The story of a gambian griot
Interview with koraplayer and singer Dembo Jobarteh
You call yourself a gambian griot. Where is The Gambia and what is a griot?
The Gambia is a small country in West Africa. It is situated inside Senegal, along the shores of the river Gambia. Griots have lived there for hundreds of years. It's a hereditary profession. We play instruments like kora, drum and balafon. In our songs we tell the history of our region or give praise to our benefactors and friends.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
For many years I worked as a professional musician on the beach. I met lots of tourists. Some of them found my music unattractive, too different from their own. Others became friends. They told me that it's hard to find recordings of traditional Gambian music. I was sorry to hear this because our music has a lot to offer. So I really hope that through my cd's more people will become interested in The Gambia, griots and our culture.
How did you record your music?
We recorded everything live on mini disc at my home. For Listen All I invited my sister Jessy and her friend Majo Sakiliba to sing a few songs. Later I asked Fatoumata Suso and Sirra Suso. I was very happy with the result. But then, late at night, a knock on the door. Babucarry Jobarteh, who's married to my cousin Norma, came in. He said no matter what, if you make a cd I need to be on it. The result of it all is a mix of traditional songs from The Gambia and my own compositions.
For Gambia Banco I invited my brother Musa and my friend Keba Saho to play the drums on some tracks. We added songs with Babucarry, Fatoumata, Sira, Majo and Jessy. I also decided to do a few tracks in which the kora takes a prominent place. The cd contains five traditionals and six own compositions.
Why didn't you record in a studio?
As a griot I want to hold on to the good things from the past. I want to show you my country, our music. Pure, like we make it at home. No technicalities to sweeten our voices, no fusion with other styles. No tricks to make it commercial. If you listen closely you'll even hear the crickets on the songs we recorded at night. To ensure constant quality the discs were edited and mastered in The Netherlands.
Most of your songs are in Mandinka. Do you think people will understand their meaning?
Music is universal and I believe people will feel our emotions. Take a song like Cheddo. It was written in the time of slavery. If you listen to it now you'll still feel the sadness. Or Allah La Ke, which means that God will never fail you. It's cheerful and will make you happy, even if you don't understand the lyrics.
But I realise that many people are definitely interested in the meaning of my songs. That's why on Gambia Banko you'll find five songs in English, and I'm planning to do the same on my next cd.
Do you play live?
Yes, but mostly in The Gambia. If you are planning to visit please give me a call or send an e-mail. Maybe we can meet. I love to perform for visitors from abroad.
What else do you do?
I'm the manager of the Gambian Griot School of Music and Dance. It's situated at my home in Fajikunda, a suburb of Serrekunda. Here I teach kora and Mandinka drums. And I spend many hours playing kora. For I'd like to become even better than my uncles, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh and Malamini Jobarteh.
How many cd's did you make?
I started recording in 2001. I played kora on a cd of the Dancehall Masters, one of The Gambia's most popular groups.
That year I also released my own first cd. It was called Life. One year later came Enjoy. Both cd's are no longer available.
In 2003 I recorded Listen All. The CD contains eleven songs. Four are traditionals from The Gambia, the others were written by me. It's the first recording on which I am accompanied by female singers, and it's the first cd . Sirra Suso, Fatoumata Suso, Majo Sakiliba and my sister Jessy Jobarteh are all in their twenties and well known in The Gambia.
This was my first CD that was sold worldwide through the Internet.
Gambia Banko was released in 2005. It is dedicated to the inhabitants and visitors of The Gambia. The cd offers a wide variety of traditional songs and own compositions. Some songs are in English, others in Mandinka. There are tracks with djembe and mandinka drums, while others feature only me and my kora.
What are your plans for the future?
Only Allah knows what will happen. But I hope my cd's will get me in touch with music lovers and musicians from around the world. I'd like to live in the U.S.A. for a while like Foday Musa Suso. To hear Cajun in Louisiana, the Blues in the deep south and Hip Hop in Chicago. To go to Cuba and beat the drums to a hot Salsa. To record with other artists, like Youssou N'dour. To bring my music to all those people outside my country. That's why I named my first international cd Listen All. Gambia Banko is a tribute to my country and its people. Because no matter where one travels, a person should always remember his roots.