Saturday, January 10, 2015


Gumbe is a style of music that is stemmed from several musical traditions in Guinea-Bissau. It’s typically associated only with this country.  Gumbe music is primarily characterized by its use of polyrhythmic motifs between the guitars and percussion, although originally it was mainly performed with vocals and percussion. It’s likely that the goombay music of the Bahamas is related to gumbe music of Guinea-Bissau and was brought over during the slave trade. It’s also related to Caribbean zouk music as well. There are times when listening to this kind of music certain rhythms and melody lines resemble those of Latin music. Other genres popular in Guinea-Bissau include Tina and Tinga.

One of the more common instruments you’ll find in traditional music like gumbe is called the kusunde.  This is like a lute that is made from a gourd.  It’s characterized by a short drone string at the bottom (one that typically plays the same note throughout the piece), a medium string at the top, and a longer string in the middle. The medium and longer strings can be stopped to create a secondary note one whole step higher.  The calabash, or kora, is another instrument played in the music of Guinea-Bissau, especially used in fast dance music. Today, a variety of guitars and modern percussion instruments are also used in their music.    

One of the most iconic dances from Guinea-Bissau comes from the Bijagos Islands.  They are famous for their warrior dances, which are fast-paced and tend to show off the dancer’s athletic skills. In other areas, people dance to the popular gumbe music. Typically, women do the dancing while the men use water drums (gourds) to beat out the rhythms. Today, traditional dancing is generally performed for holidays and festivals like Carnival.

The lyrics to music in Guinea-Bissau tend to have strong themes of the fight for independence, African identity, fighting oppression, and other similar sentiments. Because of this, most lyrics are sung in Crioulo as opposed to Portuguese. Many of the musicians who emerged used their music to criticize the government and its failure to take care of its citizens and provide infrastructure and jobs. However, because of the tyranny at the top, many of these musicians who sang their opinions were arrested or killed for their vocal opposition.

I found three examples of Bissau-Guinean musicians on Spotify.  While I really like this style, all three albums have a similar sound.  I like it, but they are all similar. The first album I listed to was Aló Irmao! by Narf and Manecas Costas.  I seriously laughed at the Narf part because it reminded me of that cartoon I watched in high school called Pinky and the Brain. I miss that show. (It’s available on Netflix but not as streaming.) Anyway, this album’s acoustic guitar and lilting melodies remind me of Gilberto Gil. I liked this album.

Ze Manel’s album Povo Adormecido uses a variety of acoustic guitars and some percussion, along with the occasional organ or brass instrument that sneaks into the background of the music. I noticed that he has songs on this album in Crioulo, English, and French.

Finally, I listened to Super Mama Djombo’s self-titled album.  There were many times while listening to this album that made me think I was listening to Cuban music, or at least some other Caribbean or Latin music. I think it was the polyrhythmic beats and descant soprano above the main vocalist that just made this so reminiscent of Cuban music. But there were also tracks that had a distinct African sound to them as well. I really liked this album. 

Up next: the food

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