Home > Gambia music, The Gambia > Gambian Music and Culture

Gambian Music and Culture

Music plays an important part of Gambian culture; “The drum” made of carved wood and goat skin seems a simple instrument, but drumming in is not limited to musical entertainment like some of the music from the Americas or Europe, it has a serious application in many societies across the continent.

A native speaker of a language can often perceive a text or texts in the music. This effect also forms the basis of drum languages (talking drums)in days gone by drumming was used as a way of communicating. News would travel from village to villages by drumming.

Many of the Western African tribes are well known for their use of drumming in daily activities or special events. The drums are the main tool used to inform members of their respective tribes when something major occurs within the tribe. Drums can inform members of death, funerals, meetings, or upcoming celebration. In the past it was used as a warning of immanent attack.


The drum is the sign of life; its beat is the heartbeat of the community. Such is the power of the drum to evoke emotions, to touch the souls of those who hear its rhythms. The beating of the drum is an opportunity to give one another a sense of belonging and of solidarity. It is a time to connect with each other, to be part of that collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society.

Wrestling:
The beat of the drum is used to evoke the emotion of the contester and create an excitement in the arena Modern traditional wrestling has evolved as a modified version of the real combat techniques. Traditionally, all the boys in a village were taught how to wrestle. The ones that showed skill and promise were held in high regard as a man regardless of class, it is one of the oldest traditional sports in Gambia and wrestling festivals are a common occurrence. Leg locks are permitted but there are no patterned arm or head locks, or complicated points system.

The object of the game is simply to throw one’s opponent to the ground. The first wrestler down in the bout loses the contest. The most common style of grappling is shown among the Mandinka, Fulas and Jolas. It involves each opponent grabbing each other’s trunks at the start of the bout. After some strategic manoeuvrings each one would attempt to throw the other to the ground. Serers on the other hand prefer to go straight for the legs and render their opponent off balance.

Traditional music
Is mostly functional in nature, there are for example, many different kinds of work songs, some of the drumming that goes on in the middle of the day even helps women and men of the tribe get daily chores done quicker as the drums allow them to follow a rhythm while they work, Ceremonial or religious music accompanies childbirth, marriage, hunting, and even political activities.

Cremonial music
Will often be accompanied by the Balafone and the Kora which has a harp like sound and is made from the Calabash. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns. Depending on the tribe which combination of instruments are used.

A male griots, or praise singers are traditionally heard at weddings and infant naming ceremonies, born into the profession most often act as a solo or duo instrumentalist. They attend the ceremonies to bring good luck by accompany praise songs and historical recitations. In some areas it may form part of a larger group including a Kora, a calabash, flute and/or a Tamo Drums.

The griots or “Jali” society was as a historian, advisor, arbitrator, praise singer and storyteller. Essentially, these musicians were walking history books, preserving their ancient stories and traditions through song. Their inherited tradition was passed down through generations. They were said to have deep connections to spiritual, social, or political powers as music is associated as such. Speech is also said to have power as it can recreate history. The talking drums(Tamo) are some of the oldest instruments used by west African griots and their history can be traced back to ancient Ghana Empire. Many have developed a highly sophisticated genre of griot music centering on the talking drum.

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Categories: Gambia music, The Gambia
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