Momodou “Miki” N’Doye has been playing African percussion for more than 50 years, and for the last 30 has done most of his drumming in Oslo, somewhat to his own surprise. International journeying had not been amongst his plans when growing up, and as a young man he had his own successful band in his native Gambia. “Then I met a Norwegian musician [Helge Linaae], also a percussionist, who kept saying to me ‘Why don’t you come to Oslo? We could form a group there’, and I finally said, ‘OK let’s try it’.” After a hair-raising 11-day flight in a tiny plane, all the way from West Africa to the Far North they touched down in the Norwegian capital. That was in 1976: since then Miki N’Doye has been both an integral part of the Scandinavian scene and a force apart from it, both an influence and a contributor.
Almost from the first day he arrived in Norway, N’Doye was sought-after for jam sessions and collaborations, becoming a house-drummer at Oslo’s famed Club 7 (“at one point I was playing there every day of the week”), and a participant in dozens of ‘workshop’ projects and spontaneously assembled bands. Virtually every Norwegian improviser was keen to play with a musician with authentic connections to jazz’s African roots. This factor also fascinated Don Cherry and especially Ed Blackwell, the two Ornette Coleman alumni playing with Miki’s band Tamma in Oslo and Molde in 1984, resulting in a well-received live album.
Jon Balke was a charter member of Miki N’Doye’s first Oslo-based band E’Olen (trans: wake up!) which played a leaping, rhythmically-charged Afro-jazz, and N’Doye and the pianist have collaborated in numerous contexts over the last three decades. It was with Balke that N’Doye made his ECM debut in 1990, playing on “Nonsentration” with the “little big band” Oslo 13 under Balke’s direction, its sprawling cast of musicians including Nils Petter Molvær and Jon Christensen. Last year N’Doye was also featured on “Statements” by Batagraf, the percussive “research group” founded by Balke.
Now, at last, comes N’Doye’s first ECM disc as a leader, with Balke as co-producer and keyboardist, with accompanying musicians drawn from the Magnetic North and Batagraf groups, plus vocalists Aulay Sosseh and Lie Jallow, two other Gambian expatriates now living in Oslo.
At the centre of the disc, however, is Miki N’Doye himself, with his smoky vocals and his story-telling, his drumming – on the tamma (the small talking drum characteristic of West African music), the m’balax drum (a Wolof traditional drum played with sticks) and bongo -, and above all his kalimba playing. The kalimba, the thumb piano that is the modern variant of the thousand year old mbira, has become increasingly important in N’Doye’s recent music, and is now his primary compositional tool. Its metallic melodies and buzzing sonorities, hypnotically insistent as any western minimal music, have themselves triggered the lyrics here. “I’ll be at home practising you know”, Miki reveals, “and then, in between the melodies and rhythms, some words will come up...” He offers sample translations of a couple of spontaneous texts:
“Jahlena”, for instance, means “I'm Worried”, and is sung in Wolof on the disc. The words run: “I'm worried/We are worried/Where are we to go?/I'm worried/The kids are worried/Mom is worried/Dad is worried/Where are we to go?”
“A-li Kelebula” means “Stop The Fighting”, and is a kind of protest song, sung in Mandingo:
“Stop the fighting/King of war/War destroys/The old lady is struggling for food/Stop the fighting/King of war”. (N’Doye’s improvised vocal recitation on Batagraf’s “Statements” had also been a prayer for peace).
“Tu Ke” translates as “Travel” in Wolof, and the song seems to have an autobiographical component: “If you can travel, you can see/If you travel, you can learn more.../Travelling/The excitement of travelling/I went home and asked for Mom/They said she was travelling/Travelling/The excitement of travelling.”
Jon Balke has helped to create a subtle ambient soundscape around N’Doye that the other players can enter and exit, making telling contributions in their accompanying roles. Per Jørgensen, who has played with N’Doye since the days of the Tamma band, has some especially lyrical moments on “Loharbye” and “Rubato”. And Balke’s own keyboard colourations are lambent, translucent, and extremely original without ever overshadowing N’Doye’s central role. Particularly ingenious is the use of prepared piano on “Kalimba 6”, bringing John Cage’s percussive invention into dialogue with the kalimba and showing that they are, indeed, cousins, and that the distance between roots music and the avant-garde is all in the mind.
Despite his long European sojourn, Miki N’Doye’s music remains thoroughly African, reinforced as it is by regular visits home, but it also speaks on behalf of a vanishing musical idiom. Gambian music, he notes, was once a very influential force, particularly in relationship to the size of the country (it is Africa’s smallest nation, with a population of just over one million); many great musicians, of many styles, came from there. “In the 60s and 70s it was fantastic in Gambia,” he says, but now neighbouring Senegal has “monopolised everything.” Its pop music has taken over.
Up in Scandinavia, after leading his own bands through the 1970s and 80s – E’Olen, Tamma, Sabba – Miki N’Doye spent most of the 1990s playing in other people’s projects. He now plans to tour the “Tuki” project in the near future...