Jali, djeli (pl jalolu) or the French „griot“ – all three expressions describe a member of the large family of professional musicians of the mandinka. The origin of these families is documented as far back as the 13th century. The jalolu played an important role in the empire of Mali which, in the 15th century, covered the area from the present day Gambia to today’s Northern Ghana, over 2000 km eastwards. The jalolu were praise-singers as well as keepers of the oral tradition, also acting as advisors based upon their knowledge of history. At that time every sovereign with some kind of self-respect would have had his own personal jali and would have taken responsibility for his livelihood. The profession of the jali was passed down within the family; the originally prominent position was such that a profession other than that of a musician was regarded as undignified. Along with the colonization and the introduction of a money economy, the structures became fundamentally changed and many of the jalolu found themselves without an employer. Their services were – and still are today – much in demand but they have to look for work themselves: for any kind of family celebration, for the radio, or, as in the old days, for the president.
Was born in the 1920’s in Bakau, Gambia. He grew up in a family of kora players, having full command of the instrument by the time he was eight years old, but at the age of sixteen he lost a leg after a very bad fall: a double handicap for a musician who has to travel a lot in order to earn his money playing for weddings or birthday parties. So he tried his luck with Radio Gambia and has been working for them since 1956. By the mid sixties he had become a national star who enjoyed special popularity with president Jawara. He wrote the arrangements for the Gambian national anthem “Fode Kabba” – one wrong word in a song – and it was all over with the president’s friendship ... Luckily he had been making contacts with American musicologists who found him a job as a teacher for a year in the USA. Thus he came into contact with Samuel Charters (African Journey: Roots of the Blues) and with Alex Haley (Roots), he recorded “Kinte’s Tune” for the television series. From the end of the seventies on he toured mainly in Europe – mostly Sweden – and so he came to Berlin on July 5, 1984 where he made his last recording. In 1986 he had an attack of tuberculosis, which led to his passing in 1991, after many years of suffering.
Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton