Moussa Sylla is the leader and main composer/creator/songwriter for the group Toumaranke as well as being the person I’m married to. Our musical association predates our sexual relationship and our partnership isn’t simply about playing together, but it’s hard to seperate that out. It’s a marriage which spans two cultures and two countries. Due to ridiculous beaurocratic government regulations it’s currently impossible for us to apply for a spouse visa for him to come and live with me in England and we’ve three times been denied a visit visa; so at the moment the only time we can spend together is when I can manage to get over to West Africa. This is very challenging for us both, musically and in terms of maintaining our marriage. It makes everything uneven. I get to visit his world but he doesn’t get to visit mine. Every time I leave I dissapear into a place he’s never been, a life he can only imagine, and this can create a fair few misunderstandingas as well as difficulties with communication. We do our best to manage musically and emotionally in an untennable situation but it’s hard going sometimes.
Moussa’s father was a djembe player but he was the oldest son and his dad was keen for him to get an education so he was sent to school. This meant sometimes staying away from the family and the study involved didn’t leave much time for learning music. He started playing seriously when he was in his teens and one of his first instruments was the gongomah. This is the Guinean idiophone (an instrument which creates sound by the whole thing vibrating) and is used a bit like the acoustic guitar in the West, to play in order to sing with the melody in a kind of ‘troubodour’ style. Single musicians or groups use the gongomah, (more commonly referred to as the gongo, or sometimes, confusingly, bongo) to ‘busk’. This is referred to as doing yole, literally ‘going round’ and is good practise for many an aspiring musician. All the members of Toumaranke can play gongo and I’ve put in many hours doing this myself. Moussa is a superb player and can collaborate with almost anyone. Here’s a little bit of video taken when he met an Irish bones and spoons player in The Cassamance in 2011, bongo & bones
His first gongo teacher, Mohammed (aka KaModu) remains a friend and associate to this day, and they still sometimes collaborate over song-writing. On Toumaranke’s debut album Takhaudi Dékau – Inside The Chicken’s Mouth, the song on the track Manet is all about the gongo. Lengue means calabash (gourd) in Susu and this word is often used to refer to the gongo as that’s what it’s made from. This song is sort of dedicated to KaModu who was and remains an important part of Moussa’s musical development as well as being a kind of big brother/uncle type figure who is not shy about giving him a good talking to on any occassion he feels it’s necessary.
We haven’t got as far as doing an entirely gongo based piece of music yet but we’re working on it. Mirri Kobi Kobi is the album track in which the gongo the most prominent. Playing gongo and singing is a good way to practise and develop the voice and doing this on the beach, especially near to the edge of the sea, is seen as good ‘training’. I used to be able to play or sing early toumaranke but can now do both on several numbers (but by no means everything)!
An excellent multi-instrumentalist Moussa took to the krin (which is what the Guineans call the log drum) quite quickly and is an extraordinary player. He mostly played krin in the various ensembles he worked with in Senegal and Gambia until we begun Toumaranke around 2010. On the Toumaranke debut album he plays a particularly stunning piece of krin at the start of the track Sino and the krin mixed with the balafon on the instrumental tracks is lovely (although the mixing of those gave the sound engineer a fair bit of a challenge). The combination of balafon and krin is a delight to the ear.
He also plays the bolon – the African bridge harp, as do all of the band. Added to this he plays all kinds of drums, ngoni (lute-like, sort of a small version of the kora), mouth organ, a variety of small hand percussion and a bit of guitar. One of the most incredible instruments he plays is the Syangan M’gangau or single stringed lute. As is often the case with West African musicians, the range he can get on this deceptively simple instrument is extraordinary. The one we used when recording the album is made from an old coffee tin and some fishing wire but they can be made of anything, usually the kind of calabash that is put under balafon keys for resonance. Skillfully mixed into some of the album tracks this instrument can probably be heard most clearly on Manet.
I had been aware of Moussa for a long time before we actually worked together and had seen him around in Gambia a fair bit. He had worked with Bafila, a Guinean group I played with for some years, but before I did, and was on the edges of some of the Guinean musical circles I moved in. A lot of the earlier work I did in Gambia was inside the ballet rather than the musical tradition and quite a lot of my contacts were either drummers or dancers. In fact, I had no idea there were two traditions in West African music and it wasn’t until I begun playing shakers with Bafila that I began to understand that there are many ways to play the jembe. The differences between the more percussive and dance based ballet tradition and the more melodic musical one are complex and deserve more exploration so I’ll leave the subject for an article of it’s own.
I’d been working with my first balafon teacher, Saikou Soumah, for a while before Moussa and I actually crossed paths, musically speaking sometime in 2009. He was also a student of Saikous at that time (the group he’d been running had no balafon player as Saikou had returned to Gambia after the birth of his second child, so he was adding balafon to his repetoir), and we went to watch him play. I had wanted to visit Cassamance for ages and Moussa was working there with the Wassolo Cultural Group so Saikou and I went. Moussa and I got on like a house on fire and for the next year or so I studied with both Wassolo and him individually. He is an excellent teacher with nothing to ‘prove’ so I learned a great deal in those years. It wasn’t really until I started working with him that I began to understand West African music more fully and he remains one of my main teachers to this day.
When I studied with Wassolo, they were led by Morley Toure who had worked with Le Percussion du Guinee, one of Guinea’s national musical troupes. He was a great inspiration, mostly patient and funny, although prone to shouting. Fortunately I never experienced his wrath directly and a nod from him was praise indeed! I played in the Abene festival with the group in Dec 2010. There was a marvelous incident one day when Saikou, Moussa and I went into the festival arena, Moussa and I carrying balafons and very obviously the ‘apprentices’. They let us both through and then demanded Saikou pay the entrance fee (he was in his best clothes, looking every bit the master). His face was a complete mixture of horror and delight, a wonderful moment ! We had a couple of years of back and forward between Cassamance and Gambia and discovered we travelled well together. Travelling in the hot, dusty, overcrowded conditions of West African public transport, can put a strain on any relationship and although we’ve had our fair share of arguments and disagreements we remain excellent travelling companions. The ‘vans’ or ‘gellegelles’ as the Guineans call them, are a wonderful experience of African life in all it’s many complexities and although they are generally uncomfortable at best I’ve never had any social problems travelling, either with others or alone.
Moussa was easy company, polite and respectful, and never inapropriate in behavior. I remember one time we were travelling together, squashed in a very crowded van, and he spent the whole four hour journey trying not to make physical contact (not easy to do under such conditions!). I felt very safe with him. Under his tutalege I learned a lot about the krin and more about many other instruments. Initially under the direction of Saikou Moussa began to teach me about the care and repair of the balafon. He was incredibly patient about this, it’s very complex and fiddly and my first ‘lesson’ took about three days. We sat together, working on restringing, while he patiently repeated Les s bonnes – encore as I messed up the tension on the string, or the twist for attaching, yet again! Learning to fix balafons in my 40’s wasn’t an easy task and it’s entirely due to him that I can now do basic repair work.
We often went out alone into the ‘bush’ early in the morning to tap rubber in order to make balafon sticks. This is a complicated and lengthy process, usually involving several days collecting sap (early in the morning is best as the heat of the sun means you get a lot less in your container later in the day). Then the precious milky liquid has to be processed and the resulting sheet of rubber cut into small strips to wrap around sticks. Once people understand about this process and realise that tourist balafon sticks are made from old bike tyres they stop complaining about the price!
I discovered he was a good friend of Okameos. In fact they’d worked together (with Saikou) and literally come from Guinea in the same boat. This adventure was instigated by Moussa and celebrated in the album track Sourima where the sounds of the isle of Kassa (the place they started their journey, waiting around until they managed to pursuade a Ghanian fishing boat to give them a lift to Gambia) are replicated. Of the original group of Guinean musicians who came in 2002 only Okameo and Moussa remain working together, one is dead, one has given up music entirely and the others are scattered across different groups.
In 2009/10 I had a rather ill-advised affair with a musician in Cassamance which came to an abrupt end when I realised he had designs on my (non-existant) money. Moussa and I had gone to Cassamance together on this occassion and we travelled back to Gambia together as I was a bit shaken up (and felt like an idiot not to have ‘seen through’ the situation). It wasn’t a very serious affair, largely a reaction to my divorce; but I felt stupid and a bit vulnerable and there had been some unpleasantness and threats.When we got back to Gambia I asked Moussa to stay with me for a couple of days as I was renting a room in a family compound in New Jeshwang and didn’t really want to be on my own. That was, surprisingly, the beginning of ‘us’ and we’ve been a couple ever since. I left Gambia four days after we’d first slept together and wasn’t back for a while so the start was a bit wobbly. Plus I had to overcome my reluctance to the idea of any kind of partnership with annother penniless Guinean musician, having done it once with disasterous consequences….
We went to Guinea in 2011 so I could meet Moussa’s family and did quite a lot of travelling around. We visited Okameo’s people on his behalf (which meant going to the Iles de Los which I love) and a few other families too. It’s often difficult for those who’ve left to return ‘home’ to visit as they can’t always afford the fare and to go home with nothing is problematic for them and their families, in dire circumstances such as illness families often have to pay some or all of the transport costs. All the Guinean musicians I know send money back to their families whenever possible and the weight of family needs and expectations can be immense. Moussa’s lot mostly like me but I give them neither regular money nor children so I’m dissapointing (from their point of view) as well. The seperation from family is hard for itinerant (mostly male) Guinean musicians, they can get into bad habits with no one to guide them; and in times of illness and difficulty there is no-one to help, the family being the West African social welfare system. The track Takhaudi Dékau on the Toumaranke album is about this. It’s hard for Westerners to understand the complications of West African polygamous extended families and for the moment that’s all I’m going to say on the subject. We’ve recently released a club mix of this track, done by Rob shipster, who’s made a great job of it. A new departure for us, he’s kept the integrity of the original track but mixed it with some very funky beats indeed..
One of the places we went in Guinea was the village of Moria where there are several familes of people we know or work with. The van we went in had a particularly dodgy exhaust which was leaking into the place where I was sitting so I was quite ill with carbon monoxide poisoning when we first arrived and some of it is a bit blurry. I also got bitten by some dreadful rice-husk mattress living insect and spent a night of agony walking up and down trying not to scream while Moussa repetedly squeezed lemon juice on the line of bites stretching from my ankle to my neck! Apart from those, somewhat typical, problems it was an extraordinary visit. Some of Moussa’s friends were working at a wedding that night so we went and among the wonders I got to see was one of the ways in which Griots train their children. The young balafon players are put to sleep behind the masters so they literally absorb the music through the body.
We’ve travelled together in Guinea, Cassamance and Gambia. Mostly using a small tent (not possible in Guinea, or anywhere much, in the rainy season but really useful in other places at other times). Both of us like travelling and are reasonably flexible although my vegetarianism causes some interesting challenges. He accepts it, but thinks it’s crazy and, like most of the other West Africans I know, can’t really understand the reasons behind it. It’s one of the cultural differences we’ve just learned to accomodate as a couple, like him being a practising muslim. I find institutionalised religion of any denomenation politically unacceptable although I understand the power of faith on a personal level.
Politically (and educationally) we’re miles apart, but have learned to listen and respect each other’s views even if we don’t agree. The seperation of ‘ethics’ from religion is a tricky concept for all of the West African muslims I know and an irreverant skeptical political analysis coming from a small, scruffy white woman, is generally more than most of them can cope with! One of the hardest things (and also the most mind-expanding) about a cross-cultural marriage of such extremes is discussion across two different ‘cultural filters’. Remaining aware of that, and the weight of cultural expectations (from both sides) can be very tricky indeed.
Moussa and I were married in Gambia in June 2013 and that in itself is an extraordinary story. Sufficient to say Okameo was an absolute star, my friend Kathryn Burrington took some great pictures (as she did for Okameo’s wedding last year) and the music was incredible. We’re still trying to work out how to have a ‘normal’ married life but lack of money and beaurocracy currently prevent that. I don’t meet the British government’s criteria of £18.600 or more p.a in order to apply for a spouse visa for him to be here and we can’t generate enough income together to live in either Gambia or Guinea in conditions other than extreme poverty. We certainly couldn’t run workshops without the income I generate here, especially as the Ebola epidemic and scaremongering badly affected the last couple of years and we’ve lost a lot of equipment due to a leak in the roof of the place we store it.
As well as doing a lot of travelling together we’ve also done a lot of music. We started running musical workshops in The Gambia in 2012. Since then we have run five, together with Oka and Hadja, our fantastic cook. Working together in this way has strengthened our relationship and given Moussa an opportunity to understand that some of my ‘eccentricities’ are a product of being English. He was totally amazed, during the first workshop, to find that I am not the only person in the world who has more than one cup of tea in the morning. West Africans generally have a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, usually with food if there is any, even if it’s just a piece of dry bread, and that’s generally it. Moussa, and the other musicians working with me have now got used to the English concept of the ‘tea break’. When we were recording Toumaranke’s debut album in 2014 we used the same kind of work rhythm we do for workshops – two sessions in the morning, with a tea/coffee break, two in the afternoon, ditto, and everyone eventually learned how to make their own tea or coffee using a flask of hot water.
In the five workshops we’ve run so far, Moussa has been the main teacher for three and part of the teaching support for the other two, although he’s always taught balafon. All of us have learned a lot during the process of running workshops. Playing music is one thing, teaching it quite annother. Workshops can highlight cultural differences as teaching and learning styles are not the same. West African musicians tend to grow up inside the tradition, or if not they are already familiar with at least some of the rhythms being taught and learn mostly by being present and listening. The European style of breaking something down into smaller parts, asking questions etc.. can be confusing for West African teachers and they can get very stuck if they don’t understand some of these differences.
I have experienced a fair few frustrating teaching situations over the last 16 years in West Africa and put this to good use in staff training. Moussa, in particular, has worked hard on his teaching and can cope with constructive criticism. One of the things that came up last time was how difficult students find it when a teacher is just saying ‘try try’ or ‘listen’ when they are trying or listening as hard as they can! We talked this through, it’s partly a language issue, and Moussa will now say ‘try again’ or ‘keep trying’ which changes the dynamic. My early years working in West Africa often involved being yelled at by teachers or musicians I was playing with when failing to ‘get’ something, or resulted in them simply ‘dumming it down’. I’m very strict about neither thing happening on workshops we run!
Eating too can be tricky culturally. We tend to adopt the traditional ‘a group of people sharing a bowl’ way of eating but not all Europeans cope with this as it can be too challenging and so some revert to the European style of one person one plate. In West African culture food is for everyone, it’s something to be shared; if you are eating and people walk past the accepted thing to do is to call them to join you. The main meal is around 2ish and in a traditional compound the men and bigger boys will eat at one bowl and the women and kids at annother. Workshop staff have had to learn not only to manage spoons and forks (traditionally food is eaten with the right hand) but to share with a mixed group. My vegetarianism makes eating quite problematic for me when I’m in West Africa, I can’t eat out of the communal bowl very easily. For the sake of politeness I sometimes do and just eat a bit of the plain rice around the edge but I get into difficulties quite quickly as people push tipbits of meat or fish towards me, the standard way to treat guests!
We’re planning the next workshop which will be in Cassamance, Senegal, sometime this November. (It will be annother ‘musical’ multi-instrumental one – email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in finding out more). We’re planning quite a lot of things at the moment as our debut CD is finished and we don’t have annother concrete project yet, although we are starting to think about recording album number two in Nov 2017. The CD recording, done in Gambia and well documented on this blog, as well as other places, was the most extraordinary experience and helped me to understand the composer aspect of Moussa a lot more fully. He was magnificent; the whole CD is his vision, conception, arrangement, and it was the first time he’d had the opportunity to do anything at all like this. I mostly just enabled it and then helped decide what to do with the tracks once they were actually recorded. Working under his direction musically is a joyous, although exacting, experience. Done on a total shoestring, the band supported by me for three months while practising and then two weeks of intense recording activity with my friend and sound engineer Martin Messent and very basic equipment. We learned masses, we’d love to do annother album in the light of that knowledge..
I’ve just got back from visiting Moussa in Gambia, he hasn’t got anywhere fixed to live at the moment so we stayed for two weeks in Kossy’s family compound. It’s hard for us both not having a permenant base over there but at the moment there’s nothing suitable we can afford. We have occassionally resorted to staying in the place the drums and other equipment are stored in Sanyang but it’s far from ideal. We never have enough time to work through everything that needs doing and discussing musically, let alone time for personal stuff or ‘relationship maintenance’. At the moment neither of us has much work so there isn’t any money for phone calls or skype. The phone service I was using has stopped doing cheap international SMS so 20p a time limits that method of communication too. All we can do is not give up the hope we can be together one day, believe in each other and keep playing…. In the meantime I remind myself that in spite of the geographical distance between us I am blessed with the love of this extraordinary talented musician and very lovely man and the snatched bits of time we can spend together just have to be enough.