Banna Kanuteh: The Magnificient Balafonist and a Griot
Friday, May 11, 2012
In today’s legends, our focus is on Gambia’s most extraordinary balafong player Banna Kanuteh, a brother to the legendary Fabala Kanuteh a balafonist also who aided in the composition of The Gambia Nationalist Anthem with his song ‘Foday Kaba’; and Dembo Kanuteh a griot and historian for the Senegalese radio and television as the oral archive of the history and culture of the manding empire.
Banna was a man who is always compelling, has the skill and the style affection for classical music versatile. He is a fast-fingered player whose skills is beyond global definition and possesses the skills to go in any musical direction ranging from playing, thinking, talking to communicating.
His mastered instrument-the balafong is a fixed-key or frame xylophone with a gourd resonator underneath each key. The frame is an open box in a three-dimensional trapezoid shape, larger in both height and width at one end, tapering to the other, reflecting the graded sizes of the 17 keys and the corresponding diminishing size of the gourd resonators.
The long spans of the frame are made of split bamboo; the short spans (at the low and high end of the keyboard) are of wood, carved in decorative shapes. The long and short spans are mounted on cylindrical wooden posts at each corner, and the whole is tied together with rawhide strips. The keys are tied to the upper bamboo spans with twisted rawhide. Between each key a thin bamboo dowel is also tied, and the gourd resonators hang from cotton twine tied to these dowels.
Bana Kanuteh co-wrote the Penguin modern classic "Sunjata" with Bamba Suso.The Sundiata epic, turns on the career of a prince of Kangaba. Vowing to avenge his murdered father and brothers, Sundiata overthrows and killed the usurper Sumanguru, creating Mali. The Thailand story of Princess Suryothai has a similar theme: a family of usurpers is undone by the legitimate heir, whose moral claim to the throne is burnished by his wife's selfless sacrifice in battle. Early Ottoman Sultans also expeditiously murdered their brothers to secure the throne.
Both Bamba Suso and Banna Kanuteh give their own very personalized accounts of the life of "Sunjata" in this wonderful Penguin Modern Classic. Bamba Suso who was from the eastern division and who's parents were from Mali gives a Madinka view that reveres tradition and is spoken. This was how a ‘Ngara’ or Master Musician should perform!Banna Kanuteh on the other hand also from the Upper River area was a powerful, flamboyant and sometimes abrasive character, a born showman; he would punctuate his singing with virtuoso instrumental interludes.
Bana Kanuteh has been referred to as “the great performer", a title reflecting his performance style and musical selections which display his early griot playing and training along with his love of the balafong and other traditional musical forms. He travelled the African continent and became fluent in more than 20 languages. He left a musical legacy that enriches not only his family and his country, but also the Griots and Jalis who have maintained the tradition of Balafong playing and musicians of every colour and creed around the world.
His Father .Jali Madi Kanuteh alias Balafo Madi was born in Sankarang Duwako in Guinea Conakry. His mother Aja Kunadiya (lucky) Sakiliba Susso was born in Horokoto Nyambia in Mali. They travelled to Gambia together with a merchant called Fili Darboe and Banna was born in The Gambia in 1916 in Niani Kayai in the Cenral River Region.
The humor in Banna's playing is obvious to all and he was a favorite with members of government, raveling widely to provide entertainment for celebrations and trade festivals. The richness of African tradition can be heard in all of his playing and of course the people would love to dance to the music that he played.
He was also instrumental in the development of the National Troupe of the Gambia working with his wife Jali Mamanding Kuyateh and Dembo Konteh who also played a major part in the development of West African music. He began to travel in the 1950s and made his first recordings for the BBC World Service and by the 1960s had become a major influence on the development of the Gambian National Troupe.
Banna would play this drum during wrestling contests and when the Mandinka Kankurango masquerade was performing either at Weddings or Naming and Circumcision ceremonies. He also played the WollofHarp the Xhalam and used to perform with his ensemble including his three wives and prominent Gambian Kora players on Radio Gambia. The programme was called ‘Fata-fingla Kukoto’ meaning African Renaissance and later developed into Banna la Sumungwo ( Banna’s Show).
In this program, He explained that up the point the project was undertaken records of African slave heritage were insufficient and provided little evidence as to where and individual slave or family was from. This coupled with the fact that the slaves themselves came from cultures without written languages and without a clear idea of larger geographic areas, made it almost impossible to trace individual slave's roots.
He then explains that the current research of his time has allowed historians to understand which tribes and peoples came from what areas and what music, language, and culture they brought. With this research he was able to draw the initial connection between the blues and traditional African music.
He then begins to distinguish between the first slaves arriving from Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea, and the later slaves coming from Ghana, Nigeria, and the Cameroons. The first group had established a distinctive Afro-American culture as they came to the colonies in groups and built the plantations.
The second group was dispersed throughout the already formed plantations and they adapted to the established culture they found in America. From this he draws the conclusion that Afro-American music could be traced back to the area between the Senegal River and southern Guinea.
Then he discusses the distribution of individual tribes in the colonies. Because the Europeans generally didn't actually capture the slaves, who was shipped to the colonies was in the hands of the African rulers. At the time of the slave trades, West Africa was in constant internal struggle so it was the losers of the wars that were enslaved. Thus, tribes of fierce warriors were hardly ever found in America. Two tribes that were often found in slave colonies were the Wollofs and the Mandingoes.
Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind. Bana fathered the famous Jali Madi of the Holy Family band, well know musician in the Gambian music scene and also Shrieffo Kanuteh a graphic desiger at DBC, a prolific griot, professional ballet dancer and balafonist with Sona Joberteh and Sofa Nyama band, Alieu Kanuteh a balafonist and three female daughters.
Banna always expressed his music in the context of 800 years of village life griots and the way in which great Warriors like Sunjata affected the growth of the village and the values that were espoused!He married to Jali Mamanding Kuyateh in the late 1970s their children heir to a great tradition.
For example Saihou to this day carries a torch for the future generations of West African Balafong music. Banna Kanuteh died in 1995 leaving a legacy that will in time be seen as the defining era in Balafong music. The future has not yet arrived yet he spoke with such truth and in his own way he let the music of his ancestors pervade his every musical narrative!
Considering the totality of Bana Kanuteh's legacy, his place in the history of music is comparable to the greatest amongst 20th century musicians.
Author: Oko Drammeh