably to make up for this felt monotony and his personal, stern immobility, Thione Seck lets two clownish male dancers whirl around him. One leaves the stage and starts frenetic shaking next to our table (in the linked Thione Seck video above, he's the one with the blond dreadlocks). The spotlight is on the dancer and on Theresa and me. "You're the only white in this area", she calculates, "he's waiting for money from you".
The frenzied dancer jumps onto our large, but not very solid table and continues his excentric shakes without even looking at what might be in his way. Hectically we move plates, bottles and glasses out of his reach. The table wobbles and might well break. The spotlight follows, you will have seen us on GRTS.
Just when I expect the table to crunch, a manager in black suit wipes the dancer off our table with a casual handmove. The madman jumps back to the grass, and – still in the spotlight – tears his trousers down, wraps his arms around a chair with a respectable Gambian lady and in boxer shorts makes copulating hip moves towards the woman.
Later, a few hundreds guests dance in front of the stage. Theresa and I join this crowd for a few songs. When we return to our table, a Gambian in beige business suit applauds me – indicating that he hadn't expected a European joining an mbalax dance party.
I used to like this kind of appreciation when I had just arrived in Africa. But now, after eleven weeks in the region, I am at ease with local ways; having fun next to a West African pop stage in the midst of an all-African crowd is nothing special. No longer do I feel like a sole white among exotic blacks. Applauding me, I sense, the Gambian man actually draws an unnecessary separating line between me and the other, local music aficionados. Aren't we one?
Kora Music with Jaliba Kuyateh
The Viviane, Nder and Seck events contrast with the Jaliba Kuyateh concerts I see. Compared to the glittering mbalax world, this is a much more rustic and traditional affair. Kuyateh plays kora, the West African 21string harp, with an electric band around it. Often called "kora music", it is a modern version of the traditional griot praise songs. This music goes straight to the heart of Mandinka people, the majority tribe in Gambia (as much as the "morlam" and "luuk thung" music reminds Thai-Isaan people of their home region). The shops have dozens of different Kuyateh CDs; more on buying music CDs in Gambia in the next article.
Kuyateh is highly regarded in Senegal and Gambia and tours Europe and the US as well. I am told that in the cool season, he performs once or twice daily throughout Senegambia.
For Gambians, a kora music night is less a musical experience than a social event. Local ladies dress in their very finest African robes, with fitting headtie, high heels and bag. Even young unmarried women will go traditional, not in the sexy garb seen at mbalax style concerts. Men appear in unattractive everyday rags.
Pointedly smart and cool with wide swinging hips, as if on a catwalk, the ladies hike towards the stage with the playing Kuyateh. They drop small notes one after the other into a bucket next to Kuyateh, shown on the last photo to the right, above. Bigger notes (up to 100 dalasi, 2,7 Euro, Gambia's highest denomination) land directly in the kora's keyhole. Mention your name and Kuyateh will instantly sing you a praise song. One lady obviously doesn't like to hear someone else being praised: she struts onto the stage like a diva and coquettishly squeezes a banknote right into singing Kuyateh's mouth.
According to my Gambian friends, Kuyateh also sings "praise songs" for two different Gambian mobile phone networks as well as for Gambian president Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Diliu Jammeh.
At the Jaliba Kuyateh concert in Brikama, a 90.000 people town 20 kilometers away from the tourist coast, I am the only white between perhaps 700 Gambians. Kuyateh welcomes me with a friendly smile and nod from the stage and says "thank you" into the microphone when I drop a 100 dalasi note into his kora (I don't mention that I bought six of his CDs as pirate copies). Kuyateh's manager keeps suggesting that I donate more. Otherwise, I get no special attention.
The concert is on an empty sand lot called Brikama Youth Centre. I am told that this piece of land had been cleared as a basket ball field for local youth, but the money for the baskets disappeared. The place has no electricity, a generator thunders outside. Three bare bulbs hanging directly over the stage are the only source of light. Thanks to the full moon on that 24th of December, you can see the sizable audience. I am told that otherwise, the people just remain in complete darkness. The whole scenery looks extremely poor.
On some of his studio CDs, Kuyateh sounds clear and pleasing. The concert in Brikama resembles a two hours car crash with West African onion sauce. Between all the crackling, the instruments get hardly recognisable. But nobody cares. Later I hear Kuyateh again in Tinikunda village. With the same equipment, he sounds even worse (more about that event in my submission from Tinikunda). Kuyateh interrupts his performance every so often for lenghty instrument checks and discussions with his musicians, extinguishing all excitement that built up over the last song.
I get the feeling that an appreciation of African music might be a big part of your reason for visiting that part of the world.