It is the last day of January 2016 and I have been here in The Gambia for two months. So much has happened with our first session of The Groovy African Ladies Music School. I have been steadily documenting our activities the old school way by hand in my journal. I want to offer heartfelt thanks to Noreen, who brought us a brand new laptop which has enabled me to share this first and subsequent updates for our supporters.
I arrived in The Gambia on Friday, December 4th 2015. Fandema Chairman Malang Sambou and Teacher Coordinator Albert Yawo picked me up from the airport in Banjul. The next morning, Saturday, Malang and I headed back to the airport to claim the instruments I had shipped. It was almost a whole day`s adventure moving from one office to the next to get the customs clearance, negotiate and pay the tax, and finally load the boxes into Malang`s car and head back to Fandema.
Sunday was a day to relax and enjoy the nature and beach. First thing Monday, I started the day unpacking the boxes, tuning up the new instruments, and organizing materials. The new instruments all arrived in great shape and ready to go. Later, I began working on the old guitars and a few donated by an Swedish couple from Kafountine, the south of Senegal, whom I met and told them about the program. Many thanks to Steve and Anne for the generous donation.
On Tuesday, we had our first new introduction to the women at their general meeting. We conducted auditions, like before, but this time, just to gauge natural ability, interest, courage… All who auditioned were welcomed to join the class. That same day, some of the girls asked if we could start today, so we did. Since I didn´t announce it, only two came, Mary and Kumba.
The next day, Wednesday, was our official first session. Ten young women from the development center joined our class that day, who are now the core members. There are a number of other women who cannot attend every day due to other responsibilities. They attend the class when they can.
We began by learning how to hold the instrument, and the importance of each finger, wrist and thumb positioning. We practiced producing a clear and clean tone on each string with each of the four fingers, plucking with the right thumb. I learned the Mandinka word, “Bulukumba”, which means thumb. They learned my “TV” exercise. The first plan was not to start the class until after the winter holiday break, but due to everyone`s excitement, we got started early. The next day we were offered a performance spot in the closing ceremony before the holiday break. That was one week away. We decided to go for the challenge. I suspended my lesson plan and we went into intensive mode to learn one song and perform it a week later.
The group decided to do an original song written by one of their own, Mary Corea, who is one of the stand-out students in the program. She is an already accomplished rapper, writing her own rhymes and songs. The song they chose was, “I wanna be a rock star” and was almost complete as is. It had an absolutely brilliant lyrical and melodic hook. We fleshed out a simple harmony. Just 2 chords; G and Cadd9. The group practiced the chords straight until they were able to do the changes smoothly, two beats each. Then they learned a funky groove. Over the next week, the group continued working on the basic groove and we began to arrange the parts. All agreed that the group`s singers would be Mary and Jankey. Jankey would sing the lead verses, all would sing the chorus together, and Mary would do the rap part. We needed to designate who would play the drum, bass, and lead electric guitar parts. We began a series of challenges. Everybody had an opportunity to compete to play the amplified rhythym section instruments. Anyone could challenge at will up to the dress rehearsal day.
After just a couple of days in existence, Word about GALs got over to the Fandema International Primary School, which brought to us our first male participants (GALs doesn`t discriminate). I call them, “the amazing Sambou-Llopart Brothers “, Cairó and Jan. They joined the group after the first days as regular members.
Cairó started out on the drum, but the drummer´s seat ultimately went to Abisatou Yatim after a series of challenges. Abi can rock it! The best guitarist by far is Awa Ceesay.
She was assigned the lead guitar first and held her place strongly through the challenges. She learns so fast and with a great groove. She is also among one of the best dancers in the group. I asked her to learn the bass groove, which she did easily. During the bass challenges, Awa again was best, but Cairó was close behind her. Since Awa really wanted to play that Stratocaster, Cairó was designated bassman and since has embraced the instrument as his own in a great way. In the rhythym guitar challenge, again, Awa was best, however, Jan was very strong and won the place to lead all the acoustic guitars with my acoustic/eclectric. The rest of the group would play acoustic guitars and our youngest members, Jamilla and Kaddy, also from the Fandema International Nursery and Primary School, would play the shakers.
For the first performance, the group was thus:
Mary- songwriter, rapper, singer
Awa- lead guitar
Jan-leader of the rhythym guitars
Jamila and Kaddy- shakers
Kumba, Binta, Ami 1, Ami2, Jara 1, Jara 2, Mariama- all on rhythym guitar and choir.
The group rehearsed diligently up to the performance day. They did a great job going from absolute beginners to performers in one week and 2 days! The hook from “I wanna be a rock star” is stuck in the heads of the entire Fandema community!
All photos by Noreen E Hogan