TRUE LOCAL-Sheriffo Kanuteh

october issue

Did you ever hear of a word griot? It is a special occupation or function, that played a very important role in the history of Mali empire until the modern times of The Gambia. Griots are performers, musicians, messengers, historians, mediators and carriers of the oral traditions. Although the importance of their role in the society today is decreasing, they are still very respected musicians which inherited their role and skills from the past generations. We had the opportunity to talk with one of them. Sheriffo Kanuteh is a very respected griot who comes from a long line of griots in the Kanuteh family. He enabled us to take a deep look into the life of a true local and took us down the history lane of griots life until today.

Jane Gomez: Mr. Kanuteh, can you please tell us, what does it mean to be a griot?

Mr. Kanuteh: It is a very important thing to be a griot and honour to me to be a griot. To the fact that both of my parents were very outstanding griots in the country. And they have done a lot in the traditional and cultural area of the country’s development.

Jane Gomez: What is the importance of being a griot? And what is actually the work of griot?

Mr. Kanuteh: Being a griot is very important in our society, going back in the ancient empire of Manden. Most people call it the Mali empire. If you know the role that griots played in that empire and how it was built, the griots were not left behind. They played very important role in the establishment of the empire. For instance, the first griot in the empire was Nyankumang Dua. And Nyankumang Dua was later renamed by Sumanguru Kanteh as Balafasege Kuyateh. So, he was the ancestor of Kuyateh family. So Balafasege was someone who was doing a lot of important things in the empire by creating a peaceful relationship between people, trying to negotiate for kings. There was a point, when Balafasege was being sent to Sumanguru Kanteh by his father, Dankaran Tuman, who was the king of Nyaani (one of the countries of Mali empire), to go and negotiate with Sumanguru Kanteh for an alliance between two kingdoms, to fight Dankaran’s half-brother Sundiata Keita. So, this alone shows, how important the griots were.

Jane Gomez: Where do griots normally perform?

Mr. Kanuteh: It all started in the time of Sundiata Keita. When Sundiata Keita’s father passed away and it was time to share the inheritance, he said: “I don’t need anything from my father’s wealth”. His father was the king of Nyaani, in the empire of Manden. They they asked him, what did he want. He said: “Well, I want my father’s griots”. They said: “Oh really? Well, a poor man cannot handle griots”. He said: “Well, I will handle them”. He was poor, even though the father was the king. So, he took the griots and supported them. Whenever they came and perform at his house, he has done something for them. There was the time, they came, he went and get some honey for them from the bush. They came again and he went and hunted and killed an animal and gave them the meat. And the griots were content with him. So, when there was a feast, instead of griots going to the king’s house, his brother Dankaran Tuman, they went to his house and then the whole community will come to his house, because of the performance by the griots. So, there was a lot of enviousness. So they would perform in the ceremonies, in feasts and festivals, up to date when there are naming ceremonies. If it is a circumcision program, they perform. If it is a wedding, they perform. So, this are the main events, where griots usually perform. But in the modern times they get hired also to perform with a band, which is not just traditional but with the fusion of western instruments.

Jane Gomez: You talked about griots performing in different ceremonies within the Gambia. They were very important during the Manden empire or the Mali empire. But now, how important are the griots within the Gambian society in general?

Mr. Kanuteh: The importance has reduced so much. Because some of us are not practising as our forefathers used to. What most of us are now busy doing is how to earn money, do records, perform to get paid. But the role to keep the tradition and to be the peacemaker in the society, the negotiator or to be the interpreters in ceremonies has gone very low. So, the actual role of the griot is being diminished. Because most of the griots think that being a griot is all about the performance. And keeping the oral tradition is also fading away. Most of our elders, who all have the history of oral traditions, are going and they are not leaving any records behind. My father has tried and had a put in writing the Sundiata epic, with Penguin Classics in the UK and they published a book Sundiata, alongside his father in law, Bamba Suso. The book is based in Timbuktu, but it’s been sold worldwide too. Some griots are trying to do books on the oral tradition, but then, a lot is missing too. Because most griots went with a lot of knowledge without passing down to the younger generation.

Jane Gomez: How many young people do you think is learning and taking over the role of griots from elders? And why do you think many are not?

Mr. Kanuteh: There is quite a few who are really doing tremendously well. This are young ones in the Gambia from the various griot families. But then, not everyone is practising. In my family, myself and Jali Madi are doing our best to make sure, we keep the tradition. And then I am also encouraging the younger ones, my son and my daughters to practise. The balafon has been passed from generation to generation. Presently I am the only one playing it in the whole clan. My father has brothers and sisters, but none of their offspring has played the balafon. It is only in my house that it is maintained. So, it is my duty to make sure that I pass this balafon on to another person. It doesn’t have to die. And I am doing my best to also have a school, where I will be teaching a lot of young griots because this tradition has to continue. In some families, because of the western education, young griots become bankers, managers, even lawyers and ministers but then they don’t have the time to practise the skills of the griot.

Jane Gomez: How do you become a griot? Are you are born in griot family or do you intentionally want to become a griot at some point and you learn the skill?

Mr. Kanuteh: I am born a griot. My mother is called Mamanding Kuyateh. That’s a typical griot surname. And my late father, the legend, Alhaji Banna Kanuteh is a popular figure in this country. So, I was born a griot, I didn’t choose to be a griot. Actually, I would say I chose to become a griot, because I could have not been born in the griot family or chose not to become a griot. So, I was born griot and chose to become a griot.

Jane Gomez: Does is happens, that someone born in the griot family doesn’t want to follow the tradition? Do you have the privilege of not following the footsteps of your family if you are born a griot?

Mr. Kanuteh: Yes, in recent times so many people are born in griot families and they are not practicing as griots, they do not want to be griots. It’s the modern times. Because the griot is not in the high position of the traditional African society. You have the royals, the nobles, and then you have, commonalty, where you have the griots, the leatherworkers, dust maids, etc. Some people choose not to show themselves as coming from the inferior clan. But they don’t know how important this clan was back in the empire. They think that griots are just entertainers and beggars. But they are not beggars or entertainers. They played very important role in the empire and still some griots are playing very important role in our society. Keeping records of our traditions and our cultures and history through oral tradition. Some people don’t know their roots today because there is no griot to tell them about their roots. And the griots were the one capable of doing that. Keeping the records of people’s history and their background from generation to generation.

Jane Gomez: So, it is not a crime not to follow your tradition as being a griot?

Mr. Kanuteh: It is not a crime, but then, we all have our role to play. When the empire of Manden was established, they had a big conference, which is known as Kouroukan Fouga. That is where they gave every clan in the kingdom their position. So, griots, smiths, leatherworkers; they were all given their own position of who will be the custodian of our tradition and culture. Who will be peacemaker in society. When two families have issues, a griot would be the one to run from one house to the other, to make sure it’s been solved amicably. So, the king Sundiata Keita gave that position to the griots and the people of Manden respected their position, so it is not an inferior position at all.

Some people don’t know their roots today because there is no griot to tell them about their roots. And the griots were the one capable of doing that.

Jane Gomez: Is there any difference between male and female griot?

Mr. Kanuteh: There is no difference, it only depends on the part each of them plays. Male griots do more of the performance; they are more into playing the instruments, the traditional instruments as well as singing. And they are keepers of the oral tradition, history. And as I was just mentioning to be the peacemakers between people in society, and to be messengers for the kings or for the court of the king. So those jobs were mostly done by male griots. The female griots are more into the singing. They were not playing instruments as much as men, because it was not seen as much as a female domain. The only instrument the female griots used to play in Manden was called the Karinyang. It’s a metal tube, which is stroked by a sharp iron piece. That’s the only instrument female griots played by then. But recently, women are learning to play instruments, traditional instruments. There is an outstanding female musician, called Sona Jobarteh. She plays the kora so well. She is the best female kora player you can come across. So, tradition is changing.


is an instrument, dated back to the ancient empire of Manden. During the time of Sumanguru Kanteh, the balafon wasn’t used as a musical instrument. It was used as a tool for sorcery by the great Sumanguru Kanteh. It was given to him by the genies or the spirits in the forest in exchange for his sister. So Sumanguru Kanteh was using the balafon as means of magic to see the future in sorcery. It was not until the arrival of Balafasege Kuyateh, who became the first person who played the balafon musically, as an instrument. The balafon presently has nothing to do with spiritual or mystical works. It is used musically by griots from The Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast and other countries such as Sierra Leone and Cameroon, etc.

Balafon consists of wooden keys. They are carved and tuned in various tones and pitches. When the carver is carving them, he makes sure he does the tuning along. All the notes are different. Usually there is 17 to 21 keys, at least two octaves. The rope is used to tie the keys. Together is tied to bamboo sticks, carved and made in a form and scale for woods to rest on. The calabashes are used for sound resonance, to give sound to the keys up. The rope they use for tying is the modern rope they use for fishing nets. But previously they were using antelope skins, cut in the pieces; in the tiny lines to tie the balafon. The sticks, used for playing the balafon are made out of wood and rubber, from the rubber tree. Rubber is processed and used to tie round and round the wooden stick until mallet is created.

Jane Gomez: You father was playing balafon and kora.

Mr. Kanuteh: Yes he also played the halam, the Wolof halam. And he would sing in Wolof and play in Wolof. He plays the balafon to, and sing in Fula. He was a complete showman.

Jane Gomez: So how did u come to learn the instruments? Did u learn it from him?

Mr. Kanuteh: I would say he was the key supporter and he encouraged me to play the instrument. But I can tell you that he has not even once given me a physical lesson. I learned by myself. When we were small, this house used to be full of people; his friends and some other family members. Some of them who were so concerned about his legacy, have been questioning him. They were telling him: “Mr. Kanuteh, you are old now, and none of the kids are performing. None of them are practising. They are all small”. Because we were all small. Only my sisters were bigger but none of them were singing by then. So, he was like: “Well, Sheriffo will play the instrument”.  I don’t know how confident he was about it, but he was confident that I would play the balafon. I inherited it from him, and he inherited it from his father Jalimadi Kanuteh, who inherited it from his father, Lengem Kanuteh. I built an interest of playing that instrument after he passed away. That’s when the spirit came to me; the music spirit. I started feeling I had to do something. Because of the fact that my mom has established a group, a musical ensemble and she was struggling to get somebody to play a balafon for her. So, I had to step in, to start practising. I used to be too shy to be seen playing the balafon, like I said, we are modern griots. So, I said: “No, come on, I don’t want my friends to see me with this instrument” or “I don’t want the girls to see me playing this instrument”. I used to struggle a lot with that, because of that low self-esteem. But then my brother, Wuyeh Kanuteh has been somebody who has supported me and encouraged me a lot. There was a time when I had to go and perform with my mom at ceremonies. He would be lending me his cap to put it on, so that people would not recognize me. And If we were walking on the street, I would not carry the balafon, he would carry it for me. But as the time goes on, I built a confidence, because I started to realize, this is who I am, so why I am being not too comfortable with what I am doing. So, this is how I built the confidence and the interest, started playing my father’s old tapes, listening to them and rehearsing on my own and developing my skill until today.  And for the kora too, I build the interest, I started to play it on my own. I don’t have a specific master, but there was a neighbour around here, who is late now, Mr. Susso, I have been going to see him from time to time, to give me certain guidance on some of the songs I don’t know. He’s been also helpful.

Jane Gomez: How did you leave your teenage life and how does that affect the kind of man you are today?

Mr. Kanuteh: At the age of seven, my father had a ballet dance group, traditional African dance group, in the house here. And he had another group that was a traditional ensemble. I was part of the ballet group as a dancer. At the age of seven I was dancing. I was being able to understand the signals of the drum and the changes. At that age and I was going to the hotels, entertaining tourists, and he was paying me, but at that age, I was giving the money to my mom anyway. So that had helped me a lot as a child. I became so interested in performing arts, I was so excited doing it. And it didn’t affect my school. So, when I grew up and became a teenager, my mother had a group too and I had to step in to learn the balafon. And musically I learned a lot from her, especially when it comes to singing.  She is the best female griot singer in The Gambia. I helped her to record her first album in the year 2000, called Langnayaa, which featured Jaliba Kruyateh on all of the songs. I also performed in that album. That helped me musically to developed myself to become a musician I am today. So, from childhood to adulthood I was involved in music and performing arts. That definitely helped me.

I was born a griot and chose to become a griot.

Jane Gomez: Aside playing the balafon and kora and trying to help your children and the society to understand the importance of griots, what else do you do? What is your profession, what kind of work you do now?

Mr. Kanuteh: I am a professional graphic designer. I have my small company, called Wakilo Innovations. I do graphic designing and printing with most of the very big institutions in The Gambia. And also, I am an actor. I have been featured in so many films. Even yesterday I was on the set taking part in one of the series we are working on. So, I am an actor too. So those are the two key areas I am also busy in.

Jane Gomez: What two virtues or qualities do you identify with and how do you apply those qualities in your life?

Mr. Kanuteh: Just two qualities… I would say the first quality is creativity. I am blessed to be a creative person. That’s why I have been able to do all these professions I have been telling you about. Being a graphic designer, being a musician and an actor. Because even when I was going to high school, I was doing painting, fine arts. So, when I finished high school is when I joined DBC, with Mr. Ousainou Dambell, who was supporting me to start practising to become a digital graphic designer. So, creativity has been one of my qualities.  The second quality I have, I think, is patience. I think it is because of patience that I have reached to this level. Because I have spent over 15 years with DBC, since I joined them. That means I have exercised patience to reach that level. At some point I had to leave, to be on my own. But there was nothing bitter, I left on mutual understanding, and my boss, Mr. Dambell was too happy for me and he supported me, to start up something by myself. Because I told him I was going to focus on my music and personal life.


consists of 21 strings today, but before it was converted into 21 string it was 3 strings and it was called Sinbingwo. The inventor of the kora is called Koriyang Musa Suso. He came from Mali with the Sinbingwo. He was being told by Marabouts that there is a shrine, somewhere in the west side of Africa, where one would find his destiny. So, Koriyang Musa moved from Mali and went to Kaabu, in Guinea Bissau and found Berekolong. At Berekolong he realised Berekolong was not the shrine that he was looking for, that is why he moved further down to The Gambia until he reached the place, they call Sanneh Mentereng in Brufut.At Sanneh Mentereng Koriyang Musa was revealed in a dream by the genies that he should convert his simbimo in to the structure of the kora we know today; with two handles, a pole and a bridge. So, the number of the strings was multiplied by seven and it became 21. Koriyang Musa started constructing the kora in Sanneh Mentereng and later, he went to Busumbala to find a leatherworker. Leather used for kora is usually a skin of a cow, that has been processed and covered over a calabash. The big round part is a calabash or some people call it a gourd. The calabash has a hole which is what brings out the sound of the kora and it acts as a sound resonance. Kora consists of the wooden pole and wooden handle and then skin cover over a calabash. The strings used to be made out of the antelope skin. But now fishing lines are used. On the pole, there are leather rings which are used to be adjusted up and down to tune the instrument the way one wants it.

Jane Gomez: Who are the people that actually inspired you in your life?

Mr. Kanuteh: My mom and dad helped me so much instrumentally in my success today. They have been hardworking people and they helped me so much to develop my career. Especially my mom, because my dad passed away when I was not too involved in the music yet. I was doing performing, such as dancing, when he was alive but when he passed away is when I started concentrating in music more. My mom has been teaching me how to sing, where to start from, how to go high pitch or low pitch and so she taught me all that. Some people have been asking me: “Oh, here did you do your vocal training?” I said: “Well, I just learned it naturally”. So both of them were so important and instrumental in my life and my brother too; Wuyeh Kanuteh, like I mentioned. If it wasn’t for him, I would have given up, because I didn’t want the people to see me as a high school graduate trying to play the balafon. But he has been encouraging me and he gave me the confidence. And when it comes to my business, Mr. DAMBELL is my mentor. He has helped me a lot and he taught me a lot. So those people were the most helpful.

Jane Gomez: How do you think you inspire others?

Mr. Kanuteh: Most of the people who interacted with me, realized that there is something special about me. I don’t see anything special about me, but they think I have something special and they learn a lot from me and they want to work with me. Some will ask me questions about writing songs, some will ask me to do some writings for them. I am grateful that there is a lot of musicians that has quite a lot of respect for me. Even some of the top artist. My brother, Jali Madi, always sees me as a mentor and he always seeks for my advice. And there are also some other musicians who do as well.

Jane Gomez: What are your shortcomings?

Mr. Kanuteh: There has been a lot of shortcomings anyway. But this is life. At some point in your life you will have some hurdles that you come across. I have been working with a lot of musicians to have their album released but I haven’t got mine released still. I have managed to do a few recordings, but still haven’t released any of my songs on the album. I have my own songs that are released, but they are all single songs and there is a couple of them. And I have been doing a couple of soundtracks for some dramas and movies too. Also, those are not in the album. So, not being able to have the album released has been a shortcoming I have to encounter. And then I have been involved with a lot of bands, but then the expectations never come as I always wished. So there has been many shortcomings in my career but I am still moving on.

 Jane Gomez: Is there any moment in your life that you wanted to give up on your dream being a musician or graphic designer or a performer?

Mr. Kanuteh: Well, never have I given up, no matter how hard the going was. I was always confident and optimistic that the things will work out for me. So, I keep pushing. If I had given up, I would have been in Europe by now, being a hustler out there, doing some other things, different from my career or my talent that I have. So, I have never given up.  There are moments when I think certain things are not working out for me. All I do is to take a break. Like music, I have taken a break in recording my album, but I haven’t given up. Or stop it. And for my career as a graphic designer, yes there has been hurdles too, but I always keep pushing, till up to date.

Jane Gomez: What is one thing you regret not doing yet?

Mr. Kanuteh: I would say the establishment of foundation for my late father. My father has done a lot for this country. Traditionally and politically. He has represented this country in festivals, abroad and in the country. He set up one of the best national ensemble; national troop in The Gambia. He established it. It includes all tribes and they all perform. They play all songs from all tribes. That was during the Jawara era. He was also in Senegal. He also helped in establishing the Sorano (the national theatre of Senegal) in Senegal. When he came back to settle back in The Gambia, he did a replica or the Sorano by establishing this national troop. But it is sad that his efforts are not being recognized as they are supposed to be. They are not recognized by the state. Younger people don’t even know him. But they know his son Jali Madi. So, I really have this dream of establishing a foundation for him, where I will be teaching instruments, singing, dancing and pass on oral tradition on his behalf. I am still working on it. I have registered aid but it is not yet established. There is a lot that has to be done to get it working.

The best advice my parents gave me is to become an honest person. Especially for a griot. You have to be content and honest.

Jane Gomez: What do you consider your legacy at this point?

Mr. Kanuteh: At this point, my musical career and work as a graphic designer is something I would want to pass down to my younger generation. And my acting career as well, because a lot of people is looking up to me as an actor as well. And so many people are inspired by the way I act. So, I want to pass this down to a younger generation to be my legacy. I don’t want any of these left behind when I am not here.

Jane Gomez: Do you think your children are going to follow a griot tradition?

Mr. Kanuteh: I hope so. I can see the interest in them. I am not willing to force anybody, but I can see the interest in few of them. Pa Banna, my father’s namesake, is somebody who has a lot of interest in the music. He is always excited when it comes to music. When it comes to academic school, not so much. But when it comes to music, he is always focused and ready and willing. So, I have hope that they would practice music too. And I am also giving them the encouragement.

Jane Gomez: What was the best advice your father and mother ever gave you?

Mr. Kanuteh: The best advice they gave me is to become an honest person. Especially for a griot. You have to be content and honest. Otherwise you will be seen foolish in society. Because you will want to be siding with everybody all the time, first on one side and then the other and you will be seen as a hypocrite. So, my advice from my parents was to be an honest and content person.

By Jane Gomez


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