GALs

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Groovy African Ladies on the road at Djouloulou Festival 2016

GALs music school

Our Story

Hi, Its Miriama here. I am a musician and a music teacher. I’m a world citizen and a traveller. I spent a lot of time traveling and learning music wherever I was. At first, I was in love with Indian music and all things India. Over 6 years I studied Karnatic  violin and theory with amazing teachers who were also like family. I loved them, they loved me. Still, each time I was on my way back home to USA, we exchanged hugs, waves and said see you next time. Then I took a trip to Africa and it changed my life.

I went to The Gambia with my brother Tormenta Jobarteh (from another mother and continent) to stay with and learn from his Kora teacher, Basiru Jobarteh and his big family “way up river” in the village of  Boraba in Fuladou. I lived there for three months with Bro TJ, his partner, India and my partner B. We were a world music/folk trio called “The many lands dance band”. For the past year, we had been on the road performing in India, Europe and USA. Living for that short time in Boraba shaped a lot of my life, opinions and outlook. I went there as a musician, but I wanted to relate to the women, so I did what they did. Work. From morning until night there was always the next task. Hauling water from the one central hand-pumped tap, pounding rice and peanuts, cooking, washing, sweeping, bathing kids, braiding hair, caring for animals, cleaning everything and more. These women were also musicians; singers and dancers. They were the first to wake up in the morning and the last to sleep at night. Waiting until all the children were sleeping to enjoy a pipe in the moonlight at the end of a busy day. They taught me many songs at that late hour as the fire burned low. Leaving Boraba was so emotional. Everyone was weeping. Tears of Joy, love and sadness that we would no longer be together. It was truly hard to say goodbye.

The time I spent in Boraba was the spark that lit the inspiration to give back to the women who welcomed me and taught me so much.

For over 20 years I have facilitated music education for kids and adults through my rock school program. I was doing this even before the great Jack Black film ” School of Rock” came out.  The program has been developed over the years for many students from varied backgrounds in USA and Germany.   Participants blossomed in their young lives getting the chance  to discover their own personal versions of the rock and roll dream. Many of my earlier students are now professional musicians and true artists. I thank them for being the experimental pilots in the early development of the program.

In late 2013, I traveled back to The Gambia, West Africa to volunteer at Fandema women development center and school in Tujering. I had 2 guitars with me. My personal instrument for performances and one extra. My original idea was to find one lucky and motivated young woman, give her periodic private lessons for the duration of my four week stay, and at the end, give her the guitar so that she could continue on her own. I arrived to the centre to offer my idea to the center´s director.. He suggested that we ask the women directly who among them might have interest to learn guitar. Later the same day  at the general meeting with everyone gathered together, I was introduced. I played one of Bob Marley´s songs, “No Woman No Cry”. Everyone sang along in the “Everythings gonna be alright” part. After an encore, (They wanted the same song again!), The director asked the group in Mandinka, “who would like to learn to play guitar?” Almost all hands flew up. He continued: “OK, but whoever really wants to do it has to work very hard learning and practicing everyday, now who still wants to do it?” That narrowed the group to about half. He announced, “everyone who still wants to do it will now be tested on ability.  The best one will be chosen.”

We immediately began the audition process. I said, “who´s first?”, only one brave hand went up. Remember, these girls had never seen a real guitar, much less held and played one. Amazingly, all were quite proficient in air guitar, which is a good sign.  Mballing Bojang made her way to the hot seat. I showed her how to hold it , put her hand in position and asked her to play on the highest string frets 1-2-3-4 each with corresponding finger. I demonstrated. She did her best, but it wasn´t very good. The next came and she did a just a little bit better. Meanwhile the hall was absolutely silent. Everyone was concentrating and watching. The next one did better, the one after that even better than the one before. After about the 7th young woman, Mballing shouted out, “please! let me do it again! I know I can do it!” I gave her another chance because she was brave enough to be the first and she did it great. In fact out of the 14 women who auditioned that day, there was really only one who I thought would not have an easy time understanding. Finally, the director said, “OK, tomorrow we will announce  who has been chosen.” and dismissed all the young women.

How could I choose one? Half of them had a real potential, the other half could surely learn as well. I needed more guitars! The whole rest of the day, I asked everyone who I saw where I might find guitars in the Gambia. Finally, someone told me that they once saw a guitar in a supermarket in Brusuby. I went to the supermarket and sure enough, there it was hanging high on a hook. It was covered in dust, with missing, rusted strings and  generally in bad shape. I doubted that it would stay in tune at all. But I needed guitars, so I made the clerk an offer of half the asked price. I said, “This is a very poor quality instrument. It is not worth the price.” He said I´d have to talk to the boss. The bossman came over and said, we have more guitars do you wish to see them? Yes! He brought out 10 more of the gnarliest, lowest quality plywood guitars I had ever seen.  Some were made in China, some in India. All just a small step above toys. I spent the next several hours stringing up and tuning, trying out each of the guitars. 4 of them were unacceptable. The other 6 I bought with a bulk discount. The price of each instrument costing €25. Including the instrument I brought, we now had 7 plus mine, eight total.

I put the 14 women into 2 groups and the next day, our workshop began in earnest. We accepted the challenge to put together a song to perform for the winter festival which was to be held 5 days later. What was suggested to be a daily 2 hour session (1 each for each group) stretched out to many hours everyday. When the first group had the session, the 2nd stayed and watched. When it was the 2nd´s turn, the First group also stayed and watched. They were really only one group of 14, not two of 7. The women went to their other classes and immediately returned to the guitars. They couldn´t get enough. Once they mastered one technique, they ran to me wanting the next. Meanwhile, the low quality instruments were steadily falling apart and I was constantly tuning, hammering frets back into the necks and repairing them best as I could to keep them functioning.

Since we only had 8 guitars, only 8 could play the guitars, the others would sing and/ or dance for the performance. This pushed them even more as I was assigning the guitars one by one to the women who could best play the song. The women chose to perform the song, “The African Tears”. They rehearsed until the last moment before their performance. The show was amazing. They absolutely rocked! I will never forget it. I promised the girls I would come back one day to teach them more.

That experience changed my life. Two years later, I returned with  eight acoustic guitars, one electric guitar, a Bass guitar, two amps lots of strings and other materials, and a name for my project: The Groovy African Ladies Music School (GALs). The first session of GALs was funded in part by a crowd funding campaign, but most of the endowment making the first session possible was inheritance money I received after the death of my mother. I was able to house the project and use the classrooms and hall of the centre in exchange for donating the instruments to the centre and teaching the kids in the primary school on the same campus, music. 

I arrived in The Gambia on Friday, December 4th 2015. Fandema Teacher Coordinator Albert Alidjah picked me up from the airport in Banjul. The next morning, Saturday, we 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 Albert’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 organising materials. The new instruments all arrived in great shape and ready to go. Later, I began working on the old guitars and a few more that were donated. 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.

The next day, Wednesday, was our official first session. Ten young women from the development centre joined our class that day, who became 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 practised 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 again 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, “Rock Star” and was almost complete as she presented it. It had an absolutely brilliant lyrical and melodic hook. We fleshed out a simple harmony. Just 2 chords. 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. Anyone could challenge for specific parts 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, on the other side of the campus, which brought to us a number of eager and talented kids who would soon be known as “The Groovy African Kids”

The women and kids 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 “rock star” is forever stuck in the heads of the entire community! After the holiday break, everyone continued learning, writing and improving on their instruments. 

Our first session was a great success. The GALs and the Groovy African Kids got a solid start with the guitars and bass, learning a repertoire of songs, techniques and theory. They  participated in 3 separate public performances showcasing what they had learned.

Another highlight of our session was that a small group was chosen to participate in a workshop at a professional recording studio. One student, Mary “Shinybright” Corea, was chosen to join an international group of professional musicians including talented artists from Gambia, Nigeria, Germany and USA (me!) for a live performance and to be featured on one of my songs, Rasta Boy, which was recorded at the studio workshop.

The summer after our first session,  I toured extensively promoting my music and the GALs project. Many more people all over Europe, UK, and USA are aware of the project, purchased my CD at the concerts and made small donations.

For the 2016/ 2017 session, I was blessed to be contacted by the great Swedish/Senegalese singer/ guitarist/kora player Sousou Cissoko. She had heard about our activities and said that she always wanted to do something similar for the girls and women in her community in Abene. We decided to collaborate. She applied for a grant from the Swedish Performing arts agency and to our surprise, she got it! That made it possible to continue because all of my funds were now depleted.

We conducted a search and an open audition for any young women music students in Gambia and Senegal who play instruments. The winners of the audition would participate in intensive workshops and form a band. Together with Sousou, Me and drummer-teacher, Lisa Ladberg, we put together a program and performed on big festival stages as an opener on Sousou and Maher’s tour in Gambia and Senegal.

We called our joint project, Jaliya Groovy Music Exchange, aka WAW Music! (West African Women in Music). The project and tour was not only a complete success, it was a lot of fun. It was an honor to work with the inspiring artists that that made up our team: The great percussionist, Lisa Ladberg, and of course, the amazing Sousou and Maher Cissoko.

The talented winners of our competition and pioneer players in WAW Music! group1 were: singer/ songwriter/ rapper/, Mary Corea from Tujereng, Guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist, Hawa Ceesay from Kartong, and drummer/percussionist Kaddy Camera, also from Kartong. 

We began our adventure there at GALs, in Tujereng, Gambia, where the audition and first rehearsals were held. After three days of intensive rehearsals, we headed out to our first concert at the Boukotte Festival in Bignona, a city in the Cassamance region of Senegal. It was a big stage! Big lights! Big sound! An international lineup of great performers with Sousou and Maher at the top of the bill. Our set was after midnight. The group’s first show was good. The energy was fantastic! Still, the girls did have some self- critique, wishing they had done this or that better. We assured them that for a first show, it was great and will only grow.

Boukout Festival Bignona, Senegal

After the show, we went to talk to the people and hand out our fliers to all the girls we saw. Many wanted autographs. Boys wanted the fliers as well. They said, “we want to play music too, but we have no instruments or a teacher”!  In the morning, the mayor of the city came to our hotel to greet us and tell us that the people of Bignona had never seen anything like us before. They loved it!

Back to Tujereng for our 2nd session of 3 days of training and rehearsals culminating in a big show at Fandema Hall for the end of term closing ceremony before the holiday break. The Groovy African Kids also performed one song and Kids guitarist, Rohey Sambou, who had rehearsed all week with us, performed with the WAW Music Team.  She will surely be able to travel one day, especially if she keeps practicing!

Kid’s Guitarist Rohey S

The next day, We got back on the road headed to the Djouloulou Festival in Djouloulou, Senegal. This festival was an open air stage at a lodge on the edge of a salt river with mangroves. It was deluxe for all as we had rooms on site and could sleep a bit before showtime, which was again around midnight. The girls were happy with this performance calling it their best. Sousou and Maher rocked the house with their full band at this show.

The next day, we headed to Abene for our final week of workshops and our last show. Our time at the beautiful Jaliya Camp in Abene was wonderful. In between songwriting sessions, private lessons, rehearsals, yoga and more, we enjoyed the beach, great food and the culture of Abene. 

For our final show, we were honoured to be a part of the first Jaliya Camp Music Festival. It was a lovely intimate outdoor stage under the trees, with nice lighting. Sousou and Maher played some of their most lovely and intimate acoustic numbers. We all joined them onstage for a rocking version of “Jangfata”. Afterward, there was a question and answer session. Some of the guests asked the girls about their experience in the project. .  Somebody asked about the support of their families. Luckily, all three had parents who were thrilled, proud and fully support their efforts in Music and that they were able to discover their talent. Another of the questions was if the girls considered themselves feminists. The answer: absolutely!

On the last day of the project, we had our final meetings and formal interviews with the girls and heard their feedback about the experience. All 3 were very happy to have participated and are further inspired to continue with their music education and pursuit of a creative life and career. There were some tearful goodbyes at our departure from Jaliya camp, as we loaded up the gear for the last time and headed on the road back home to Gambia.

At the Fandema closing ceremony on Dec 23rd, 2016 there had already been a serious deterioration in the political situation. The directors decided and announced to the entire community that at least an extra 2 weeks would be added to the 2 week holiday break, giving time for the political problem to be resolved. On Dec 1st, the Dictator Yayah Jammeh, lost his first election in 22 years against a coalition candidate, Adama Barrow. The incumbent lost and initially conceded.  The Gambian people took to the streets in celebration. It was incredible to see the happiness! Then a week later, he changed his mind and decided he would not step down. It was strongly suggested that all foreigners in Gambia at that time, to leave. My family decided to spend the time in Senegal. 26,000 Gambians had made the same decision. European tourists left in droves on the recommendation of their embassies. Fandema and The Groovy African Ladies music school session 2017, was shut down until further notice.

The Groovy African Ladies is now on a break until I can regroup and get some funding to continue. Music is so important to humans. We can’t live without it. Women and girls in many places do not have access to the joy of playing a guitar. My simple dream is to be able to provide instruments and teach music  to women and girls (and boys, because we don’t discriminate) not only to play guitars and other instruments, but also teach them music-related skills such as instrument and cable repair , simple electronic systems, sound reinforcement , recording techniques, and everything they need to create and maintain a healthy grassroots entrepreneurial music/ entertainment industry. 

A short video from our 2nd session