Music in the Gambian media

By Oko Drammeh

Music journalism in the Gambia has a long tradition, following the established British publications that circulated in Banjul, such as Melody Maker and Rolling Stone, and the radio programmes of Radio Caroline and the BBC World Service. One of the most famous Gambian bands, The Super Eagles, was a regular feature on the BBC World Service and were among the first African bands to tour the UK in the 1960s, enjoying widespread media coverage across Africa. The Gambia Information Service, which was supervised by the British government before independence in 1965, provided coverage of the Super Eagles UK tours and reviews of their albums and concerts. At the time there was only one newspaper in the country, the government-run The Gambia News Bulletin, a paper that shaped Gambian journalism and included a column that covered music events, art and culture. Fortunately, a lot has changed since then. This text provides an overview of the Gambia media, particularly as it relates to the local music industry.

Inside the Radio Syd studio, circa 2000. Photo: Henryk Kotowski/commons.wikimedia.org
Inside the Radio Syd studio, circa 2000. Photo: Henryk Kotowski/commons.wikimedia.org

Radio

Radio Gambia was first established in 1962. At first it was only a news station, operating from 6pm in the evenings to midnight and rebroadcasting programmes from other parts of Africa and England, particularly the BBC. The music that was played on Radio Gambia was British popular music (such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones), as well as American country music (such as Buck Owens and Jim Reeves), and later Caribbean calypso music. The national broadcaster later evolved into GRTS Radio[i], which today features plenty of local Gambian music, for example on a weekly programme every Monday.

Radio Syd was established in 1969, the first all-day music station in the Gambia. It was operated from off shore by Britt Wadner from Sweden. Before the commencement of Radio Syd, Wardner and her husband had a ship docked in Banjul that functioned as a nightclub called Cheeta 2. In the early days the station's playlist was mainly American pop music of the day - rock & roll and soul. It broadcast in English, French, Woloff and Madinka, with French being dropped in favour of a third national language, Fula. As a short-wave station (SW) it could be heard all over Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea Bissau. Over the years, Radio Syd created the platform for Gambian musicians and journalists throughout the region. The station ceased transmitting around 2001[ii].

Today most of the radio stations in the Gambia are music stations. They typically play up to 20 hours of music a day, and link to Radio Gambia for the English and local news. There are currently more than 15 FM Stations in the Gambia. These include West Coast Radio[iii], which offers two services: West Coast 1 for youth programming and urban music, and West Coast 2 for news and local music. Capital Radio[iv] is a popular music station that plays and promotes Gambian and Senegalese music. Vibes FM 106.1[v] plays plenty of a reggae and hip-hop by both Gambian and US artists. Kora FM 103.9[vi] is a station that promotes the sound of the Kora and the traditions of the Griots. City Limits Radio is a private station that mixes Senegalese music and West African music and reggae with talk shows and European programming. Unique FM 100.7[vii] promotes Gambian urban music for 20 hours a day and also broadcasts programming from Voice of America (VOA).

Due to an apparent lack of Gambian music to broadcast, many Gambian radio stations play a lot of Senegalese music, which is still in demand since both countries share the same tribes and languages (Fulani, Mandingo, Wolof and Jola). Senegal is a relatively large country with a more developed music industry, with numerous recording studios, CD pressing plants and printing outlets. Many Gambian musicians therefore choose to record their music in Senegal and register their copyrights in Dakar with the local collection agency, BSDA[viii].

Television

The state broadcaster, Gambia Radio and Television Services (GRTS), is the only local TV station in the Gambia. The station was established in December 1995 following a decree by the Gambian government that merged the first national television station with Radio Gambia. As with GRTS Radio, GRTS TV broadcasts music-related programmes that cater to a variety of musical tastes, from traditional and urban to international, such as ‘FILA’, ‘African Mix’, ‘Goudi Samdi’, ‘Bollywood Showbiz’, ‘Dial GRTS Request Show’ and ‘Ada Ak Coosan’.

Print & Online Media

The government-owned Daily Observer[ix] newspaper has the largest circulation in the Gambia. It publishes two pages dedicated to music, which comes out on Fridays. These music pages include a gig guide and album reviews by Sheriff Janko and a column on Gambia’s musical legends by Oko Drammeh. In the past there was a music column called ‘Bantaba’ by former editor Hatab Fadeta, which carried interviews with local and visiting stars.

Other newspapers with good music coverage include The Point[x], which runs a one-page music column on Fridays by Njie Baldeh that covers upcoming events and new releases.  The Voice[xi] has a culture page on Fridays that cover music events and also includes interviews with artists. The Standard[xii] newpaper has a weekly column on Wednesdays that interviews Gambias arts professionals - not only musicians but also writers and fashion designers, for example. Forooya[xiii] is predominantly a political paper aligned to the opposition party with a strong message of African unity. Though they do not cover commercial content like album reviews and releases, they cover progressive African artists and events. Kibaaro News[xiv] offers something similar. All of these newspapers also have popular online platforms.

Other popular news sources include What’s On Gambia[xv], Freedom Newspaper[xvi], The Gambia Echo & Tribune[xvii], Today[xviii] (established in 2007), Senegambia News[xix] and Gambia Affairs[xx]. Another highly useful online resource is Access Gambia[xxi], a directory of Gambian companies and operators, including in the music industry. Smaller blogs dedicated to Gambian music include Gambian Music & Musicians[xxii], although this has not been updated since 2012 and The Gambia Experience[xxiii], which includes some info on traditional Gambian music and instruments.

Another effort worth mentioning was Outlook, a gateway for Gambian musicians to reach the public. The paper was run by Waggan Fye, a US-based Gambian scholar and musician now working in the Gambia as the producer of the Open Mic festival, the biggest festival in the Gambia drawing over 15 000 visitors yearly since 2010. The paper was well received by the public and covered the music industry in more detail than other publications, including interviews, discussions on technical standards and equipment, album reviews and gossip. Unfortunately the publication could not survive had to close within a year after only a few editions, a big blow to local music industry.

Nevertheless, positive strides have been made. The Gambia Association of Music Journalists was established in Banjul in 2012 by prominent music journalists from the various daily newspapers, including Njie Baldeh (The Point), Sheriff Janko (The Observer), Kebba Kanteh (Forooya), Bakary Ceesay (The Voice), Musa Sheriff (Today) and various other radio and newspaper contributors. This association was set up to facilitate access to visiting international artists, to attend concerts without charge, to gain media and photo accreditation at events and also to protect their intellectual rights. The association does not have its own office but meet regularly to discuss and set up plans, particularly for major music events. The Young Journalists Association of the Gambia (YJAG)[xxiv] is a similar body, while the Gambia Press Union (GPU)[xxv], established in 1978, is the broader body for all Gambian journalists and media practitioners.

While much work remains to be done, the Gambian media scene has come a long way since the country independence, with a variety of broadcast and print media, now making increasing use of online and mobile platforms, promoting all kinds of music and providing detailed coverage of the local music industry.

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