By Sheriff Janko
Gambian popular music has evolved over the years. Following a creative boom in the 1960s, artists such as the Super Eagles (aka Ifangbondi), Guelewar and Laba Sosseh were able to make an impact in and outside the country in the 1970s and 80s. More recently, modern pop or urban music emerged in the mid-1990s with a surge in the number of local artists. The popularity of urban music in the country can also be attributed to the commissioning in 1995 of the Gambia Radio & Television Services (GRTS), specifically a popular TV programme called ‘Extra Touch’ hosted by Lamin Manga. As a result, many new pop artists became known to fans. Since then, pop music in The Gambia has continued to grow, with a young generation of artists succeeding thanks to their creativity. From Mbalax and Afromanding to dancehall-reggae and hip-hop, the number of new artists continues to rise. This text provides an overview of some of the popular genres in The Gambia.
Mbalax (otherwise called Ndagga) is not only popular in The Gambia but it also serves as a signifier of Senegambian identity. Despite being around for years, the genre’s unique blending of traditional and western instruments has fuelled its popularity, making it one of the most popular genres in both The Gambia and Senegal today. Mbalax fuses popular Western music and dance with ‘sabar’, the traditional drumming and dance music of the Wolof and Serer people. Its roots can be traced back into history, but the more recent inclusion of western electric instruments makes the genre more contemporary and appealing to the youth.
Among the popular Mbalax stars of The Gambia are: Mass Lowe, Yusupha Ngum, Maslabi, Pa Omar Jack, Bai Babou, Musa Mboob, Humanity Starz and the rising sibling sensations Abou and Fafa Mbaye.
Afromanding is one of the most popular music genres in the country. Its distinctive sound continues to make the genre one of the most appealing to Gambians of all ages. It’s a fusion of local instruments like the kora and balafon alongside modern instruments and influences. Afromanding is widely recognised as a Gambian music, even though it might have some partial similarities with Afromanding in Mali today, particularly in terms of its instrumentation.
The most popular musicians of this genre include Jaliba Kuyateh, Tata Dinding Jobarteh, Pa Bobo Jobarteh, Jali Kebba and Lamin Saho, among many others. Recently a number of emerging Gambian rappers have fallen in love with this genre and been able to produce a unique fusion that has found many fans in the country. Among this new generation of Afromanding stars are Jali Madi Kanuteh, Jalex, Manding Morry and Cees Ngum. Despite some skepticism, these new artists have created a fusion that is not only appeasing to fans but indeed has succeeded in changing the entire musical status quo.
Reggae & Dancehall
With a history dating back several decades, reggae (and its modern sub-genre of dancehall) is not only popular in Jamaica but all over the world, including The Gambia. The genre’s global popularity is linked to the infectious and uplifting sounds of reggae icon Bob Marley. Since his death in 1981, the genre’s popularity has continued to increase exponentially. It has influenced a number of young Gambian musicians, who continue to regard the late Jamaican icon as their source of inspiration. Jamaica may be the birthplace of this popular genre, but its increasing popularity among Gambian youths is quite amazing. In fact, The Gambia has attracted many of the top Jamaican artists to hold concerts in the country. These include Luciano, Sizzla Kalonji, Mutabaruka, Morgan Heritage, Anthony B, Capleton, Busy Signal, Jah Vinci and most recently (in March 2015) I-Octane.
Some of the top Gambian reggae dancehall artistes at the moment include Rebellion D Recaller, Benjamin, Lixen, Born Africans, Royal Messenger, Singateh, T Smallz, Silky Criss, Hard Breaka, ENC, Magnificent Joe and Messiah, among others. What makes this genre particularly popular to young fans is their use of Jamaican patois.
The hip-hop scene is growing among young Gambians. Since the rise of the local rap scene in the mid- to late-1990’s, artists have gone the extra mile in popularising the genre. The motivating and empowering sounds of American hip-hop stars such as 2 Pac, Jay Z, Eminem and 50 Cent have also contributed to the genre’s popularity in the country. Among the trailblazers were Black Nature, Da Fugitivz, Born Africans, Dancehall Masters, Pencha Bi, Surgicalz and Saf Saf Crew. Though their sounds and lyrics vary, these groups were able to carve a niche for themselves and change the status quo.
In recent years, young hip-hop artists have taken steps to revamp the genre, just like any other popular genre. One such intervention is the introduction of the Cypher Street Rap Battle, launched by Killa Ace, one of the country’s finest hip-hop brains. This street rap battle is like a local talent search, in which young artists showcase their talents in a public venue. This initiative has yielded results, with the growing number of artists and fans alike drawing inspiration from the performances.
Gospel is mostly played at church services but a growing number of Gambian artists are loyal to this genre. Even though it is not common in clubs, many local hotels occasionally host gospel concerts to attract more clients, particularly tourists. However, its popularity cannot be compared to genres like dancehall and Afromanding. Some organisations are at the forefront of promoting the genre, such as Mercy and Grace Music[i], which has hosts a popular radio show and is committed to creating a platform to promote Gambian and other African gospel artists. Artists/promoters such as B Master and Dr Oliver Mboge (who is also president of the Musicians Union of the Gambia and an executive member of The Gambia Collecting Society) have played a crucial role in promoting the genre. Mboge in 2010 released a new solo album titled Sopalehma Yai Boie, which included gospel hits like ‘Lead Me Heavenly Father’. St Therese's Senior Choir is another household name in the Gambia when it comes to staging gospel events in the country.
This genre was popular in the old days but still retains a following. Today it’s mostly played at hotels to entertain tourists who visit the country. Even though this popular genre is today considered somewhat outdated and jazz artists find it difficult to attract fans, especially among young people, jazz is still a favorite among the older generation.
Amigo Jeng is a renowned Gambian jazz musician, who during his heyday often showed off his prolific skills during live performances. His music typically drew on other influences, such as merengue and other pop genres, fused with Wolof lyrics and other African elements. It is necessary to recognise the efforts by Amigo Jeng in promoting an appreciation of the genre among Gambian communities. Abdul Kabir Ngum was also influential in developing the Afro-manding and jazz sound, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It is evident that the pop music has flourished in the Gambia in recent years. If the trend continues, budding artists stand a great chance to benefit. Today, a number of locally-based Gambian artists have earned international exposure while several foreign-based singers are carving a niche for themselves in the global music industry. As a result, popular music in this tiny West African nation continues to cross boundaries and will hopefully continue its rise for many years to come.