African Flutes: Gambia

Various Artists

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African Flutes: Gambia Review

by John Vallier

Samuel Charters' love for Ed Young's Mississippi's fife and drum music led him to search for the roots of this African-American folk tradition. Based upon the performance of a group of Fula flute players from Guinea and the observation that a significant portion of early African-American culture descended from Senegal and Gambia, Charters decided to visit the villages of Basse and Diabugu Tenda in the Gambia's upper basin. Arriving there in November of 1976, Charters found the indigenous fife and drum music he was looking for. This LP, African Flutes, is a selection of ten field recordings that were collected by Charters during this stay with the Fula of Basse and the Serrehule of Diabugu Tenda. This sampling of Charter's recordings feature a number of incredible-sounding ensembles from both culture areas. Breathy flute melodies and churning calabash rattles expand and compress with one another in the five recordings of the Fula. Three interlocking drum patterns, a similarly breathy flute, hand clapping, anklet rattles, and female vocals characterize the overall sound of the five Serrehule selections. Charters describes both the Fula and Serrehule flutes as being handmade, wooden, about two feet in length, and having four finger holes. He notes that the Fula flutes are bound together with colorful strips of tape. Not exactly the biggest fan of Fula or Serrehule music, Charters described the calabash Fula rattle as being "a crashingly loud instrument" that projects a deafening "din." He also characterized most Fula music as "harsh and repetitive" and stated that the same description stood for the flute music that they played with "fierce energy." Unfortunately, as was -- and often still is -- the case with ethnomusicological and anthropological fieldwork practices, the names of the individual performers are not listed. The person who gets the credit for "discovering" these sounds is Charters himself. Certainly he deserves to be recognized for his dedication to documenting these fascinating sounds. But doesn't it seem natural that someone so preoccupied with archiving such music would care to ask the performers for their names? Despite this ethnographic oversight on Charters' part, and his often pejorative remarks about the quality of Fula and Serrehule music, African Flutes stands as an important collection of field recordings of the peoples from the Upper Gambia region of Western Africa. As is the case with all of their out of print recordings, Folkways will dub a cassette version or burn a CD copy of African Flutes should you decide to order one. See their website for details.