The Toumaranke Recording Project Diaries. Day 7. Balafon tracks.

Sunday 16th Nov 2014. Day 7

MB 2 balas 1Today we’re recording the balafon (West African xylophone) instrumentals. I know it will be a late start as the whole band aren’t coming, just Mamadou Ba (real name Mohammed Camara but I never knew that until I was collecting the ‘correct’ spelling of names for the album sleevenotes), our Griot who is not a ‘morning person’. Moussa (My hisband and the leader of Toumaranke) is not exactly a morning person himself but when there is work to be done or an early start for a journey or something else that invloves the first part of a morning,  he can be relied on to get up cheerfully. Griots are musicians born into families with a hereditary musical lineage going back hundreds of years, also called Jelis or Jalis in English. In my experience of them thus far (which is reasonably extensive) none of them could be described as ‘morning people’, although the same is true of many many musicians!

Moussa and I went to the market and then to buy accara in town. This was quite successful. Accara is one of my favorite West-African breakfast foods, made from black eyed beans. It’s very labour intensive to make and very cheap to buy so given all else Hadja (our cook) has to do I’m just going to buy some. You have to soak, peel, dry, grind, mix and fry the beans. I can make it, it was one of the first things I learned about 13 years ago; and I know she can too, but it takes ages. I want Martin (our sound engineer) to try it and it goes well with omelette which we’re eating this morning. I pre-ordered from my favorite seller in Sanyang yesterday. If I want more than enough for one or two people she likes me to let her know the day before otherwise she doesn’t have enough for me and all her usual customers. I generally only buy the ‘fritters’ and the sauce, which she puts in bags for me, rather than buying it inside bread which is how you buy it if you are going to eat it immediately, It keeps better that way.

For various reasons I don’t fully understand going to the market often makes Moussa cross (it’s one of the things men don’t really do so a bit embarrassing/degrading socially I think), so we mostly don’t do it together. I can’t manage in the big market on my own as people don’t understand me properly so I usually go with Oka which is fine, but sometimes he has to do other things and sometimes he’s just not around so I have to rock the boat relationship wise and drag Moussa up the road. We got fresh tomatoes, carrots and cabbage. All at reasonable prices and in good condition (one of the more annoying market ploys is to not sell you the fresh produce you’ve pointed at on the table but the mankier stuff concealed somewhere else).

Getting the fish and veg needed to feed us all can be complicated. Sometimes things just aren’t available or aren’t available in large enough quantities. Sanyang isn’t that big and there are occasionally transport issues. There can be a few days or even a week when it’s not possible to buy for example: cheese (only processed ‘Laughing Cow’ type triangles in silver foil when it can be bought), ‘decent’ powdered milk (the cheaper varieties don’t dissolve properly in your tea) or washing up liquid (it’s possible to use ‘Omo’ washing powder to wash up with but it’s difficult to rinse off properly and it’s very hard on the hands). ‘First world problems’ really but if I’ve got other Europeans with me these things can matter. We need a happy sound engineer and a well-fed band as it’s a tough job all-round!  Today was fine however, a good-tempered husband and easy transactions. Then back to the lodge with everything we need for the next few days kitchen wise.

Shopping wise I have to balance the time and expense of going somewhere, like Tangi : next, larger town, 15 mins in the van if nothing happens, often more if it breaks down; or Brusubi: known locally as Turntable (because of the roundabout) about 30 mins in the van if nothing happens,  no market, expensive veg stalls but a couple of big supermarkets; or Brikama: very big town, about 30 mins in the van if nothing happens, good market & a couple of small supermarkets. In Brusubi  there are some bigger places I can buy, for example, large tins of powdered milk, slightly cheaper five litre buckets of mayo and packs of bottled water. Or we buy smaller amounts in Sanyang more expensively but without transport costs and the possibility of someone being gone ages because the van broke down or there was a particularly difficult police roadblock. Before a workshop, or in this case before Martin (our sound engineer) arrived, we usually take a trip to one or all of the places above but if I haven’t calculated correctly we run out of something we can’t get easily in Sanyang then we’re stuck. We have no fridge, or access to one, and buying too much and having it around sometimes causes people to ‘borrow’ things so it’s all a tricky juggling act.

We bumped into Ma Camara in the market, one of the ‘calabash women’ as we call them. This is a  group of local (Sanyang) women who play calabash and dance like crazy who we sometimes book as entertainment when we are running workshops. I can never quite remember, or pronounce, the actual name of the group and nor can Okameo who acts as the other ‘memory store (no-one else ever remembers the names of anyone or anything. Moussa is particularly terrible, he can work with people for years and not remember their names). She was delighted to see us. I gave her a shirt (I had it in my bag to give my friend who sells the accara but I know where she is and can give her something another day) which she was very pleased with.

Sanyang calabash group in action. Thanks to Helen Cooke for the photo.
Sanyang calabash group in action. Thanks to Helen Cooke for the photo.

This giving of gifts is very important in helping smooth relations here. I bring all kinds of things with me to give. Secondhand mobiles/laptops/DVD players/clothes/shoes, solar torches/ electrical leads/ bits of jewellery/ tools/ kids toys/books/educational materials/decent batteries/towels. I try to distribute these as ‘fairly’ as possible and I know which families are most in need but there’s never enough to go round. This time we’ve given a load of plastic bottles (a handy currency left over from having Europeans around who drink bottled water) to the women who sell wonjo (a kind of ‘squash’ made from hibiscus flowers) in the small market next to the mosque. Hopefully the general largesse will help increase our popularity. Because the workshop was so small (and I know the January one will be too) we haven’t spread as much money or useful things around town as we have in the past and this tends to cause resentment, even though it’s not our fault.

Moussa’s standing in Sanyang is quite high currently. Quite a few women are interested in him as he’s ‘married to the bank‘ as our running joke goes. No amount of explaining will ever cause anyone to believe anything apart from that I’m loaded and I shower him with money both when I’m here and when I go. One of the difficulties is that some white women do ‘keep’ men in this way here, and the other is that most people only see white people being tourists, so spending what looks like huge amounts of money. This is one of the reasons going to the market is difficult for him I think. Several women have asked me if we want them as a second wife (polygamy being the normal marriage structure here, a man can have up to four wives although one or two is becoming more normal than four with the younger generation, particularly in the urban areas).  I know when they look at us, me a bit older and white, they think I ‘love’ him for his youth and good looks and he ‘loves’ me for my money. If they only knew the reality they’d be horribly disappointed. I don’t even manage to support myself comfortably, let alone him! These kind of requests are easier for him to manage I think than the ‘she doesn’t look after you properly’ type of criticisms (ie what are you doing in the market with her – if she’s your wife she should take care of that side of things) looks or comments. My Mandinka is limited but I’m not entirely stupid or culturally blind!

Mamadou and Chris, testing donated school materials. Thanks to all who give these.
Momadou and Chris, with donated school materials. Thanks to all who give these.

Some of the pens and the other school materials donated by workshop participants went to Oka’s place (there are ten kids there who go to school). Momadou, who’s nearly five and who lives next door to where we store our instruments, has had some pencils and a colouring book. Both of us enjoyed this. He’s so very bright, desperate to read with me and I just don’t get enough time with him! The Ma/Mohammed household (old associations, the children of my first balafon teacher who I’ve known since small. I no longer work with him but he & Oka are still in touch & I occasionally get to see the kids who I love very much) has had some colouring books also. Ma’s favorite thing to do has been drawing and colouring in since she was quite small. If I get a lot of school materials donated I take them to one of the local schools. If not that much, like this time, I divvy them up among families we know. There is never enough for everyone so I try to remember who’s had what and make sure next time those who didn’t get do. Really I should keep some kind of written records but I never get round to it. Some of the kids are sponsored by various people through me but not all, and people are always asking me to find school sponsors too. Hadja’s kids have sponsors but Momadou doesn’t yet.

We’re now back in the  Lodge, listening to what we’ve got so far and deciding on retakes. Manet is very nice in both the instrumental version and the one with singing. Temadi needs redoing totally as for some reason the English lyric ‘happy new year’ got inserted and needs taking out. This caused a small domestic as I had previously said I wasn’t having random bits of English put in. People do this a lot for performance in the hotel/restaurant scene and sometimes get the wrong idea about what words mean or how to use them. Trying to explain the concept of  ‘but it sounds naff to an English person, also I hate it!‘  has never really worked. I usually just let it go, but not for a recording. I insist. Had I realised that’s what they were actually singing (I thought it was something in Susu that just sounded a bit like those words) I would have stopped it and made them redo it then and it wouldn’t have got recorded like that. One of the reasons Moussa is annoyed with me is this, he feels I’ve let them waste time and that I wasn’t listening properly as ‘quality control’ is part of my role.

I said if I trust him to get the arrangements right he has to trust me on this and he gets it now. Domestic over, he’s reverted to being reasonable and listening. I used persuasion and an example.  The Guinea C CD, Bakadaji, endlessly discussed as it too was recorded here with an English person sponsoring it. Our original bala teacher plays on it and a load of other Guinean musicians we know (one of whom is now, sadly, dead). It has some great bits, but there are a couple of tracks where I feel the poorly translated and clumsy lyrics in English wreck it, and some of the French isn’t great either.  Moussa know’s I’m not the only European person who feels like this about that particular CD. I remind him we’d said no singing in bad or inappropriate English/French and that we’d decided to do it mostly in Susu because of the way the language sounds with the music. We are now in agreement and Temedi  is on the retake list.

Lanyi, the ‘salsa’ track, needs redoing because the singing is fairly terrible. The singing is quite ragged in a lot of places on a lot of the recordings.  Another cultural difference. At least we don’t have anyone with a really awful voice or who sings totally out of time/tune. I’ve done hotel gigs with groups where the music is divine but the singing makes me cringe!  It’s always been the part I’m most concerned about, but what we’ve got is mostly passable and with a bit of tweaking will be up to scratch. I had originally wanted to do everything instrumentally then add the vocals (so we could then take them out if they weren’t ok). This wasn’t possible however because of the limitations of only having two mikes and two sets of headphones. We’re getting better at sorting it out but it’s definitely less than perfect!  Reviewing this a year or so after the album I’m feeling a bit sad as we couldn’t use Lanyi, which was a stunning track, because of some issues with the miking. singing with instruments always tricky and we didn’t have enough mikes or earphones for the group to play and then overdub with the singing. Lessons learned and we can use it on our next album but it was a hard one to let go of.

In general here people are less concerned about singing being what I see as ‘in tune’ and some groups ruin good music by letting people with terrible voices sing. It’s definitely our weakest point. I’ve been over it and over it and brought examples of singing done well. Particularly the Ballet Nimba CD Sogay where they’ve kept the singing simple and it’s beautifully done. It’s just not taken as seriously as the musical arrangements are by the group. Moussa has been tearing his hair out at times trying to get them to do it well. One of the difficulties is that stuff often gets slung together for performance at tourists and that casualness carries over to other places. They haven’t been that responsive to Moussa trying to get them to do it ‘properly’ and still come in in the wrong places with responses, shout – rather than sing – and go all over the place melodically at times. I’m hoping that with enough time and practice we can get the vocals to the same standard as the music. Probably not for this album however!

the least blurred of the 3 bala’s photos. The trouble with giving my camera to someone else is they don’t always understand how to focus properly.Even when I say take lots of pictures I don’t end up with a decent one.

Mamadou Ba has just arrived. We’re hoping to work on the bala tracks this afternoon. I’m feeling a bit nervous but should be fine as the ones we are doing are chosen precisely because they are ones I know well and have been practicing the accompaniment for during my months in england doing the fundraising. I know Ninety Nine, which is part of the Saurait family, really well and Sorsornet is kind of ‘my song’ anyway. I do sometimes wobble tempo-wise however and if I’m trying too hard or playing too long I can get cramp. i remind myself it’s a recording not a performance so these things matter less. I’m excited and looking forward to it too as it’s a hell of a privilege to play with the big boys like this and it should be stunning quality-wise. I’m aware of not wanting to disappoint and that I’m kind of ‘on show’. Moussa has been in charge of my ‘training’ for over a year now so Mamadou Ba will be judging – we all know that.

He and I have worked together before. In the days when we were both playing with Bafila and before Moussa and I were together. So he knows I can deliver in terms of a reliable accompaniment, but I’ve never played as apprentice to him before and we’ve had very little practice time together.  One day I’d love us to do a ‘classical’ style CD with three balas as the basis for everything but this has been a dream for a long long time.

The bala sessions went well.  Moussa is very tired so we stopped after two tracks. I had wanted us to do three so we could choose two out of three but he just doesn’t feel like it and I learned long ago that you can’t ‘push the river’ with him. We’ve got enough to definately create two instrumental tracks of really high quality.

MB Nov 10 2014Mamadou Ba, like all griot players has incredible technique. Amazing fluidity. He can play with one hand, drink something put it down and then carry on with both hands. Griot children start playing very young, around 5 years ols and his father was very strict he says. They had to sit a long time, not being aloud to get up even to go to the toilet! This is often repeated to me when I complain about my knees after sitting on the floor playing bala for a long time. He agreed to keyboard stands for the recording as it makes miking easier with our limited equipment, and he used to play with a stand in our Bafila days. It’s no hardship for him to play sitting however. My first teacher preferred that and most griots agree the sound is better that way although I’ve never really understood why.

Although he’s not a griot and started playing bala in his late 20’s, Moussa plays with great sensitivity and feeling. I love his playing just as much as I do Mamadou Ba’s although his technique is obviously much less perfect. We did three takes of each track. All very groovy and I managed not to disgrace myself by wobbling too much although I did fluff the break in Ninety Nine once. Mamadou Ba even said my accompaniment was good and that’s the first time he’s ever said that. Usually he just looks at me in a slightly disappointed way. I would have loved to do more, to record more. Even to record some of Mamadou Ba’s solo playing while we’ve got the opportunity. We’ve got the bolon and krin parts to add in yet, most to be done today, but what we’ve got bala-wise is stunning! I must be content with what we’ve got but it’s hard not to feel it’s an opportunity wasted while I’ve got recording equipment and a sound engineer here, now!

HadjaServing1Hadja is now back in the kitchen, phew. She took her ex (who has been ill a long long time, hospital said spondylosing ankolitis some years ago but I’m fairly sure it’s MS, he hasn’t walked now for a long time) to the hospital, he’d had some kind of fall, she had wanted to stay a bit longer but I said please come back quick as its hard managing without her. The ‘what are we going to do about Mohammed?’ issue is looming large as he’s only going to get more unwell as time goes by.  He’s been supported by some of my friends plus me for a long time now. The kids have sponsorship. Hadja works for me when I’ve got work to give her. She left him 2 years ago for reasons I fully understand but has had a lot of criticismn for ‘abandoning’ a sick man (who she’s been caring for a very long time). Since I got back to England I’ve started one of those ‘just giving’ type pages. Anyone with spare cash who wants to help support an ex-drum maker (he was good too but hasn’t been able to use his hands properly for years) can go to

We could have hired someone else to cook today but that would mean taking money off her wages (she’s the only one being paid but I haven’t told the band that!) Also no-one is as good as her, her cooking is superb! She knows everyone well, what they like and don’t like and that keeps the crew happy. She also ‘gets’ vegetarianism and doesn’t just cook everything altogether then pick the meat/fish out and hope no-one notices. Martin is a veggie as well as me and he needs to be well-fed and happy with what he’s eating too. The budget is tight but the deal was the band would be well-fed for the time we are working together so Hadja is essential for a smooth-running operation. Plus I know I can trust her totally, she never steals and always runs anything she wants to take – like mayonnaise buckets (back to the ongoing issue of the shortage of containers in this country, I often need these to get water from the well)  – or whatever else – past me rather than assuming I’ve got so much I won’t miss anything. Also I like her, we’ve know each other a long time and she’s the only other woman around. Working surrounded totally by men, at least this time one of them is from the same cultural background as me, sometimes drives me up the wall!

Mohammed Okameo Bangoura working on the bolon part for Sorsonet. Nov 2014.
Mohammed Okameo Bangoura working on the bolon part for Sorsonet. Nov 2014.

Oka cooked lunch (domeda/peanut stew – my favorite) as Hadja wasn’t back in time to do that. Then he did the bolon overdub on Sorsonet, which he made a great job of. Moussa has been very generous about letting people do stuff, he did the bolon overdub on Ninety Nine but gave Oka the other track. Oka is a really good bolon player these days however so I’m not worried about the quality of his playing at all and he’s been such a steadfast and loyal member of the band it’s great he gets a chance like that. I couldn’t manage without him. He’s been a star as usual, run around and done everything that needed doing. Today he’s fetched the bala stand Moussa forgot, there were only two as we’ve only needed 2 so far. This was in the storage place which is fifteen mins on the bike. He’s run ‘interference’ where necessary, I know he helps Moussa keep the others in line and he’s very supportive to Hadja. So much so there have been rumors about them, which I know not to be true because I know where everyone sleeps and they are much too busy in the daytime to fit in even a quickie, also I know them both well and neither of them are prone to anything casual! He cooked lunch today without making without making any fuss, at least in front of me!

There’s a lot of heavy teasing and calling people girls names when they cook. This irritates me immensely, as do demands that I do it. They have been  cooking for themselves during the three month rehearsal period and only Moussa is married. One of a wife’s ‘duties’ here is cooking – and doing everything else – for husband and children, or organising someone else to do it if she works. Both Moussa, Oka  and Kossy know I can cook and quite enjoy my cooking, if it’s not too often and they’ve got enough salt and ‘jumbo’ (local stock-cube) to add in!  The others are curious but I’m not about to satify that curiosity when it won’t be as good as Hadja’s and they’ll hate anything untraditional, even if I could get the ingrediants and access to an oven to do lentil loaf or anything like that!

Happy musicians eating Hadja’s fabulous food.

In my experience many women who work, especially those who do market work, or food selling, cook for their families as well and cooking is hard physical work here. I sometimes say I would cook but they’ll hate it as no-one likes vegetarian food, so it’s a good threat!  “Shall I go in the kitchen and leave you to organise, raise money and publicise yourselves?” I  also say, although not often as one of my roles is ‘diplomat’. This causes an embarrassed silence as they know they can’t but they don’t really understand what I’m angry about. With my emancipated Western sensibilities the way women’s’ work is taken for granted here drives me up the wall. Moussa gets a lot of stick because of the ‘unfeminine’ way I behave, but they need me so they don’t say it to my face and my reputation as an organiser is strong enough for them to put up with my peculiarities.

There was some kind of tension with Mamadou Ba and Hadja that I don’t fully understand. I insist she’s as valuable as the rest of us, part of the team. This goes for workshops too. I don’t separate ‘kitchen staff’ from ‘musicians’ in terms of importance in any country (Oka and I span both camps here anyway and occasionally Moussa) but there is often an attitude that she’s ‘just the cook’. I think Mamadou Ba had said something to her along those lines, and was also suggesting she’s obliged to cook for the band at other times or when he’s part of a workshop that’s nothing to do with me. This is a bit tricky as I pay her, always, and at this point I’m not paying anyone else. The deal with this project was I’d raise the money and bring the sound engineer, pay the venue and feed us all. Then anything we make gets shared out later. This is difficult as they don’t quite trust this despite what they say. With the exception of Moussa and Oka who trust me totally and know I always do what I say, and Kossy, who is learning that I deliver on promises as I said I’d get him a laptop and some months later I did.  Hadja will only work for me, not other European people she says. Whatever it was that happened Oka sorted it. It’s one of his strengths smoothing such things over, and bless him when we’re running workshops he usually tells me after he’s sorted it (or not at all) so my energy is free for other things.

Martin had run out of bottled water and Kossy hadn’t managed to fetch any when sent. The shop was shut or something and he didn’t think to try again later and I forgot to tell him to do that as I was busy playing bala.  So although I’m tired too Oka and I went into town in the pitch black (no moon at all) on the bikes. We have no lights on the Toumaranke bike fleet (which is a feat of organisation and maintenance in itself). So he holds out  his phone – on the torch setting for light (mine has no torch which is a serious problem here). Quite an exciting cycle in the total darkness and a bit scary for me but I tried to trust the fact I know that road well. I know where most of the holes and difficult bits are, and managed to cycle there and back (with six bottles of water strapped to my bike as it’s mine that has a rack at the back) without falling off or letting on how scared I was. Hooray for the steadfastness of Oka and the fact I can say ‘we need to go and do this now’ and he just says ‘yes’ and never complains or gives me any grief over it. It will be a story or a joke later! He’s the best and he knows I appreciate him totally.

Moussa is very, very tired. I am in a similar state. It’s really hard work for both of us, demanding both physically and emotionally. We ate, played cards a bit with Hadja and Martin, and then went to bed.

The finished album can be bought through the Toumaranke website, from our bandcamp page or hardcopy can be bought directly from me in the UK, or Moussa/Oka/Kossy in The Gambia. See our facebook page for loads of other photos from the recording process. We’re currently fundraising again for Moussa to go the Guinea to promote the album there so if you’d like to support us we’d be very grateful.


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