by Oko Drammeh

Gambian born Kora Genius, the late Yankuba Saho was a key member of the dynamic National Ensemble of The Gambia in the late 90s and a short-spell member of the Ifangbondi band. He was also the bandleader of Manding Kelefa Band. He played alongside guitarist Ousman Beyai and percussionist Karamo Sabally in Holland and in Germany and they have released an album recorded in Europe by the three some music group. He is a man that lived well but didn’t live too long.

In his time with Ifangbondi he was instrumental in rearranging the songs of Ifangbondi such as Sutukung, Duma Julo and he single handedly composed and arranged the famous KOTO WALI SONG. He formed the Manding Kelefa band and worked closely with guitar maestro Bye Janha in many of his contemporary music productions with Gambian local bands such as the Gelewarr band. Yankuba had been the composer of Ifangbondi’s famous song line “Fasita Nyatoo” and in Duma Julo he composed the song line “Yeah Gambia-Mol yea”.

Yankuba had traveled with Ifangbondi and lived with the band for months in Dakar and in Zigunchur in Senegal and Amsterdam, Holland in 1984 where played the famous Paradiso. He was the teacher of guitarist Badou Jobe and thought him how to play the Kora and how to tune the kora instrument. Also the keyboardist Senemie Taylor was thought by Yankuba Saho how to play Kora rhythm on the keyboard for Senemie Taylor to be able to produce Kora Keyboard Solos and intros in songs like Sutukung, Mantra, Duma Julo, Tenth Anniversary, and in Nyepeto, Yankuba injected the Chorus lines of “Aah-Aduna, Aduna Aduna Nyepeto Bunda Yela”.

His home was and is still KORALAND where young boys from the area come and study how to play and build the Kora and his children are all master of the Kora instrument. He also hosted children of Kora players from all over Senegal, Guinea and The Gambia. His wife, Bintou Suso was a mother to the children of all Kora players’ children. At the height of his career, Yankuba was very popular in the Senegambia region, a shy and handsome man, very pleasing and make people comfortable around him. He was unable to fit in one band that was the main reason he started his own band called the MANDING KELEFA BAND.

Yankuba played the Kora like the guitar legend Eric Caplton, his bluesy feel to the sound is such a mesmerizing phenomena. The “Brimintings” which are his solos are devastating. He takes your mind to new boundaries by incorporating the duo experience of band music and authentic Kora julo rhythms blended with the Jazz and Pop artists he met during his long journey across the world. Yankuba had traveled far and wide across the globe. In America, he was called Kora king, long before anyone else. As the leading Kora player with the folded Gambia National Ensemble many record producers and music companies eyed him. He recorded a CD in America called Kora Music from the Gambia, which is available on Amazon and EBay and on many Internet sites.

Giving honour and tribute to the great fallen heros, Yankuba celebrated the music of the earlier and much older griots in his repertoire with the likes of Jali Burama Joberteh (father of Alhagie Malamin Joberteh), Alhagi Bai Conteh (father of Dembo Conteh), Amadou Bansang Joberteh (father of Sankung Joberteh), and the great Sunjulu Cissoko (father of Bouly Cissoko) and Sidiki Joberteh (father of Toumani Joberteh).

Jali Yankuba Saho was the first artist who has put the “Miniamba”-story on music on his kora. He has been playing kora for 40 years, and from the sound his music you can bet it would live forever. The kora is a bright, sprightly sounding instrument, and in the hands of someone as nimble as Saho, it can create a folksy sound as exuberant as the best Afro-pop. Accompanied by his wife on percussion and backing vocals, Saho sings buoyant songs of praise for friends, warriors, and local leaders in a warm tenor that radiates emotion. The album’s best song, “Faal Suso,” is a moving tribute to Saho’s late uncle, who was renowned as a great teacher. If he can hear Kora Music from Gambia in heaven, you can bet he’s smiling down on a musician who must have been his finest student.

It’s not that I mind technological advances so much, but sometimes it’s such a pleasure to hear a master of this West African instrument in unadulterated form. The 50-something Yankuba Saho is a true griot, a student and master of the Mandinka tradition of songs and music of praise. His music is simple and beautiful.

The kora stands up front, with Yankuba and his wife Bintu Suso on voice. She also adds sparse percussion by tapping the side of the kora as he plays. Recording simply and cleanly by Daniel Janke (himself an accomplished player of the instrument), his recordings are a way back to the roots of the music.

Yakuba Saho and his wife are traditional Mandinka musicians, often called griots, although the preferred term among the Mandinka is ‘Jáli’. For centuries, Jális have been an integral part of social events, such as weddings and naming ceremonies. Jális like Yakuba typically compose praise songs for their patrons, relating stories, reciting proverbs and giving advice through song.

While Yakuba Saho tunes his kora his wife Bintu enjoys the sounds coming from the tuning of the kora. In performance, they sing together, sometimes taking turns in a call and response format. While Yakuba plays, Bintu taps out a rhythmic pattern on the back of the kora’s resonant calabash. This is called ‘konkondiro’ and his heard on many older Gambian kora recordings. Female vocalists are called ‘Jali-musoo’; ‘Musso’ is Mandinka for female.

After the Islamic holy month of fasting and prayer, “Ramadan,” comes a big day of celebration. On that day, Yankabu wakes the family early and tells his son to put his kora and a small amplifier in the car. Dressed in nice clothes, he and his wife drove around town, visiting and entertaining all their patrons. All of his patrons told Yankuba that they like kora “too much.” A common West African phrase, if you ever visit the Gambia, I am sure you will hear!

Jali Lamin Saho is the oldest son of the famous Yankuba Saho. There are a lot of kora players in The Gambia, but Lamin is very talented and he has the intelligence. Jali Buba Saho is also son of the late Jali Yankuba Saho, a renowned Kora musician that cannot be looked down upon when it comes to kora music. With keen interest to follow the foot trails of his late father, Jali Babou Saho in recent years has carve a niche for himself, thus attracting more fans based in the country. Mesmerizing Phenomena!

Gone but not forgotten.

May his humble soul rest in perfect peace.