I spent most of January working hard with my incredible teacher Jali Hammay Saho in The Gambia – Kora bootcamp! It was wonderful to arrive peacefully in The Gambia again after all the potential turmoil last January when tourists were evacuated due to the political situation arising over Jammeh’s departure and Barrow’s inauguration. New Gambia is positively buzzing with palpable fresh energy – people seem relaxed and happy – trade is hopefully picking up again after the economic ramifications of last year’s events.
Once again, I stayed with the wonderful Senghore Family in their compound in Kololi, not so far from Sukuta where Hammay and my friends live and convenient for accessing WiFi facilities in nearby Senegambia. It’s a lovely, peaceful place, cooled by sea breezes and with plenty of shade in which to sit practising, working and reflecting. The family are so welcoming and warm and I love them dearly as if they were my own relatives. Everything is easy going with them supporting me and through my relationship with them I feel more confident going about in their local community – walking to the little shops or saying hello to people feels easy because locals know I am staying with a very good, respectful, hard working and Godly family.
My learning agenda for this trip was to focus in detail on just 3 pieces rather than trying to learn many songs partially. I also wanted to improve my technique, making more use of my thumbs and developing clearer articulation, in keeping with traditional West African ways of playing. I selected the three pieces through discussion with Hammay in advance of coming as they needed to thread into the thematic material of the whole album. We’d also worked a little on the basic accompaniments and some thumb figures using WhatsApp – Hammay would record short phrases and send them to me for me to learn.
My album will be called “The Nine Pure Gifts” and this derives from a wonderful invocation of the gifts from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers and incantations from the Western Isles of Scotland.
“I bathe thy palms in showers of wine,
In the lustral fire, in the seven elements,
In the juice of the rasps, in the milk of the honey,
And I place the nine pure gifts in thy fair fond face,
The gift of form
The gift of voice
The gift of fortune
The gift of goodness
The gift of eminence
The gift of charity
The gift of integrity
The gift of nobility
The gift of apt speech”
The album will have an introductory piece setting the scene and then each song/piece will be one of the nine pure gifts.
With Hammay, I wanted to work on two quite old and classical kora pieces. Tuta Jarra belongs to the Jarra Kunda (family) and Sukulun Konteh, daughter of Sankarang Madibar Konteh, was the mother of the great leader of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita. This is her family song as Konteh are part of Jarra Kunda. I wanted to celebrate Sukulun’s role in raising and supporting the child who would become one of the most important Nobles in West African history – even through torment, public ridicule, exile and finally through her own death. Tuta Jarra would therefore be the gift of nobility. Her nobility and that of Sundiata her son.
The story of Sundiata would take days to unfold and is traditionally accompanied by many and various different Kora pieces and songs. I wanted to work with Hammay on some of this Djata epic as the gift of eminence. There has never been a more eminent leader in all of West African history – a King of great justice and integrity. He took the bows and arrows, son of Nare Makhan Konateh, he took the bows and arrows, son of Sukulun Konteh, he conquered the bush, hero of heroes, making his mother’s name famous, He took the bows and the arrows.
On my second training trip to the Gambia in 2015, I was pleased to meet the grandson of Ansoumana Susaba Susso, a master griot who had composed the song Jula Jekere Bayo around 100 years ago. He loved to come and listen to Hammay and me practising this song under the tree in Sukuta. Jula Jekere Bayo converted to Islam after a slightly more shady past and in doing so, made Tobaski offerings of charity to many people. This song would therefore be the gift of charity. There should be no war when the traders are praying and offering charity to their people – go and tell all the kings the traders are praying. If only today’s traders were more occupied in prayer and less in exploitation.
I’ll tell you all about the other gifts in the next blog update but for now, back to New Gambia!
I certainly didn’t expect to witness part of the life cycle of the praying mantis right on my doorstep in the flowers next to my house. In the first picture, you can see what I think is the male praying mantis enjoying life on a leaf for now. In the middle photo, you can see how the female mantis on the left has sucked the life out of the male mantis on the right following procreation and all that remains is his exoskeleton. In the third photo, you can see the pregnant female with tail unfurled, belly full of child and husband. Slightly “ugh” but also fascinatingly mind-boggling and miraculously beautiful.
I guess slightly “ugh” but also fascinatingly mind-boggling and miraculously beautiful is an apt way of describing elements of this trip. Ugh certainly applies to putting on horrid deet every morning and evening to repel malaria carrying mosquitos. Deet melts plastic away and eats into metal (as I discovered when it leaked on my tuning device for the kora) – what on earth does it do to your skin? Fascinatingly mind-boggling applies to the many stories, histories, proverbs and tales I heard from Hammay and other folk – happenings and mystical mishappenings from a culture so far removed from my own I sometimes shuddered, cried inexplicably or danced with fervour on my own outside my house just to ease the enormity and heaviness of what I had heard. Miraculously beautiful applies to this little monkey – my friend Nur aged 5 who came to play each day with her Aunty Holly. We made a card for Hammay and Hawa’s new baby boy – another little beautiful miracle!
I drank a lot of Julbrew beer and some gin in the late evenings when I was alone and listening back to the recordings of the day or reflecting! I tried to keep a proper diary but only got to the 15th January. Reading and re-reading Niane’s translation of Mamadou Kouyate’s narration of the Sundiata epic, I came across this;
“Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past anymore, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books.”
I am sometimes too reliant on referring back to things I have written down rather than actually memorising and embodying/living out my knowledge. I want to remember my lived experience during this Africa trip in new ways. The way my body tingled and my heart leapt when I held my teacher’s newborn first son in the hospital only two hours after his birth. The immense gratitude that surged in my spirit as Hammay and I sat under the holy tree at Sanementereng and played and sang to the spirits and for God/Goodness. The tears that flew from my eyes when one of the visitors in the compound spontaneously came and sang his Quranic prayers to the accompaniment of my kora, kneeling at my feet on the veranda outside my house. The childlike playfulness of games of hide and seek with Adama and Nur in my little house. The prickle of nervous excitement and depth of honour in singing/playing my teacher’s Saho family song with him and his Aunty and baby Musa Saho who had just been named that morning in a special ceremony. You can’t sum these kind of experiences up neatly in sentences. They are mine – God given, given through Good, they are secret in part, like the secrets of Malian history but I can share some outer husk of their form with you through words.
It is helpful to write things down – I’m rubbish at remembering names of characters and Mandinka vocabulary but the more you use it, the less you lose it.
FAMILY – BADIA
I’m keen to get back to my practise now but I’ll be posting some videos and offering a few more insights into my trip in the next instalment so please bear with me!
Hammay Saho is a patient, honest and thorough teacher who has become a brother to me. I am blessed to know Hawa Saho and little nephew Musa Saho. What wonderful neighbours they have around in Sukuta! I am also blessed to be part of Senghore Kunda in Kololi – it is a fantastic place to stay if you are visiting the Gambia.
More in due course.