Music & Culture/Explaining Jaliba Kuyateh

03/13/2011 10:32
What He Means To His Country
By Cherno Baba Jallow

As a life-long fan of Jaliba Kuyateh, I read with great interest Suntou Touray's feature article on the Gambian Kora maestro. The article, sprinkled with comments from a number of Gambian musical observers, is at once informative and enlightening. And the Jaliba interview has provided me with an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the man's musical disposition. I have been attuned to his Kora rhythms for as long as I can remember. And yet, and until now, I had never had the chance to read his thoughts on himself, his music and his views about music, its subtleties and shifting patterns.

Jaliba Kuyateh, Lead Vocalist and Founder of the Kumareh Band

Music is a locomotive. It keeps moving. Changing. Into different lanes. I am glad that Jaliba was able to articulate that to his interviewer, who, at the risk of misinterpretation, seems to be somewhat concerned about the incursions of modernity into Jaliba's musical enterprise. Or otherwise stated, the gradual ebbing away of traditionalism we tend to identify with na jallolu. Frankly, had Jaliba merely contended with the singular utility of the Kora instrument and the puritanism of folk-lore music, he would have long faded. Or, at least, his impact wouldn't have been this great. From his earliest unripened River Gambia tunes to today's danceable, heavy-bass beats churned out by a motley of instruments (cymbals, saxophone, pulsating drums, etc.), Jaliba has come a long way. His longevity on the Gambian musical scene is as much a consequence of his own depth of perseverance as it is of his genius in the art of improvisation. 

Don't misunderstand. Commercialism has made some in-roads into Jaliba's musical career. But since it is foolhardy to pit morality against music and its changing contours, it will be wrong to cast Jaliba's marketing pursuits as a negation or abandonment of traditional purity. Like that of Salifu Keita or Mory Kante, others, Jaliba's music is a melange of the traditional and the modern with the former still playing the more dominant role. The Kora rhythm carries a lot of weight for the traditional element in Jaliba's music. It is enough to lit the traditional fire up and to trigger homely feelings about culture and its sensibilities. 

Kora Instrument

Suntou's article places heavy emphasis on Jaliba's musical representation of the Manden culture. This observation is true but parochial. It is strictly reductionism. I view Jaliba's musical import in the context of national identity; meaning, his contribution to the growth of a musical genre we, Gambians, can claim as our own and sell to the outside world. In the early 1990s, I wrote in the Daily Observer that Gambian music was suffering from a surfeit of genres; there was not a single brand of music that could be exclusively called 'Gambian' on the international stage. This was at a time when Reggae was making the rounds in Gambian entertainment circles. Studio River Gambia was selling Reggae tunes like hot cakes. Those were the days of DJ Buju Boots, Gunji Man, Rebel Baddibu, etc. People were dabbling at the Jamaican patois.

At the time, I was criticized for "playing second fiddle" to traditional Gambian music. It represents a variety of national identities, I was reminded. Point taken. I maintained, however, that our traditional musicians were handicapped by their own limited exposure, a problem not of their own making, but largely of the scarcity of marketing ventures and of innovative musical entrepreneurship. Hence their stunted growth. Hence The Gambia's inability to export musically.

What is Gambian music? What do you call it? Difficult questions. Not so with Senegal: Ndagga. Congo: Soukous. Cuba: Merengue. Zimbabwe: Shona Mbira. I learned during my private conversations with the veteran Gambian music promoter Oko Drammeh, that the Ndagga/Mbalax rhythm had deep roots in The Gambia; but Senegal has done a better job mining this music's richness and taking it to its acme of international commercial appeal. So: technically we could call Ndagga our own, too. But that will be like claiming ownership of something held and domesticated by someone else. Ndagga has come to be associated with Senegal. The Gambia's claim to it becomes just that: a mere mental construct, a figment of  our nationalistic imagination.

While Americanization continues to make in-roads on the Gambian airwaves and we grapple with the difficulty in sorting out the real ones from the copy-cats on what has become a disorderly Gambian musical scene, Jaliba Kuyateh remains in a league of his own, providing us with something tangible to call our own. His brand of music and its considerable cachet continue to give currency to The Gambia in the world.

A Scene at a Jaliba Concert

The defunct Ifanbondi group tried popularizing the Afro Manding sound into a national commodity. It didn't pan out. Might Jaliba succeed in this regard? Would that that were the case.

Editor's Note: This article, edited here, was first published on

Cherno Baba Jallow is an executive member of the Basse Association, Inc. He lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA.


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