By Ebrima Kamara
The need to discuss and understand Gambian-ness from an inclusive perspective is overdue, but, is better too late than never. For the sake of understanding ourselves better, it is time to initiate a debate about some of our ideas we have taken for granted since the beginning of time. In these times of transition no stone should be left unturned if beneath it lays the key to a broadened mind.
What may seem difficult at first sight may be easier than expected, especially when you dig where we stand. It seems as if we unintentionally underrate the role, talent and skill of the JALI. We need to try very hard to understand the art of JALIYAH; what inspires it, its intentions, how it shapes us as individuals and as a society. Jaliyah is a profound form of art – understanding it will make our quest for self-restoration much easier. Then, let charity begin at home.
Marjo is a Gambian by birth, a Belgian citizen, speaks Mandinka, Poularr, Wolof, Jola, Serrahullé, English and French. Marjo defines himself as a speaker of a language not a member of a tribe or ethnic group. Marjo’s ability to speak many languages gives him expansive access; therefore identifies himself as a speaker of a language and not a member of a tribe or ethnic group. We are language groups because when a Mandingka settles and builds his family in a Serrahule settlement, he becomes serrahullenized in the same manner a Pouloh settling in a Wolof settlement becomes wolofnized. The categories of tribe and ethnicity are misleading in depicting our history – to understand who we are and where we come. Language rather than tribe or ethnicity is what describes our relationship in Senegambia.
Touray, Kamara, Jamme, Njie, Saane, Baldé, Jallow are family names found in all language groups showing how deeply interwoven we are as a people. Language as an analytical concept explains our relationship far beyond the concepts of tribe and ethnicity. Clearly we speak a particular language in given context because it suits the context. For example we speak Jola when conducive, Fula, Wolof, Mandinka etc., when it serves us well.
The fluidity of identity is found in many professions in Senegambia, for example one family name can be found within the numóol (blacksmiths) in one place and in another within the karankéel (leatherworkers) and in the third place within the jalóol (bards). Lalo Kebba Draamé is one of the greatest Jali coraplayers in the region but Daraamé is also found in
karankéel, numóol, mooróol (marabous) and julóol (merchants). This dynamic flow of identity is common in all works of life in Senegambia. The Saanés, Maanés, Jaatas, Jaajus identified themselves with their Jola heritage in the effort of reshaping and tuning in their identity to suit the Jammeh regime. Whiles 30 years ago those family names were identified with Mandingka because it was good for business. This clearly indicates how insignificant the notion of both tribe and ethnicity are in our social living in Senegambia; hence tribe and ethnicity are negotiable notions that changes with need, settlements and time.
There are different dialects of Mande found in Mali, the two Guineas, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Ivory Coast and so forth. Interestingly, the Mandingkaa dialect is found only in the Senegambia region. Is it because Mandingkaa is a hybrid, like Aku? That it is a creolization of the languages in the Senegambia region and those from the great Empire of Mali. Is it possible that Mandingkaa as we know it is a new creation enabling communication between peoples with different language backgrounds, a lingua franca like Wolof has or is becoming? Who are Mandingka and what is Mandingka are interesting questions. So, we should be mindful in our quest not to perceive ourselves from an ethnic and or tribal angle but rather from a lingual perspective.
The Jali have created a cosmic reality for us to the extent that if Kaabu or Mandeng did not exist, the Jali have created one. In as much as oral tradition, as a form of recording history, is as authentic as written history we should be wary of oral tradition and the Jali’s brilliance in both recording and narrating history. Not just because word passed from mouth to mouth through generations loses some vital information intentionally or unintentionally, but also of the narrator’s intention. Let’s not forget to scrutinize the source of the Jali-epic and its intended effect and purpose, for good or bad.
The idea of migration and conquest has been drummed deep in our self-understanding and perception by the folklore. Some of the well-known folklores in Senegambia are conceptualized and narrated by the Jali, who are popularly referred to as the conserver of our history and genealogy. The Jali’s performance and presentation of epics is an inherent skill passed from parent to offspring for hundreds of years. The Jali performs heroic stories and history with a big potion of nostalgia that mobilizes sentimentality. The Jali is the composer, performer and validator of the epics.
The Jali plays an important role in the King’s court, in war, in the mongering of marriage, peace and other functions in society. The question we never ask or ask very seldom is the meaning of these epics not only their factuality but also the intention of performing them. They are performed in particular space and time to have maximum effect. In what contexts are these epics performed, for whom and why are questions that need to be answered to have full understanding of their meaning in our self-understanding and our understanding of history.
The Jali is irresistible especially in the moment of performance. It is here that all the knowledge and skills the Jali has gathered over the years come together. To create a hypnotic chamber where the listener is taken through a suggestive journey and come out on the other side changed. Like a ritual after going through it you are never the same. The epics of Kelefaa Saané, Jankey Wali, Sheriff Seedy, Masaane Ceesay are in the core of the traditional repertoire of the Jali, accompanied by cora, baloo, female and male voices. The style of performance involves singing and the act has a beginning and an end, intervals and other gimmicks that have specific functions in different parts of the epic.
Voices and instruments are sometimes loud, at times the melodic parts take the lead, the level of the narrator’s voice in different parts are all calculated and arranged to maximize effect. The part of the epic that is recited is explicitly filled with words of praises. This is also the part where heroic deeds are elevated and given meanings that are admirable and touching. Also it is in this part genealogy is recited. These are genre specific structural ingredients of Jaliyaa, without which there is no Jali.
Kelefaa Saane a popular legendary warrior of Kaabu is narrated by the Jali as a Mandinka hero. It is also traditionally the first song a young Jali learns at the beginning of their Jaliyaa. In Kelefaa the Jali want us to belief that Kelefaa’s virtues reflect what it means to be Mandinkaa. Whiles Kelefaa’s proficiency and quality derive from the political, social,
moral, and spiritual founding of the Kaabunkas. Mandinkaa is not the only language spoken in Kaabu, unless if Mandinkaa is the total sum of all languages of Senegambia and that anyone can be Mandinkaa. In that sense being a speaker of Mandinka is situational, circumstantial and not inherent, an individual choice that one does whenever it
serves one well and is negotiable pending on the need at the time. But because of the skill and talent of the Jali, the story of Kelefa is not preserved for the speaker of Mandinkaa but for any heroic deed. That is to say, the Jali praises heroism and not a particular language group, hence being a hero is a virtue and that anyone can be a hero.
Originally these epics are composed for a patron; a King, a prince, a kandaa and nganaa (influential men and women). As time goes by the only constant ingredient of the composition is the melody and arrangement whiles the patron(s) can be replaced. For example the melody and arrangement of the song of the Kelefaa Saané epic composed to praise Kelefaa’s heroic deeds remains basically the same but Kelefaa; the original patron can be replaced by Kairaba, Samba, Sulayman, Batch who would inherit all the virtues of Kelefaa. Hence, human existence, according to the Jali, is beyond the reign of one king, Kings come and go but society remains. When time changes the Jali changes with it, the pagan Kings, warriors, princes and princesses have become clerics, laments the Jali. So, basically everybody and anybody is a potential prince or descendent of a king in the new folklore.
A well-known and narrated account about the war between the Fulbes and the Kaabunkas ends with the smuggling out of the Jali from the besieged fortress of Kaabu. The reason being someone has to narrate how the war ended for the world and the generations to come.
What the Jali tells us about that war is that it was a stalemate, there were no victors. That, when the fortress was surrounded by the Fulbe and the Kaabunkas had no way of escape, they resorted to committing collective suicide. The Kaabunkas opened the gates of the fortress to let the Fulbe in. When the enemies marched in victoriously the young women committed suicide by throwing themselves into wells saying they would not be slaves in Futa. When the fortress was full to the brink the Kaabunkas set the armoury ablaze and everyone inside the fortress was killed including the Kaabunkas. This is why, according to the Jali, there were no victors in the war between Futa and Kaabu. The question is how the Jali knew this was how the war ended hence; the Jali was not there to witness the atrocity. Was the Jali’s
narration dictated, was it a narration to protect the Kaabunkas from the embarrassment of defeat, or was it all an artistic creation of the Jali? Who were the Kaabunkas, where they Mandingka, Jola, Wolof, Serer, Fulbe, Balanta etc. or was it all of them together that constitute Kaabu.
It’s important to know your history but not by enquiring into “your-being” with the help of someone else’s language and worldview. Maybe we should understand the Jali’s freedom or rather act of replacing the hero in the epic of Kelefa Saané with Mandinka, Pouloh, Jola, Wolof, Serrer, Serrahullé heroes as a means of emphasizing similarity and oneness of the Senegambia peoples. By allowing us to be equally represented, share and have pride in the same legendary epics the Jali forges us into one people. In this way the Jali plays the role of a unifier, an important role in the creation of Senegambia. Moreover, by placing our great grandfathers in the same legendary epics means we share the same story of origin.
JALIYAH is much more than playing an instrument, it is a philosophy that binds people together and plays a vital role in keeping not only our history alive but also in modelling the very sense of who we are from the beginning of time.