Though it may not be obvious at first glance (or second, or third), there is quite a burgeoning music scene in The Gambia. Because it does not work in the same way as traditional music scenes in other countries, it is sometimes hard to make sense of it. This guide is written to help you identify the different types of musicians, which is always a good first step towards general musical enlightenment. By the time you finish reading this guide, you will know 90% of what there is to know about the current state of music in the country, ensuring you will never be left out again in conversations with your musical friends.
The Different Types (and where to find them)
1) The Rapper Dude: Usually in their late teens or early twenties, from upper-middle class / upper class families. This type of musician can be recognized by the way they dress (jeans, basketball shirts, and blings are good, belts are not - see any 50 Cent clip), the way they talk (a lot of 'nigga!'s and hi-fives), and the way they walk (the swagger: a rapper dude's best friend). They are heavily influenced by rap music, and will swear to you that 2pac is a highly-underappreciated visionary prophet who is still alive somewhere, and is only waiting for the right time to re-surface and once more rule the world. Somehow, in between all the clubbing and 'living the good life', they manage to find a way to actually sit down and make music. This music, which is of varying qualities (from mediocre to just bad), usually consists of the rapper dude desperately trying to sound like their favorite rap star (or, failing that, at least American) over a computer-generated beat. The lyrics of the songs almost never have anything to do with reality, and instead switch between talking about how 'bad' the rapper dude is, and how they are 'gonna shoot you up with their fo-fo' if you mess with them. Don't be scared: the rapper dude is usually harmless, and wouldn't hurt a fly, despite all the posing.
Where to find: Any hip and hap'ning club in the country (currently Cotton Club, but check with hip and hap'ning teenagers in your locality), Sunday Beach (at Palma Rima during the summer).
2) The GRTS Clip Artist: Back in the day, there was a musical explosion in The Gambia, with everyone and their cousin forming a rap/ndaga/reggae group and making a video-clip for GRTS. Some of these were even good, and are still remembered with sentimentality by some folks (Born Africans, anyone?). Then the material from the explosion came back together and folded in on itself, ending in a disappointing whimper (more like a sigh, really). All that remains of that once promising time is... the GRTS Clip Artist. This type of musician can be recognized by their many clips on GRTS, all the same repetitious claptrap, illustrated with wildly-forced-grin-bearing dancers windmilling their arms every which way, as the camera zooms out and then pans in on our artist, also proudly displaying all their teeth and trying to sing at the same time. Due to timing issues, the audio of the song is usually not in sync with the lip movement of our hero artist, and so you get the painful effect of watching the artist miming a (bad) song they didn't even write. The subject matter of the GRTS Clip Artist's song is pre-defined, and can only be chosen from a few topics: 1) The President, 2) Football (esp. the Under-17s, who are hot right now), 3) Any current summit/conference/international meeting currently being held by world leaders in the country, or 4) How nice Gambia is.
Where to find: Watch GRTS any day of the week, especially around 7pm (immediately before the news).
3) The Jamaican Aya-man: This type of artist is usually older than the rapper dude (in their mid to late twenties), but they have a lot of similarities. Whilst the rapper dude is interested in Black American culture and endeavors to make it his own, the Aya-man chooses Jamaican culture, and all that entails. The Aya-man usually is dreadlocked (you need dreadlocks, to shake wildly in the air whilst you sing, if you ever get to make a video-clip for GRTS), and is heavily influenced by Jamaican artists ranging from Bob Marley (the old-school Aya-man), to Capleton (the crazy Aya-man), to Sean Paul (the me-wan-get-laid Aya-man). The Aya-man's song topics of choice, though not as limited as the GRTS Clip Artist's, still needs to be selected from a (rather vague) list: 1) how they wanna fight us, but in the end they will fall down. (they here, though usually used to refer to the West (Babylan), can also mean rich people in the Aya-man's own society, the government, the Aya-man's next door neighbor, and even past friends the Aya-man has fallen out with). 2) how 'da weed' should be freed. (These songs usually include vague [the Aya-man loves vague] arguments about how 'da weed' keeps people healthy, etc., and how they want to prohibit it simply to have more control over us [which ties in nicely with (1) above] ). 3) Jah Rastafari - it is very rare to see an Aya-man devote a whole song to this topic, unless it also has Muslim overtones, as most Aya-mans are also devout muslims, and understand that Rastafarian beliefs can be accepted only up to a certain point, beyond which one becomes blasphemous and liable to burn in hell.
Where to find: Aya-mans give free shows sometimes, which you can find out about via word-of-mouth. The less shy and introverted ones also create video clips of their music, which can be viewed on GRTS.
4) The Hotel Entertainer: Of the many types of gambian musician, this is probably the most respectable. The HE (His Excellency [of musicians] - get it?) can be found in hotels and other tourist locations. HEs usually form bands, and most of the time have some amount of skill at playing at least one musical instrument, even if it's only drums (some HEs have been known to play two, three, or even four instruments). The HE band also includes a singer, more often than not a female (perhaps with a gravelly-voiced male backup, perhaps not), and whilst some HEs do write their own songs, they also perform covers of popular classics. The reason for the HE's comparatively higher quality of performance/skill is probably that most HEs perform music for a living, and there's nothing like knowing that the probability of you continuing at an essential-for-your-survival job is directly linked to how well-received your show was, to keep you working hard.
Where to find: At any hotel / tourist location, especially in the Senegambia area.
5) The Ngenteh Entertainer: This type of musician, the poor country mouse cousin to the Hotel Entertainer's town mouse, is to be found at ngentehs (naming ceremonies), weddings, and other social events. It is probably best to think of them as the poor man's Hotel Entertainers, as they earn less, and are in most cases not as skilled. Whilst the Hotel Entertainers get to perform in an air-conditioned environment, the Ngenteh Entertainer most of the time have to content themselves with a street set up with a "No Entry" sign at both ends, barring cars from entering and ensuring the NEs have full reign for the duration of their performance; the crowd forming a circle, with the NEs at the head, dancers moving to the middle of the circle and back to their seats, as the evening progresses. The equipment of NEs ranges from simply drums of different shapes and sizes (for the less sophisticated), to an almost-orchestra (or as close as you can get, under the circumstances), with guitars, a keyboard, amplifiers, speakers, and maybe even the odd synthesizer.
Where to find: At any celebratory social function (i.e. not funerals, charities, etc., but at weddings, naming ceremonies, and other such happy occasions).
5a) The Lesser Ngenteh Entertainer: There is some argument about whether this type of musician should be categorized as a subtype of the NE. Whilst the Lesser Ngenteh Entertainers claim they were the original entertainers at social functions and so deserve the pejorative 'lesser' to be dropped from their names, the Ngenteh Entertainers claim the LNE are nothing more than glorified beggars, and should not be encouraged by being called artists. The LNE are griots who, having become impatient with their roles as humble oral chroniclers of the people's history, have decided to concentrate on their other (albeit lesser) social responsibility: going to social functions and singing praise songs for money. Usually women (though there are also some men LNEs), it is rare to see an LNE acting alone - groups are the favored form of operation, though an unwritten rule is that you try to make as much money behind the others' backs as possible. The more talented LNEs can make up epic songs on the spot, sometimes doing research within minutes of arriving at an event. [There is a joke about an LNE who, arriving at a funeral, was told by a gang of rascally boys that it was actually a wedding. He walked into the funereal house, singing loudly the praises of the dead man, and was promptly chased out by enraged mourners. This joke is probably not a true story, but you get the point].
Where to find: See (5) above.
These are the main types of Gambian musicians. As with any list, there are musicians who do not fit within any of the categories above, either because:
a) they are hybrids (e.g. a rapper dude who has then gone on to make it on GRTS, becoming a Super-Rapper-GRTS-Clip-Dude) or
b) they are exceptions (e.g. Jaliba Kuyateh, who actually makes good music that is local and on TV).
We hope you find this guide useful. Happy Gambian Music listening.