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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Musical chairs (A Gambian music experience)

This essay (or rather series of essays) is an extension of the one I had published on The Standard close to two years ago before Sheriff Bojang’s peculiar situation with the powers that be which led to the closure of his newspaper. 

I must maintain that my involvement in the entertainment industry has been more of a learning one than that of a master. Over the years, I have taken my time to adapt to a system which, like everything Gambian is hard to comprehend; the simplest of things are allowed to get complicated, and the complicated are allowed to become impossible. 

I have always preached on the need to create and embrace a hierarchy; a pecking order which defines the people in the industry but as nature would have it, that most honourable task has been done on our behalf by the times. The music industry in The Gambia is not a homogenous, boring concoction. It has rather been the most vibrant of all our creative (and not so creative) industries in a long time. The artistes are electric ( if not in their music but in their many disagreements, feuds, fights, controversies, scandals) and a lot of words have been said in private and in public, partly responsible for the revival that Gambian music has had in the last 5 to 6 years. 

There is a picture of the ‘whole’. That is the picture that most on the outside see when they look at Gambian music. However, the beauty is not in the whole but in the individuals and the lives they lead in public and private. From the current ‘godfathers’ of Gambian music (Black Lynx), to the ever-present players (Sing-A-Teh et al), the super controversial, the ultra-hypocrites, the greedy mongers, the disloyal, the kind, the ones that should quit, that ones that should step up, the revolutionaries, the ‘topeh-topehs’, our industry is as interesting as it gets and this essay is an attempt to put names to faces; to interpret the many codes we have seen over the years, to give a prognosis on the industry and how it looks through my eyes. Everyone that knows me knows I am not even close to 20/20 vision so ‘bu ken merr’.


SING-A-THE – Freaky Joe

I first met the young artist back when we were both sporting Gambia Senior Secondary School blue. I walked right past him and his clan of performers as they shot a video for ‘more message’ in the school grounds. To be honest, I assumed it was a preparation for some commercial dance. I paid it little mind, ignored the music playing in the background even as I noticed my brother from another mother Peter Braima dancing to ‘More Message’ on the assembly stage. Soon after he was performing to a larger crowd for the Gam-Saints reconciliation and caught the attention of ‘talent hunting’ Hakim of ‘Sons of Lights’. I was there when his journey began that day and saw how much faith the ‘Sons’ seemed to have in creating a brand out of him. There was a hunger in Hakim’s eyes that afternoon in the Saint Augustine’s hall as something amazing began.

Back in the hall I saw nothing too special about the artiste. He was to me just like any other young man in awe of musicians and what they did. I would have bet all I had that we would forget his name and talent a year later. Had I placed that bet, how wrong would I have been? The artiste was our modern day Henry III…or maybe is? At a time when consistency is absent in the music industry in The Gambia; when hits are made but artists forgotten, Sing-A-Teh has been the most present in our midst. I would be the first to say that he doesn’t have the best vocals. Hell he doesn’t even have the best lyrics. Sing-A-Teh however knows his grind. If I had to select a Henry III amongst our long list of artistes, it would have to be him. How is he Henry you might wonder? Henry got his crown, not by default but rather by fault. His older brother should have been King had he not died at age 15. So also was our own Henry’s story for brother before him had died (at least musically). Sing-A-Teh came on the scene when those who should have been flying the flag had either run off to hustle in Europe…had given up on the game…or were out of weapons. Like many others he could have ascended the throne and failed but the ‘dude’ is no fool. Henry had to marry Catherine to further strengthen alliance with The French and Sing-A-Teh understood the dynamics and the politics enough to do the same. 

I have met and worked with many artistes over the years but watching the young man has been a joy. His relevance might have wavered with the introduction of new competition but no one has played the game of music politics as well as he has. If there was a course at the University on that, I would gladly recommend him. The ‘Sing-A-Teh’ I knew as ‘Freaky Joe’ studied the playing field, embraced the politics and the leadership, cared little for the judgement of others and kept his hustle going. I do not know of any other artistes in this generation who have stayed on for longer than a decade. When ‘diss-tracks’ were hurled his way by our hip-hop heads, he held his head up above shoulders and continued his struggle. 

Yet he too has made mistakes. When he took his war to ‘Black Lynx’, I was disappointed. His fight seemed petty, out of touch, selfish and disrespectful; but it was a fight I respected all the same. Like Henry’s fight against The Church when he couldn’t have his way with them, my brother took his fight to the ‘powers that be’. After consistently appearing on Open Mic Festivals, that he would start a war of words on the most irrelevant of issues; that he would then try to make the festival seem unimportant, and that he would still appear on the Open Mic Festival stage on the invitation of Jalex was WRONG. However, I must add that I had already mentioned his ‘understanding the politics’ and playing it right. By attacking Black Lynx, the artiste not only fought for his relevance but inspired other younger artists to take up the fight thus cementing his ‘mentorship authority’. 

It is interesting to note also that as strong a personality as he is, he has a truly humble side. At our monthly ‘Word of Mouth’ event, I remember when he was invited to give a performance and unlike the many artistes that have graced the stage, he was early, confined to his space and nervous. It made me realise why he has been successful by our standards. That he would go from being ‘dissed’ by Gee to doing a song with him is the truest sign of his maturity and experience. 

Sing-A-Teh isn’t perfect. It is evident that he has slipped from the top of the ladder over the last couple of years. It isn’t going to get easier for him; it’s going to get tougher! He doesn’t have a Jali Madi voice or Bilal’s lyricism however he has the one thing which MOST in the industry have no clue about. He has the tenacity to survive and to continue being relevant. 

At this rate, common sense would say he won’t be around for much longer. However, it was common sense that made me walk past him when he did his video shoot over a decade ago at Gambia High so who knows?

My journey into Gambian music started with him so this series starts with him too. Over the course of the next few days/weeks, I will be profiling and commenting on the various artistes and players I have come across in the industry. There are the ‘hamba-taals’, the ‘followers’, the ‘leaders’ the ‘paaka nyaari borrs’ etc. I know I will step on a few toes along the way but *shrugs*..ah well.  I know that like many other Gambian initiatives, a few people will take offense and probably cross me off their ‘important’ lists but I guess that’s my battle to fight. 

Meanwhile, Ebola is real! Join the fight for an #EbolaFreeGambia!




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