Jaliba Kuyateh


In this edition of Bantaba, the associate editor of The Standard, Saikou Jammeh, talks to Jali Kebba Kuyateh, the King of Kora about his music and his life.


How long have you been into the kora?


I started playing the kora when I was 5 or 6. But then, it was not in a proper way. Because I was born into a jali family, I started playing the kora at an early age. I was taken to school at the age of 7. During my school days, I did not leave it totally. I was only playing it during my leisure time or during holidays. I started Kora proper when I completed secondary school and sat for the entrance examination to the Gambia College to become a qualified teacher. When I was going into the college, the music came back to me. So, I took the instrument along with me to the college. My college career was from 1977 to 1980. I made a name at the college. But I was playing solo, only kora, with some friends. This took me some years. While I was teaching, after my graduation from school, during weekends or my free time after school, we played at events in various villages and towns. I kept going on like that until I wrote to the Department of Education when the demand became very high, to retire. I became a full time musician. This was in 1986 to be precise. In 1986, I started to bring in the balafong. In 1987 I brought in drums. And, in 1988, I brought in other instruments like the guitar to make it a full band. In 1990, I started performing and the name was going up. People started inviting me abroad. The first travel I did with my group was to France. This was in 1992/1993. Then, I came up with the first album. In the previous years, I was only playing in radio stations. I started marketing my products in 1993 when I came back from France. My first album, Radio Kankang, was a six-track album. 


When you were young, your father used to punish you by sequestering you in a corner to play kora when you did something wrong. What impact did that have on you?

That was a punishment. But the man was very tactful. He was trying to teach me some basic knowledge about the kora. And that was during the years of 5, 6, 7 and 8 years. When I did any stubborn thing, he would confine me to a corner of his room, give me a tune to master before he would let me out to play with my friends. 


Looking back today, do you appreciate what he did?

At that time it was a bit bitter for me. But in psychology that’s what we call extrinsic motivation. That is, you’re being motivated but at your dislike. It was bitter but I liked it in the end because I was able to have some basic knowledge of the kora. 

How were your days as a kora player at the college like?

It was fine. I think it was the first time for somebody, an educated elite, to be able to play on one of our cultural instruments. So, it became amazing.  When I started to play on the radio, some people were paying their fares to come and see whether this was a student on campus. I think that idea was good and that’s why I gained fame. At the college, radio workers were coming to cover some of our ceremonies. It was during one of the quiz competitions that Mbemba Tambedou and Neneh MacDouall of Radio Gambia came. It was amazing to them to find a student who was able to play on the kora. So, they engaged me and took me to Radio Gambia. The late Momodou Sanyang of GRTS was a technician at the time. He was the first person to record me. I could remember the programme it was featured was called Star of the Week. 


How did the school authorities react to your playing of kora?

They did not mind. They were only advising me that the college course was a difficult one; that I should be careful so that I could cope with the studies. The demand was high. 


How did you set up the band?

That was through the demand of certain women’s groups in Brikama. When we came together at the college, we were playing as a group. A native of Brikama, Mr Dembo Jatta, was the education minister. These ladies, in groups, went to Mr Jatta to appeal to him that there was somebody graduating from the college with his group, ‘we are asking if you can make an arrangement so that they’re transferred to Brikama schools’. Mr Jatta, with his influence as education minister, appealed to the authorities so that they post us here. 


You eventually incorporated other instruments and you call this genre of music the ‘kora pop’ of which you’re the founder. Tell us about it?

I believed that I might not have fans having interest for my solo music. I said to myself ‘why can’t I bring in other things to make it bigger’. And I incorporated them. It was difficult when I started. The idea worked. It gave me so many audiences. For, when I started, it was only the elderly people who were interested in my music. But when I included these other instruments, it became appealing to the young ones. I had the younger generation. Around this sub-region of Africa, I was the one who started that. It’s rather unfortunate that people like Mory Kante [of Yeke fame] came to do the same style. They saw me do it, but they had the opportunity to be known internationally first before Jaliba. 

Why was that?

They were able to get better contacts than I had. And our countries are different; people’s approach towards promoting their artistes, I think, makes the difference. 


Did you receive criticism from older jalis for departing from the tradition?

Yes, I heard some griots saying this man has turned into a ‘Siko’ musician. Siko music is a group of youngsters who take a barrel, turn it into drums and beat them and dance to political groups. It was not so. I said to them the kora is just like a guitar, it can be a band. It just depends on how you go about it. I heard many criticisms, but I did not pay heed to them. I just continued. I knew what I was doing. I knew where I was trying to get to. 


What informed your first album, Radio Kankang?

I thought it was going to make an impact on society. There was too much talk. So, I came up with it. It was not only a hit in Gambia, but also in Senegal. That’s why Senegal embraced me first. I was very frequent on their radios and television. 


Incorporating other instruments might not be easy. You might know the pieces in kora, but not in guitar or balafong. Putting them together could be quite ingenious on your part. How did you do it?

The section you’re talking about, in music, someone has to be gifted before you’re able to do that. Also, you have to get a hearing. When I brought in the balafong, I went to the balafong maker and told him I wanted us to tune the balafong to the kora. He said: ‘No, no, no, that never happened. You always tune the kora to the balafong because you can push the strings of kora up and down. The balafong, when you tie it, it’s stagnant’. I told him we have to do it my way. So I had to tune the balafong direct to my kora. When he hits one bar, I would ask him to reduce the edge to make it sharper. I went that way until I got the kora sounds from the balafong. And the guitar, I knew which string correspond with the kora. I started with the bass guitar. When I say play the bass, I will know what will correspond. Some of my players, even today, would not know whether or not we are in tune. But through hearing, I know that particular person is either up or down. It’s in me, part of me. I am gifted. 


Where is the limit of Jaliba’s gifted talent?

It has no limits. As I go, each time I come up with something new, it surprises myself. That means it does not have any limitations. I am still playing. I do come up with certain tunes that are amazing. I sit back to say how did I manage this.


You’re quite unique in the sense that you can sing, dance and play the kora at the same time and you’ll flow. Is that something you learned through practice? 

This is what all the Senegalese musicians are saying today. Last week, Pape Diouf was on 2STV. He says he thinks Jaliba is the ‘best musician in the sub-region because he’s able to play, sing, and dance all at the same time and they are all correct’. I said wow! But I think that depends on your first approach to the instrument. When you start to learn, you have to do all together. The coordination has to be in you.