Why the need for a music school in Gambia

Dance Student Ida Jobarteh
Dance Student Ida Jobarteh

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step just like building a house begins with the laying of a single block. One cannot merely jump to the middle of the journey without making the first steps, which set that very journey.

For if there would be any success; it has to start from the beginning. Hence a strong foundation is therefore a very significant and an indispensable thing for any successful human endeavour. Without a strong foundation, the prospects will be uncertain, successes will be hindered, and all endeavours will be completely weak and bound to end in exercise in futility.

But how about those who want to develop their careers? Certainly, a strong foundation could yield them excellence and promote their talents more rapidly. One area where a strong foundation is lacking is in the area of music in The Gambia. Of recent, there has been a lot of interest from Gambians wanting to pursue a career in music.

Their talents are exhibited when they take to the platforms, but one could easily notice some defections because they didn’t have the chance to harness their skills through a formal introduction. Catching the talents young and water them adequately could be the ultimate way out for a definite and prosperous career.

 

ABJ School Balafon students
ABJ School Balafon students

This is why the focus of this article looks at the great initiative of The Gambian UK-based first female international kora player, winner of BBC World Music Award, who together with her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, co-founded the first ever Manding school of music dubbed “Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music.”

Sanjally Jobarteh is the son of the late master Griot Amadou Bansang Jobarteh. He is now established as a leading master kora player from the Gambia, uniquely grounded in some of the oldest repertoire of the kora. Over the past 30 years Sanjally has worked across numerous genres of music, toured the world and now based in Norway, continues to collaborate with artists from around the world.
The idea behind this apt initiative is just what has been explained earlier – building the very foundation.

Coming from a legendary griot family, Kora Player Sona Jobarteh, who released an acclaimed album “Fasiya” in 2010 and recently featured as a solo vocalist in the Hollywood movie ‘Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom’ is well aware that catching the talents of kids young through this initiative is perhaps the best contribution she could make to the development of The Gambia’s young music industry that continues wrestle with enormous challenges.

This initiative has come to fill a great void in the country’s music industry. It is a glaring fact that for far too long, Gambian music
has been trailing behind many African countries due to lack of structures like formal school and good foundation as well as a real
identity as it is the case in many other places.

ABJ School Drum students
ABJ School Drum students

Very few Gambians have made it to international stardom as most of the music produced in the country are for home use. Perhaps a little work on them could make them internationally marketable. And so long Gambian artistes cannot produce music genre of international standards, they stand a little chance to reap the fruit of their talents.

This explains all the more reason why it is important that initiatives like the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music should be highly supported for it serves as a great platform for the production of the next generation of Gambia singers and instrumentalists.

Located in her native Gambian village of Kembujey, Kombo Central, West Coast Region, this school provides training for a dozen children – male and female – who are being tutored on different modules of music ranging from balafong, drumming, dancing, singing and storytelling.

Being The Gambia’s first school dedicated exclusively to the study of Manding music, the institute’s mission is to promote and cultivate knowledge and expertise in traditional Manding music amongst youngsters in The Gambia.

“It’s a kind of like an interesting origin because myself I have always been in education – teaching children in UK and Europe
generally. I have been a teacher for about nine years in different universities in UK. It has been part of me and I had always thought
that one day I am going to have school in The Gambia for musicians.

The topic came up with my dad one day when I was about 18 and then he was like well exactly the same thing was in my head. We never talked about it before and when it came up, we had exactly the same plan about what I wanted to do in terms of the legacy we have. So that was basically how it became stronger in my head – it’s like my dad was planning the same thing.

So I want the curriculum to grow on my dad’s knowledge because he has a lot of valuable knowledge about the old tradition. I want to institutionalised some of these knowledge he has, start to put into curriculum that can be given to children here in The Gambia and ultimately to Europe,” Sona Jobarteh indicated the genesis of the initiative in a chat with me after watching the rehearsals of the first public performance by the school recently.

The students’ performance was impressive in that not only did they showcase their great talents in singing, dancing and storytelling, especially the Manding history and culture, they also displayed their skills on how to effectively play vital musical instruments like drums and balafong, which are part of the lessons. The students’ sense of enthusiasm, determination and the tenacity to excel was impressive, and this, goes to point out the relevance and effectiveness of the modules being taught.

“Manding music and the griot tradition still hold a vital role in Gambia society; it has gained a powerful presence in the international music scene through the success of artists such as Toumani Diabate and Salif Ketia.

However, currently Gambia’s prominence in this international music scene falls well behind other countries such as Mali and Senegal, and thus the school has a fundamental role to play in helping young Gambian musical talent to flourish and gain recognition on both a national and international level.

A recent survey carried out by the school revealed that 92% of the children interested and currently attending the school knew very little about the history of their musical culture. This is something we want to change, whilst also using it as a platform to introduce further valuable education in areas such as music theory, music production, music industry, management studies and social studies.”

Given the strides of a school that was only set up a few months ago, the need to support it for expansion cannot be less underscored. This is why the role of the private sector and relevant government establishments come into play. In recent times we have seen the private sector extending support to some artists at a minimal scale, but the surest investment that will have a long-lasting impact in my view would be injecting resources into initiatives like the Amadou Bansang Jobarteh School of Music.

The reasons could only be the obvious – such will go a long way towards helping the school grow and enroll more Gambian youngsters who will be graduated at the end of their programme as the next generation of Gambian artists.

ABJ School Dance and Singing students
ABJ School Dance and Singing students

The school’s primary initiative is to support Gambian students in their musical education. Currently offering classes to students on
free-of-charge basis, however that might not be sustainable in the near future as running such an institution requires enormous resources to meet the targets and goals. That means children would eventually pay something to be able to enrolled and get their lessons.

“The lessons are offered free at the moment and that’s why we are looking for sponsorship because we want to support Gambian students. It is designed to be an international school that will support The Gambian people,” Sona solicited.

The school is perusing the opportunity for exchange programmes for students with schools and universities from Europe and other parts of Africa such as Mali where we currently have connections, according to Sona.

“The school brand is Manding music as its umbrella and so it’s concentrating on that. But obviously we will also educate children a
lot wider than beyond playing kora and balafong. We will start with kora, balafong, dancing and singing and traditional Manding drumming. But later we will start to teach music theory, music production and recording, music industry education, as well as music management. These are all things we want to look into,” she concluded.

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