Tambasansang is a Mandingo village situated in the region of the high river Gambia, a few kilometres from Basse. It is useless to look for it on the Lonely Planet because the famous touristic guide book stops more than 10 kms before in Janjabureh - best known as Georgetown Island - site of the famous fortress of slaves. To reach Tambasansang from Banjul we have crossed the Gambia river twice - in Baara and in Bansang - and we have travelled for a whole day on the road that passes via Farafegni, Bansang and Basse, which is packed with militaries. We were on a seven place, an old peujeot station wagon with seven seats which was equipped for travelling on the damaged internal roads. Once arrived in Basse, there are only a few kms of dusty, bad and cooked by the sun road.
In the past Tambasansang was the centre of an important kingdom which would extend from the river up to Bansang. Still today the chief of the village belongs to the noble family of the Kora, the rulers at the time. Tambasansang has also an ancient griot tradition that is transmitted from father to son by the Suso, Kuyateh and Kanuteh families.
But for us Tambasansang is mainly the home village of El Hadji and Omar Suso, Gambian jali met in Mali - at their cousin Toumani Diabate's house - and found again in Milano, where they live from many years. Omar plays kora and is one of the musicians form the T.P. Africa Ensemble nucleus together with Madya Diebate and Naby Camara. We have gone to Tambasansang to meet their family.
"All that exists comes from God - introduces the old Mamadou Suso as soon as the last notes of Allah la Ke are played - Tonight we play for Omar Suso and for God".
Omar, you were born and grown up here in Tambasansang, and then you went to Italy. Just like I was born here in Tambasansang, with my father's kora besides me, also you, Omar you were born with the kora of your father El Hadji Lamine Suso, and it is with the kora that you have left and you have reached the toubab land. In Italy you have met those friends of yours, respect unites you now and now they have come to visit us. Your friends have come to know us and we want to communicate with them. You have sent them here so that they could understand who we are. We are jali and we sustain our families through music. We have married our wives with the kora and this is what we continue doing."
Together with Madya we have reached the village two days ago. The Suso family, starting from the old Lamine and his four wives, has welcomed us in their home as if we were their kids. Ibu's wives; Bambi Kanuteh and Kolda Kuyateh have taken care of our sleep and eating, while the children have adopted us as being their uncles.
Kolda e Bambi
When he was young Lamine was very good at the kora and he was respected throughout all Gambia. Unfortunately due to the fracture of his hand, he can't play like he used to. Lamine has many children of which six are in Europe between Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Also Mudu, the last of the boys, tried the “hope journey” four times, without succeeding to reach Europe.
"I tried crossing the sea three times, passing first via Senegal, then Gambia and finally Morocco. I have been for days at the mercy of the Atlantic currents and of the waves of the Mediterranean without food or water. Some of my friends died before we were intercepted by the guard ship and sent back. The forth time I tried the way that leads to Libya through the Sahara but I was arrested by the police and I have spent 6 months in the Libic prisons. That was the worst experience of my life. Each day they would wake me up at 5 in the morning, they would take me into a small dark room and they would slaughter me. They broke my arms, my legs and my back. While they were beating me up they would ask me why was I in Libya and to do what. Fortunately my brothers had sent me some money thanks to which I could buy back my freedom."
During our stay in Tambasansang, Mudu has been our shadow. Driving Ibu's old Mercedes 190, which only starts if you push it. We have travelled around Tambasansang with the car, pushing ourselves up to Bansang where we visited the house of Sidiki Diabate, father of Toumani.
Mudu loves to be in contact with people he is extrovert and has a constant smile which produces good mood. To reach Basse he never chooses the quickest road but he crosses the whole village of Dampha Kunda, and while he drives through the small roads between the small surrounding walls, he drives very slowly, he stops every time he meets somebody he knows and shouts " A keregnadi" - how's it going - it is the greeting he has for everybody. Mudu knows many people, also police men who normally let him pass although his car insurance expired one year ago. “Money is nothing, communication is the best! He tells us laughing wholeheartedly, revealing to us in all lightness his life philosophy.
The third evening some jali from Tambasansang had come together at Susokunda - Suso's home - to play for us. Amongst them is the old Mamadou Suso, big brother of Lamine, both over eighty. There is also Daba Kuyateh, accompanied by his wife Jabo Kuyateh. That same morning, while coming back from the river, we have met him while he was coming back with the bicycle from a close village with this kora over the shoulder, a chicken on the handlebar and an old radio tied to the luggage rack.
Then there is Landing Kanuteh a very very blues person. He is Bambi's uncle, he learned to play kora from old Lamine and today he is one the best korafola of the region. He has a contract with the national Gambian radio where he plays kora and sings for some hours every Wednesday evening. He and old Lamine and Daba sit in the first line on the coloured mat while the old Mamadou and Moussa Kanuteh - who both played kora when young - positioned themselves besides them with a dundun.
Behind them are the women, amongst them Jabo Kuyateh, Filly Kuyateh - third wife of Lamine and mother of Jemba and Mudu - Bambi Kanuteh and small sister Faumata Suso. They are all extraordinary singers, especially Filly, Bambi and Fatumata about whom some say she will become a gnara, which for a jeli is the biggest recognition and value. Amongst the women sits also old and proud grandma Aminata Kuyateh, who once had a big voice. They say she is more than 120 years old.
The children of Susokunda and of the close by houses are all reunited in the courtyard for the party. Similar occasions, where one plays for the guests, are not that common. Toubab rarely reach Tambasansang and they tell us that a few weeks ago before our arrival there were some Swiss who had installed a solar system producing voltage. Some months before, instead there were some Americans, who took away from Tambasansang many stones collected close to the river. "Probably they found something interesting - said to us Lamine - they know but they didn't tell us."
The music starts off with Allah la Ke, while Alessandro executes a quick and confused sound-check, rendered almost hopeless by the old gasoline generator that is fuming behind the house. Then the concert starts.
“Allah la Ke is played by all the jelis in the Mande, in Casamance, in Mali and in Gambia - continues old Mamadou - Allah la Ke was composed one century ago by Mamadi Kora, king of Tambasansang.
Mamadi Kora, son of Julaba Falai, was king at the time of Moussa Molo (son of the chief Fulani Alpha Yaya Molo Balde founder of the Fouladou kingdom 1846-1931. Once the time of Moussa Molo was over, the white men arrived and he, Mamadi Kora, was still king. In his house there was a stone construction (once it was the building of the king, used as fortress for detention of slaves after the arrival of the English) and this building was constructed by Mamadi Kora. Allah la Ke is his song.
When he lost his kingdom Mamadi Kora didn't want to stay in Tambsansang. He went to Kombo and he installed himself in Afdai (between Banjul and Serekunda). Then again he moved to Mandinarin (village; meaning small) where he had four children: Infali, Sigini, Mama and Binna.
Everything comes from God. If you have to start something you have to say that God did it and not the people. Everything can not happen, but if God wants it will happen. When God created the world and the people, we were not created all alike. The one hundred twenty four saints have been created by God. We all come from the creator.
Now your friends (Omars' friends) will see who we are and what we do. Now we will play for jali Madya and his Italian friends. Stay united within respect, I wish you to work together and to live in the good".
Fatoumata and Jabo
The sun sets behind the house and the jali are still playing. When the music stops the musicians are visibly happy, but perhaps we were even more happy. We are really happy "cotante bake bake" we say in Mandingo. We go to Lamine's bedroom to thank them, while in the courtyard the old television is turned on. Landing stays to play kora until late. Lying on the mat and cradled by the unpredictable variations of our blues man we drown inside the enchanted sky of Gabu and its endless stars.