Musicman 1

These articles were written for publications such as The Gambian Observer and Waato magazine 

In a Modal Way


Can you remember the Beatles?  Remember going to India? 1969? Remember Imrat Khan? Ravi Shankar? The  Sitar? The  Tabla?

The Sitar was an obscure peculiarly shaped instrument ... played by Ravi Shankar ...  that George Harrison first featured on a beautifully crafted tune called �Within You Without You!� on the definitive Sgt Pepper Album! In those days we all thought  �He really is weird!�

Now, of course, everybody and his uncle has an album by Norah Jones, who is rightly recognised as one of the leading creative female voices of the decade, and is also Ravi Shankar�s daughter. Everybody and his auntie has a set of Indian morning ragas in their CD collection. Musical dynasties are created and sustained by talent and pure hard work.

What has this got to do with The Gambia, I hear you think? Could such a  phenomenal explosion of culture happen here? Well there is the Kora, the Xalam, the Djembe and crossing culturally across the ethnic highway, there is also the Boogarraboo! These are West African instruments that pre-date the European guitar, and its refined off-shoot the lute, by at least 200 years. In fact the Kora is more likely the cousin of the Celtic harp, using a similar number of strings.

Let us look at how the musical mechanics have been evolving in West Africa for 800 years. There are many variations and tunings for the Kora. Souta and Siliba are commonly used. The pitch is often middle C but this can vary according to the vocal range of  the player. So the basic 21 string version, tuned to middle C, has 2 octaves and 3 notes above the top C. Below, 3 notes and a bass drone, not dissimilar to that of the Sitar, are also used. So the player is using doh; reh; me; fah; soh; la; ti; doh.

In honour of a famous jazz joke that I first heard on the road 30 years ago, we will play the same notes tonight in a slightly different order!(There are after all only 8 notes in a major scale and 12 in the octave). Modal playing is simply playing the major scale in any one of seven different starting positions. These positions have names like Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian and Aolian. They also correspond to the names of Greek columns in architecture. The nib in the column coincides with the semi-tone movement in the musical scale. When I pick up my fretless bass and improvise with Ebrima Mangara, he plays his business on the Xalam and I simply identify key centres and choose modes that are musically moody enough to create tension and resolution.

John Coltrane created a complete genre with  the tenor saxophone by taking the 7th mode of the harmonic minor scale and blowing everybody�s brains out with a juxtaposition to the dominant 7th chord. This is clearly understood by musicologists as the work of a genius who orchestrated every single phrase with exactitude. In his day he was thought of by non-musical people as someone who played a lot of notes. �An itinerant  Wollof!�  �that Chinese music� as someone once said to Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy and Charlie Parker played in Canada in a quintet with Max Roach on drums and re-defined the nature of the discipline. Check out �Salt Peanuts.� 

What has all this got to do with The Gambia, I hear you think again? Well I particularly like the work of Tata Dinding and Jaliba Kuyateh. Both are from a Mandinka ethnic background, both hail from Brikama and both play the Kora. Play is a word that I use in the broadest sense. These are two of the finest musicians in the world today.

If Miles Davis is recognised as having developed  modal playing in Jazz in the same  way that  Ravel and Debussy first used European classical music 100 years ago, ask yourself this fundamental question. If these  guys had been developing for 800 years, would they be given the credit? Well they would be old enough!  Would people finally look at Bo Derek in the movie �Ten�  and listen to Ravel�s  Bolero in a slightly different way? Would Miles have played �In a Silent Way� with a nod to his forefathers? ; a plain and simple acknowledgment that he had uncovered the secrets of modal playing in the villages of  West Africa! Miles Davis was the son of a dentist. Born in Kansas and educated at public school, he had access to any source material that he needed. There were big gaps in his antecedents�  history after they had been transported to the new world from West Africa. It is not surprising that the techniques used in the villages for 800 years surfaced in his musical approach. Unlike the typical African American jazz musician who was subject to extreme racism and survived on handouts, Miles had the time and space to develop his �cool� genre in a very relaxed way. He knew that his father would pick up the tab! Following Charlie Parker�s �bop� era and John Coltrane was a major challenge and he rose to it!

Put all of this in the world music melting pot and what have you got?  What you have got is Tata Dinding  and Jaliba  Kuyateh. Both play modally! Both play with passion and great strength! Both are in Europe and the USA this winter and both write modern music that embraces their tradition, and yet moves me in a way that only Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane have ever done! I will qualify that. Jaliba has the slow burning, smoking quality of the massively talented saxophonist Ben Webster.

Editors note; Since this was first written Musigam is now a fully functioning organisation in The Gambia. Information that has always been anecdotal is forever being verified or refuted, and is now of the highest quality. The Super Eagles and Ifang Bondi created Afro Manding in the 1970s. Youssou N'Dour spent some weeks in The Gambia as a teenager. As the 1980s came along he started The Super Etoile in Dakar and the second development .. Mbalax...was created. Fair play and credit where credit is due. Both have had a tremendous influence on the following generations. My phrase"stealin it back" was an honest attempt at explaining how musical influences are shared...stolen...and repatriated. Of the next generation in the 1990s Tata plays blisteringly hot scorching lines that leave you breathless and stunned. Thelonius Monk achieved a similar style on the piano. Jaliba has a style all of his own; finely tuned over 30 years and encompassing many influences. Their bands have progressed another step from Mbalax, Ndagga and Afro Manding! The "repair" work of which I spoke was with reference to The Gambian tradition of producing World Music of the highest quality, once again putting it back on the map. Stealin it back would be the way Miles would see it. In a modal way! I am happy to stand corrected and apologise for any distress my repetition of unverified anecdotal material may have caused.


Paul Hill


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