Category Archives: The Gambia

Nyodema’s blogs about life in The Gambia.

Chris Sylla – Hands on Skin

 Chris Sylla from “Hands on Skin” leads Nyodema’s weekly drumming workshops. Chris has been teaching African drum and dance and performing for a number of years mainly in Brighton, West Sussex.

Chris was born in Stoke-On-Trent and although she has always loved singing and had a brief and disastrous relationship with the violin in childhood she came to music later in life. Having worked at the WOMAD world music festival for years and seen English people playing African drums she finally went to a class with a friend and was hooked.

She’s been playing for 9 years now, initially working with a variety of teachers in England. Drumbreaks (a style developed by Peter Scott) teachers such as Liz Carter, Ruth Jennie and Chris Garland were important in her early development, as was Simon Mc Carthy and she then went on to work with teachers of a more traditional West African style such as Fern Camera, Bucarr Ndow, Ali Bangora and Henri Gao Bi.

She took her first trip out to the Gambia to work with Masta Canon with Jambass music in 2001 and then went back regularly to study, at least once a year for three weeks.

As well as learning djembe and bass from Masta, Chris learned dance informally from a variety of sources with artistes in the Gambia; Babuccar, from Roots Manding and Pearr from Roots Kuntakinte being particularly helpful, both allowed her to dance with the troupes when she was out there. She played djembe as a ‘guest’ member of African Ballet for 4 months.

Chris went on to study balafon, a long-cherished desire of Chris’ with Seikou Soma, having 4 months intensive training in 2004 and then on periodic visits since. She also learned West African dance with Zaggaire in the Gambia and a variety of others in Guinea. Chris has done some collaborative work with Hullaballo Quire using balafon and voice. In England Chris is an original member of the Djembe Divas, a women’s’ drumming group based in Brighton.

Jola Festival

Jola Festival, The Gambia Jola Festival, The Gambia

In 2007 Nyodema’s first fund raising event included a photographic exhibition showing different aspects of Gambian life. With this in mind, we were invited by the Camarra family to a very important event – the initiation of their sons.

This is part of a large Jola festival with Jolas – an ethnic group present in The Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau – from across The Gambia (and beyond) gathering together.

It was the day after we arrived in The Gambia, so with no time to acclimatise we were up early in the morning to meet Lamin and to start the drive up country.

Most of the way the roads were good but eventually we reached the bumpy dirt tracks we’d been warned about. After about an hour of jostling along we arrived at the temporary village built for the festival near Kanilai. Thousands of people had formed an arena and various groups were marching around, singing and displaying banners. Outside the arena the crowds strained their necks to look on and many had climbed trees to get a better view.

We were lucky to be given permission to go inside the arena to get some better photos. Knife-dancers, dressed in baggy trousers that would give MC Hammer a run for his money, were dipping large knifes in holy water prepared by their marabouts. They were only too willing to demonstrate for my camera how the sharp blades did not cut them. Unnerving but fascinating to watch, they used everything from cutlasses and razors blades to energetically strike their bodies without ever leaving a scratch.

Jola Festival, The Gambia Jola Festival, The Gambia

Back outside the arena the atmosphere was just as exciting. With long strands of beads crossing their torsos the sisters of those being initiated danced to frantic rhythms tapped out on triangular chimes. Punctuating the drumming, whistle blowing, chanting and dancing, thunderously loud bags exploded in my ears as ‘canons’ were ignited (metal tubes stuffed with gunpowder that are pushed into the ground and light by a fuse).

The mid-day sun was now high in the sky and we moved away from the crowds to find some shade. Sitting on a rug under a tree, we chatted with passers by while a couple of little girls plaited our hair.

We were served a traditional meal of goat (hopefully not the cute little one I saw tied up earlier). Everyone gathered around a large bowl and using either hands or spoons tucked in. The families of those being initiated have to save for many years as they are expected to feed not only their relatives and guests but also the local villagers.

When we’d finished our meal I photographed group after group of family members and friends.

Jola Festival, The Gambia Jola Festival, The Gambia

Then came the initiation of the sons. Friends and relatives pinned money onto their clothes before they were hoisted on to someone’s shoulders and led out into the bush. Traditionally they would spend weeks in the bush with their older male relatives learning about their responsibilities as a man, so we were surprised when they came straight back again! Presumably the training is now a more ongoing thing.

Our driver wanted to get back onto the tarmac road before dark so all too quickly we had to leave. It really was a fascinating day and we felt very privileged to have been invited.

When we next returned to The Gambia a few months later we presented the family with a photo album to say thank you for a wonderful day.

For more photographs of this event, see the Nyodema Flickr stream.

For more information on Nyodema please see their MySpace page

For other festivals in The Gambia, see The Gambia Experience festivals page

A week of Song in The Gambia

I have recently returned from another wonderful week in The Gambia with my fellow Nyodema trustee, Shelagh Hamilton. This time our friend, Andrea Encinas, an experienced vocal coach, joined us. Andrea, originally from Trinidad, came to England as a nurse. She is now the director of British Gospel Arts, books choirs for The South Bank Centre, sings with the London Community Gospel Choir (you may have seen her singing at the FA Cup Final at Wembley in May!) and is studying for an MBA in Arts Management.

Well I’m pleased to say Andrea has fallen in love with The Gambia and I’m sure this will be the first of many visits.

Singing Lessons at Jeddah School Singing Lessons at Jeddah School

We had a very hectic week. Singing (and dancing) at Jeddah Progress Nursery School, Brikama was definitely one of the highlights. Andrea taught everyone some traditional Afro-Caribbean songs and the school choir from Farrato sang a mixture of English and African songs for us. Andrea’s enthusiastic approach was contagious as children, teachers and parents joined in this cultural exchange.

The recently formed drama group performed a couple of delightful short plays including one about learning English the ‘Jolly Phonics’ way and another about malaria prevention. I can’t explain how it felt to see two little girls playing, Kathryn and Shelagh, handing out mosquito nets. These two days were an excellent way to strengthen the bond between Nyodema and the local community.

Another Nyodema sponsored, teacher training course in ‘phonics’, took place over the next two days. This is a method of teaching English widely used throughout the UK and is proving to be a great success in The Gambia.

During the week we also managed to fit in a radio interview on Unique FM, a singing workshop at a Gospel church in Bakau and a visit to Serrakunda market. Andrea also took part in a couple of informal yet inspirational performances with local musicians.

The Malaria Play The Malaria Play

As Andrea had never been to the Gambia before we took a day out to explore the area, looking at different housing conditions etc. Andrea was shocked at the extent of the poverty in The Gambia (and since being back has already started raising money for Nyodema).

I mustn’t forget to mention the children’s clothes and toys that we distributed throughout the week, in particular, 14 cuddly toys donated by Elsie, the three year old daughter of another Gambia Experience staff member. After looking at some photographs of Gambian children, Elsie decided that she did not need all her toys. On Boxing Day last year she sorted out all the ones she didn’t play with anymore and asked her Mum to give them to children in Africa. This was entirely her idea. Well done, Elsie!

Elsie was delighted to see the photos of her toys in Africa.

Our last night was spent dancing until the early hours to an excellent reggae/salsa band in a bar on the Senegambia strip. The following day Andrea and I said our goodbyes to the wonderful staff at our hotel (Sunset Beach in Kotu) who had made us feel so welcome and headed off to the airport.

Shelagh stayed on to organise the distribution of more mosquito nets and to meet the medical students from Florida who ran the first-aid teacher training course for us at Jeddah Progress Nursery School last year. This visit they ran a dental hygiene course for the teachers and supplied toothbrushes etc for the children.

Elsie's Teddy Elsie’s Teddy

Each time I visit The Gambia I learn so much, make numerous new friends and return home with many happy memories. A huge thank you to everyone who contributed to this wonderful week. I’m very lucky to be part of ‘Nyodema’.


For more photographs visit Nyodema’s Flickr stream