Music & Culture

Music plays an important part of Gambian culture: “The drum” made of carved wood and goatskin seems a simple instrument, but use of the drum is not limited to musical entertainment, such as in music from the Americas or Europe. It has a serious application in many societies across the continent. Many West African tribes are well known for their use of drumming in daily activities and special events and a native speaker of a language can often perceive an actual message in the music. This effect also forms the basis of drum languages (talking drums). In days gone by drumming was used as a way of communicating news from village to village, for example to inform members of their respective tribes about major news, such as a death, funeral, meeting, or celebration within the tribe. In the past it was used as a warning of imminent attack.

The drum is the sign of life – its beat is the heartbeat of the community. Such is the power of the drum to evoke emotions, to touch the souls of those who hear its rhythms. The beating of the drum is an opportunity to give one another a sense of belonging and of solidarity. It is a time to connect with each other, to be part of that collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society.

Wrestling: The beat of the drum is used to evoke the emotion of the contester and create an excitement in the arena. Modern traditional wrestling has evolved as a modified version of real combat techniques. Traditionally, all the boys in a village were taught how to wrestle with the ones that showed skill and promise held in high regard as a man regardless of class. It is one of the oldest traditional sports in The Gambia and wrestling festivals are a common occurrence. The object is simply to throw one’s opponent to the ground. The first wrestler down in the bout loses the contest. Leg locks are permitted but there are no patterned arm or head locks, or complicated points system. The most common style of grappling is shown among the Mandinka, Fulas and Jolas. It involves each opponent grabbing each other’s trunks at the start of the bout. After some strategic maneuverings each one would attempt to throw the other to the ground. Serers on the other hand prefer to go straight for the legs and render their opponent off-balance.

Traditional music is mostly functional in nature, there are for example, many different kinds of work songs, some of the drumming that goes on in the middle of the day even helps women and men of the tribe get daily chores done more quickly as the drums allow them to follow a rhythm while they work, Ceremonial or religious music accompanies childbirth, marriage, hunting, and even political activities.

Ceremonial music will often be accompanied by the Balafone and the Kora, which produces a harp-like sound. The player uses the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns. The combination of instruments used depends on the tribe. Male griots, or praise singers, are born into the profession. They most often act as a solo or duo instrumentalists and are traditionally heard at weddings and infant naming ceremonies. They attend the ceremonies to bring good luck with their songs and historical recitations. In some areas they may form part of a larger group that may include Kora, Calabash, Flute and Tamo Drums. The griot or “Jali” society acted as historians, advisors, arbitrators, praise singers and storytellers and essentially these musicians were walking history books, preserving ancient stories and traditions through song. Their inherited tradition was passed down through generations. They were said to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers through their music and speech. The talking drums (Tamo) are some of the oldest instruments used by West African griots and their history can be traced back to the ancient Ghanaian empire. Many griots have developed a highly sophisticated genre of music centered on the talking drum.

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