It is part of the entertainment every night in most of the hotels in one form or another, and on many of the excursions also. If you can organise it the drumming and dancing display on the evening excursion to Makasutu is really quite something. Rest assured musical memories will be a large part of what you take away from your time in The Gambia.
Whilst it may not be immediately apparent in the resort areas, Gambian societal structures are still very complex and involve intricate stratified layers with the nobility at the top and the descendants of slaves at the bottom; and whereas traditionally music-making is open to anyone with a voice and an instrument in the West, in the Gambia it falls to a select strata of society: the Griots (the word has a confused etymology but a general translation might be bard or praise singer). The role the griots fill is a vital one to the community as they are at once repositories of cultural and historical knowledge, genealogists, and frequent social commentators; and they are called upon to remember ancient songs and narratives and even invent songs around recent social events.
In The Gambia the griots you come across will probably play the kora, a 21-string instrument made of a rosewood neck and a gourd covered with cowhide that falls somewhere between a lute and a harp. It’s an unwieldy looking instrument and is very difficult to play. So the Kora players you see nonchalantly picking their way through labyrinthine string patterns are not just incredibly skilled musicians but spiritual people with a detailed internal databank of cultural history that can be called upon at a moment's notice.
Melody and song structure are such a large part of western music systems that it can come as a bit of shock to first hear the polyrhythmic clatter of the West African drum troupes. The music tends to be made up of a series of complex interlocking rhythmic patterns and polyphonic (many-voiced) melodies (not to mention numerous high-pitched whistles and whoops), and the trick is to focus on one section and it then becomes possible to unpack the intricate web of sounds and hear how each piece fits into the larger whole - and if you watch the dancers that tend to accompany these troupes that is exactly what they are doing. Suddenly what can sound arrhythmic and repetitious suddenly becomes a fascinatingly elaborate coming together of various strands of story and narrative. It can be dazzling, hypnotic; not to mention maddeningly involving – it’s a music you listen to and feel with your entire body.
For more on music in The Gambia see our Gambia blog