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
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
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
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
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