For more than twenty years the Gambian roots band Ifang Bondi (‘be yourself’) had a leading role within West African popular music. It was one of the first groups that decided to return to its African roots by playing traditional Manding music.
To talk about an influential band such as Ifang Bondi, one needs to know how its origins came about. It was the year 1970. The auditorium of Legon University in Accra (Ghana) was filled to capacity. There was an environment of restless expectation awaiting the arrival on stage of the Super Eagles of The Gambia. The devastating performance of highlife, soul, Cuban music, reggae and western pop songs which followed, faultlessly delivered by the men in sharp suits, revealed why this band from The Gambia had become West Africa’s number one superstar attraction. West Africa had just completed its first decade of independence and was in the throes of anticolonialist sentiment, pan-Africanism and ‘Say it loud, I am Black and Proud’. This was to be the last time most people saw the Super Eagles, leaving only the legacy of their all-time classic album ‘Viva Super Eagles’.
Unknown to their thousands of fans, this was not the end of the story, but just the end of the first chapter in one of the longest-running sagas in African musical history. The truth is that the founders of the band, leader Badou Jobe and vocalist Paps Touray had taken a deliberate decision to end Super Eagles at the height of their popularity. Being true revolutionary pan Africanists and musical pioneers, they had become increasingly disturbed by the music they were playing and the image they presented. Despite the greater fame and fortune that was theirs for the taking. They radically gave it all up to go back to square one, back to the roots, to create something African for Africans, to challenge the cultural imperialism of the west which still gripped the continent. They went into the rural areas to sit at the feet of the jelis – the master drummers and the old maestros of the kora, xalam, and bala – the guardians of a thousand years of culture and tradition.
After two years of exhaustive research and hard practice, Badou Jobe and the few musicians like Paps Touray and Ali Harb, who had felt inspired to join, came back with unique new music, born from their amazingly rich heritage. To their modern electric outfit, including the novelty of an electric organ, they had added traditional drums, which, next to the drum kit’s chromium sheen and the fancy sunburst of the guitars, looked like alien objects from another planet. The new repertoire, painstakingly composed according to the rules of the jali teachers, had meant a struggle with unfamiliar scales and mind-boggling rhythm structures. They proudly coined their music the Afro Manding Sound after the legendary Manding empire, cradle of their West African culture.
By 1973 the group reappeared as Ifang Bondi (‘Be yourself). The band’s first public performances were greeted with dismay and disbelief by their devoted fans, who were outraged by the ‘bush’ sound of mbalax and jambadongo rhythms, although the musicians had been careful to hide the sabar (drums) under the British flag. At that time this type of music was considered to be played only at weddings and family-gatherings and not for big audiences. But bandleader Badou Jobe, veteran of an earlier bade against caste taboos to become a musician in the first place, was firmly committed. The only support at this time came from fellow musicians, later to form Toure Kunda and Super Diamono, who appreciated the Afro Manding Sound for the momentum it was bound to give African music. Gradually, their revolutionary ideas got accepted, and this was the birth of the popular West African modern music that has since catapulted Toure Kunda, Youssou N’dour, Mory Kante, and Baaba Maal onto the world stage.
The role of Ifang Bondi was essential by rehabilitating the traditional musicians they made people aware of their own heritage, and they offered new dimensions to African artists in search of an authentic sound. To rigorously deprive a devoted public of their pop idols, the ultimate symbol of modern western culture to induce them to set their own cultural values and to get rid of the inferiority complex, a lingering legacy of colonialism, had not been a venture for the faint-hearted. But in the end the effort proved to be worthwhile. Ifang Bondi have achieved their goal: to create something African for Africans, beyond expectations.
Badou Jobe’s innovative ideas, based on a vast musical knowledge, crystallized into a comprehensive artistic concept that created also the inimitable sound, Ifang Bondi’s trademark. Throughout the years, Ifang Bondi continued to develop its unique music which reflects the enormous variety and richness of authentic styles, be it Wolof, Manding, Fula, Jola or other. The band’s line-up showed a similar ethnic diversity. They put fresh blood into musical traditions, not only by a prolific output of original material but also by organizing festivals in which they invited pop, jazz and reggae musicians from as far as the US and Jamaica to play with traditional performers.
From the beginning, Ifang Bondi acted as a true academy of music from which many great artists have graduated. Outside West Africa Ifang Bondi has always had a solid cult following. The infrequency of record releases, all sought after collector’s items, plus the enigmatic personality of its bandleader, who seems quite happy to stay out of the limelight, “I once opened the door to the hell of stardom, had a good look around, and slammed it shut again“, has only enhanced the mystique surrounding this group. Badou Jobe received the prestigious Kora All Africa Music Award, also known as the African Grammy Award, in 1989.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.