Bai Janha: The Afro-Rock Underdog

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.16.12 in Spotlights

The Republic of Gambia — mainland Africa’s smallest nation — is virtually surrounded by Senegal, which has tended to treat its diminutive neighbor like a least-favorite stepchild. Senegal and Gambia have tried to get it together in the past: The Senegambian Confederation of 1982 followed an attempted coup on longtime Gambia President Dawda Jawara, but Gambians preferred independence and withdrew from the arrangement in 1989. The same sort of little-guy pluck is evident in the music of Bai Janha, who played in Gambia’s two most influential bands — Guelewar and Ifang Bondi — before ending up as a mentor to the younger musicians of Karantamba, with whom he recorded one of the great lost Afropop albums, Ndigal.

In Africa, as in the West, parents were terrified of the effect electric music might have on their children. Jai Janha began to study music in Ghana during the mid ’60s, taking advantage of a four-year scholarship awarded by Ghana’s passionately Pan-African first president, Kwame Kdrumah. Returning to Gambia, Janha played bass in Black Star, the Whales Band and the Eagles while soaking up B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Jimi Hendrix and other bluesmen. Playing popular music was religiously incorrect at the time, though, and to be seen with an instrument on the street was enough to stigmatize one’s family, so Janha, in his own word, “suffered.”

Nevertheless, the teenager made his debut as lead guitarist of the Supreme Eagles one night in 1969 when the regular guitarist didn’t show up. Things began to take off for the kid in 1971 when he was invited to start his own group at the Bambo No. 1 Night Club, Banju’s biggest, grooviest hot spot. Janha led the Alligators (later the Super Alligators), who featured Laye N’Gom, a fine soul singer. Desiring a more African vibe, the ‘Gators changed their name to Guelewar, or “heroes.” Although Guelewar didn’t record during its first incarnation, the group forged a uniquely Gambian sound that translated what Janha characterizes as the frankly “melancholic” traditional tribal circumcision songs into Afro-Manding dance grooves. Guelewar also integrated traditional sabar drums into its instrumentation, profoundly influencing the mbalax sound then developing in Senegal. Unable to repay a local bank for their instruments, Guelewar folded (temporarily) in 1975.

The following year, Janha joined Ifang Bondi (Manding for “be yourself”), known as Super Eagles before their own Afrocentric rebranding. The Eagles had visited Londonand discovered that despite covers of hits like “Hey Jude,” their Anglo listeners were more intrigued by the traditional tunes they’d play. Returning to Gambia, Ifang Bondi spent a couple of years studying Gambia’s traditional sounds before regrouping. In 1977 they recorded Saraba, which features Janha’s distinctively overdriven fuzzed and flanged guitar sound. Ifang Bondi is still around, although Janha, thanks to the usual economic differences, lasted less than two years with the group whose best album, 1983′s Mantra, contains several terrific trance-y tracks with reggae overtones. “Stop the tribalism, nepotism, opportunism,” they sing in the title track. “Start concentration, meditation, creation.”

Janha rejoined Laye N’Gom and Guelewar in 1979, and the group moved to the Côte d’Ivoire’s capitol, Abidjan, for two years. During Janha’s absence, Guelewar recorded three albums (using Janha’s arrangements, he claims) that were allegedly released without bandleader Laye N’Gom’s permission. In 1982, the group decamped to Senegal’s Canari de Kaolack nightclub; there they recorded the knockout live album Halleli N’Dakarou without N’Gom, who had fled to Finland for political reasons a week earlier. Halleli is a rough, tough paragon of some heretofore-unknown psychedelic Afropop subgenre. It’s a strange brew that mixes Janha’s incessantly gnawing guitar, trippy Minimoog synth, and sinuous Hammond organ, with drums and percussion churning underneath it all like Étoile de Dakar‘s mbalax minus the talking drum.

During Guelewar’s time in Abidjan, a failed coup left Gambia in an unsettled political state and wreaked havoc on its miniscule music industry. After recording Halleli, Janha quite Guelewar and return to Banju, where he joined Karantamba, the country’s last legit band. After playing a month-long stand at the Sangomar club in Thies, Senegal, Karantamba recorded Ndigal in two days. Janha calls it “more advanced” and “a lot more mature” than his Guelewar music, and it does sound less murky and more articulated than Halleli N’Dakarou. Unfortunately, due to what Janha heard was a prejudiced conspiracy against Gambian musicians, no Senegal producer would release it. So this minor masterpiece of outside afropop disappeared until Adamantios Kafetzis, the Greek owner of the Senegal-based Teranga Beat label, discovered the tapes Bai Janha had left with the Sangomar’s owner. Call it Gambian karma, just don’t let it pass you by.