Monday, August 19, 2019

I'd Love to Turn You On #238 - Guelewar Band of Banjul - Warteef Jigeen (1981)

            I often get asked why I listen to African music when I can't understand the language. It's pretty simple, really - when the music is compelling enough, the words simply don't matter. And often enough I find out that the words are also compelling when I can dig up English translations, but I don't really seek them out, because at its best the music slays all by itself. That's certainly the case here, with this album sung in the Wolof language. The band - Guelewar Band of Banjul (or just Guelewar on some records) - doesn't have a lot written about them and I know only slightly more about the group than about the words.
Bandleader Laye N'Gom started his musical career in the late 1960s, eventually finding his way in the 70s to the successful band The Alligators. After the departure of several members, the Alligators fused with the Super Eagles to become Super Alligators. By 1973, after more personnel changes, they renamed themselves Guelewar (Wolof for "noble warrior") and began infusing their sound with the Western influences of rock, funk, and soul. In 1975 they broke up, reforming a year later with yet more new members and finally released their first recordings in 1977. In 1979, two more albums followed - Warteef Jigeen was one of them - and the band continued through 1982 when they seem to have disbanded and Laye N'Gom (now known as Abdel Kabirr) went on to a solo career. It's more complicated than that too - I'm not even sure what's accurate in this data. N'Gom provides the dates I mentioned in one reissue's liner notes, but the fairly authoritative Discogs site pegs their first album as 1980 and this one as 1981, so either they got released in The Gambia and maybe also surrounding Senegal earlier (and N'gom is correct) but elsewhere later (and so Discogs could also be correct). Or N'gom's memory of things that happened almost 40 years ago is hazy. Or whoever entered the data in Discogs is just wrong. This helps point up why I don't sweat little details like understanding the language - you can never really get to the bottom of it anyway, so why worry?
So let's now talk about what we do know. The killer title cut - the shortest thing on the album at a mere 6:51 - starts off the album strong with the horn blast of two saxophones (Laye Salla and Bass Lo Fara Biram) supported by a supple bassline (Malick Njock Njie), with drums (Adama Sall Adu) and percussion (Alieu Chan N’Gom and Koto Biram N’Gom) clattering funkily in the pocket in the background to kick things off before Moussa N’Gom’s soulful vocal comes in. The saxes drop out, and the voice and rhythm section (plus some restrained guitar from Moussa Njobdi Njie) take things for a few with an occasional sax commentary. At about the four-minute mark, Laye N’Gom’s buzzy synthesizer makes its first showing in the proceedings in a fine solo and the horns return in a grand fashion, then everything comes together for the last minute to take things out. Twice again on the album they return to this kind of driving funk - on "N.T.C. The Gambia," which features fuzz guitar, more enticing synth, and a sax solo in addition to the usual unison horn lines, and "Jilanna" which follows right on the heels of "N.T.C." and makes for a killer 17+ consecutive minutes of the album.
Around this they also essay a slow groover with "Leen Te Koun," which throws heavy emphasis on the 1, just like George Clinton would have it, and provides a showcase again for Moussa N'Gom's vocals trading off with Bass Lo Fara Biram, who sets aside his sax for a bit to take the mic. There's also the 12:01 of the slow ballad "Mamadu Bitike," another feature for both vocalists that finds everyone in the band working toward the total moody effect of the music rather than flashy soloing for the first two-thirds of the song before the percussionists come in at about 8:15 and things kick into a high gear and cut loose. The record closes on " President Diawara" which though I don't speak Wolof, I have to assume is in honor of the first President of The Gambia, Dawda Jawara (Diawara in some Anglicized spellings), under whose leadership as Prime Minister The Gambia achieved independence from the British before the country created the office of President, to which he was elected. This song has the most guitar-y solos of the album from Moussa Njobdi Njie (who elsewhere mostly works in deference to the song), plus Laye’s weird synths and more solo sax - everything they the group has done throughout the album is pulled out again at the end to recap what we’ve heard.
All accounts I've read piece together a view of Guelewar as an influence on music throughout The Gambia and Senegal - their early live shows helping form the blueprint for the Senegambian music that would come to be known as mbalax, and those shows were also an acknowledged influence on the primary superstar of mbalax, Youssou N'Dour. Their recordings, hard to find for decades but this one recently reissued by the Austrian PMG label, show them to be one of the most consistent recording acts of the time, with not only Warteef Jigeen out there, but a (now out of print) compilation called Touki Ba Banjul : Acid Trip From Banjul To Dakar that cops the faster half of this album both superb, and a live album of material from 1982 released by Teranga Beat in 2011 only lesser by virtue of slightly inferior (though by no means bad) sound. Do I understand what's being sung about? No. Do I still after picking up these three releases have a clear picture of the band's history? No. Does it matter? Not a bit; not when the music speaks this clearly.
-         Patrick Brown

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