Bai Janha is a landmark figure in west African music. Hailing from the Gambia, the tiny spit of land contained within Senegal, Janha was involved in numerous bands in Ghana and elsewhere, including Eagles (later Super Eagles and Supreme Eagles), Guelewar, and seminal outfit Ifang Bondi. Primarily a guitarist, Janha teamed up with such figures as keyboardist Adama Faye and bass player Badou Diop. In 1982, shortly after a violent political coup in the Gambia, Janha founded the group Karantamba.
The 1970s and ‘80s were a heady time for west African music, with bands influenced by the funk and soul sounds from the US and UK and some musicians, like Janha, striving to re-incorporate local rhythms and instrumentation into the mix. Karantamba is a prime exemplar of this trend, with electric instruments and funky rhythms often laid over complex patterns of traditional percussion, and lyrical content particular to the concerns of west Africa.
Now Teranga Beat has released Ndigal, a live recording of Karantamba dating from 1984. With a backing band of young musicians, Janha plays a scorching set of nine tunes ranging from the the snappy “Dimba Niyama” to twelve-minute-long album closer “Gamo Jigimar”, a gloriously hypnotic squall of sound. With most of the tracks hovering at the nine-minute mark, these tunes have plenty of time to establish a groove, stretch out, and incorporate any number of instrumental flourishes and solos.
Polyrhythmic percussion forms the backbone of the songs, with piles of guitar and bass and keyboards layered on top. Tempos are fast—no ballads here, this is high-octane dance music designed to get backsides sitting and energy flowing. In keeping with the high-energy vibe, the singing might politely be described as “unvarnished.” With lyrics in Mandinga, the vocals will remain opaque to listeners unfamiliar with the language. Passion and intensity shine through, but the skills are rough-edged to say the least.
In fact, the sound overall is rough as hell, in ways both good and bad. The vocals are passionate from the get-go, and there is no trace of the smooth polished sounds of Western pop or soul. Guitars are trebly in the extreme, percussion is polyrhymic and incessant, and keyboard breaks can be alarmingly shrill. There is something to be said, however, for a little polish. The horns on “Ne Dinding Fally” are embarassingly weak, and become audibly faltering as the song stretches along its ten-minute length. By the second half of the song, the horns are flat-out missing the notes. It doesn’t sound visceral and real; it sounds amateurish. Ditto the occasional moments when the twangy guitars sound distinctly out of tune.
Those moments are relatively rare, though. For the most part, the tunes benefit from their harsh arrangements and rough performances. The energy is palpable, and does much to overcome the rawness of the arrangements. Songs like “Titi” and “Satay Muso” escape from one’s speakers in a blaze of percussion and guitar, with “Satay Muso” in particular rolling along in a hypnotic groove that establishes itself in mere seconds.
Aficianados of Afro-funk or Afro-rock may find this previously unreleased recording to be of great interest. Be warned, though—this is almost field-recording quality, with little of the lushness or clarity common in today’s studio efforts. It has more in common, both sonically and in terms of arrangements, with the “African funk” compilations from Soundways Records or Analog Africa. Listeners who are forgiving of limitations in sound technology will find this performance an unexpected time capsule to savor.
// Notes from the Road
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