Traditional music in The Gambia is very similar culturally to that of its neighbor, Senegal. Certainly the most prominent part of Gambian music is the percussion traditions of the Wolof and Serer people.
The sabar is not only a specific type of drum, but it has also lent its name to the style of playing using this drum. In saber music, the ensemble includes the saber drum as a rhythmic drum, but it also includes the nder drum that is used as the lead drum, and the tama drum (also called a talking drum – it has different pitches and timbres when you squeeze the sides of the drum, almost sounding like it’s talking).
In both njuup and saber music, styles commonly performed by the Serer tribes, music is divided into smaller motifs, each with its own meaning. Tribes used to use this style of drumming as a means of communication between themselves and other tribes; these rhythmic motifs could be heard for up to 15 km (about 9.3 mi) away. That sounds incredible, but I suppose perhaps the lack of noise pollution and their location near the river help the sound travel.
The Mali Empire influenced Gambian music with the role of griots (sometimes called jelis). Griots were a type of historian-musician-praise singer-storyteller-poet. They’re sometimes likened to what a bard was in British and Celtic history.
Mbalax is a type of dance music that mixes Western style music with the sabar and other traditional musical styles of the Wolof and Serer peoples.
Gambian musicians started venturing into modern musical styles during the 1960s and 1970s. Among the first notable musicians include Guelewar (I can hear influences of jazz, reggae, American rock, African styles, and maybe even early ska, relies heavily on African drums and percussion.) and Laba Sosseh. I listed to two albums of Laba Sosseh and absolutely love it. It’s heavily influenced by jazz and reggae, and Latin music. I listen to his music while I work.
Other more contemporary musicians that I listened to are Ifang Bondi and Jaliba Kuyateh. Both of these musicians tend to borrow from other African styles. Ifang Bondi means “be yourself” in Mandrika, one of the languages spoken in The Gambia. They were known for incorporating traditional instruments, rhythms, and traditional styles into their music. Jaliba Kuyateh is extremely gifted at the kora, an instrument made of wood (originally, it was made from a calabash or goard), stretched with cow skin, and has 21 nylon strings. Eleven strings are played with the left hand and the right hand plays the other ten. His use of the kora in his music has rendered him the nickname “King of Kora.” Foday Musa Suso is another kora player who performed years before Kuyateh. I love this instrument; it’s so beautiful. It almost has a harp-like or like a Russian balalaika even. I could listen to it all day. I highly recommend the album The Dreamtime for anyone interested in the kora. (It’s on Spotify.)
And The Gambia also has a sizable hip-hop scene, mostly influenced by the styles from the US, UK, and the Caribbean. And since I’m extremely interested in hip-hop music from other countries, I had to make sure I have some in my playlist. Unfortunately, I could only find one musician available on Spotify, and that honor goes to Singateh. There is a deep reggae influence in his music, and he also uses other featured singers in his music. I also noticed that his music isn’t strictly rapping; he also has many songs where he sings as well. I really like it. It’s pretty cool. Like me.