Yamoussa Camara aka Kossy/Kossybilly or Camarakay (which simply signifies ‘man of the Camara family, Kay meaning man – although I’m just guessing about the spelling) has been a member of Toumaranke for over three years and is now pretty much a permanent fixture. His is the lead voice on the track Sino on our debut album Takhaudi Dékau. As we were limited by having only two microphones when recording it wasn’t possible for Moussa, who our leader and main composer, to play krin (log drum) and sing. The krin is too loud and for a whole load of technical reasons we couldn’t overdub it. So he gave the lead vocal to Kossy who in a sort of ‘griot style’ calls the names of various members of his family as part of the chorus. Griots (or jalis as they are called in the ex English colonies such as Gambia) are the hereditary musical families of West Africa, with a lineage dating back to the 14th Century. The only griot we have in the band is Mamadou Bah, the lead balafon player, the rest of us are just ordinary musicians. The griot style of singing however, influences us all. In rather a nice turn of fate I later got to meet some of the people in the song.
Moussa was very generous during the recording process and gave everyone a chance to stretch themselves musically. Sino was Kossy’s big chance and very challenging for him. He’s used to singing with the gongo, which he’s great at, but it’s a different kind of style to what we needed for Sino and the timing of the lead voice to the response was tricky as well as the pitching. The track is also a kind of ‘showpiece’ for the krin so it’s quite complex. Plus it’s in Mandinka, not Susu so we’re singing in a language none of us grew up speaking. ‘Sino ah de tambita‘ (more guessing at spelling) means ‘the time for sleeping is over‘ and urges ‘get up and go and work on the farm‘.
The lyrics were mostly Moussa’s but with group input and there is always room for a little improvisation in everything we do. Kossy’s embellishments mean at one point he sings “Jayah Jammeh (the president of the Gambia) says get up and work on the farm. Adama Keita says get up and work on the farm. Safie Darboe says get up and work on the farm, Jattu Jatta says get up and work on the farm”……. Later when I was translating I asked about these names and he said they were his brother’s wives. The last time I was in Gambia (March this year) we ended up staying in his brother’s compound because we’ve yet again got accommodation problems (the ongoing difficulties of a cross-cultural marriage with neither of us having much money!) so I got to know all three women a bit. I don’t have a decent picture of Safie, so that will have to wait until after another visit to Gambia. Adama and Jattu I have lots of good photo’s of and it was nice to be able to say “are you the Adama Keita Kossy sings about?” – both of us enjoyed that bit of repartee…
Weaving into a song both ‘important’ people and honoring personal connections by putting names in is very common practice in West African music. Calling and echoing names; of the band, of people significant to the band, of patrons (or hoped for patrons) is an old, od system dating back to the 14th century when griots were literally ‘praise singers’ for kings and other important people. The track Toumaranke for example names the people in the group and some of the people who are significant to us in some way – including my sister and my grandchildren’s dog. Mikhri Kobi Kobi mentions Moussa’s first ‘patron’ Lamin, without who’s encouragement the group would never have left Guinea. Hadja, who was cooking for us during the recording sessions, gets ‘named’ in Temedi (as do I) and so on and so on….
One of the things Europeans find confusing in West Africa is the business of names. Our sound engineer used to get very muddled when we were recording and once yelled at me in desperation ‘why can’t they just have one bloody name each?!!’, or words to that effect. A lot of names are the same – Mohammed, Moussa (in Gambia Lamin – which means ‘first-born son’),Seikou etc… for men – Fatou (Fatima/Fatim variations), Isatou, Binta (Bintu/Buntou variations) etc.. for women. So everyone tends to get a ‘nickname’ or a ‘street name’, or in some people’s case several. Moussa is Mozare, Okameo (who’s given name is Mohammed) and so on. I have at least three names – Jelimuso, Toumaranke, Jenobah, and only those most familiar with me use my given name and then not often. Kossy is actually called Yamoussa Camara but I’ve never heard him called that and I tend to address him as Camarakay which is respectful and slightly formal, although most of his mates call him Kossy. I’m female and older than him. I’m also technically speaking his ‘boss’ in a variety of situations; when we’re delivering workshops, or sometimes when we’re working musically, as it’s me who pays him or provides money for band support. In opposition to this I call Mohammed, Okameo. I’ve known him for a long time, he is more like a ‘brother’ to me, closer to me in age and we have a much less ‘formal’ relationship (even though I’m his ‘boss’ at times too). In the band we have two Moussas and two Mohammeds and Souleymane is generally referred to as Rousseu (more guessing at spelling) so I can see why it’s confusing!
Kossy was born in Guinea Conakry and, like Okameo and Moussa, is currently resident in Gambia. He’s one of the younger members of the group and lives in a compound with some of his brothers and their wives and children. This is the typical West African way to live. A ‘compound’ is an area where a group of people live together (traditionally they are related to each other but in urban Africa not always). In this case there are (loosely) three ‘families’ and between four and ten single men sharing about eight living units. Bed sharing is common and single males generally have to share not only rooms but beds. In some family compounds there’s a ‘boys house’ where the young men sleep but here they mostly just pile into Kossy’s room. Kossy often complains there are too many other people in his bed and not enough room for him The last time I was there I was trying to count how many adults how many children actually ‘live’ in the place; but it’s difficult as people come and go. Approximately twenty-five people was as close as I could get to a definite figure.
In Guinea Kossy drove trucks for and with his dad. He came to Gambia in 2007 looking for adventure and musical work. He’s very handy with practical things, from fixing engines I’m assuming and quick technically. I gave him a laptop a couple of years ago and he’s learned faster than either Moussa or Okameo. He’ll be our tekky one day we hope. He started by playing bolon (W African bridge harp with 3 or 4 strings) but is now a multi-instrumentalist like so many of the Guinean musicians I know. On the debut CD he plays gongo, bolon and gbundu, the smaller set of three drums. He’s at his finest fronting with the gongo and has provided many of our students with wonderful entertainment, especially in moving vehicles. We did a tiny bit of ‘bus video’ when fundraising for our first album, which due to my amateur camerawork, sadly isn’t much good, but does give a bit of a flavour of being crammed in a hot, slightly knackered, old ‘van’, travelling across West Africa in the company of a bunch of musicians.
His parents are now dead and he hasn’t been back to Guinea for a long time. When his dad died he hadn’t got enough to make the journey back and I hadn’t got any spare cash at that point to help out. It’s hard for adventurers to return for a variety of reasons. Often they don’t have enough money for the fare and the family back home can’t afford it either (in extreme cases such as illness a family sometimes manages to pay for a ticket back but for a visit it’s impossible). Also it’s hard to go back with nothing, small amounts of money or presents are needed and this too can be a big problem for a lot of musicians. Life is so uncertain for any of the Guinean musicians living in Gambia. If they have had a good ‘season’ (the tourist season runs from about April-Nov) with a hotel contract or two, they often go home in the ‘off season’ to visit and stay with family, but if not it can’t be done.
Toumaranke have not had a good season for the last two years and I’ve put everything I had into the recording and releasing of Takhaudi Dékau so there’s no money to ‘help’ anyone, either to go home or in any other way. Two of the band members have gone back to Guinea, one because of ill-health and the other for ‘family’ reasons, plus I think disillusionment with the ‘outsider’s life’ they have to live in Gambia. I’m aware both Kossy and Okameo would love to go back and visit family, especially as Okameo is now married, but at the moment it’s not possible. We’re all hoping that CD sales will eventually provide the band with enough money to have a kind of ‘reserve’ in the bank so that people can use it to visit family or for medical treatment when needed, but we’re a long way off that yet.
I recently spent a couple of weeks in the Camara compound and got to know some of Kossy’s family a bit better. It’s an open area with intact buildings on one side and some ruined ones on the other. One of Kossy’s brothers – Canja – is a builder so I’m unsure if the derelict buildings are going to be fixed at some point or are being demolished for bigger living units or quite what. It’s normal in West Africa for lots of people to live in what looks like derelict buildings or buildings that are not quite finished. Some of these get used as a loo/washing space – largely by the men, it’s harder for women to go to the toilet in public. The compound has a tap, a well and a toilet plus electricity (when there’s enough money to buy the pre-paid cards to activate it) so is reasonably well-provisioned compared to a lot of other places I’ve stayed. The toilet is also the washing area, so there’s a certain amount of ‘queueing’ (especially in the morning), hence people using other spaces – especially just for a wee or to clean teeth or wash hands.
While I was there, the electricity was on most of the time (I, and a friend who was also staying there, were paying for it; so it generally only went off when the card ran out.There were only a few small power cuts. In urban Gambia electricity supply is mostly reliable these days if you can afford it. The Gambian Utilities Corporation used to be referred to as ‘Give Us a Candle’ and there are still power cuts, but things are a lot better than they used to be in this respect. Guinea however, is a different story, with both water and electricity being generally unreliable in the urban areas. Everyday life there is generally a lot harder physically, especially for women who have to carry water.
The tap had water mostly at night (there is always less water in the daytime during the tourist season as it said the ‘hotels take it’. I have no idea if this is true but it’s feasible given issues with water pressure and demand). There was a leak in the pipe just before the tap and a bucket positioned under that – as soon as you heard water dripping you knew there was water in the tap and so went and filled up your various containers. Generally tap water is used for drinking and cooking (it has to be paid for) and well water for everything else. The well is a good one – covered and raised (I find the open ones a bit disconcerting and over the years we’ve had a few close calls with bits falling in. lost buckets, Moussa nearly falling in when a top structure collapsed (he lost a silver ring I’d given him during this and still feels it was taken in exchange for his life) and so on.. Surprisingly not that many children fall down wells but the open ones worry me. It also has a rope with a pulley so it’s so much easier to use than one with just a rope. Daily life here is hard work, but not as hard as it can be when you have to walk to fetch and carry water.
The women in the compound begin their day by sweeping with a kind of reed broom. If you don’t do this essential chore everything gets covered with sand which is blown around by the wind. Sand and dust gets everywhere. Outside the living units there’s a kind of ‘courtyard’ of bare ground – people sweep the bit in front of their room (even men do this sometimes if they live alone) and I never worked out the system for sweeping that bit – either there was some kind of complicated ‘turns’ system or it got done by whoever couldn’t stand the mess anymore! I got quite good at asking and could say ‘please may I borrow the brush‘ very nicely in Susu by the end of my last visit as opposed to ‘give me brush‘ which is w. There is little formal ‘waste disposal’ in Gambia – generally a kind of ‘midden’ is created somewhere – chickens and goats browse it, birds visit it and occasionally it’s set fire to. The system in this compound was a rubbish heap in one of the abandoned buildings so orange or banana peel/veg peelings/general waste got chucked there as did whatever you swept up in the morning.
Such sweeping is not only hard on the back but makes you cough from breathing in all the dust…. Shoes are removed on entering anyone’s ‘house’, (in kossy’s case this is a single room) but it’s still impossible to keep the inside entirely sand free. There’s a wonderful concept in Susu – fuggu fuggu (which I have no idea how to spell – which means both the movement you make with your feet (rubbing them together) before you get into bed so you don’t get all the bits of dirt from the soles of your feet into the bed. It also means – ‘nonesense’ or ‘a thing of no consequence, if it’s just fouggou fouggou fagga fagga then it’s something too trivial or silly to even bother with . The Guinean group Les Espoires De Corinthie, one of the influences on Toumaranke, have a song called Fougou Fougou which I was a bit sad about as I wanted us to do one…
As the compound day progresses the lovely clean swept area fills up again with fag ends, bits of food waste, general daily detritus. Most men smoke and, in my experience, are generally not careful about dropping fag ends on the floor – even when there’s small kids around. Okameo was having a lot of trouble with Kemou, his stepson (who’d just over one, walking everywhere and a whole load of work to supervise) picking up fag ends and putting them in his mouth. I’m continually giving the band ‘ashtrays’ (old tins, shells, anything I can lay my hands on) in a desperate attempt to not have fag ends everywhere. I sometimes make a ‘bin’ too, and have tried to organize a separation of compostable and non-compostable waste in any of our ‘Toumaranke houses’ but I think this just adds to the general idea that I’m slightly bonkers; although they always say ‘thankyou and what a good idea‘ about the astray and then use it for a bit, at least in my immediate vicinity. With so many people around, and kids running everywhere it’s impossible to keep the outside area clean and tidy so the morning sweeping is the only solution.
Kossy is currently single and the youngest brother in the compound so he gets called on a fair bit to run errands (this is one of his functions in the band too). He usually eats at the communal food bowl. There are always two, one for the women and kids and one for the men. All family members (and generally anyone visiting) is welcome to eat. While I was there two of the three women were cooking every day. I never worked out who paid for what but my general experience of the way this works is that whoever has work/money contributes what they can and people ‘manage’ as they call it in Gambia. At the point I was staying there two of the adult males had work, Kossy was ‘busking’ and occasionally had a bit of money and Moussa and I were beset by the usual queue of people asking for money for school lunches/medicine/attaya (the ubiquitous ‘gunpowder tea widely drunk in West Africa) etc… None of the children were hungry so things must have been reasonably ok. Although they were happy to take anything I offered they didn’t cluster around with hungry eyes when food appeared, which sometimes happens in other places
When I’ve stayed in compounds with mostly single men there tends to be a contribution from each person every day (when possible) towards food. I’m not sure exactly how things work in the Camara compound but the West African attitude to food is different from the European one. Food is for everyone, the polite thing to do if eating and someone walks past is to invite them to come and share, if you’re eating bread or something like that you break a piece off and offer it (most of the people I work with are hungry enough to accept and eat even small bits of sandwich!) . There is often not quite enough but people are mindful of others. Cooking, like sweeping, is hard physical work. a woman has to go to market every day (due to a combination of lack of fridge and money – small amounts of food are bought – enough for each day’s meal, and it often is just one). Then there’s the peeling and pounding and other preparation. Cooking takes up a large amount of any woman’s time and a lot of smoke is inhaled from cooking over open fires, or charcoal stoves. We have started working with a project which tries to address some of these issues – The Community Stoves Project. As soon as I’ve got the money this compound is next on the lists for peanut-shell briquette powered stoves!
When I’m around and Moussa is well-fed he’s careful not to eat very much at communal bowls, knowing this. A brief taste to show willing and then he leaves so that others can eat. In some ways african ‘table manners’ are the opposite of ours, the polite thing to do when you’ve finished is to get up and walk away.
Because he’s single, and a younger brother, Kossy generally gets his own water from the well (usually a woman’s job) but he can often get his clothes washed by one of his brothers wives. The hierarchical structure of West-African life is based on age/status/gender and is complex and sometimes unfathomable to me as I never know what ‘trumps’ what and am always in a slightly weird position being white and non-resident. Men seldom wash their own clothes if there are women around (hand washing clothes is brutal on the hands, the detergent alone can strip your skin!). Musicians, drummers in particular, can have a problem with washing clothes as if they have broken skin on their hands they try to keep this dry until it’s healed as otherwise infections can be easily picked up so it’s not entirely macho nonsense. Hand-wringing jeans and towels (those are the two items I find hardest anyway) is incredibly hard work and takes ages…
Anyone who can afford to pay someone else to wash clothes does so. It’s one of the ways in which women can earn money and there are always piles of laundry in any compound. Drying is easy, spread it all out and it’s dry in an hour or two. Washing is pegged on a line if there is one but in this compound the tops of the walls of the derelict buildings were used. This is common practice although at times things fall off with the wind and sometimes you have to return clothes to next door’s compound as they’ve blown over the wall. Ironing is done with hollow, metal irons filled with charcoal. White, washed, ironed (and preferably starched) clothing is a sign of high status (ie the fact someone else will wash/iron it). The work of washing and ironing (which generally involves pulling water from the well and for many, carrying it a fair way too) is hard physical labor and also takes up a lot of a women’s time.
Kossy is very popular with the kids in the compound, especially now he’s the proud owner of a ‘proper’ football! Children are everywhere in West African life, generally ‘free range’, which has advantages and disadvantages. At this moment we have only one ‘Toumaranke’ child – Okameo’s stepson Kemou but we’ve had many small friends and admirers over the years and playing music attracts children. Sometimes the enthusiastic dancing of small feet can cause so much dust it’s impossible to see (or breathe properly) so they have to be moved further away. African men are usually very patient with kids, either individually or as a ‘pack’. When the band were rehearsing in Sanyang in preparation for recording the CD the local kids knew all the words to all the songs, although they are mostly in Susu which isn’t one of the languages spoken in Gambia. In the Camara compound the preferred track was Toumaranke which most of the women and children sang to me at one point or another, and we all sang together many times.
So in some ways Kossy has the most security of any of the Toumaranke musicians as the family is provider, protector and social welfare system for West Africans. He’s not as vulnerable to homelessness (as long as he’s willing to share space) or hunger like Moussa and some of the others. Life is still hard but there is a place in Gambia he ‘belongs’, unlike the rest of us. I enjoyed the two weeks I spent with his family and look forward to visiting them again next time I’m there. I apologise to Jattu and Adama for pictures of them working and not in their ‘nice’ clothes but promise next time I’m there to do ‘proper’ photos, and to Kossy and brothers if I’ve got anything ‘wrong’ factually. These articles are written with love and respect for all the musicians I work with in West Africa, their families and friends. I am grateful for all the way’s I’ve been educated and supported (musically and otherwise) by all those who’s lives touch mine on that continent. We can all misunderstand each other culturally but simple everyday kindnesses help us all, and there were a lot of these moments when I stayed in the Camara compound. The children, in particular, can bring spontaneous joy to my heart and remind me of the possibilities of communication without words. Toumaranke trust me to be their ‘voice’ in the world, a responsibility that weighs heavy sometimes, but an extraordinary privilege as well.