All our songs, like most good songs, have a story behind them. One of the hardest choices I had to make when producing our debut CD was which order to put the tracks in. In the end I went for what I thought worked best musically, instead of thinking about any kind of continuity in the narrative of the stories, but the first track was always going to be Toumaranke. Everything Toumaranke does comes from Moussa Sylla. He’s the main composer of lyrics and arrangements although there’s often a lot of collaboration in one or both areas. The bones of all we do come from him and the lyrics of our songs are embedded deeply in his own life experiences, some of which are common to the other Guinean musicians brought up in similar conditions of economic hardship and strong community. His great friend and fellow Guinean musician Okameo is often a vital part of the creation process and another big influence is his old friend and first gongo (Guinean idiophone) teacher kamodu from who the big ‘toumaranke gongo’, originally came.
So the first track on the album, and our first song as a group, is Toumaranke and it’s development is very much tied up with that of the band. It’s evolved along with us, kind of our theme tune. It gets sung to me (and the others) sometimes in the street in Gambia, students hum it after evening performances and the children in Kossy’s compound – along with some of the adults – love to sing it. One of my most treasured moments last year was cycling into Sanyang with Moussa and a shop we’d given some CD’s to saw us coming and put the track on full blast! Toumaranke, which translates as outsider/ adventurer, is a concept, a song, our group and also part of who I am in that world; the very visible, white-skinned ‘outsider’. I have many names in my West African life but Toumaranke is the one most used by my husband, who started calling me that a long time ago, and the other musicians we work with tend to pick it up and use it too. When I went to visit him in Guinea in July 2011 I was a bit startled by the number of people I didn’t know who called out salut toumaranke as I walked past...
Toumaranke began to emerge as a group in 2010 although Okameo was keen on us being Toumaranke Cultural Group and we were Toumaranke Percussion for a while (both too long and formal sounding and so shortened during the process of working on the album for release). After my first marriage fell apart I went to Gambia in November 2010 for four months to study music. I rented a living unit in a friend’s family compound in New Jeshwang and part of the deal was that I’d be able to play there. It turned out to be quite problematic geographically speaking as it was a long way from any of the musicians I knew, or the tourist areas (I was playing with the group Bafila, (mostly Guineans playing in the ‘musical’ tradition, balafon/kora/bolon/Guitar/djembe – music and singing rather than the ‘ballet’ based percussion and dance) that season, as was Okameo, so getting back after gigs was tricky). I spent a lot on transport and was becoming a bit concerned that the money I’d got wasn’t going to last. Bafila didn’t pay me, or me them, I was playing with them to develop my musical skills in return for a certain amount of organisational help. Even if they had been paying me the money wouldn’t have been enough to help with finances much. The cost of transport to/from gigs is a big issue for musicians working in the tourist areas and can end up being more than you get paid if you live a long way away!
I was studying balafon with my first teacher, Saikou Soumah and at that time Moussa was also a student of his. I’d always wanted to visit Senegal and Moussa was working with a group called Wassolo in The Cassamance (south Senegal) so he arranged accommodation for me and Saikou to go and visit. That led to a year or so of playing with Wassolo, led by Morley Touré, an older Guinean who’d worked with Les Percussion du Guinee and various other top Guinean groups. He was an extraordinary man to work with and I learned a lot during this time. I once took a video of Les Percussion for him and after a long search to find somewhere we could play it (very few places with electricity let alone a laptop or DVD player and I didn’t have one at that point ).we all watched it together. Morley had some kind of anecdote about just about every person in it, utterly fascinating!
Working with Wassolo and Bafila developed my musical skills and I also lost some of my naivety around collaboration with West African musicians. Things ended rather badly with Wassolo and I came out of that situation disappointed, emotionally battered and a lot less inclined to trust anyone; other than Moussa and Okameo who seemed some of the few people not engaged in manipulative tactics! Cultural misunderstandings plus general ideas about how much money any Westerner has available (and may be persuaded to part with) make such collaborative work very tricky. Add to that the creative and personal tensions in bands in general, conditions of general hardship, people hoping to ‘make it’ in the West and so on and it’s extraordinary any music gets made at all… I knew that Emmanitude Culture (one of the groups Moussa, Saikou and Okameo had worked with in the early days after arriving in Gambia from Guinea), had worked with a white French musician and that things had fallen apart over money. I remain unclear about the details of this as not everybody’s story matches up! The situation with Wassolo was much the same and I’ve heard a fair few versions, not all of which tally with what I thought was going on! Moussa and I still retain links with some of the individual musicians from Wassolo who, like Toumaranke, have gone through a fair few changes since then.
During my time with Wassolo I had enough experience to start thinking about arrangements. I was keen to do something balafon-led with minimum djembe in the musical rather than ballet tradition (basically not just an ensemble of drums and dancers but a wider variety of instruments) as it seemed to me there was less of this kind of material available. Saikou, Okameo and I started to work on this, with Moussa’s help, although he was still largely based in Cassamance with Wassolo. Saikou had worked with a group in Gambia called Guinea C , who had made a CD in 2007. I’d heard the quality of that recording, which was impressive and some of the music was good; although to my mind a couple of the tracks were spoiled by rather poor lyrics in bad English. He’d talked a lot about the process of doing it and we’d listened to the CD together. I was led to believe that the same studio and the same sound engineer they had used was available. I agreed we should try to record there. I didn’t get involved in the negotiations. I was a lot more naive and trusting in those days but not completely stupid and I knew the price would be much higher if they knew one of the musicians was white… It looked like we could have ‘as much time as we wanted’ (this part I never believed) for £100 so we fixed a date. Saikou, Okameo and I started on two weeks of solid practice of the six tracks Saikou had developed arrangements for.
I was basically scammed into handing over quite a large amount of money for what turned out to be largely unusable recorded material. To this day I still don’t know who lied to who about what, but we ended up with only four hours of studio time for £400 (I had to borrow this from my sister who was conveniently visiting at this point) with a sound engineer who had no real idea what he was doing. Even with my limited technical expertise I knew one microphone wasn’t enough! The first day we arrived at eleven as arranged, having had to pay for an expensive taxi to take all the instruments (taxis have to pay a premium to enter the tourist areas) – no one was there at all! The second day he turned up late and wanted desperately to be finished by two as Ghana were playing some big match (possibly against England, I forget the details as football is totally uninteresting to me!). The whole thing was farcical, he was more interested in offering ‘special effects’ with a synth than listening to what we wanted recorded!
Moussa and I went back to Senegal after the recording for reasons I’ve forgotten and Saikou stayed to help ‘supervise’ the mixing. I had given very clear instructions that NO SYNTH EFFECTS were to be added and that was the only part of the whole deal where anyone did what I’d asked! When I got back I was handed one CD with six badly mixed tracks which I wasn’t happy with at all. Even after endless negotiations I couldn’t get hold of the original unmixed recorded material and I still have no idea where it went. Another day in the studio would now cost an unfeasible amount (they’d seen that one of us was white by then) which I didn’t have and I was reluctant to borrow any more after the fiasco it had been so far.
It was my first really big disappointment. Everyone blamed everyone else for the ‘misunderstanding’. Saikou and Okameo didn’t really understand my protests that it was commercially unusable or why I was so upset about ‘wasting’ such a lot of money. Although they did understand my dissatisfaction with the studio/sound engineer they were much happier with the recording than I was as the sound was ‘clear’ (it was, with one badly placed mike you could hear my accompaniment very clearly, but Saikou’s soloing much less so…..) Moussa got it a bit. Toumaranke, as a ‘proper’ group was born with this first attempt at recording however so disastrous as it was it became the beginning of something.. .
I came back to England with a heavy heart and a lot of confusion as to who I could trust and how I was going to further our musical development as a group. There’s still some material knocking around on myspace from this time. I adapted some work initially started by a friend who had been supporting Bafila and put ‘Toumarankay‘ (I can barely spell in my own language, let alone in any other) on social media. A year or so later my friend Martin Messent, (who later became the sound Engineer for Takhaudi Dékau – Inside the Chicken’s Mouth) did what he could with what we’d recorded during that fiasco, and we released four tracks as the EP Abirriminting in 2013 . Abirriminting means ’round and round in (very badly spelt) Susu. This was the the seed of the idea for Takhaudi Dékau, but it took a while to germinate.
Moussa and I became a couple and the next time I went over to Gambia the geographical problems with renting in New Jeshwang were becoming unmanageable. He found and we began renting the first of our ‘Toumaranke Houses’ in 2011. I thought at the time it would be our base for years, not realising it was going to be the beginning of a long sequence of ‘housing issues’, which continues to be a problem. As I write we’ve just managed to secure six months of rented accommodation in Brufut where we’ll be able to practice, but it’s been a whole year since we had anything that stable! We were in this particular house for six months and got a lot of work done. It was one of my favorites – with a tap inside AND in the ‘yard’ plus no problems with the neighbors around playing music (in fact the children used to come and dance quite often when we practiced) and no resident rodents.
All of the early material was purely instrumental and I hadn’t much thought about lyrics. I’d had a singing lessons in Gambia several times but not very successfully and although Okameo in particular was very patient with me about trying to help with learning to sing in Susu (alternative spelling Soussou – from the French I think) I wasn’t making much progress. From working with Bafila I knew some lyrics (we occasionally did covers, such as Ye ke Ye Ke which I already knew some of the words to also) and I’d picked up a bit from working with Wassolo. The song for Sorsonet, which uses the word toumaranke, which was my first introduction to it as a concept and which I originally thought was created by Morley but am now not so sure, comes from this time, and I still use it when teaching or playing that particular rhythm.
The word toumaranke is literally ‘a person who comes from out‘, so it worked very well as a band name. We were all outsiders to the country in which we were working. For the Guinean musicians in Gambia their life experiences are totally dominated by this fact. The sense of ‘not belonging’, of having left home and family, of being different to the culture they live in – linguistically and otherwise – is very strong. Although they are West African they are on the margins of Gambian life and often discriminated against. This fact, and the suffering caused by trying to ‘make it’ (the goal being to have enough to send home to support families left in Guinea) has a massive effect on both their experience and music. The track Takhaudi Dékau is the one which is directly ‘about’ this experience but this sense of marginalisation/alienation effects all of the music.
I was famous for always going ‘what???‘ when asked to play or sing anything as I was generally confused. Also for asking ‘too many questions‘. This is a general complaint about Westerners but I suspect particularly about me as I do like to understand things thoroughly. After the recording studio fiasco we were simply practicing material for performance, I wasn’t thinking about any more recording at all. Okameo in particular likes to sing, still does. Moussa has a good voice and Saikou would sometimes sing – although griots don’t usually sing while soloing on the balafon. Sometimes when we were playing singing would spontaneously happen. Okameo wrote his ‘Saturday Night’ song in the Kelseray house after he’d finished a particularly nice bolon. We were making a lot of instruments to play and sell, performing fairly often, mostly for local stuff like this naming ceremonies and generally behaving as a group with me as ‘manager’. At that point Toumaranke (or Toumarankay as I was still spelling it) were four people – Moussa, Saikou, Okameo and me, but I was very unsure if we were going anywhere as a group or if I could handle it…
The tensions that developed in Wassolo, Bafila and Toumaranke, were largely around misunderstandings of what I could ‘do’ for the group (Morley for example thought that video I’d taken, for myself, of practice sessions and from the Abene festival was commercially viable). No-one really understood about Youtube and the wealth of free material available. There is a tendency – then and now – to assume that anything put ‘on the internet’ generates income in some way and this can cause a lot of resentment. People mostly thought I was some kind of important or famous musician in England (which seemed totally incredible to me given how badly I played in comparison to most of them), running courses and with some huge shop. I was often offered unsuitable things to buy at ridiculous prices. I still suffer from this misconception today. A lot of the West African musicians I work with, who have had little or no formal education and who’s ideas of ‘European life’ are based on television and reports/rumors/misunderstandings/somewhat ‘rose tinted’ views and downright lies from those who’ve traveled, can’t get their heads around the reality of my life in England. There are also issues around recorded material in that many people feel it’s ‘stealing’ in some way and always assume anything recorded is instantly income generating for the Western person who’s taken it. This too can cause a lot of problems.
No amount of explanation of the fact I had put all of my very limited money into developing a business in England with my first husband which was several grand in the red at the point I left; that I was more or less unknown (still am apart from in very limited circles) and an emotional mess – made any difference at all. Moussa and I stopped working with Wassolo. Okameo and I were ‘sacked’ from Bafila and both Moussa and I largely stopped working with Saikou. The Okameo/Moussa/Saikou dynamic had been through various changes when they were part of Emmanitude Culture and other groups. I knew they’d had their differences – artistic and otherwise – several times in the past. I was still unsure of where ‘we’ were going , or who ‘we’ were apart from feeling that Okameo and Moussa were solid, so now we were three. After much discussion Moussa, Okameo and I ran our first musical workshop in the Gambia- The Toumaranke Experience in Sanyang, Gambia in Nov/Dec 2012.
We cut our teeth as a group of three during these two weeks and felt that there were a lot of possibilities in front of us. With Moussa, me and Okameo as the teaching team and me Okameo and our wonderful cook Hadja Daffy as the housekeeping team I felt we were onto a winning formula. It finally felt like we were making some progress (and even a bit of money). Things felt quite hopeful after that first workshop and we all believed we might in fact be going somewhere as a group! It was the beginning of a new chapter, the toumaranke experience; the way we run workshops… Music everywhere, not just during the formal lessons but in the evenings, around fires on the beach, when in taxis/vans, walking along the road…
I’ve got one of the first versions of Toumaranke from this workshop, recorded on a video camera so with poor sound quality. You can hear that the structure of the song is already there. The melody is Yolé (sometimes spelt Yoli), a rhythm originally from Sierra Leone, widely used in Guinea. Sierre Leone is a rich musical influence in many ways. The gongo for example is a development of an idiophone from there with a box as a resonator. Substituting a calabash, or gourd, makes the uniquely Guinean gongomah, and different sized gourds create instruments with different pitches. The toumaranke song, like most of Moussa’s creations, was originally developed with just the gongo as musical accompaniment. In this early version Moussa has already used the chorus toumaranke narra toumaranke to lead into calling out the names of everyone who was there – Moussa na beh (Moussa is here) Okameo na beh – Okameo is here, Jo narra (it’s Jo) – later – Jo barra sigga, Jo is going/going to go (she was leaving in a day or so), Chrissy Diallo (as I was then) and so on…
The ‘storytelling form’ is present too, it doesn’t get developed in this particular song in the final album version but it’s around in some of the others and is typical of a lot of West African music. Incorporating the ‘ordinary’, the ‘everyday’ – what’s just happened or bits from people’s lives that everyone knows about – especially if they are funny or tragic or significant in some way. Banning Eyre talks about this aspect of African music in his excellent book about Mali, although he’s particularly referring to the art of the jelimuso, the female heriditory musicians. Moussa and the others are heavily influenced by this style of music even though only Mamadou Ba comes from an actual griot lineage.
In this particular recording of the song Moussa asks me, ‘where are you going?‘ and I reply ‘to the beach/to toumaranke’ and then there’s a bit of banter. This is based on an amusing incident that happened at the start of that workshop and which everyone enjoyed embellishing and laughing about all the way through. Three of our students, who arrived together, when asked where they were going at the airport said ‘Toumaranke‘ thinking it was an actual place in Sanyang. This left some rather puzzled airport officials but they accepted Sanyang as a valid geographical answer and we didn’t have to go and fish them out of customs (this has happened since and I now tell students very clearly where they will be staying to prevent it happening again)! During the whole of the workshop Moussa and particularly Okameo, who is a natural comedian, would ask at various points ‘where is toumaranke? or words to that effect and the reply was always ‘I’m not sure, somewhere in Sanyang‘, or ‘it’s a secret’ or some such thing. We still do this even now to amuse ourselves or confuse people sometimes…
In-jokes and catch phrases and funny band-related incidents are used in lots of group’s work and all the African musicians I’ve worked with enjoy word-play, jokes and anecdotes and like to weave them into our history. I suspect Okameo of remembering everything anybody’s ever said or done that he found funny! In this early version of the song Moussa is just playing around and he puts in bits of other songs too. One of the catchphrases of that particular workshop was ‘it’s lovely‘ and Okameo manages to get that in at the end. Okameo and Moussa developed this track after the first workshop and it got incorporated into the ‘house band‘ style evening entertainment we then produced at the next two (much bigger) workshops. I’ve got no recordings of the toumaranke song from either of the workshops we ran with Nansady Keita due to an unfortunate incident with my video camera, so if any of our students do and are reading this I’d be most grateful to be sent any!
The house band concept meant that we could entertain students using the staff we had at any given time, plus anyone else who was visiting and this was the point at which Sanna Conde, now an actual member of Toumaranke, joined in with us. Like Moussa, he’s a superb krin player, and also very skilled with bolon and gongo (as well as being an extraordinary doundounfola). Most of the Guinean musicians know at least versions of the same thing and we can throw together an evenings’ worth of superb entertainment quite quickly. With bigger workshops and more staff we could then use the balafon and the krin as well as gongo/bolon/shakers and the developing Toumaranke lyrics were added to the balafon and krin parts for Yolé. The song got fuller, musically speaking, during these performances, and closer to the version that got recorded on our debut CD.
Toumaranke was always a hit with students and staff, everybody loved the song and so we always used it. After our third workshop in Jan/Feb 2014 I stayed in Gambia for another month and we spent two weeks together as a group working on Toumaranke material. With no house at that time we negotiated a month’s room rent at Sanyang Nature Camp, put up one of the big tents (we have two big and two small, all shipped in by me and at times very very useful) and managed like that. Moussa and I had the room; we kept all the gear in it so we had somewhere safe as a lock up (which left barely enough space for us to sleep in). The others slept in the tent with my collection of mattresses and blankets and not too much complaining! I cooked breakfast for everyone and sometimes we cooked lunch in various combinations of me/Moussa/Oka. But more often I managed with a sandwich/banana and paid for four portions of whatever was on offer at the local eatery in the fish market very close by (vegetarian food being impossible to buy). Occasionally I ate some of the rice but plain rice every day gets a bit tedious. Being a vegetarian in West Africa is a challenging business!
Money was tight as ever and this two weeks gave me an idea of what kind of resources I’d need to accommodate and feed the band during a two-week recording session. Toumaranke at that point were five people – me, Moussa, Okameo, Kossy and another Guinean friend of Moussa’s who I’d met in Guinea and who’d been in Senegal for a while – Daouda Keita aka Kaffa. At that point Toumaranke was probably the most developed thing we had in terms of a piece with both arrangements and lyrics. These two weeks together were the beginning of the album as Moussa, was starting to create with recording in mind. We worked a lot on the van song during this time plus musical arrangements for Sorsonet and Yankadi. The van song came out of a workshop too. Kossy had put several songs together to create it and the original version was performed by him, Kaffa and one of our students, Bernd Hengst, with gongo accompaniment during a cabaret night. I took a lot of promotional pictures and video and we hired a van for a couple of hours, offered everyone a free ride from the fish market into town and created our first ‘music video’. A steep learning curve for me as most of the video we took wasn’t usable!
After I went back to England the idea of recording became more fixed. I talked to Martin Messent who agreed to come on board as the sound engineer. None of the group, including me, have any idea about that side of things. The crowdfunding campaign for The Toumaranke Recording Project began. Moussa found a place in Sanyang that was a suitable ‘Toumaranke house’; although this time as a base for the band rather than for him and me, I needed to stay in England for a while and fund-raise. He was then joined by the balafon playing griot Mamadou Bah and his two ‘apprentices’ Moease and Souleymane. The melodic parts for toumaranke, got developed with balafon accompaniment and solo. The drum parts were added and the lyrics became more fixed. The song had now come a long way from it’s gongo based ‘busking’ origins.
I had no really decent recording equipment at that point, I still don’t in fact; so most of what I’ve got from the early Toumaranke practice in 2014; and the later time, when the band were into ‘serious’ rehearsals for the album, was taken on a smartphone or my video camera. I spent a bit of time in September 2014 with the now seven piece group before they started their three months of practice prior to the recording sessions (Kaffa having left us for the possibility of more immediate financial rewards in Senegal) I’m fairly familiar with the bala accompaniment for Yolé and was confident I could play it to a high enough standard for recording. We agreed at that point I’d play on that track and then see how I was with the others, if I couldn’t bring my playing up to standard practicing alone in England I’d just leave the others. It was really interesting having time with Moussa and the band while they were still creating and before the songs had become fixed. When I’m playing something I’m really sure of, like the Yolé accompaniment, even tho it’s fast and I’m aware of being judged and evaluated all the time I can relax enough to actually listen to what else is going on. Listening to the tracks evolve was an extraordinary process…
The band did the three months of supported practice on D100 – not quite £1.50 – per day, plus the rent, from me. A budget I paid monthly and they managed by supplementing whenever possible. In this practice version of the song, you can hear the beginning of the introduction, almost in the form we finally recorded it, and someone fiddling around (not Moussa, the playing isn’t fluid enough, but I’m not sure who it was) experimenting with krin patterns until he finds one he likes the feel of. Adding a lead balafon part brightens the whole thing up. I was really happy with the developing version we had and delighted with some the solo balafon work. Mamadou Bah is really brilliant and was working hard on it. At that point Moussa was the lead voice on the track, although Oka sang some of it also, but the general call and response (the response not at this point being as immediate or enthusiastic as we’d like) pattern was fixed. I was very sad to have to leave the band and go back to England to fund-raise. I’d much rather have stayed and practiced with them but without me finding the money there wouldn’t be any CD!
In the album version of toumaranke the Yolé style musical arrangements are quite clear. The lead vocals are divided between Moussa and Okameo and Oka calls out at one point quite a long list of our friends and supporters (so long in fact we had to cut the track when editing). This includes several of his brother’s wives. I wrote about this in another blog article Toumaranke Band Profiles. Kossy in context. The family compound. It also includes my sister, who he met only once several years ago, various students and my grandchildren’s dog (Toby Toby narra). As I previously mentioned this ‘griot’ style is very common in West African music. Okameo is simply affirming those connections inside the song. The general ‘feel’ from the songs origins is there, it’s a kind of greeting song from the band to our listeners, a ‘here we are’ statement. Toumarranke narra Toumaranke being literally ‘it’s Toumaranke’ or ‘we are Toumaranke.’
The translation process for toumaranke was less difficult for me than for some of the other tracks. I had some long and quite difficult translation sessions for the album with Souleymane, who can write in Susu but doesn’t have any English. He translated word for word into French for me orally (and I wrote it down) but not all of the words for all of the songs. Moussa helped sometimes with these sessions but I always found them very frustrating as it was the ‘sense’ of a song I was trying to get. As is often the case with people who are only marginally literate, the whole process was very slow, it had obviously taken Souleymane ages to write out the words – he initially thought that’s what I wanted him to do – and the translation part was harder for him to get his head around. This didn’t help much with the general ‘sense’ of lyrics however as the structure of Susu (or Mandinka or Malenke, which are the only two other West African languages I have any experience of trying to translate from) is so different to English that a direct translation doesn’t always make much ‘sense’ linguistically. Toumaranke I ‘got’ the sense of as I was around for most of it’s creation and development but it was still difficult to ‘fix’ a satisfactory translation!
Translation from CD: We are Toumaranke. Everyone has their place, everyone has something to contribute, everyone has their own particular quality. Whatever it is your destiny to do then that’s what you will do.