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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 September 2006, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
Gambian pitfalls of kora politics
By Lucy Fleming
BBC News website, Brikama

Pa Bobo Jobarteh  (From www.kairakundaarts.org)
Pa Bobo is one of Gambia's most popular jalis
Gambian griots find themselves under as much pressure to pluck the right note in praise of the president as journalists to pen Yahya Jammeh's praises.

One such praise singer is Pa Bobo Jobarteh, whose family have been playing koras - the 21-string African harp - since the 18th century.

His ancestors traditionally sang for kings and nobility. Now jalis - as griots are known in The Gambia - are expected to compose for politicians.

"It's not easy for us now. We feel afraid to compose or to sing about opposition politicians," says the 30-year-old musician.

For jalis everyone's equal no matter if you're opposition or president
Pa Bobo Jobarteh

President Jammeh, who came to power in a coup in 1994, has just won a third term in office in the tiny West African country which keeps a tight rein over the media and its critics.

Pa Bobo's most popular song, Gambia Peace, Love and Unity, was commandeered by the president for use in campaigning and he was kept busy during the election period playing the kora at ruling party rallies.

Hot water

A few years ago, however, fellow musician Jaliba Kuyateh found himself in unexpected hot water when an old song he composed for lawyer Ousainou Darboe came back to haunt him.

Pa Bobo Jobarteh  (From www.kairakundaarts.org)
Kora players play an important cultural role in The Gambia

Mr Darboe entered the political ring in 1997 to become Mr Jammeh's foremost rival with Jaliba's song as his anthem.

Jaliba had to quickly compose several songs for the president to make political amends.

"The problem is that if you sing for the opposition, they say you're opposition and that's not right. For jalis everyone's equal no matter if you're opposition or the president," says Pa Bobo.

Today jalis still rely on patronage to survive as they receive no royalties from the work they record in The Gambia.

But it is not just from politics that they make their living; the kora plays an important part in all parts of cultural life.

"Without us naming ceremonies cannot work; without us marriages cannot work and a lot of other important things," Pa Bobo says.


He agrees with the late Gambian kora player Jali Nyama Suso that a griot's role in society is akin to that of a journalist.

"We research people's history in order to praise them - like journalists. We tell your histories, we tell you how your parents came here and which people got married. We witness everything," he says.

Pa Bobo Jobarteh  (From www.kairakundaarts.org)
In a traditional way you don't teach girls the kora. But I have to teach my daughters the kora to make their own way
Pa Bobo Jobarteh
Pa Bobo has tasted some international success and has regularly played at the UK's Womad global music festival since he was 11 years old.

But for most of the time he lives in his large family compound in the town of Brikama, home to Gambia's kora industry and to countless other jali families.

They mainly intermarry and the art of making and playing the instruments is passed on from generation to generation.

In concert, griots now use electric guitar heads on the koras, but most of the instruments are made much as they were hundreds of years ago with mahogany, cows' and goats' skins.

The only nod to modernity are the fishing lines used instead of antelope skins for the strings, which has given the sound a slight higher tone, and the drawing pins used to decorate the gourd.

However, Pa Bobo, who has two daughters and a son, intends to break with tradition in one important respect.

"In a traditional way you don't teach girls the kora, but that's not a good idea.

"I see a lot of women suffering in the marriage, so I have to teach my daughters the kora to make their own way," he explains.

"Because if you play the kora, you can always feed yourself."

Gambia's election song played on the kora


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