I originally intended to start this series with Moussa Sylla, bandleader of Toumaranke and my husband. However Okameo got married recently and I’ve been looking at my photos and thinking over our friendship, so writing about him first developed out of that. The three of us are the heart of Toumaranke and the connections between us are as rich and deep and complex as the music itself. When Moussa and I went to Guinea in 2011 we went to visit Oka’s family, to pass on his greetings and let them know how he was. When we spent an uncomfortable night in a police station in Gambia a couple of years ago (not quite under arrest) he brought us tea and blankets. When he was recently married we were there alongside him as none of his family could afford the long journey.
Of all the musicians I’ve met in my travels in West Africa, in fact of all the people I’ve ever met anywhere, Mohammed Bangoura – aka Okameo is one of the nicest, kindest and funniest. The nickname, or ‘street name’, Okameo (his actual ‘proper’ name is Mohammed) dates back to his childhood and refers to a famous footballer (although I know nothing about football so can’t provide anymore information than that, Guinean I assume). I first encountered him somewhere around the time I started playing with small ‘musical’ ensembles in the Gambia, probably around 2003ish. The ‘musical’ tradition is distinct to that of the ‘ballet’ tradition in West Africa, there are a wider variety of instruments and the tempo and complexity of the rhythms is very different too. I became aware of a strong, smiling presence. A guy playing bolon (West African bridge harp) with a big grin on his face. He didn’t speak much, was always polite and encouraging, never stank of booze, never tried to hit on me, never asked for anything. A solid presense when playing, a clear strong energy which felt safe. There’s a wicked sense of humour there too, Oka is a natural clown and can use this to good effect both on stage and off.
It has been tricky negotiating through the world of largely male West African musicians I’ve worked with. First as a single woman, then with a Guinean lover, then with a Guinean husband, then divorced, then repeat scenario. Encountering a guy who seemed centered in himself, who wasn’t out of control with either alchohol or other substances, and who smiled at me when we were playing in a way that felt simply friendly, connecting for a moment in the music without a sexual/economic subtext, was refreshing – so I noticed him. There weren’t that many bolon players around either, so he was often part of any given group I was playing with. We weren’t particularly friendly at first. Years of experience have taught me to curb my natural friendliness in West Africa, especially with men, as it gets misinterpreted. Oka, I discovered over time, plays and makes a whole variety of instruments, as well as being a great dancer and comedy actor.
Later in my musical development I started having balafon lessons with a Guinean griot (the griots are the hereditory musician families of West Africa) Saikou Soumah. I discovered that Oka was a good friend of his and they had played together for many years. At that point they were working with a group called Bafila and after a while I joined too. I played what the Guineans refer to as ‘castanets’, ie basket shakers. This is terrifying as it means you’re generally at the front, part of the band/audience interface, so quite exposed. If you mess up it’s always very very obvious. It also usually means you have to dance, or at least move; great ‘training’ as it’s called. I worked with Bafila on and off for about 4 years; first as Saikou’s student, and later when he’d left the group I carried on working with them and I learned a lot during that time. They went through a fair few lineup changes but Oka was with them all the time I was, playing bolon, until we both got asked to leave (due to complicated band politics that I can’t even remember properly) in 2011.
At that time I was recently divorced and a bit unsure of how this affected my ‘respectability’ with the guys I was working with. I stayed, alone, with relatives of a friend in a family compound in New Jeshwang, Gambia for four months in 2009/10. Oka was a frequent visitor and he, Saikou, Moussa and I made our first attempt at recording in Gambia in 2010. A steep (and expensive) learning curve for me as I was very naive about studio costs/requirements/equipment. What was salvageable from those sessions is on bandcamp as Abirriminting (Susu for ’round and round’, although I have no idea how to actually spell it). During those months the ‘mother’ of the compound I stayed in was obviously intrigued as to which one of them I was sleeping with (the assumption always being that I’m sleeping with someone). She used to drop in often and unexpectedly to try and catch me out! We laughed a lot about this and once I made the three 0f them line up their shoes outside my bedroom door so she could be suitably shocked by the ‘fact’ I was sleeping with them all!
I have always found Oka straightforward and honest to deal with. I knew he made basket shakers and since 2006 he’s made all the ones I sell. I got him a commission one year with a music shop in England but it never came to anything. It’s hard to compete with wholesale prices percussion wise and it just wasn’t feasable for him to make the shakers at a price which allows for the kinds of profit an English shop has to make. We’ve tried making and selling all kinds of things over the years but only ever sold a few on the back of workshops, largely due to this problem. He also listens and takes on board what I say about quality and manufacturing techniques or materials, another unusual trait in my experience of trying to trade with West African musicians. After some of the shakers fell apart when used by a particularly enthusiastic group of special needs students I offered a couple of suggestions about how he could make them stronger, he took them on board and has done it that way ever since.
As well as being a talented bolon player Oka also makes bolons. This has allowed me to get an insight into the instrument I couldn’t have in any other way. Over the years we’ve had various ‘Toumaranke houses’ which are always part workshop part rehearsal space. The first bolon I watched him make was when we had a place in Kelseray, Gambia, sometime in 2011. Toumaranke were a 4 person outfit at that point. Moussa and I were an established couple although not yet married; he’d shifted from largely being based in Cassamance to being largely based in Gambia. We were on good terms with our neighbours there, the kids used to come and dance when we practiced.
I look back on that time happily. The house was big enough to play inside or out, we had a spare room for overnight stays, a veranda big enough to practice on, running water, electricity, and I wasn’t flat broke so there was plenty for everyone to eat and enough left over for transport/emergencies etc… We got our first chickens there and had a splended rooster called King Josh (after my grandson) who became a bit of a neighbourhood character. We had several disasterous hatchings and deaths and did a fair bit of bonding over chicken related traumas. I once persuaded Oka to spend the evening watching videos and holding a recently hatched chick (which I’d been keeping in my shirt as it’s mother and all other siblings were dead) while Moussa and I went and did a resturant gig. It’s not really possible to work with a baby chick in your shirt and I was worried I’d crush it. Despite all our efforts it died a week or so later…
I discovered that Oka (like me) is fond of both chickens and kids. I had known he liked kids and was ‘Omo‘ (kind of like a godparent type of relationship with a child who is named for you. Parents usually pick a relative or friend and that person then has a special bond with, and particular set of social obligations to, the child who’s been named for them) to Saikou’s son Mohammed. We’ve spent many happy ‘beach’ days with various children, mostly Saikous, but including other kids we’ve associated with over the years. It’s a bit of a treat for us all, a day on the beach, and generally involves a football and a picnic. Oka has always been particularly friendly with all of the children in any of the places we’ve ever stayed.
At that time Moussa and I saw a lot of Oka as we were living very geographically close. Since we’ve been based in Sanyang, from about 2013, we’ve seen less of him because of the time/distance/money … Oka and Moussa came to Gambia, literally, in the same boat from Guinea in 2002. They know each other very well, have played together in a huge variety of groups which have split, reformed, split, changed, split and so on… They separated professionally for a few years when Oka settled in Gambia and Moussa was still working in Senegal but they are very compatable musically and collaborate well. Oka has always treated me as just another musician and has been particularly helpful when I’m trying to learn the words for songs. He’s good at remembering songs and lyrics and sometimes acts as a kind of ‘library’ for Moussa. We’re all very comfortable with each other and as the years go by the musical ‘fit’ gets better and better .
Oka has always been respectful to me, to all women as far as I’ve seen, although he’s funny also, a natural born comedian He uses this humour very well, I’ve seen him help fraught kitchen staff relax by joking with them, and he helps manage the energy of any group with comedy. Over the years I’ve become a sort of sister, and we’ve been able to co-operate easily about almost anything. We’ve cooked a great deal together, which he’s never had an issue with, and learned about different foods and cooking styles. He’s an excellent cook and before we were working with Hadja he even gave a couple of cooking lessons. He’s very fond of ‘stirfry’ and if I’m cooking and he’s visiting and I ask what he wants its always that. He’s partial to coleslaw too, something I taught our cook on the first workshop we all ran together in 2012.
As well as making things, cooking and playing, we’ve run five residential music workshops together in Gambia so far and had many adventures. We invented the ‘Sanyang barribagass’ sometime in 2012 and this mysterious figure has occassionally presented itself since. All my staff have to be flexible, able to teach westerners then suddenly switch roles, rush to the market for some vital forgotton supply, sort out a leaking toilet or a lurking spider,be chatty and entertaining with students and troubleshoot without missing a beat. Okameo is master of us all in this regard. Since we started running workshops as well as playing together we’ve had to draw on all the skills we’ve learned and the three of us, plus Hadja Daffy, our magnificent cook, are a phenomenal team. This experience was invaluable when it came to recording Toumaranke’s debut CD, which needed every skill we had between us plus a whole load of new ones we had to make up on the spot!
Moussa, Oka, Kossy and I went to the Kartong festival together once. We stayed in tents because I didn’t have enough money to pay for accomodation for us all and it’s tricky for us to stay with other Musicians they know (which is what they’d do if I wasn’t with them) because of Moussa and I being a couple and me being white and the impossibility of us all just sleeping on the floor, or in one bed, as a group. It was Oka and Kossy’s first experience of tents and they had a lovely time. Since then we’ve used tents a lot, if people are staying and we don’t have room we just put them into a tent and everyone is getting used to it (although there is still some nervousness about tents and snakes).
We’ve worked weddings and naming ceremonies as well as hotels and restuarants. With local events it’s easy but some gigs mean we’ve spent hours waiting for transport; stuck out in some remote village or just late at night, because we can’t afford a private taxi and the ‘vans’ (generally a clapped out minibus or transit from Europe, these form the backbone of West Africa’s public transport system) are often full. Oka’s skills as a dancer and ‘front man’ are often called on when we’re playing for events such as weddings rather than tourist gigs. Sometimes he involves me in that too and he’s a patient and skilled dance teacher. We’ve spent hours in hot vehicles or arguing about whether we can have instruments inside with us or if they have to go on the roof (and so have a greater possibility of being broken.) We’ve been made to play by ‘officials’ at border points or in the ‘bus garages’ as they don’t believe any group travelling with a white person hasn’t got a load of money stashed somewhere, or think we’re just transporting instruments to sell. Transport is one of Toumaranke’s biggest expenses.
I started buying bikes for band members in 2010 and the first bike was Oka’s. A bike means greater possibilities for a musician in terms of looking for work, getting to it, and getting back. Back is a particular problem as it’s often late, after the ‘vans’ have stopped running and in tourist areas where the taxis want higher prices (particularly if one band member is white). The first bike was bought with donations from some of my djembe students. Since then we’ve built up quite a fleet. Some brought over by me on airplanes, some bought in Gambia, but heavy use plus sandy conditions means we’re back down to two communal ones, one of which is mine and seriously in need of gears! Oka and Kossy still have their own. They don’t solve all our problems, but they’ve been a geat help.
My friendship with Oka has spilled over into collaboration on a number of ‘charitable projects’ in Gambia. When I was working with Nyodema (a charitable group based in Bognor, now defunct) there were some problems with a school build in the Brikama area and I suggested Oka. Party I know he knows a fair bit about building (his dayjob is putting the metal bars in concrete posts/walls etc..), partly I know how calm and enabling he is. He’s not an imposing figure in terms of stature and I’ve hardly ever seen him lose his temper but he’s no pushover and has a gift for creating an atmosphere of respect. I wanted to see what he was capable of and although the whole thing was a bit of a nightmare the silver lining was watching him increase in confidence. I trusted him totally and it paid off.
After we’d talked things through we did some investigation and budgeting (with Moussa’s help) and to this day I’m still up with the cost of a bag of cement in the Gambia! I had to help him open a bank account and left him with £600 in it. Although I had no doubts about his honesty, managing a budget when you’ve never had that kind of money and resisting the urge to send it/give it to the people you know who are hungry/have sick children/relatives and so on, is a big ask. For most of the Guinean musicians I know this generally includes the families they’ve left behind and send money too as often as possible. He was fantastic and we finished the build together, another thing I couldn’t have managed without him!
Oka is hard-working, patient and funny. He’s can be a great ‘manager’ in circumstances he’s comfortable with. Some things are beyond him and he can get confused and overwhelmed if given too much information, but we’ve learned how to communicate effectively over the years. . When we first knew each other he had only a little English and my French was terrible. Since then we’ve come a long way linguistically, and we’ve learned a lot of other things too. Across two different cultural styles and gendered expectations we’ve formed a solid bond built on affection and trust.
He’s been my ambassador in many ways. We’ve helped facilitate the distribution of mosquito nets at the original ‘nyodema’ school in Brikama, now taken over by the Gambian government. We’ve visited, with and without students, the school in Diaruhairu we helped to rebuild. (Relations are now ended. We told them we’d build it and they would have to run it, as they did before it fell down and needed to be rebuilt,which they weren’t very happy about. They’d had hoped we’d not really meant that and would fund teachers wages, school equipment etc etc…) We’ve also visited and helped various other schools and teachers, and there are eight children in the Gambia sponsored in their schooling by various students of ours. He’s helped to distribute this money when I send it, and also helped facilitate money and equipment sent for a disabled friend of ours who used to be a drum-maker but is now bedbound. (I think he has MS but that in itself is annother story).
He’s played a vital role in the Community Stoves Project we’ve been, and continue to be, part of. On one of the distribution days I was unexpectedly called on to sing, which he (and Moussa who you can hear laughing in the background) enjoyed very much. He’s been a fundamental part of Candora, a business we set up making and selling recycled can-ring braclets. Yet annother attempt to create something that would help the band to sustain itself financialy. He’s taken various donations of things and money to schools, teachers, builders and individuals for many many years now and is a fundamental part of helping me give out the money/clothing/school sponsorship money and anything else that I can get my hands on in England. In short, he’s been fabulous, he’s a really good enabler – both on a personal and group level. His playing too has developed, his bolon on the track Sorsonet on our debut CD is stunning.
Recently married Oka is embarking on a new chapter of his life and this will be a new development in our friendship. I don’t know his wife but when I went out to Gambia for his wedding we got on well and I’m looking forward to having a female friend as I’ve not got many out there. She’s not a musician so that’s going to be interesting. He was wonderful at my wedding to Moussa. He helped with the organisation, waited cheerfully with us for the 4 hours or so it took for the registrar to turn up, danced beautifully at the party and was generally essential to making the day go as smoothly as possible. I hope he feels we were as solid and helpful during his own big day. I was glad I managed to make it over and I look forward to many more years of friendship and music.