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"In African music there is room for everyone" - Youssou N'Dour  by Jacob Crawfurd

Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita show that the modern world doesn't have to leave the old world behind.

Just as rock 'n' roll modernized American roots music and introduced it to the rest of the world, other cultures pulling out their old tunes and instruments and make them shine, as well.

Recent releases from Youssou N'Dour of Senegal and Salif Keita of Mali show how African musicians have created popular music that is sophisticated as any in the world, but is also unmistakeably part of their culture. This has been possible because in many African countries traditional music is still vital and everpresent, an "everyday national treasure," as N'Dour called it.

After he rose to the top of Senegal's music scene in the 1970s, N'Dour came to world attention, in part due to his work with western stars such as Peter Gabriel and Neneh Cherry.

Talking about his wonderful new album, Nothing's in Vain (Nonesuch), N'Dour said, "I'm a modernizer, I can't deny that, but a modernizer filled with respect for the larger musical culture that has nourished my own singing, writing and thinking."

The beautifully produced album is built on a foundation of percolating rhythms, but it is sweet and tuneful. N'Dour's singing is by turns powerful and gentle, proving that the human voice is still the world's most expressive musical instrument. The happy tumble of songs like "C'est L'Amour" seems to be Africa's best bet at snagging mainstream U.S. listeners.

Keita also rose to international prominence through the 1980s and 1990s, building his success on an electrified version of west African music. Though the son of an aristocratic family, Keita grew up as an outsider, having been born an albino. Despite his family's status, he was shunned -- even by his own father. As tragic as that was, it seems to have led him to becoming an artist, and then to look outside Mali for influences and audiences.

 Salif Keita

Something in Keita, however, kept him from becoming a bitter emigre. Even though he eventually moved to France, he continued to embrace the homeland that mistreated him. Those ties have never been clearer than on his new album, Moffou (Universal).

The moffou is a simple, handmade flute used by Malian farmers to chase away birds who might otherwise eat their crops. Keita chose it as a name for his album and for the club he recently opened in Bamako to express his desire to celebrate the humble origins of his musical life. The album is mostly acoustic, sounding traditional, but also contemporary because of its pop-oriented arrangements.

"It was time for me to take a break" from electronic music, said Keita, to create an album "that feels like back home."

It is hard to imagine that Keita was once a pariah given the adulation that he was given at his gig at Irving Plaza in Manhattan in the autumn of 2002. He reigned over his tight band with ease and though he is not given to much movement on stage, his slightly husky tenor filled the auditorium.

His 11-piece band matter-of-factly juxtaposed an electric keyboard and a lute-like n'goni; it had a rhythm section that included electric bass as well as a calebasse, which looks like a big wooden bowl turned upside down.

It's a sign of how things have changed that putting African and western instruments on equal footing is accepted so easily. Keita and N'Dour are showing that the modern world doesn't have to leave behind the old.

"In African music there is room for everyone," N'Dour said. "I see no reason for gloom and doom about the future of traditional music. And I'd like to add this: We, the creators of the hybrid forms, we the 'Afro-pop' stars, actually open many doors for traditional music by promoting an awareness of Africa's musical riches." - Marty Lipp

CDs available at Amazon.com
Youssou N'Dour
Salif Keita
Other, harder-to-find recordings by these artists are available from cdRoots

by Jacob Crawfurd , http://crawfurd.dk/africa/africanfilm.htm

 
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Sanementereng - Learning and teaching the beat of the djembe in Gambia

Ritva Lundberg visits Boss and Alieu Joof in Serrekunda

The history of djembe drum in The Gambia in West Africa is short; it is not part of the indigenous musical history. But in the early 1980's, a visiting ballet ensemble from Guinea, Fourret Sacré (sacred forest), rented a compound in the quarters of Latrikunda German, in Gambia's biggest town, Serrekunda. The compound owner was Bubacarr Sillah, a djembe and doundoun player now living in UK. They brought the music of the djembe with them and created a small musical revolution here.

The young teenaged brothers, Boss and Alieu Joof lived in the next compound with their parents and many sisters and brothers. They were not from a musical family; their father was a house builder and bricklayer. But the boys heard drumming all over the community and loved it. The kids in the neighborhood amused themselves by playing and having fun in a near-by forest behind a football field (where now stands the Alliance Franco-Gambienne, a French culture center)

The boys can especially remember from the early boyhood years, how they could sneak into the kitchen and borrow some pots, buckets and pans from their mothers and pretend they were playing drums in the forest, which would upset their mothers.Years later, when they had convinced their parents that they really wanted to become serious drummers, they were given professional sabar and ashiko drums. They advanced very quickly by listening to "big boys" and imitating all the music they heard, formed a drum group with other boys on the street. They were often invited to perform at family celebrations in the neighborhood, playing Wolof and Ashiko rhythms that were popular at the time.

Every day the boys heard the Fourret Sacré ensemble play Guinean rhythms on djembes and doundouns and began to copy them. In the Guinean's compound there was no big tree to give them shade during the hot afternoon hours, so they very often came to the Joof's to rest and spend the siesta under the large mango tree. When they heard Boss and Alieu play the djembe rhythms on their ashikos, the Guineans were amazed that they played so well. In 1984, the master drummers Karim Dollar, Morli Camara and Abou Kempo started to guide these young Gambian boys in the secrets of djembe, doundoun and dance. Fourret Sacré more or less adopted Boss (then 14 years old) and Alieu (16) and made them their students.

In 1988 they met a great Guinean dancer, Pele Camara. He was the leader of Ballet Bougarabou in Senegal, who had traveled to the US to teach dance. On returning to Africa, Pele Camara founded African Bougarabou, a drum and dance group in The Gambia. Morli Camara from Fourret Sacré was their first solo drummer. When Morli moved to Casamance four years later, Boss Joof, who had by then become a master drummer, replaced him. He also worked with Thomas Camara and his group Alalake, and continued to perform with Fourret Sacré and other groups.

In 1992 Boss founded his own group, Sanementereng. Naturally he included the boys from the street, his childhood drumming and dancing friends. The Guinean dancer Dekoteh (Yusupha Camara) joined them and trained the members in dance and choreography.

At the same time the old friend Pele Camara in Senegal succeeded in getting a contract in Switzerland for his group Ballet Bougarabou. He remembered Boss as an excellent solo drummer and sent for him to come and practice with them, in order to join the tour in Europe. Boss traveled to Mbour on the Atlantic coast near Dakar and spent 6 months there playing, dancing, training and performing in hotels with the Ballet. On the day they were to leave for Europe, the unlucky Boss was very sick with malaria, and he could not go. Disappointed, he returned to Gambia after recovering from the disease and continued to develop his own group Sanementereng.

By 1992 tourism in The Gambia was flourishing. The beaches were full of Europeans who enjoyed the hot sun, the Atlantic waves and the laid back, peaceful and friendly atmosphere of the country. The pulsating West African music was also part of the picture. Boss, Alieu and friends had work 7 nights of the week in the hotel district. If Sanementereng had no gig, they could join Alalake or Fourret Sacré. This was a great time.

But by 1994 tourism was in already decline for many reasons, including politics. Hotels and beaches didn't attract the tourists, tour operators found other destinations, many Gambian bands lost their contracts and disappeared. Sanementereng also suffered from this slump, but with hard work they survived. In 2001, they now have a small number of contracts during the Gambian tourist season October-May. They have foreign students in drumming and dancing, some of them returning every year. But the tourists never came back in the numbers they did in the early 90's.

Adding to this, the rainy season (June-October) is hard for musicians; no tourists, no work and no money. In community and family feasts like weddings, name givings, initiations, that can occur all the year, Gambians prefer the indigenous drums of the country and not djembes. To survive as a musician is not easy today. Every single West African musician is dreaming of greener pastures abroad, and it is not always the best ones who succeed.

There is a great strength in Sanementereng. Their skills, deep devotion, feeling and perfect timing on stage is a measure of their close relationship: the members have been close friends since their early childhood; they grew up together and started drumming, singing and dancing when they were small.

The founders, Boss and Alieu Joof, were trained early by great Guinean drummers. Boss and Alieu still compose, drum and sing together every single day. They form the natural heart of Sanementereng. To be able to drum and sing simultaneously is not very common, and that they can pass these skills on to their membership is even more remarkable.

The African way of learning is: you listen to the rhythms since the day you are born, so when you first touch the drum as child, you already know the rhythms and know how it SHOULD sound. Nobody ever has to explain anything to you, you just copy what you hear. That is why many African drum teachers do not explain enough and do not go methodically forward in teaching. Boss's method of teaching djembe rhythms is more detailed and suits many American and European students, who are welcome to come study any time of the year.

The musicians of Sanementereng have a deep emotional connection and the profound communication between the solo drum and the main dancers is inspiring. It inspires the listeners, driving them to want to dance and drum themselves. - Ritva Lundberg

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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