Jaliba Kuyateh and the Kumareh Band, when and how did it all start?
I started when I was a child. My father who was a kora player himself was using the instrument as a form of punishment when I did anything wrong. He was using it in the form of confining me to a corner of his room and he would give me a tune to master before I was allowed to go play with my friends. This way, he was somewhat teaching me the elementary skills of playing the kora.
A punishment as a learning curve for you?
(Laughs). It was. So I knew the basic skills of playing the kora and that was how it began. I almost left it when I enrolled at school to do the formal school education. I came back to it though when I qualified [as a teacher at college].
When was this?
It was during the 1974/75 academic year that I left school. I went to teach as an unqualified teacher in Bakau Primary School in 1976. I sat for the college entrance examination and was fortunate to get a place at Yundum College (now Gambia College) in November 1977. I went to the college with my solo kora and it was unusual and amazing to so many people. I was entertaining ‘ataya’ vous and student groups on campus for nearly a year. In 1978, some students approached me to form a band.
Who were these pioneering friends who approached you to form a band?
They were Yaya Jarju, Momodou Jarju (aka Solo), Ebrima Kah, Ebrima Dampha, Cham and others. The group was called Kora Committee.
Then what happened next?
We were performing at the college just for fun until when we had an occasion on the campus and Radio Gambia came. Mbemba Tambedou and Neneh MacDouall were the people who came to cover the event for Radio Gambia. It was amazing to them that the young man playing the kora is at the same time a college student. So, they decided to take me to Radio Gambia studios for the people to know. Neneh had me on her show: Star of The Week. It was definitely amazing! That was where the whole thing started on a grand scale.
So, that was how you got famous?
It was unbelievable. People even paid fares coming from far to come to see for themselves that the person playing the kora was indeed a college student. Word of mouth went viral. So, students started taking us to perform in their social functions in Lamin and surrounding areas.
So, things started getting serious from there?
That was it. So, I said to myself, this is something that could be very fruitful in the future, why can’t we make it a serious one? So, we made our rules and started as an organised group. We had groups and kafolu in Brikama such as the Ninki-Nanka (Dragon) Kafoo who went to the then Education Minister Mr Dembo Jatta and asked him a favour that when we graduate from the teachers college, we be posted in Brikama so we won’t be far from them. We started with those kafolu in Brikama – the Ninki-Nanka, Wulaba Samah (Elephants of the Big Forest) Kafo, Senegambia Kafo, Master Kanta Vous et cetera. They became my patrons.
Then you moved from using just the kora and introduced instruments such as drums and guitars in the mix. Why?
Well, all those years when we qualified in the ’80s, we were all posted in Brikama and were visiting towns and villages all over The Gambia, mostly, schools. We had a rule that any school that engaged us, we were going to perform for them free of charge. So, we gave fun to almost all schools on the north and south bank of the River Gambia.
At the same time, you were also releasing promotional lyrics for institutions. Messages on health, transport and other social issues. For instance, you did one for GPTC and another for FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation). Were you commissioned to do these, or was it a conscious decision on your own initiative?
I felt there was a need. Most of their posters bearing English phrases could not reach out to the majority of the population, a higher percentage of whom are illiterate. So, there was a need to use the Kumareh Band to convey the messages through our music. This was why I did it. I can recall the time Ismaila Ceesay and others at GPTC appreciating our work. Sidia Sanyang at the African Development Bank gave us D400 in new D10 notes. It was quite a substantial amount at the time. I also came up with songs for children and I think this is why Unicef (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) became interested in Jaliba and Kumareh Band. This is perhaps part of the reasons I became Unicef goodwill ambassador.
Jaliba became known regionally and worldwide. How did this break come?
It was in 1986 when I was invited to Guinea Bissau. I went there with only a drum set but did not take it out of the box. I entertained them with only the kora. But when I returned to The Gambia, I decided to use other instruments in the mix. I added the drum set, some local drums backed by the balafong before adding one or two guitars. I only introduced the guitar when I was invited to perform at the Pan-African Festival (Panafest) in Ghana in 1992. From Ghana we went to Paris. We didn’t even get home from the airport. We boarded another plane to Dakar and then to Paris. That was when I became international.
Your first studio album was Radio Kang-Kang – a phrase associated with rumours and unfounded speculations. Why did you come up with the song?
I was trying to suppress some of those things because when you start to become a star of the people, there are so many unfounded things said about you. The song was about protecting the people who were helping me, Yaya Jarju and others. So many unfounded and unpleasant things were said about them such as: ‘They are not griots’, ‘They are this and that’. So, I was trying to suppress that, and it was an interesting topic. Radio Kang-Kang was produced for that reason.
Then others followed. What are the songs and albums?
Radio Kang-Kang (1993), Dajiko (Behaviour) 1994, Tereto (Season of Harvest), Jaliba Kuyateh in Paris and Njie Kunda and others. I had a break in 1998. Then came a USA live show album in 1999, Best of Jaliba in 2000, followed by others.
If you look back on your career so far, what were your highs as well as your low moments and what does the future hold for Jaliba and Kumareh Band?
I think I have made an achievement – a great one in fact – because I have made it possible for my music to be known and for The Gambia to be known to a level not known before. For example, when you go to the UN offices in New York today, where all ambassadors are listed on the board, I am able to put The Gambia up there. I was shown on CNN once. It is quite an impact. It seems I haven’t done anything yet because I am almost coming to the age of retirement, but I am discovering that now is the time to catch up in the area of international recognition. I’ve got some promoters who are new and from California. They are doing a lot. They have built my website, and now they are responsible for my contracts and everything in that part of the world. I have also got a group of promoters in Europe, and they are even trying to put me on higher heights. I think they are on a process and shortly I shall be on the Oprah Winfrey Show. In essence, the Kumareh Band is being rebranded.
Fantastic. Thank you very much for talking to Gus-Mag.