Gambian musicians Yusupha Ngum (vocals), Amadou Suso (Kora) and Australian guitarist Steve Berry are breaking boundaries and capturing hearts and minds with their globe-spanning fusion of traditional and contemporary musical backgrounds and influences. Together with a rare appearance by local favourites The Durga Babies, Jaaleekaay will be performing their last local show at the Bangalow Bowling Club on Saturday. Seven spoke with Steve Berry about this very special show:
Can you tell me a little about your work with Jaaleekaay and how you came to be playing with them?
For me Jaaleekaay is first of all a wonderful opportunity to play with two incredible musicians and experience the joy of being in the middle of the music when it’s at such an inspiring level. Yusupha and Amadou are truly masters of their craft, and sharing the stage and studio with musicians like that is one of those things I always dream of. Yet beyond that Jaaleekaay also answers a calling I’ve had to use music as a vehicle to connect with communities far removed from my own, and use those connections to help other people realise some of their own dreams. It happened that way with Music Outback, where music helped create some wonderful experiences for Indigenous communities and kids in remote Australia, and when I travelled to Gambia last February the same sort of thing seemed to flow naturally and happen there. I had been invited to visit Gambia by an Australian-based Gambian percussionist named King Marong, who had been working with Music Outback over here, so I stayed with King in his compound in Gambia and through him I met a lot of great musicians. My guitar was always with me, and only a few days before I was leaving Gambia I met Amadou at a rehearsal for a traditional concert where he was playing Kora – which is the African harp. It took less than a minute of jamming with him for us both to know there was something special there, so he introduced me to Yusupha and together we all recorded a track that I was able to use to get some festivals interested in us over here.
What about the players… where are they from? How are they finding playing in Australia?
Yusupha and Amadou are both from The Gambia, which geographically is a tiny west-African country but one with a huge history. The country is basically a fence around the Gambia River on the western tip of the continent, and was one of the main African ports for the British slave trade. Kunta Kinte, known from Alex Haley’s book and series Roots, was from The Gambia, and the British slave forts are still there – though I couldn’t bring myself to visit them. So there’s a dark history to the country but the culture and spirit of the place and people is incredible. Australia is a special place too, but very different, and it’s amazing to see how comfortable Yusupha and Amadou are being here. When the music is really happening I think the cultural boundaries and differences dissolve away. We had some great shows at the Mullum Music Fest and Uplift, so through those experiences the fellas experience a real connection with the people here, and that helps them feel at home in a way.
What do the musicians plan to take back to Gambia?
I’m hoping some money! That’s partly a joke, but it’s true that a big purpose of this tour is to provide an opportunity to connect these guys with western economies for the benefit of what are very economically disadvantaged communities back home. There would be a lot of community expectation that they come back with an increased capacity to contribute there, so the pressure is on! Beyond that though, we’re all hoping this tour is just the start of a bigger story for Jaaleekaay. For me, developing a sustainable international career for these guys to return home with would be a big and important achievement.
Community life in Gambia is rock solid, and that strikes you the instant you land in it. Family compounds are the norm – large blocks of land with extended families sharing the space – and they have big families! In the sense of how life is structured there, and how family relationships are defined, we could certainly take a leaf out of their book. There’s an underlying commitment to look after your brethren, and just like Aboriginal Australia there’s a kinship system that keeps people connected at a profound and practical level. As for individual aspirations, those are often tied in with a desire to increase the capacity to contribute to community. Yusupha and Amadou share a vision of music being a vehicle for community betterment, and they’re helping me form links with Gambian schools and other groups over there so we can raise funds for badly needed support while Jaaleekaay is touring.
How have you both learnt from each other?
I’m learning heaps – about music and culture on both micro and macro levels. Experiencing the Gambian perspective on families has been eye opening and heart warming. I have an instant extended family having made these friendships, and it’s made me think a lot about how much more time I could spend connecting with my own extended family here. (More to come from Yus and Amadou later.)
How is the work you are doing now an extension of the Music Outback Foundation?
Music Outback developed with a framework of music-based education at the heart of our work, which was natural for the vision because our main opportunities for access into remote communities happened to be the schools on those communities. However, music is a flexible and creative beast, and in Jaaleekaay’s case we’re working at the professional performance level, as that’s clearly the level that these musicians are at. Creating opportunities for these guys professionally reflects the heart of Music Outback’s charter, which is to use music as a means of benefiting disadvantaged communities. Although my partner Jennifer and I have largely funded this project ourselves, MOF has played an active role and acted as the sponsorship organisation for their visas. The band has also now visited a few remote communities out west where we worked with Aboriginal kids, made connections and shared culture through performances and workshops. We’ll be doing more of that work before the fellas head back to Gambia in May.
Can you explain in more detail your vision in action?
It’s important when kicking off a project like this to have a long-term vision, because to reach its true potential things will inevitably take time. Right now the most important thing is to make the Jaaleekaay project sustainable, as without long-term sustainability it won’t have a long-term effect on peoples lives. The bigger-picture potential is huge, and connecting Jaaleekaay with countries around the world through our music creates relationships that will in turn create ongoing opportunities for positive development back in Gambia. Links between schools in Australia and schools in Gambia, fundraising to increase the capacity of health clinics in remote villages to service women in childbirth, leadership development for people like Yusupha to act in his own community to improve things back home. The list is a long one. But in this case the vehicle for that bigger picture is the ability to fly these musicians from Gambia to the various countries in the West where these opportunities lie. Unfortunately it’s not economically viable to do it when relying on festival fees alone, so we’re looking for sponsorship for airfares and visa expenses so that we can continue the project into the future, building the vision and increasing the community outcomes over time.
What can we learn from our Gambian musician brothers and sisters?
Again, kinship and family are a big one for me. But when I was in Gambia I was also struck by how creative and expressive people could be without the need for substances like alcohol! As a Muslim country alcohol is not commonly used in Gambia, though it certainly isn’t illegal. And yet while in Australia people often need several drinks under their belt to dance, sing and have a good time – in Gambia it’s just not the case. People have loads of time for music and culture there – they dance, drum, play music and gather in celebration as a natural part of life, and like a lot of poor countries seem to have an overall level of happiness that we often struggle for here. And that’s without alcohol to fuel things! It was a real eye opener, and it certainly made me see our society differently.
Why do you see music and education as things that link so naturally?
Since the dawn of history we’ve used music as a vehicle for educating each other and holding knowledge. Even in the West we still sometimes use it that way, though nothing like what happens around the world in indigenous cultures. But by recognising the links and using music as a vehicle for our communication, we create immediate and deeply felt pathways for connecting with others, and it’s through those connections that education in both directions will happen. My experiences connecting with both Amadou and Yusupha and the mob in Central Australia keep confirming that for me. It’s truly a universal language, despite the cliche of my saying that!
What should we expect for your local gig?
At the Bangalow show we’re teaming up with local and rarely seen favourites The Durga Babies, whom we’ve played with at a couple of shows earlier in the tour. We’ll also have some special guests jumping up with us, which with such a wealth of talent in this area has been one of the highlights of the tour so far. People such as Greg Sheehan and Cleis Pearce have joined us and made a wonderful contribution to Jaaleekaay’s music since we’ve been here. It will be a great and varied night, and I’m hoping lots of the friends we’ve made at the Mullum Music Fest and Uplift will come along and share the music, bringing those extended families with them!
Jaaleekaay are appearing at the Bangalow Bowling Club, Saturday.
Find this and many other great gigs in Echonetdaily’s North Coast Gig Guide.