Book Review - Saloum Sheriff Janko, Jaliba Kuyateh: the cultural Revolutionary of Kora Music

Friday, February 01, 2019

AMC Press, 2018, 77 pages

This is a biography. The  book charts the life times of Jaliba Kuyateh, the King of Kora, music maestro, cultural ambassador, teacher, father and husband. This book is indeed a pack full of details, anecdotes and accounts about our famous son and entertainer Jaliba Kuyateh. Before I end this review of the book Jaliba Kuyateh: the cultural Revolutionary of Kora Music, I will return to why we historians like biographies.

But allow me to start by saying a few words on the author of the book, Saloum Sheriff Janko, a brother and colleague in writing. His writing career is close to two decades, and although this is his first published full book, he has over the years authored countless news reports, magazine articles and similar journalistic oeuvres. He is my pride and I wish to take this opportunity to thank him in advance for the wonderful work.

Coming back to this work on Jaliba, I will say that the book is divided into 16 chapters, with a short bibliography and a glossary. The chapters are many but we can collapse them into three sections: Jaliba’s early years; Jaliba’s years of growth and development and Jaliba’s domination of the kora world stage, his successs.

Chapter one sets the ground for our story. Here the author uses ethnograpgy to depict the Mandinka village setting of Dankunku, where Jaliba hails from. The author explains interesting facts about Mandinka culture including life cycle ceremonies like naming ceremonies(page 4), the role and extent od the extended family, and the main economic activity of the Mandinka of Dankunku, namely rice growing, and livestock raising(page 5). In chapter 2 and 3, the author tells us that Jaliba was born in such idyllic and self sustaining environment surrounded by colour, laughter and sounds in 1957  to Kebba Suntu Kuyateh, who was the son of the great Wandifeng Kuyateh, the most accomplished Kora player in living memory(page 8). Here we are left in doubt that Jaliba comes from a stock of Kora greats. Jaliba’s mother was Mbakoto Mbye.

 It is indeed, like father, like grandfather and like son. So while Jaliba will attend school in the mornings, he will sit by his father in the evenings and listen to him play the great kora. In this way, he was able to get two birds with one stone: learn English and learn the Kora, which would uplift him to greatness in years ahead.

Later in this chapter, the author takes through Jaliba’s success in his scholl career which made him enter the Gambia College to train as a teacher in the late 1970s.  For many years, Jaliba combined teaching and playing the kora, we are told on page 22 and 23. It was in 1993, that he decided to dedicated his full time to music and as the story unfolds we realize this was not a mistake.

In that year he realeased a successful album called RADIO KANKANG and many others followed in 1994 such as TISSOLI. By 1999, he was ready to release his eigtht album. This has made him the most prolific Gambian solo artists.

From chapters five to eleven, the author excplains Jaliba’s rise to national fame and then international stardom. Now, Gambia has become too small for him; he is no longer our property, now Jaliba belongs to the entire globe of his teeming fans.

Indeed, he has progressed from playing to a few friends, to filling up cinema spaces until in 2016 for example, when he entertained 30,000 people at the Independence stadium, page 13. He has began touring not only in West Africa now, but to the USA, Europe also.

The author in chapter sic explains that one reasons for the Jaliba success is his clever mix of the kora tune with other Senegambian instruments and rhtyms such as sabarr. In doing so, Jaliba has evolved a new distinctive sound which though has kora at its base, it is also truly Senegambian.

Jaliba is portrayed in chapter 7 and 8 as an engaged musicians who does advocacy through his songs. He preaches on health, environment, child rights, women issues etc. His music is therefore relevant and developmental.

Fittingly, the author uses the last chapters of the book to extol the support that Jaliba has from his teeming fan base. He has adoring fans such as Fansu Sonko, Sosseh Cham, Turo Darboe, Matty Manneh, teneng Ndure and many others; these are fans but also patrons. Because as jaliba is a jeli, he needs patrons as that was how jelis had always related to the community- have generous patrons and for whom the jeli will always compose songs for.

In the last chapter the author admits that writing about a living person is fraught with difficulties as life is dynamic and ever changing. Yet, he hopes he has fulfilled his role as a writer by telling part of the story of our great pride, Jaliba. I say part of the story, because Jaliba is going to do even greater things in the near future. I for one a historian, foresee him going into philantrophy like Bill gates with foundations, media houses, and a set of music production companies to leave behind a greater legacy.

For the historian,  biographies help us to situate a person’s life into context. It sets the stage for the better understanding of a person, his or her character, career, and challenges. This is why I wish t state that this book, and many more coming on Jaliba will surely be useful material for the historians tomorrow when Jaliba’s life and career become historical interest. The book is therefore a raw material.

I recommend it to all Jaliba fans, music lovers and those interested in Gambian social history.

Available at Timbooktoo 4494345

Author: Hassoum Ceesay