Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Jaliba Kuyateh

Jaliba Kuyateh
- An ambassador for Manden culture and Music
By Suntou Bolonba Touray U.K
Jaliba kuyateh a Mandingka kora superstar has mesmerised his audience both within and outside the borders of the Gambia for years. Jaliba a former teacher, choose music as his soul career at a very early part of his adult life. That decision made him a very influential and well known Kora player. His style of Music is rooted in the Mandingko griot tradition. The fact that the Kuyatehs are a respected griot family line is unmistakable in Manden (all Mandingka countries). The kora is said to have originated from Gambia. For a more comprehensive history of the Kora check
OneGambia. Even though that narrative of the origin of the kora is subjective and Gambian-centric it however relay an interesting dialogue about the myth of the instrument.
I am by all accounts the most unqualified person to conduct this enquiry as I am completely lacking a deeper knowledge of current trends in Mandingka music or music in general. My position is more of an abridger in identifying Jaliba’s role in negotiating Mandingka griot tradition towards the outside world or outside its original context. The commentary here will be a brief analysis of Jaliba’s export and promotion of the Mandingka culture and how he may have modified the original understanding of tradition. I will also show the opinions of Gambian music promoters, who may not be Mandingkas but recognise the evolution of Mandingka music tradition.
Jaliba became the most famous Kora player in Gambia after the eras of Lalo keba Drammeh, Bamba Suso, Amadou Bansang, Banna Kanuteh, Alh. Bai Konteh, Jali Madi Wullen etc. This doesn’t mean Jaliba is a greater Gambian kora export than the likes of Jali Foday Musa Suso who toured the globe with different renowned western musicians. Traditionally musical instruments are linked to specific cultures. Jaliba, the name and the instrument he plays identifies him with the Mandingka music, culture and tradition. Jaliba followed the path of the Manden Jali/musician tradition of seeking out batufas, patrons of the Gambian society.
Why Jaliba is considered a promoter of the Mandingka culture is a question that needs looking into. To answer that question one has to start with some simple examples from Jaliba’s repertoire and how they relate to Mandingka culture and tradition. For example songs like ‘kuntuman dinnah, alin ngha sera’ , this is a song attributed to the custom of making a bride smell with traditionally made fragrance known as kutuman. The use of Mandingka proverbs like ‘jusubo moo adama jawbaleti’ , anger is the biggest enemy of mankind, Kuu tan fan naah bata tije, departing from ones personal experience is less problematic, Nghata nyo yaa, kano kano, Kingtanba and many of his songs are standard models of Mandingka tradition. The examples given are just amongst the numerous proverbial phrases Jaliba uses in entertaining his fans and followers.
The use of proverbs is typical of all customs and traditions, hence each phrase has a unique signature which traces it back to a particular cultural instance or context. For more on Mandingka phrases check the blog

Jaliba’s Transformation
Jaliba began his career by upholding the old tradition of playing for batufas, patrons on a personal level with a personal touch of playing and singing styles. His songs were sombre and cultural; even those having a limited interest in music enjoyed his traditionally styled kora playing and songs.
The dynamics of culture, the drift for modernisation and the need to generate wider audiences became driving factors for Jaliba´s transformation and internationalisation. This new team was materialised by adding, a bass guitar, electric guitar, saxophone, drum set, traditional Mandingka drums, traditional Wolof drums, dancers and backing vocals to the entourage. Thus was Jaliba´s transformation from a traditional ensemble consisting of the kora and singing to the modern Jaliba & Kumareh Band. Jaliba now has expert musicians from four different regions in Senegambia and two from Guinea Conakry. Jaliba therefore blended the Kora with all the instruments at his disposal.

Jaliba & the Kumareh Band consists of the following musicians:
Jaliba Kuyateh lead-singer and master Kora player (Gambia)
Tafa Njie … (Senegal)
Wuyeh Jassey, Balafon (Gambia)
Kalu Sunbumdou gaiter (Gambia)
Babading Kuyateh drums. Jaliba’s younger brother (Gambia)
Momodou Niang Wolof drum, his father was a musician and master of ceremonies in Jawara’s time (Gambia)
Omar Camara Mandingo drums (Gambia)
Solo dancer (Gambian)
Tuti Sansany and Madam Suso backing vocals and dancers, Jaliba’s wives (Senegal & Gambia)
Bubacarr Sisoco, electric Guitar (Senegal)

Discography of Kumareh Band: (albums)
Radio Kankan 1993
Tissoli 1994
Dajukah 1994
Live In America 1995
Hera Banku 1995
Gambia third day 1996
Njai Kunda 1998
Fankanta 1999
Best of Jaliba Kuyateh 2000
Sosolaso and Sabarla 2009
For a taste of Jaliba’s music check this youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z_RAEFDQu0&feature=related
The finnaa, bard tradition dictates that Jalis should seek out what is referred to as ‘kandalu’, the powerful and outstanding members of society and not only sing someone’s praise for money. With advancement Jaliba did not abandon the kora tradition of batufaya, patronage and praise-singing; in fact he took it to another level. Before, the kora player plays for their patrons in their home environment amongst family members and close friends. Now Jaliba Kuyateh targets his patrons in a much more grandiose manner. He created a network of patrons which include the best of Gambian society. Businessmen, high ranking civil servants, local rulers, famous women, rich folks, senior government employees, head of states, lawyers, diriyankees i.e. able bodied women who crave for the limelight etc.

Jaliba on the other hand, sings the praise of those who want him to and can pay for it and those belonging to the traditional power structure. Some examples of such traditionally influential families are the Bojang kunda of Brikama, the Touray kunda of Gunjure, the Darbo kunda of Kombo, the Cham kunda of Kombo, the Jawla Kunda in Sandou, the Marong and Jammeh kunda in Badibou, Bandeh Kunda in Basse, Bandeh Kunda in Fuladou, Cham and Manneh kunda in Sukuta, and many others. Jaliba sings the praise of these families and their progeny wherever he meets them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xnpBH2f8ZA&feature=related
But the shows are more profitable, where the attendees are of mixed background and of varying status. Jaliba´s usual strategy on such occasions is that, he commences with generalising songs about ‘generosity’ or a song with a word of warning (cleanliness or personal hygiene). Thereafter he turns his attention to one batufa after the other. Each song deals with a specific patron, then another and another until the show ends. The method is, as soon as your name is mention you make your presence known by throwing your gifts at him. Friends and loved ones join in to lend a supporting hand in throwing gifts and one does the same when the praises of others are sung as well.

Three worrying scenarios imaged during the study of Jaliba. The trend of praise seeking and bluffing beyond norms falling short of outrage.
At an album release occasion held at the Kairaba Hotel, one Mr Jobe gave Jaliba a bundle of money in the region of ten thousand dalasis at one go. In all the videos I watched, that was the only time a patron throw such amount of money in one bundle and at one go and not the customary note by note or one note after the other. This was scary as he overshadowed all other patrons who had changed big notes to smaller denomination notes to extend duration of throwing gifts to Jaliba.
In Britain for instance, the changing of pounds into one dollar notes is a common currency among Jaliba’s U.K fans. On another video from a London show one Mr Jabbi (aka Jabbi Dollar) dishes out so much dollar notes that Jaliba himself had to stop him. The man was like in trance and could not think clearly.
The showman of them all was at a Paris show in September 2008. Jaliba had composed a song for One Mr Saidy call Kano merin Baanw mandiya meaning a long lasted relationship is not easy to dissolve. This man walked like a tortoise as soon his song started. He was encircled by a group of women dancing around him and two men in suits. He was dress in a long kaftan with a Palestinian scarf round his neck whiles he inhaled all the praise and adoration. The Marabou man walks slowly up to the donation bowl. I have never seen anything like it. Grandstanding at its best!

Jaliba’s researcher:
Although the patrons are not oblivious to the fact that their praise would be sung in a show, they may be informed in advance. One thing that struck me in understanding Jaliba’s music and his approach to patrons was the extensive research his band manager conducts before he begins to praising his patrons. The band manager finds out the lineage, friends, associates, wives, sisters, family members of the patron in question. Since shows bring in unexpected friends or associates of patrons, the band manager is always on the lookout. As soon as he spots an unexpected face, he will quickly find out about the person and debrief Jaliba whilst a song is in progress. The band manager usually stands behind Jaliba whispering in his ears the names and titles of unexpected patrons, their friends and associates.

Trends and fashion on Jaliba’s Shows:
Jaliba is not just a kora player. His shows inspire dress trends amongst the women attendees. One can see all sorts of African dresses in all kinds of styles. These dresses are later copied and become trends that influence fashion. The hairstyles and facial beautification, varieties of gold chains, hand purses, dance styles are all major activities for the womenfolk in their preparations for the Jaliba Show. Jaliba is a mover!

Jaliba’s controversial songs:
Several years ago when the zone two album was published, Jaliba sang a love song from the album at a show in Kombo Gunjure. During the show Jaliba could be heard saying iminina ifan yeh iminin ilah, embrace me and let me embrace you. In resent shows Jaliba took this phrase a bit further by requesting of his fans to physically embrace each other, whilst he cuddles his kora to demonstrate to the audience how to embrace. That behaviour triggered a bitter outburst from one fire brand preacher. Sheik Bakawsu Fofana a young scholar from Jarra attacked Jaliba for urging the public to commit a sinful act. Bakawsu at a Gamo said Jaliba is sinning and promoting indecency. That inspired Jaliba to urge his fans to embrace each other even more at every single one of his shows. One then has to question the rationale for Bakawsu’s outburst.
Listen to the lecture at the link below:
Was it because he felt Jaliba went too far in negotiating Manden kora culture or was it simply in defence of religious teachings? I sent questions to three Gambians who follow Jaliba’s music and the art of African music in general to express their opinions about Jaliba’s musical transformation.
The responses and that of Jaliba’s interview will relay in the part two of the study. Jaliba was contacted and he expresses happiness at my attempt to explain certain aspect of his Music and roles in the Gambian musical traditions. Efforts are also on the way to get the reaction of the Sheik Bakausu Fofana.
In part two I will labour to get the facts behind the misunderstanding between Jaliba and Bakausu, his own opinion on the place of art in the evolution of Mandingo culture. Is his music modern for the cultural rigidity of Mandingos, has he gone too far in being an all-inclusive entertainer?
Till then, wasalam. Ala Baraka.


Momodou said...

Suntu, this is a well researched article. Keep it up. I look forward to part 2.

solo said...

Morro, you are onto something very interesting.



Alaa baraka. It is important that we follow cultural transformations and the movers in our generations happens to be musicians and those in fashion.
Manden culture is rich and varied, but Jaliba seems to be ineterested in blending bits from all senegambian traditions. Is the reverse happening?

Gainde said...

Interesting research, Suntou. Keep it up. One thing though regarding the Kora greats prior to Jaliba's era is that Banna Kanuteh played the xylophone (balafon) as far I know(stand to be corrected).


Thanks Gainde,you are right Banna played the balafon. I am portraying the great griout tradition by including him. Thanks for highlighting that part. I may ask you further question on whether the drummers are now the major players in the Kumareh band. the Kora can hardly make people dance, so the drums seems to take centre stage than the Kora. what do you think?

Gainde said...

To get people to dance at a concert, show etc the drums are a 'must-be-present.' Since Jali now focuses more on an electric band setup I would agree with you that the drums have taken centre-stage.