The Day of the snake. Day 4, Nov 12th 2014 .
Band arrived in good time after yesterdays’ very late start. I’m still feeling ropy with very strong menstrual cramp, headache and low level nausea. Moussa has a cold and can’t breathe properly. Oka is less tired, he was shattered yesterday and his energy levels are usually very high. Everyone else seems fine.
Moussa and Oka went to the practise place (that’s what we call the house we rent for the band, there’s a lot of outside space and no-one too much to disturb) to pick cassava leaves (we’re growing cassava there to hopefully sell next year to help support ourselves). We are having plassass for lunch so better to use our own cassava leaves than go and buy some in the market. I think we had already decided this but somehow no-one told the band to do it before they came this morning which would have been easier; but that seems to be so often the way here. From my, Western, point of view it often seems like the most time consuming and inefficient way round things is the way they get done! The ‘steamed fish’ preparations got sorted yesterday so that’s breakfast for most, omelette for the vegetarians. All fine in the kitchen department.
We’re starting with Cola today which I don’t play on. This is the one about the traditional importance of the cola nut in West African society. I remember when it was being written and Mamadou Ba said something like ‘no cola no marriage’ and everyone laughed like mad and it was one of those moments of me feeling out in the cold culturally as I had no idea why that was funny (still don’t), Moussa is sorting out the arrangements. It’s all feeling very calm and low key.
Cola sorted, now working on Ne Fa Day. This is the only one that isn’t Moussas track, shown to us first by M B and Moese. It’s in Baga, Moese is the only one who isn’t Susu. He’s got a really great voice, just lacks confidence to sing out. When I told him he had a great voice he said he used to rap a bit in Guinea. The first time I heard it, just Balafon and voice, I thought it was stunning and wanted to record it like that. I’ve been overruled however. The ‘full band’ arrangement is nice, it’s growing on me, but it doesn’t have the same gut impact. Moussa has stripped it back a bit, no drums and no shakers and it’s beautiful now. Today is going really well, everyone’s well in the groove..
We’re getting through today at a rate of knots. Some really nice recordings with great energy but a lot less ‘nerves. I think everyone’s settled down into a routine and now ‘gets’ what’s going on and what’s expected. We’ve stuck to the same kind of rhythm we use for workshops – breakfast together, two hoursish first session, tea break, another two hoursish session, lunch – we have an hour rather than the three hours we allow for workshops (although that time has optional activities so is never ‘off’ for staff anyway), then the same in the afternoon. Group dynamics have calmed down and people are listening better to what Moussa says and not needing to argue about if they are ‘right’ or not in terms of where things go. Breaks, calls, vocal responses – all getting tighter.
We’ve done four tracks and it’s not even lunchtime yet. Working on Manet with two bolons. This is the arrangement they first played at the Toumaranke workshop a couple of weeks ago. I said afterwards it had to go on the CD. It blew me away then and even though I’ve heard it a bit more since I still think it’s incredible. I’ve had nothing to do with this track, wasn’t there for any of the rehearsals for it and so see I it a bit more from the ‘outside’ maybe… We’re doing one purely instrumental version and one with singing. The song for this one is very simple, not very long and done in unison so it’s not difficult to record in terms of singers and mike placements. Moussa has been working on it for some years I think, with ‘Kamodu’ his old friend and first gongo teacher. Kamodu is now having some mental health problems and the situation is all a bit sad. I think Moussa feels this very deeply as they worked on a lot songs together and it’s nice that Kamoudu is sort of here with us because of the song, even though he’s not well enough to actually be here physically and play with us.
Another fabulous Hadja lunch. Fantastic plassass, partly because the leaves were so fresh and partly because her plassass is the best anyway. Everyone has now had a chance to have a little listen to some of the recordings (hampered by us only having two sets of headphones and no speaker to play things through so only two people at a time can do this). We’ll listen all together with the laptop later but we wanted people to be able to hear the full sound and you only get that through the headphones, the laptop cuts out the bass notes a lot and you can’t hear the bolon properly. The bolon, or in the case of Manet, the two bolons, adds such a richness to the overall sound. It really is a fantastic instrument. The balafons are sounding great too, really bright and not buzzy at all.
Then we had a bit of unexpected excitement. Martin had sacrificed some of his lunch break to set up the equipment so people could listen to what we’d been doing. They were doing this outside his room and he was popping in and out to supervise. Suddenly he came out rather fast and said a snake had just fallen through his bathroom window! I’ve been working in this country fourteen years now and this kind of thing has never happened to me. I’ve seen snakes, we had an incident with a snake coming into the house at the practise place last year; but that’s out in the sticks and it was rainy season. I’ve personally never had a ‘snake-in-the-room experience’. An unbelievable series of co-incidences must have occurred. It had to be his room rather than ours or Hadjas!
He said it was green (I was a bit worried it was a mamba). He stayed outside and various band members, plus me, armed with sticks, went inside. Much searching but we couldn’t find it anywhere (or a hole in the mozzy netting on the window). Conclusion – it came in through the roof (must have fallen out of a tree) and fell onto the window, where he then first saw it, before falling to the floor. We did see one in one of the trees here a couple of weeks ago so maybe it was the same one? I explained if they couldn’t find it it was gone (and the chances of that happening twice are surely astronomically low), but we’re going to change his room anyway. We checked a couple of the plywood ceilings very thoroughly, using the same sticks, to make sure there were no loose bits that snakes could fall through and have found him another room with a very secure ceiling that the band will help him move his stuff to when we’ve finished this afternoon.
Snake incident over. Afternoon session now in progress. They are working on one of the three ‘new’ tracks that I haven’t heard, as we weren’t rehearsing these when I was here in August. This one is called Sino (the time to sleep is past) and it’s the Mandinka track. It’s not possible to cover even all the main languages but this is ‘for’ the Gambia . Kossy is the main voice on this one. Moussa is being very generous about letting everyone have at least one ‘star’ role, even though he’s better at everything than everyone (apart from M B who’s Balafon playing is superb). This means that sometimes things take a bit longer than they would if he did them, as the others don’t always get it ‘right’ the first time.
I’ve just discovered that Souleymane can write in Susu. This is very exciting as it means I’ve got half a chance of getting some of the tracks written out and translated reasonably clearly. He’s agreed to write all the words for the songs for me, then we can work on the translations. This is going to be a huge piece of work in itself but hopefully will add interest (and so value) to the CD; and look good on the 4 page booklet insert thing we’re envisaging.
Terrible cramp, another early night.