There's a Griot Goin' On: An Interview with Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

Stephen Humphries
Photos: York Tillyer

The former guitarist for Robert Plant and the Gambia riti virtuoso discuss their unlikely, but incredibly fruitful, musical partnership.

Juldeh Camara, Gambia’s leading virtuoso of an instrument called the riti, has one goal in life: To play with Madonna. During a transatlantic interview, Camara holds the phone up to a CD player, queues up her Madgesty’s “Hung Up", and then starts playing along to the track on his riti, a one-string instrument that sounds like a shrill violin. It’s surprisingly effective. Camara’s riti mimics the song’s histrionic keyboard riff -- a sample of ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme” -- and improvises around it. “I tell you, this will be magical,” Camara says of his anticipated collaboration with the queen of pop.

Don’t be surprised if Camara gets his wish. After all, it took the Gambian musician three years to track down a phone number for Justin Adams, best known as Robert Plant’s guitarist for the better part of this decade. That persistence paid off. Camara and Adams have just released Tell No Lies, the follow-up to their acclaimed 2007 debut, Soul Science. Following a headlining slot at April’s WOMAD festival in Abu Dhabi -- featuring Plant as an honorary band member -- the duo has just concluded its first US tour.

Adams isn’t surprised to hear about his companion’s musical performance over the telephone. “He’s obsessed by Madonna,” laughs Adams. The guitarist recalls, too, being serenaded by Camara’s riti during that first phone call. Adams was immediately captivated by the sounds coming through his receiver and was intrigued about Camara’s status as a griot, a caste-like poet that continues oral storytelling traditions through song. “I heard through the grapevine there was griot interested in speaking to me,” says Adams. “It’s not every day that you get interest like that.”

In fact, Camara had been playing along to a copy of Adams’s 2002 album, Desert Road, for several years. Adams’s distinctive guitar style is so thoroughly influenced by West African guitarists that a blindfolded listener would be surprised to discover that the record’s Malian modes come courtesy of a man who once attended Eton, England’s most aristocratic private school.

Adams was familiar with Camara’s work, too, though he didn’t know it at the time. Following the introductory telephone call, Adams dug out an old compilation of Bill Laswell recordings in Gambia -- 1990’s “Ancient Heart” -- and was thrilled to discover that Camara was the riti player on the album.

For the duo’s first meeting in Adams’s garage, the British musician loaded up several African rhythm tracks on to his laptop. The musical alchemy was instant. “It’s jamming. One of us plays a riff, the other plays over the top,” says Adams. “The thing about our sort of approach to fusion, which makes it different, is that the basic building blocks are African,” says Adams. “We tend to take a rhythm that is a really familiar. We’re speaking the same kind of language.”

Both Soul Science and Tell No Lies are atypical of collaborations between African and Western musicians, which too often sound like two disparate seams zippered together. The guitarist prefers to avoid the World Music tag, however. “I feel more kinship with Clash and Rihanna than some sort of ambient flute music,” scoffs Adams. The guitarist admits to being surprised that he enjoys Rihanna and Black Eyed Peas (artists he’s picked up from his young son) for their rhythms. Tell No Lies won’t be mistaken for a production -- the CD should come packaged with an “organic” label -- but the primal percussion by Salah Dawson Miller is suitably danceable. Indeed, the album boasts several great pop songs. The first single, “Kele Kele (No Passport, No Visa)", is built on a Bo Diddley-like riff and the flirtatious backing vocals of Zanzibar’s Mim Suleiman. “Banjul Girl” is so exuberant it would spark a stock market rally if it was piped into Wall Street.

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