Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Jali Yankuba Conteh, the Konte family and the kora

Jali Yankuba Conteh
Music fans we most definitely are but neither Max nor I had heard of the kora, until my friend Mitch recently returned from The Gambia

In The Gambia Mitch met and befriended a 'Jali' or praise singer, storyteller and guardian of the oral tradition. This Jali, Yankuba Conteh, makes and plays the kora, which turns out to be a 21-stringed instrument that looks a little like a guitar, but is played in front of the body by picking and strumming the strings, like a harp.

The body of the kora is bulbous, usually light coloured, and traditionally decorated with nails or studs. The guitar-like neck rises out of the kora's body with the strings raised on a substantial bridge. Unlike the guitar the traditional kora has no tuning heads. Instead the strings are adjusted by hand, by pushing leather rings to which the strings are attached, up and down the instrument's neck.

Jali Yankuba plays the 21-string kora,
made from a calabash traditionally covered in goatskin.
From this elementary description it's possible to appreciate the difficulty of playing and manipulating such an instrument competently. It seems Jali Yankuba is a 'master' kora player and comes from a family of master kora players. 

Jali Yankuba makes & plays the traditional Gambian kora
The kora originates from The Gambia, so Gambians say. It certainly comes from the mandinka tribes of West Africa, though whether The Gambia, Senegal, Mali or quite where is lost in the mists of time. Several of the most renown kora-playing families, and traditionally Jalis only come from the male line of these few families, come from The Gambia.

Jali Yankuba's grandfather is listed on Wikipedia as the 'Godfather of Kora'. Alhaji Bai Konte was the son of Burama Konte who composed the best known kora anthem or 'boom' made famous across Senegambia by kora star, Mansumaneh Yundum. This was in the 19th century. And according to their oral accounts, the Konte (Konté, Konteh or Conteh) family's kora-playing history goes back many generations prior to this.

The sons of Alhaji Bai Konte are both kora stars. Dembo and Sherrifo Konte appeared on stages across the world and recorded extensively. Dembo's joint CD enterprise, Jali Roll, released in 1989, was named World Music Album of the Year by British music magazines.

Jali Yankuba playing the kora
Dembo's son Bakary now lives in the UK. He too is a Jali and kora master. Jali Yankuba is also Dembo's son, stepson to Sherrifo and Bakary's brother. His kora pedigree is without question yet he was left behind in The Gambia as his father, stepdad and sibling soared to musical aclaim across the globe.

Perhaps conscious of this apparent inequality, Mitch has assisted Jali Yankuba to complete the build of his new Bai Conteh Music School, named in honour of his grandfather, which is hoped will become a popular centre for the teaching of kora and traditional singing, welcoming music students from around the world to Gunjur on Gambia's 'smiling coast'.

Mitch is also assisting Jali to find a music agent, to enable him to play and spread word of kora overseas as other members of his family have done. I hope they are successful. The kora's sound is evocative and quite beautiful and having heard Jali Yankuba play the kora online, Max and I have become genuinely interested in the instrument.
Jali in performance rehearsal

The Kontes and their musical traditions go back many generations. The family's fortunes have depended on the storytelling and oral history of their songs. Jali Yankuba is now composing a song of thanks to my friend Mitch, which he will sing throughout his life and pass 
to his own children as part of their ongoing ancestral story. I wish Jali Yankuba all possible luck with his Music School and look forward to seeing him perform with his kora soon!