The Toumaranke Recording Project diaries. Day 8. Palm wine

Monday 17th November 2014.

Well it’s been a whole week now since we started work on this CD. Everyone seems to be getting on generally ok. Martin is comfortable with his work, the band, Sanyang, Gambia in general (although we’ve not really been anywhere much, mostly stayed in the Lodge and worked and it IS very beautiful here). He’s developed an excellent working relationship with Moussa, they are largely communicating without me ‘in the middle’ now. The band like and respect him and are still behaving well. Moussa is at his finest; composing, arranging, getting all the music in superb form. He’s unstoppable at the moment, new ideas all over the place. It’s as much as I can do to keep him focused on the material we’re working on, he’s had at least another albums’ worth of inspiration since we started. It’s a joy to be able to do this with him, helping him work at what he’s born to do. He’s so incedibly talented and has such a lot to give. If all his music just stays in his head it would be sad. Watching him work and hearing the tracks take shape, makes all the hard work Martin and I have done to get us this far well worth it. There’s going to be more to follow I know, and we’ve got another week to get through yet, but the quality of what we’ve got recorded is stunning.

Oka is in fine fettle too. He’s a great organiser and he loves it. It’s a bit weird having him staying with the band at the practise place and us here. I’m used to him sleeping on site with workshops. We simply didn’t have enough money to take another room for him and he can’t share with Hadja as propriety doesn’t allow. He stayed the night she was away which was great, and he usually stays later than the others so we hang out a bit as well as sort out ‘housekeeping’ matters. He and M are well into their comedy routines also. Oka is a natural born comedian. The daily comedy over dinner nearly made me choke the other day – they have this routine where they are pretending to steal the majority of the food in the dish. We eat in the traditional way from one dish, aside from the vegetarians who mostly have their own. Most of it is classic comedy style “oh look over there” then stealing the lions share while the other person is looking the other way kind of stuff. But yesterday they were pretending to advise each other on ‘European’ manners, i.e using a fork not a spoon, only eating a little bit at a time etc (while nicking the lions share when the other person was distracted by trying said activities). They are very good at it and it’s very funny. I hope I can get it on video at some point.

Supplies are a bit of an issue as always but we’re doing ok generally. Fish of the right sort at the right time is an ongoing nightmare. There’s plenty of bonga in the market but M is very anti Bonga (I think they ate so much of it in the couple of months they were practising with me supporting them at D100 per day that he’s sick of it). The pre smoked ‘catfish’ is acceptable and reasonably easy to get but he doesn’t always want that either! Getting the minced fish the day before for the next mornings ‘steamed fish’ is still tricky. Not that many of the market women have phones. No-one is ever reliably where you want them to be if you’ve made an arrangement, and M has so much else on his mind he doesn’t always remember to phone at the right time to remind people, or can’t get hold of the particular woman he wants. Why they haven’t got the idea we want it every other day by now I don’t understand. Anything irregular is always problematic here. If it was every day we’d probably be ok but the budget doesn’t stretch to that. Steamed fish then turai gelte ‘porridge’ is the menu, although we’re having porridge again today because we couldn’t get the right kind of fish yesterday. I have suggested ordering for a week rather than doing it daily but I’ve no idea if that will work or if he’s even done it so we’ll see.ChrisHadjaCooking

I’m sitting in the kitchen area in the early morning. No-one is around except me, Hadja and the animals. There are three ‘kitchen cats’ who solemly follow her in a line when she walks to the kitchen around 6.30am. Something I’ve significantly failed to capture on camera. Our favourite chicken (the pretty brown one) is currently perched on the edge of a broken bucket trying to drink out of it. Jonny, the lodge dog (who has seriously split loyalties and who’s heart belongs to Moussa) is still asleep in the scrape he’s made in the sand. One of the things that annoys lodge staff is his continual digging of a different hole to sleep in, it makes the ground uneven and I’ve fallen in some in the dark or early morning myself! Jonny is good hearted but no one has ever trained him so he can’t always behave, runs off with things, or chews things. The band generally like him and he sometimes goes home and ‘stays the night’ with them.

I’ve just been to see Maty in the restaurant kitchen getting breakfast for her boys and getting them ready for school. All seems well with our relations with the Lodge. We’ve paid them and we don’t need much and they are generally leaving us alone as they know what we’re trying to do. Martins’ room got cleaned the other day when we asked (we clean our own as its storeroom as well as bedroom and anyway it’s such a mess it would probably cause a scandal if anyone saw it –more rumours about my wifely failings we don’t need). There is still no toilet paper but we managed to buy a supply of klenex for Martin which he’s managing with. Maty says she’ll see what’s possible but I’m not holding my breath.

Toilet paper is always a problem. It’s not used here, it’s a European thing. Rinsing yourself with water being the preferred method (most Africans think using toilet paper is a disgusting idea but are too polite to say so). It’s not easy to get any in Sanyang as there is no supermarket and with Martin being the only guest in the lodge (we don’t count and we’ve never asked for toilet paper for ourselves) Maty is probably reluctant to make a journey to somewhere that does have a supermarket  just to buy a couple rolls of loo paper. Because the lodge provide it for guests for workshops I too didn’t get any. Martin fortunately isn’t worried by this and seems to be managing happily with the packets of klenex I’m supplying him with, which is fortunate as this is likely to continue until he leaves.


Now I’m sitting at the breakfast table drinking my tea and eating some of the bread Baccari has just delivered, still warm from the bakery, yum. Watching the birds (the pretty rust and blue one is to my left, must look it up when I get home).  I love this quiet morning time before everything kicks off, it’s the only bit of space I get to myself. Oka usually gets up and goes to the beach to run. I get up and wander around with my tea, have a bit of time with Hadja, write, and then start planning. The birds here are wonderful and as the lodge has so many trees, and they are now putting water around too, you can see all kinds here without having to go out and look for them. Thus far (not counting chickens) the Paradise Flycatcher is probably my favorite, although I love the Glossy Starlings too and the ones they call ‘Bellaray’ in Susu (which may be the African thrush but I’m not entirely sure) who love fruit, especially papaya. Then there are the weavers, (Bellyia) who’s name translates as ‘house of red’ –  they have red eyes, in Susu and who are either everywhere at once or nowhere at all. I could go on and on, I love birds and they are especially beautiful here. Sometimes, when everything feels too hard, a bird swoops down to drink and my spirits lift looking at such beauty. The tiny Beautiful Sunbird is darting around as I write.

Oka’s just arrived. Coffee for him then we’re off to the market.  We’ve now had yet another sucessful market outing and with a bit of extra good luck. We bumped into a palm wine tapper/seller in the street as we were on or way out. Not the guy we’ve seen before and who we’ve been looking for all week. Pure co-insidence. We stopped him, probably a bit over-enthusiastically. Oka stayed with him to make sure he didn’t go anywhere and I cycled madly back to the lodge for a couple of empty bottles. Then we got him to fill them for us and they are now hidden in the kitchen. palm wine Palm wine is one of Moussas’ favourite things. His dad was a palm wine tapper/seller as well as a musician (he sounds like a really interesting person and I wish I’d met him but he was dead by the time I met M, about 8 years or so ago now). Palm wine is an alchoholic drink made from the sap of the palm tree. Fresh from the tree it isn’t alchoholic at all but it quickly ferments as palm tree sap is very sugary and can become quite strong (and totally undrinkable as far as I’m concerned). It’s a very important part of West African culture as it’s traditional. We always get some for workshops, it makes the staff happy but most non-Africans don’t like it.

Oka and I managed to get everything we needed for the kitchen in the small market next to the mosque so we didn’t have to go far. This was especially good for me as my fast cycling to fetch bottles then bring then back has made me a bit tired. Hopefully we’ve orded the fish ‘boullet’ (minced up fish, sounds like ‘bullet’ but I know I’m not pronouncing it right as every time I use the word to either Oka or Hadja they have no idea what I mean) to be delivered at five today for tomorrows ‘steamed fish’ breakfast. I’m not holding my breath about the last thing but I am feeling rather pleased with myself. Oka and I very happy about our ‘surprise’,. We have to keep popping into the kitchen to undo the tops of the bottles a bit (otherwise it will explode the tops off as it ferments quite fast and this lot was really very fresh). Hadja is happy too as she’s in on it. All three of us are like kids with a secret. We love producing surprises, food or otherwise, that we know will please people. We’re especially happy with this one as Moussa is going to be particularly delighted and a happy Moussa makes everything easier.


Everyone is here now. M is up and eating porridge, the rest of us have eaten, and some people are taking advantage of me having put my laptop out so they can listen to some of what we’ve done so far. We have only three working laptops between us now, mine, the one we’ve brought for the recording and Kossys. The one I brought out a couple of years ago for Oka will only turn on sometimes and Moussas just makes a horrible screaming noise. This is a bit problematic but not a total disaster. This life, this place, is hard on technology – there’s sand and dust everywhere no matter how careful you are (and Moussa isn’t to be honest and never remembers to put his away in it’s case). Plus it’s hot and in the rainy season humid too, and although I’ve shown various people various things with the laptops no-one really knows how to use them properly. They get heavy use (mostly for looking at pictures and videos) and other people use them and they were all second-hand reconstituded donations anyway. It’s nice for people to be able to look at photos and videos of work we’ve done over the years, and Kossy is quite tecchologically minded, picks stuff up quick when I show him, so I’m hoping he’ll be the tekky of the group. We had originally intended to teach a bit of recording technology but it just isn’t practibable this time. There is never enough time to skill everyone up the way I want (and they want too) but the laptops are useful and have provided a lot of joy over the years.

Everyone seems relaxed and happy and ready for work. We’re having another meeting in a minute. Just a check in and progress report really. In the end not much was said, everyone knows what we’re doing and we all want to do it well. There haven’t been any big interpersonal issues so no ‘mediation’ was necessary. No one seems to be sitting on any resentment or anger (or if they are they’re disguising it very well and I can’t tell).  M is happy with them, they’re happy with Martin, Martin is happy with how it’s going (me too, no major issues so far). Then we brought out the palm wine which went down a treat. Really nice too, I don’t always like it but this batch had a clean fresh taste.  I now have a very happy husband and there is general jollity all round.

A fab morning of retakes. Three in the bag so far with our new system of the lead vocalist being closer to the mike and if that’s M then he plays gongo and we overdub the krin.

Moussa Sylla doing krin overdubs. Watched by Hadja, Pappy and Oka.
Moussa Sylla doing krin overdubs. Watched by Hadja, Pappy and Oka.

This means the music has a different feel than playing with the krin ‘live’ but it’s ok and works better for the vocals. I’m on tambourine mostly as M has decided to solve the problem of Souleymane and his sometimes wobbly tempo on shakers (which they always call castanets for some reason) by having me in there too. I’ve already got a blister, not being used to tambourine, shakers I understand. I’ve put a plaster on and am sorting out some kind of system for getting the sound I want – standing slightly back in the line so as not to be too loud, and holding it more comfortably. Every instrument, in my experience, hurts in some way until you get used to it and the appropriate bit of skin gets calloused. Different arm movement for tambourine too and only one side so feels a bit weird currently.

Everyone is uptempo and on it at the moment although M is still very tired (and sleeping as I write this in the lunchbreak).  Hadja has cooked lunch then gone back to organise whatever she’s sorted out re someone taking care of Mohammed and the kids so she can come back and we can do the next  five days without any more emergencies. Some person is coming tonight apparently to stay and care for Mohammed (who’s a bit better after whatever it was he had on top of what I’m more and more convinced is MS). They went to the hospital and were given paracetamol I think, I’d sent a load of that plus various painkillers but people do like to go to the hospital.  In my opinion it’s a waste of time and money usually. They rarely tell you what’s the matter. You get an indecipherable bit of paper (I’ve been shown literally hundreds of these over the years and can never make sense of them even though I can read) and some white tablets in a small plastic bag with X3 or whatever written on them (ie 3 times a day) and it mostly seems to be paracetamol. The exceptions to this, in my experience, are TB and malaria with complications. Where going to the hospital helps a lot and the appropriate medicines are given with clear instructions. You can get malaria in some of the hospitals however, as the beds mostly don’t have nets.

kossygongo2Kossy is a bit nervous about his vocals on Cola (the track about the importance of the cola nut in West African culture and how it’s being largely replaced with ‘minty’ i.e packets of sweets). M wasn’t happy with the last take we did last week. Kossy tends to try a bit too hard vocally and his voice doesn’t sound good when he does that. He also goes too low so it ‘cracks’ a bit (Oka is guilty of this too), and he often comes in in the wrong place so he’s got quite a bit to worry about!. There’s some conflict here as M wants it done a certain way and Kossy has got a bit flustered I think and doesn’t really ‘get’ what he’s doing wrong or how to do it right, although he gets that M isn’t happy. We’ve done another take that’s better now, five so far, so hopefully it’s ok.

It’s really hot today. Everyone is pouring with sweat except Martin, who isn’t moving around as much. A lot of water is being drunk. Thank goodness there’s a tap here and we can just fill the bucket up and I don’t have to fiddle around trying to sterilise enough well water for us all. I haven’t managed to get any ice so it isn’t cold, but that means sending someone up the road and my organisational skills are already stretched to the max. No one will volunteer and if I ask no-one will want to go and do it so I’m just leaving that one. It’s probably only me that minds anyway!

Lunch today is marahoule (however you spell that). A Guinean dsh, sort of puree of okra and bitter tomato and things and can be eaten (happily and without complaining as apparently this is traditional) without fish. This is lucky as we didn’t manage to get any and there will be steamed fish, we hope, for breakfast tomorrow. I’m tired of issues with fish. I bloody hate fish!  Anyway lunch was fine, Moussa (who is sometimes difficult about food being ‘right’, ie cooked the way his family used to cook it, especially when he’s working really hard and is tired like now), is happy. I’m happy too as without the fish we can all eat from the same bowl and I don’t feel so much of a weirdo eating my vegetarian food alone while they all eat together. There was much laughing and joking today while eating, plus a bit more comedy from M and Oka. I did try to video this but not sure I’ve got the equipment to do it justice.

GambiaNOV14 436This afternoon consisted of endless retakes of Lanyi (Peace), the ‘salsa style track, which we’re not getting quite right. We had a watermelon break  (M and I having ordered one in town the other day, then sent Kossy to pick it up on one of the bikes) which helped with the heat and caused more jollity. After lunch we got Hadja a taxi to the garage and Oka took the opportunity to take one of the bikes which has a puncture up the road to the Fuller guy who’s name I forget who fixes bikes. We have, currently, five bikes between the eight of us, one is MB’s personal one. I brought a new one with me when I came.

Bikes, even more than laptops, get really heavy use here and are continually Bikes and gaffa tapebreaking and needing to be fixed. Punctures being most common as there are all kinds of hazards for tyres; thorns, bits of glass, metal etc… in the road, plus the endless potholes.  Brakes and gears need endless work too. My bike (now four years old and bought here) has gears that sometimes work but which mysteriously change by themselves at times, a decent back brake and a dodgy front brake. M’;s has no working gears but brakes. The bike we call Jo’s bike (from the first workshop we ever ran in 2012), has a wire basket on the front (with a hole in) as well as a carrying rack and so is useful for market but much too big for me to ride. This has a back pedal brake so can be tricky for people not familiar with it. The new one is currently ok and we give this Martin to ride now the saddle has been adjusted to his height. MB’s, the one with the puncture, I don’t know.

Creating and maintaining the Toumaranke bike fleet can be a major mission. Much gaffer tape has been employed and I’ve brought out socket sets and various things for fixing and still we have to take them endlessly for repairs. Just getting a bike through the airport is a serious task in itself. Oka has a personal one, which I bought for him about six years ago now, but it’s at his place in Sanchaba. Kossy has one too, although I’m not sure if it’s his or belongs to the place he lives. This one came from a czech student M had a couple of years ago and seems to have ‘belonged’ to various people since.

There’s a bit of jockeying for position going on today. All egos are rampant I think. Martin has changed the layout slightly and some of the quieter instruments have got moved closer to the mikes (to balance the sound, we did explain why he did this).  MB then moved his bala forward and Martin had to tell him to move it back. I was joking with Martin that the whole thing will turn into a game of ‘grandmothers footsteps’ and he’ll turn round and have the lot of them right up against the mikes. He’s beginning to understand that I make jokes like this as I have a lot of experience working with African musicians. He didn’t believe half the things I told him at the beginning (and I didn’t tell him everything because I didn’t want to make him feel discouraged before we’d even started and also it might be different this time I thought; well I didn’t but I wanted to give everyone a chance to behave well). He’s starting to believe me now. Any group of musicians has a healthy collection of egos, as does any collection of men, West African  men in particular. Put these together and a situation can easily get out of control. It hasn’t and it’s not going to, but sometimes it can get a little tricky. M’s management skills are good here, he generally uses laughing and joking to defuse any potentially explosive situation. My presence helps too as they tend not to kick off so much in front of me and I remind them why we’re doing this.

More palm wine for me and M and Oka this evening (M delighted as I had the foresight to stash one for later).  Oka is staying over as Hadja isn’t here until tomorrow. He and M went into town on the bikes to try and buy chicken (which they didn’t manage and had to make do with unsatisfactory bruchette but it was meat which is what they wanted). Martin went to bed early to watch a film. Moussa, Oka and I hung out a bit and discussed life, the universe and everything. Then bed.


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