The first of my senses to be awoken in The Gambia, fresh off the plane, was my hearing. Not the dizzying cacophony of noise often associated with African capital cities, but the welcoming voices and laughter as friends and family greeted each other back home, or greeted foreign visitors for the first time – this is the “smiling coast of Africa” after all. Days later, my ears would prick up in anticipation at the possibility of hearing birdsong while on a forest trek. But my overriding audio memory of the country will be that of the djembe drum.
I absolutely adore music and could never imagine a life without it, but ask anyone who has heard me sing karaoke or play Guitar Hero, and they will tell you that musical ability is not my forte. So it was with a degree of sympathy for the ears of any passing dogs, or anyone with a love of West African drumming, that I began my very first djembe lesson. This was made even more difficult because I’d just witnessed one of the most astonishing displays of drumming I’d ever seen.
Less than two days before my lesson I had been invited to a local performance by some masters of the djembe, the Tamala Africa troupe . As we entered the compound, the group were singing directly to us “You’re Welcome…You’re Welcome…”, emphasizing the “It’s nice to be nice” mantra that Gambians adhere to. They even maintained their composure when I dazzled them with some of the worst dancing seen in West Africa all year. As the music eventually tailed off slightly, I figured the performers must be getting tired and that it was time for lunch – until one of the locals leant over and said “they’re just getting started…”. What followed was incredible – a riot of sound, colour and energy – one of the performers’ hands moved so fast they were literally just a blur of flesh. We’d been told about GMT, or “Gambian Maybe Time”, but I was in no rush to go anywhere, so just sat back and took it all in.
With a current group 15 members strong, Tamala Africa convey the spirit and vitality of a group twice that size. Their drumming prowess is almost equalled by their gymnastic dancing ability, a breathless spectacle that leaves no doubt as to how each member appears so lean and fit. I could only imagine the hours of sweat and practice they’ve endured to reach this level! I’ve heard stories of people going into a trance while listening to certain kinds of music, and at one point I thought a member of the audience had slipped into one such state, though it turned out to be sheer tiredness on the face of a young boy who refused to go to bed – presumably he was enjoying the performance as much as me and couldn’t bear for sleep to end it.
Despite an ongoing flux in the composition of the group, there are anywhere from 15-25 members at any one time. Although originally from nearby Guinea, the Tamala Africa group have been based in The Gambia since 2005, partly because the higher numbers of foreign visitors allows them to be seen by a wider audience. There were times while watching their performance that I was reminded of Staff Benda Bilili, the Congolese group who found international fame on the back of an award-winning documentary (though admittedly the USP of their line-up was that almost every member was disabled).
A couple of days later, when it came to my lesson, I had no excuses apart from an innate lack of rhythm. Alex, our instructor, introduced us to the 3 main techniques – base, tone and slap – and began on the first rhythm, called yankady. This wasn’t actually too hard, unless you lose your rhythm – trying to find it again when there are 3 other people playing next to you is harder than it sounds. Before we had a chance to get too pleased with ourselves, we moved on to samba and afro wolof, which were more taxing. Still, getting any semblance of a rhythm or tune was encouraging, and the constant base/tone/slap was a curious mixture of being frustrating and therapeutic.
Any notion that the incredible energy and skill of the Tamala group might somehow improve my aptitude for learning to play was quickly dispelled. I almost wish I could’ve been enveloped into a trance as it might’ve helped to clear my mind and concentrate only on the notes I was trying to play. While I doubt I’ll be troubling the recruitment team of Tamala Africa, its worth noting they also teach other types of African arts and crafts, and conduct drumming workshops for those who wish to learn or improve. I’d strongly encourage you to seek them out if you’re in the Gambia, but If they were able to find a wider audience I could easily imagine them being a hit in London, Paris or on the European festival circuit.
All words and photos belong to regular contributor Lee Hubbard. The drumming lesson was kindly provided by the Kombo Beach Hotel.