Tag Archives: griot

Photo blog: A different wedding to gaze at…

It was disappointing that even in this corner of the world we couldn’t escape a mentioning of the ‘grand marriage‘… so with that in mind we thought it was time to embrace wedding fever and instead of the dull platter of royal crap you’re being offered elsewhere, give you a quick glance at a marriage Burkina style. Hopefully it will ease your pain (and possibly sickness)…

Owing to a terrible internet connection that visits us only occasionally we have only had time to offer you photos. Put it like this, we know which party we’d rather be invited to.

A different wedding!

A different wedding!

A different wedding!

A different wedding!

A different wedding!

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Imran builds his ngoni…

From his peaceful pocket of Bamako Waou answered my question, “you want to build a ngoni? It’s very hard!”.

With a little convincing he patiently showed me how to hand build an ngoni, the grandfather of the banjo.

Step 1: Taking a large tree trunk we chopped a log to the rough size of my future ngoni’s body.

Chopping the raw log

Step 2: Putting down our axes we carved out the inside to make a canoe shape and then sanded its rough surface.

Axe and feet

Imran and Waou

Carved body of the Ngoni

Step 3: Then we drilled about 16 holes around the edge of the body before creating a groove at one end for the neck to lay.

Step 4: Cutting bamboo poles we made around 20 wooden nails.

Step 5: Then for the smelly job, we sliced the cow skin (which had soaked overnight) to the shape of the body.

Step 6: Using the bamboo nails, we stretched the skin across the body and pinned it into place.

Stretching the skin

Step 7: Using a chisel tool we carved the neck to the shape of a broom handle with a spike at one end. We then cut holes into the skin and inserted the neck of the instrument.

Waou at work

Step 8: We then left the whole thing to dry in the blistering 42 degree heat of the Malian sunshine. With the scorching sunshine the skin-drying only takes a few hours!

The ngoni dries in the sun

Step 9: Using a hack saw we cut off the bamboo pins to the body.

Step 10: The instrument finished, we moved onto the strings

“What was used before nylon fishing line was available?” I ask.

Horse hair” explains Waou, his eyes scarcely stray from his work. Remembering a story of European violin players having to hunt down cats to make strings from their guts, I tell Waou that his ancestors were far more civilised than their European counterparts.

Trying to get that intricate knot right!

Waou attaches a string to the neck

After attaching all the strings to the instrument (six in this case), he proudly checks it over, fine tunes it and gives it a play. It is difficult to imagine that a day earlier it was little more that a log of wood, a fragment of calabash, some cow skin and a few metres of fishing line

For all the photos, click here.

On tour with Jaliba Kuyateh…

‘Salam, Do you know where Jaliba Kuyateh lives?’

‘Jaliba..? Of course. His house is the most grand in Brikama, it’s beautiful, you cannot miss it.’

Four stories high, looking over the fantastically green city of Brikama in The Gambia, Jaliba’s house was indeed beautiful and we had turned up unannounced and uninvited, expecting at best a cup of tea and a chat.

But as we rolled our bicycles into the driveway we were greeted with a scene of busy women smiling up at us and welcoming us to their compound. They quickly informed us that Jaliba was out, and that we must wait for him over a large bowl of Maffe.

After attempting to finish the meal that could have fed six, we watched on as the women forced a kora onto the youngest of Jaliba’s sons, Jaliba junior. But little Jaliba, only interested in Imran’s guitar, grabbed it and held it like a kora announcing simply that he too wanted a ‘toubab kora’. We laughed and discussed the certainty of his musical career, owing to his strong griot lineage.

mini djeli

It wasn’t long before Jaliba arrived home to find us, the mystery cyclists, stood on his doorstep. Feeling a little sheepish we introduced ourselves and the project ‘music cycles’. Jaliba in his gentle manner insisted that we come along to a few of his gigs and stay at least one night with the family.

lead guitar

Later as we sat watching the band tune up, begginning to feel the birth of a street party atmosphere build, Jaliba told us of how frequently he plays for baptisms and weddings. The attendees of the baptism arrived in their hundreds, women in elaborate dresses, their sequins and bold prints owning the dusk air.

baptism 2

Intrigued by the sound of drumming and saxophone we strolled around the corner to find a group of 30 or so singing, dancing and clapping to the rythmic beat of the drummers accompanied by a pentatonic saxophone line.

We stood back in awe of the scene in front of us. Before we knew it Mikaela had been grabbed enthusiastically and now stood in the centre of the circle of women, clapping her on, determined that she would dance.

The crowd swelled and flowed moving us back towards Jaliba’s band who had now started to play. The crowd went wild, the women moving forwards to dance as the men took a step back to witness the energetic raising of the purses high above their elaborate hairstyles; hairpieces, painted scalps, head ties, a mass of bold colours and sparkling beads.

baptism

Jaliba has been performing in and around the Gambia for more than 20 years and he has achieved true celebrity status. Jaliba is a griot, and as a griot he has an important role to play in society.

“[Griots] are mediators, they connect people and they are the most vocal people in society”, he explains.

Historically, griots were the closest advisors of kings and were the holders of historical knowlege and lineage.

“Today our role is lighter’ he says simply, ‘today we are less linked to politicians and more connected to the people’.

In a country where only 20% of the population can read government campaign posters on issues such as AIDS and Malaria, it’s no suprise that Jaliba’s topical lyrics run deeper that a Baptism celebration.

At a political rally in Sedhiou in the Casamance region of Senegal, we find ourselves once again in front of an enourmous crowd of Jaliba fans. This time though they are attendees of a political rally.

rally

As we look into the crowd we are faced with an audience of t-shirts bearing the faces of bored looking politicians with promising slogans. Worn with little enthusiam but for the fact they are distributed for free, the crowd becomes disinterested in the dullness of the political speeches and race for Jaliba’s stage.

crowd

fanta

The women rush to the front, the faces on the t-shirts are forgotten and the dancing begins.

‘I sort of preach’ he tells us later.

Jaliba laughs as he tells us that in the beginning of his career the griots turned away from his music.

‘Musicians here can enlighten people, make people laugh, make people cry. Why shouldn’t I talk about things that can benefit the people? But at the start the traditional griots said I was spoiling things… because I went further than to just talk about a king or a chief or a warrior doing good on the battlefield.’

djeliba kouyate

Now though, that pressure is in the past and Jaliba’s popularity could not be stronger in both The Gambia and Senegal. Now a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Jaliba is an established public figure here, his words are trusted by the people who follow his music and for some his lyrics educating people on HIV/AIDS, may be their only source of information.

Wherever you go with Jaliba the children race towards him,

‘Ja-li-ba, Ja-li-ba…’

They lean through the windows of his car as they chant his lyrics about malaria prevention loudly, smiles beaming, jumping at the car just to get a glimpse.

Back at home Jaliba’s family once again welcome us. We have stayed far longer than planned but by now Mikaela has developed some kind of epic cold involving multiple sneezing, constant nose blowing and a voice like a tired camel. One of Jaliba’s wives Fatu, orders her to bed for a day where she is waited on by the children of the house as Fatu fusses over whether the quantity of cornflakes will be enough for our breakfast.

In the evening we try to play some of our songs to Jaliba, but with Mikaela struggling to sing and creating Janis Joplin-like sounds, we focused on guitar and kora. The growl of Jaliba’s deep voice dances over the gentle sound of the strings and we are all lulled into a relaxed state for a perfect evening of conversation and hot goat stew.

The following day we once again find ourselves saying a reluctant goodbye to friends we will not see for some time.

Jaliba turns to us and with a warm smile states, ‘I will miss you both’.

We tell him how sad we are to leave and that we now feel part of the family. Concerned we will be tempted to stay longer we make a quick exit and cycle away down the sand piste to cross the border into the lush green of Casamance, Senegal.

The Diva of the Sahel…

After much reassurance that our new friend was a trustworthy chaperon to lead us on our musical outing, Aiwa the President of the Human Rights Association we were staying with finally agreed, ‘ok, you may go, but you must be back by 11 pm’.

It was already 9 pm and feeling rather limited by the mothering Imran replied quite perfectly, ‘Inshallah‘. Aiwa flashed a grin in our direction and nodded.

Armed with a guitar, camera and sound recorder we made our way through the dusty cratered streets of Nouakchott to the house of a family we had been told were great traditional Mauritanian musicians. Jeick Ould Chighaly welcomed us with warmth as we entered the busy household. Scattered around the generous sitting room were instruments of Mauritania. Jeick approached us with his electric guitar.

It as a quarter-tone guitar’ he casually exclaimed.

Jeich Ould Chighaly plays his quater-tone guitarImrans eyes lit up as he cradled the guitar in his arms and explored each fret, twice as many as on a standard guitar. Jeick watched content at the shared enthusiasm.

With so many notes at his disposition, Jeick’s playing style is somewhere between the desert blues of Ali Farka Touré and a proficient oud player. After playing the electric guitar he then demonstrated his agility on the tidinit, a Mauritanian lute almost identical to the ngoni. We sat mesmarised by the improvised lines that could rival Bassekou Kouyaté‘s.

As Jeick played to us his intimate audience Noura his wife and fellow musician joined us. With little more than a brief salam Noura picked up the ardine and began to brush across its strings with eloquent skill. As she played we sat in awe of the beautiful harp-like sound.

Noura's hands

The ardine is a 20-string harp with similar ancestry to the Kora. Unlike its Mande cousin, the ardine is played exclusively by women. In the region of West Africa where instrumentation is dominated by men, this female tradition is unique to Mauritania.

Ardine

Noura Mint Seymali and her husband are very successful musicians both in Mauritania and on an international level, playing at Festival au Desert amongst many others. Her voice is rich and deep with resonating strength, Noura tells of of how she is not afraid to mix Griot traditions with other sounds,

‘On my album, I have traditional songs that are recorded as reggae pieces with drums, bass and saxophone’, she says with a smile.

But there is little talking, soon it is our turn to play. As we finish sipping our tea we play my song ‘Wine Merchant‘. There is no discussion of who we are, our cultures or traditions, yet a sense of musical connection hold on to us for the a couple of hours before Imran and I are forced to leave for our 11 pm curfew.

Noura invites us to form some kind of music project together, presumably blending our styles, Imran and I are instant to accept. We are forced to explain our visa situation, expecting this to be a major problem but Noura simply tells us to come back or they will meet with us in Mali. Relaxed to feel a natural sense of this only being the first meeting we would share we said our goodbyes, but not before I was welcomed to play the Ardine and presented with a gift of a stunning Mulafa (the traditional dress of the Moor women in Mauritania).

Mikaela and Jeich

Cross-legged I clumsily plucked at the strings without a trace of the beauty and grace that Noura had displayed. Jeick sat with me and in the last moment of the evening we played the traditional song ‘Wading Deep Water’ with Jeick accompany on tidinit.

We parted leaving Jeick and his beautiful wife, Noura the Diva of the Sahel in Mauritania, the country we were only just beginning to discover.

Noura Mint Seymaly and Jeich Ould Chighali

UPDATE: since we wrote this blog Noura Mint Seymali has released a new CD (September 2013)!