Oko Drammeh, Gambian-born international music promoter and producer, Part II
Friday, September 30, 2011
Hello our esteemed readers and it is a pleasure to welcome you to this edition of Bantaba. We are continuing our interview with Oko Drammeh, Gambian-born international music producer and promoter and founder of the Sotokoto Musical Band of the United States of America.
In our part one edition, Drammeh spoke extensively on his career and activities, as well as issues relating to the development of Gambian music. In today’s edition we will continue from where we stopped.
Bt: Sotokoto is a Mandinka word. Tell us about the Sotokoto Musical Band of the United States of America?
Oko: Sotokoto is my own private company. The Soto Koto Band is a group of pre-eminent musicians from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas unifying a diverse range of ancient and modern influences.
The Soto koto band is to enrich the musical cultures of the world by fusing the energy and the excitement of the music of The Gambia with global sounds of the future.
I started Sotokoto in Banjul because in our compound there was a big ‘Soto’ tree and the boys who used to sit under that tree were numerous in diversity – sportsmen, musicians, politicians and in fact it is the centre of Banjul. It was my elder brother the late Pindo Drammeh “Sajaro"who gave the name to his social club as the club Soto-koto Vous.
My brother Pindo, a very popular sportsman in Gambian football died in a car accident years ago. Then when I went to America, I brought back the name in the spotlight to give honour to my brother’s creativity because he was the first one to recognize the Soto tree.
So I decided to name my music company Soto-koto because I lived in Hollywood, in America celebrating my success in Europe.
Soto Koto concert management was established in 2000 to provide competent technical support services to the international artists and the event industry; over the years I have successfully planned and managed festival and concert projects in many parts of Europe, Asia, America, Africa and the Caribbean.
In the process, I have significantly expanded both our circle of contacts and knowledge of local regulations and conditions. I am a success story in organising festivals and promoting your concerts.
In 2001, as a result of being unable to locally source high quality staging and scenery at an acceptable cost, we decided to establish our own global scenic locations around the wonders of the world, buildings and heritage sites organizing our concerts and festivals in exotic locations around the world.
Hollywood is the center of world music and there you have the likes of late Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, 50 Cents, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone who had offices in that one street on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California.
Here I had my office too working with my partners at 8033 Sunset, suite #41, Los Angeles, California like any of them. So in Sunset Boulevard, is where you have the offices of the top movie actors like Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Willis etc.
These are the people who I shared office location with and I was operating at a magnitude of their level. I am a Gambian there managing superstar artists who play in various albums.
Many of my musicians play with great artists like Cellin Dion, Stars like Seal, Byonce, and Michael Jackson and so on. So being in the Hollywood I came to interact with all these people and when I brought my idea of forming an African band with talented American artists – they were very excited.
So we formed a group called the Sotokoto Band and whenever I have an idea I bring it to them which they will formulate into a Jazz, Rock, hip hop and industry sound.
I was very much in love of my country and I decided to use these resources to empower and to promote Gambian musicians. The first Gambian artists I introduced were Abdul Kabir, Paps Touray and Jaliba Kuyateh.
I really made sure that Hollywood hear their music and have their music album crafted in Hollywood for timeless purposes. All the albums I made in the Hollywood are crafted forever – they will never go out of taste. They are timeless and the quality never dies.
Bt: As you highlighted, I could remember a clip produced by the Sotokoto featuring Jaliba Kuyateh. How has such helped the Kora maestro?
Oko: Jaliba considers his album as his professional passport to the West because this is the album that was not recorded for the Gambian consumer.
This album was recorded for Europe, USA, China, Australia, India and other parts of the world. Most of the recordings Jaliba made including the most recent ones were made purposely for the Gambian public home and abroad because you just cannot record a Hollywood multi functional album from the Gambia. You have to have the musicians and the studios.
I look forward that in the future Jaliba will continue to make the productions that I made for him. But he is doing very well at this level and he is the most consistent artist in the Gambia.
However consistency doesn’t translate to international consumer market success. The consumer market is an industrial sound that is fabricated in an industrial framework. Since Jaliba is a Gambian and lives here, the most advance things he does are done in Senegal, which also lacks bigger technological and market device ideas about the outside world.
They know about Senegal and the Gambia, but they don't know that Senegal lack the knowledge of how to make a record to sell in Indonesia for instance. When I collaborated with Jaliba, Abdel Kabirr, and Pap Touray, I made the music as something made in the Gambia, by Gambians but manufactured in Hollywood and launched in Hollywood.
Really that introduction helped Jaliba and many people can now see him and listen to him online via the internet and the new media.
Bt; How is your life as a producer in the Hollywood?
Oko: Hollywood is like a university for graduation at the highest level. In Hollywood there are levels which are the highest in every aspect in show-business, theater, acting and musical performance. From morning-time to night-time you are interacting with the highest people in the business of music – the top artists of the world.
So is like when you live in a university campus. Here in the Hollywood you are living in the campus city with only stars that people love to buy their videos music and movies. I had been lucky to meet the Terminator and Elizabeth Taylor who was a partner to Michael Jackson.
My Life in Hollywood has been nothing but educational experience coming from the Ifang Bondi days institution of Banjul. I see the whole world through the window of where I was born, and I take pride very much to return to the Gambia to share this knowledge I learned from abroad.
The money is not important in my work in the Gambia for me now but what is important for me is to inject my knowledge and quality to young Gambians. If I were only doing it for money I will just stay in China (the new financial capital) or in America.
And as long as I am here teaching and coaching; surely the Gambian music will change and the money will come naturally and there will be advancement in the area of music administration, the art and science of Recording, distribution, and media marketing of Gambian music.
Bt: What are your most desired achievements?
Oko: Laughs!! My desired achievements are to see new talents every day in the Gambia because such makes my life full of tastes and color. Whenever I see new talents, I feel alive and whenever I see creative people I feel alight.
What do not inspire me are people who know something but only through the books (ideas of others) or the counterfeit of somebody's idea. I know many professors, lawyers and doctors, who are graduates but their knowledge is based on something already known or the books of someone else.
For me I like originality and I have been inspired by original thinking people. Whenever I think for people is mostly from my creative brain and to make others earn and learn from it. My entire knowledge is based on fueling people with energy to earn, learn and get something from it.
So my big ambition is for Gambians to collaborate with me so that I can share my knowledge and learn with them so that we can make a mixture of all fine ingredients of talents, skill, beauty, art and color. But this must be exploited now while I am here and alive.
When I went to America in Hollywood and I organized the first Africa Music Festival there, which was held in California, I received a certificate of honor from the senate of California for bringing such a prestigious event in that state.
In Texas, I organized with Jaliba Kuyateh a traditional evening of history and culture called the Night of the Griots in Austin. I did that presentation and a lecture series in which I was awarded an honorary Doctorate degree of arts by the University of Texas in Austin.
In Holland, I have had numerous awards from the government as well as from the City of Delft where I was appointed as a leader in organizing the cultural events for the city when it celebrated 750 years.
I also achieved in music a lot – I happened to achieve a number one hit in America with my Sotokoto Band. I also appeared with Carlos Santana, a major artist on Billboard Magazine, which is the number one music magazine in the world. But more on my achievements is on www.okodrammeh.com
Bt: Oko now that you are in The Gambia with all these qualities and experiences that you possess, to be more specific what do you intend to further do for your nation in the area of music development?
Oko: [Laughs] I have been doing for my country ever since. That is why I have certain artistic success in the Gambia but in the Gambia I do not have financial success. I intend to stay in the Gambia to organize events and to regulate what comes out of Gambian studios.
I am here to also regulate what goes out in the Gambian media in terms of promoting Gambian music and art. I have to be the barometer in helping balance what has to come out of Gambia in terms of arts and culture.
This is what I want to do for Gambia – I want to become the intellectual view and the artistic strength to give confidence to our composers, our young artists, and to give confidence to our technical studio owners that with my guidance and involvement, I will see where the illness is and I provide the cure.
Since the Gambian music scene is going in uncertain times and the conditions of creativity are not properly tapped, and the raw talents are wasted and some of these artists would become older people tomorrow; I have to do something to ensure that we eventually have a music industry.
I will also want to organize the Africa Music Festival in the Gambia, something that I organize in Holland and sponsored by the Dutch government. I will try to solicit with the Gambia government if we can do this festival in the Gambia so that we can have other starts from Africa to come here and mingle with our artists.
That music festival is Pan-African and the Gambia is a Pan-African state and we share the same Pan-African dreams with the former leaders and future ones. So having that one concept idea in the Gambia whereby Gambian artists would interact with other Pan-African artists with a view to have a platform for Africa in the continent instead of the other way round is critical.
I am also working on education and I am in contact with some schools in America, Texas who are open to interact with Gambian youths. So we want to initiate an educational trade fair in both the Gambia and the USA. The other key plan is enlightenment and I want Gambian youths to be enlightened and reject idle pleasure and turn to the part of righteousness.
I want Gambian youths to start mingling with professionals and experienced people to enhance capacities. I want Gambian artists to also be firm in their faith and not to be corrupted by superstition and be the children of the light so that they can be projected.
I also want them to start making songs about solid facts of human story. If you have all these things, nobody can blow you out of the scenes
Bt: Sure, this is possible with the commitment of all. But what is the current state of Gambian music?
Oko: At the moment the Gambian music is unripe or what we called amateur. The country had experience a mature music before but suddenly there was a collapse and still we didn’t get up from that.
The state of Gambian music is amateur because we do not have the components as before – record shops, instrument shops, and rehearsal halls. So the state of it is that the talents and the performing standards and the materials we produce are all amateur because the musicians cannot do anything about it – they only have talents and are not rich people and cannot transform their interest in music into success.
It cannot be copied music but it has to be original. We have it here many young Gambians singing great songs but they do choose the wrong music because they lack the knowledgeable experience and that is why in my conversations I always recommends that I wish there was Gambia College in every spheres such as music, sport, and so on.
In every aspect of our society, there should be something where Gambians can propel to adulthood. What happen is that normally when we starts young we are so good, but as we grow older we start to get bad because we do everything by ourselves – pay from our pockets to record to compete with industries that have schools.
So we have a list of things that we have to do and I will share this with the stakeholders.
Bt: Giving this analytical view or picture of the Gambian music scene, it appears the music that is produced in the country is not marketable internationally?
Oko: The Gambian culture is marketable and some sort of Gambian music which we still have to discover is marketable. Because 30 years of Cultural Revolution has been destroyed by fashion.
The Gambia is very advanced politically and culturally but we have compromised this through allowing what we called grafting of our media channels. When I say grafting that means you have an Indian man doing the Observer editing; a DJ of a radio station a Chinese; and all your important cultural fabric of your society is handled by foreigners. So you see that we have half of our culture abandoned and the opportunities also abandoned alongside with it.
But Gambians should be enlightened and awaken to their culture and know that the Gambian radio stations, Gambian newspapers cannot be half and half. We cannot graft our culture. So we must seize the opportunity to project our culture from the pulse of our blood to the beat of our hearts to the world.
Bt: Oko, still on the development of Gambian music, what do you think about the content of Gambian music which includes the song, the writing, musical arraignment and stage performances?
Oko: This is the key issue of a music industry. When you have a copy right office, content is the reason why we establish copyright office. This is because the content is the story that defines the capacity of your culture; content is the imagination of a flow from your brain when you cannot see beyond the river but know that something is behind it.
If today you invite Gambian artists to China or Japan to present what is Gambian, obviously they will play reggae or hip hop. This is because our media and music stations do everything half-Gambian and half-foreign. It is very important to sound authentic meaningful to be original.
Many people talked to me that Oko “you have to start a band or more bands and coaching them so that they can become in the right frame mind like you.” Some arrogant and ignorant people also told me that the musicians of yesterday did not teach the young people with their skills and talents so that they can leave something behind.
They say this out of ignorance because no teacher here in the schools is working for free. If you want to teach you must have a classroom because you need to document the teaching of these legendary artists.
You cannot teach without the tools and the facilities to emphasize the practice and the theories, which cannot be done on the streets. Musicians of yesterday were self-supporting and they had only one source of income – which were through playing for communities.
Those musicians tolerated all sorts of criticisms; they were not ashamed of the culture and took it with seriousness. I was a member of the Ifang Bondi when I was in my teens and when the Band went to Europe playing Western music, they were chased because Europeans were telling them go back and bring us what comes from your back yard [what is Gambian].
This is why when you talk about the Gambian music, the content of song writing and composition, you don’t have to go beyond the stories your mother told you; you don’t have to go beyond the woman going to the market telling her ups and downs with the lives on the streets.
This is how you make a song – a song writer is like a journalist – they invent articles and stories of humanity. This is what you put in the song. Stories of humanity and stories of human interest and experience or concern such as warning the community of danger, encouraging the youths of the good opportunities, is how you make a song.
But you don’t make a song using the mouth that you use to praise Allah the Almighty and use it for abuse. You cannot make songs that dictate your hands to rise to use weapons.
Bt: Among the upcoming Gambian musicians, who are those with the potentials to become the next generation of Gambian music superstars aside Jaliba who is already one?
Oko: [Laughs] This is in progression. The next superstars I think are the key people like Jalex in Afro Manding – he can become a superstar, Singateh-Freaky Joe with Afro Manding can also become a superstar, Pa Omar Jack with his Mbalax Funk, and Gibou Bala Gaye in Ambient sound.
These four people are very consistent both in recording, making videos and performing for the public. The artist Nova is also a good and unique upcoming artist. Many of the other artists are specialized in one aspect but these guys have gone full range.
When I say full range I mean they can sing, perform, and they can work with a band even though currently they don’t have one due to existing facilities. If I had the power I will give each of these guys’ five million dalasis to go and start their own studios, and a band, and I will draw a plan for them.
In terms of Jaliba Kuyateh, he is already a star and the next stage he needs is to be able to nurture other artists but he needs also the required subsidy and funding to be able to take along artists when he travels abroad so that he can expose them to his market.
Bt: Currently, who is your most favourite artist in the Gambia?
Oko: Laughs!!! This is an interesting one! My most favourite artist in the Gambia are many including Tata Ding Ding, Musa Ngum and Pabobo Joberteh but for the new and upcoming artists is Jalex, who is very close to me and I know his strides to make music; and I know also the money he spend to go up and down to studios. Wherever Jalex is in the world he is communicating with me more so than other artists.
So I favored him because he is in constant contact with me and I am aware of his work and also asking me for professional guidance and directions. On the side of female, I like Cess Ngum, daughter of Abdel Kabir.
Her father is a professional composer and he is constantly teaching her. So she is singing on the right direction with the right musical notes and so I cannot deny the professional guidance in her work. Both of these artists have professional content support which is very mature for a professional.
Bt; Mr Oko Drammeh it has been a lengthy interview but before I take leave of you, what is your final word to the general public, the artist and stakeholders in the development of Gambian music in general?
Oko: I am confident that if all the right things I have said in this interview are put in place, success is guaranteed and money will flow naturally in the hands of Gambian artists, thus becoming rich and famous just like other artists.
This is because in other countries the works of artists are bought by television stations, radio stations, theater houses, even before the song comes out. Only the text of the song and the musical notes, are circulated to all these institutions and they already pay advance for this and the artist will become a millionaire way before the song is released.
These things cannot come naturally – here we are in the final steps in our interview but all the things I have said have to be considered and get done before the Gambian musical content can be bought by the agencies for the services of their industries and institutions. This is how music money is made.
We have many people interested in music here in the Gambia but the study of the fundamental principle of music education is missing in our country. The interest in music is very high among the youths but that leads to frustration if they have no outlet and it may have negative effect and may results to objecting, opposing and rejecting because many young musicians haven’t connect as yet with the real world of fame and success and it affects their vision and they eventually turned from discipline to indiscipline, obedience to disobedience. But all these tensions can be diffused when the institutions are put in place.
Bt: That’s the end of this marathon interview and thank you for your time to share your experience with the people.
Oko: Thank you too, it has been my pleasure.
Author: Hatab Fadera