[Invited Submission - Special Issue]

Performing Baadinyaa: Music, Emotion, and Health in The Gambia

By Bonnie B. McConnell


This medical ethnomusicological study examines musical performance in The Gambia as a socio-emotional intervention to promote health and wellbeing. Based on interviews and observations conducted during seventeen months of ethnographic research (2009; 2012-2013), this research is also informed by my long-term involvement with a Gambian HIV/AIDS support group (2006-present). I use the local concept of baadinyaa (Mandinka, “positive relationship”) in order to interrogate connections between musical performance, emotion, and health as they are articulated by performers and health workers in The Gambia. The concept of baadinyaa provides insight into musical performance as a “flexibility primer” (Hinton, 2008) that facilitates emotional transformation and healing. Not uniform across social categories, emotional responses to music are shaped by social identity and power relations as well as individual experience and preference. This study finds that in the face of conflict and stigma, Gambian artists use musical performance, and its association with baadinyaa, as a resource to address negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and thereby promote health and healing.

Keywords: Gambia; Mande

Baadinyaa, it keeps health among people. That in itself is enough. That is why...it has a benefit...it is our work.[1] (Female performer from Farafenni, personal communication, May 2013) [2]

In July 2013, I attended a performance by a group of female musicians and dancers in the village of Dobong Kunda in The Gambia’s Central River Region.[3] Though I was living in the Western Region at the time, I had been invited to meet performance groups affiliated with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in other parts of the country. Dobong Kunda is a picturesque village set amidst the gently rolling hills southeast of the town of Bansang. Community Health Nurse Baba Samateh and I arrived at the home of the women’s group leader, Metta Sama, in the morning and waited at the bantaba (village meeting place) under the shade of a mango tree while eight performers assembled. After introducing ourselves, we discussed the group’s involvement in health promotion work, and their affiliation with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare.

Like many of the performers and health workers with whom I worked, the Dobong Kunda group members used the Mandinka[4] concept of baadinyaa in order to describe the relationship between musical performance and health. A concept with no direct English translation, baadinyaa is closely linked to kanoo (love) and refers to a positive or caring relationship. When I asked the group about the ways in which musical performance contributes to health, performer Jontang Janneh responded immediately by saying, “First, first, first, people can love each other.” The leader of the group, Metta Sama, elaborated:

If drumming is happening, you can love each other...agreement can enter between you, your neighborliness can be good, your baadinyaa can be good, your hearts/minds [sondomoolu] can love each other... But if you are sitting alone you will worry. It gives birth to many sicknesses. The soul [niyo] does not want to be constricted. If it is just constricted, it brings a problem.[5] (Metta Sama, personal communication, July 1, 2013)

The members of the Dobong Kunda group explained that musical performance, health and socio-emotional life are interwoven and mutually reinforcing. Loneliness and anxiety, according to Metta Sama, constrict or tighten the soul (niyo), which makes a person susceptible to illnesses of various kinds. Musical performance (in this case drum and dance events) can inspire feelings of love and social connection that promote health and healing.

In this article I use the Mandinka concept of baadinyaa as a lens through which to interrogate connections between musical performance, emotion, and health as they are articulated by performers and health workers in The Gambia. The concept of baadinyaa provides insight into musical performance as a “flexibility primer” (Hinton, 2008) that facilitates emotional transformation and healing. Baadinyaa also provides a framework for thinking about music and health as socially and culturally situated processes that are both performative and relational. In this work, I build on a growing body of medical ethnomusicological research in African contexts (e.g. Barz, 2006; Barz & Cohen, 2011) that provides important insight into musical responses to health problems that emerge from particular cultural frameworks even as they engage with global political and economic realities.

This study is informed by seventeen months of ethnographic research in The Gambia (2009; 2012-2013) as well as my long-term involvement with the Allatentu Support Group for people living with HIV/AIDS based in Brikama in western Gambia (2006-present). In addition to interviews and observations with performers and health workers, I draw on my experience performing with several musical groups in The Gambia. In 2006 and 2009 I performed as keyboardist and back-up vocalist with the Allatentu Support Band. In 2012-2013 I performed with two Mandinka women’s groups based in Lamin and Talinding in Western Gambia.

This article focuses on Mandinka performances, which I define as performances that use Mandinka-language songs, as well as rhythms, melodies, and dances that participants identify as Mandinka.[6] I use an analysis of a women’s group performance and song text to articulate key features of the relationship between baadinyaa, social relations, and health. I then examine the role of the jali (hereditary musical specialist) in helping people to transform negative emotions such as anger and jealousy, focusing on a song performed by Tatadindin Jobarteh and the Salam Band. Finally, I examine the way the musical interventions of Fatou Ceesay and the Allatentu Support Band have helped people overcome fear and anxiety associated with disease-related stigma.

Building on Brynjulf Stige’s notion of “health musicking,” in this article I use the term “health performance” to describe Gambian performance events in which the health effects “are not given but created...by the involved participants of a situation” (Stige, 2012, p. 184). Going beyond the notion that African music is “inherently therapeutic” (Aigen, 2014. p. 126), the concept of health performance underscores the active role that individual actors play in negotiating relationships, making music meaningful, and promoting baadinyaa. Additionally, I use the concept of health performance in order to reference performativity – the way an utterance (in this case, music) creates reality rather than simply reflecting it (Wong, 2004; Austin, 1975; DeNora, 2011). As music therapist Gary Ansdell writes, “music does not just express emotion and meaning – it enacts and constructs them” (2004, p. 28). Furthermore, the concept of health performance is useful because the expressive forms I examine are not necessarily restricted to music. As is the case in many contexts worldwide, there is no local term equivalent to the English “music” and sound represents one component in a “constellation of the arts” (Stone, 2008).

Emotion, Performance, and Social Identity

The way people respond emotionally to musical performance is significant for understanding the relationship between music, health, and healing in particular contexts (West & Ironson, 2008). Music therapy scholarship has underscored the way music enables patients to negotiate and express emotions in the context of a therapeutic relationship with a music therapist (e.g. Bunt & Pavlicevic, 2001; Pellitteri, 2009) and in everyday life (e.g. Ansdell, 2014; DeNora, 2000). Ethnomusicological research has shown that experiences of music, emotion and healing emerge through culturally specific features of performance and modes of interaction, even though similarities exist across disparate cultural contexts (e.g. Becker, 2004; Koen, 2008a; Roseman, 1991; Rouget, 1985). Coming from a medical ethnomusicological perspective, in this article I focus in particular on the ways in which Gambian artists use musical performance in order to facilitate emotional flexibility, conceptualized as a form of healing.

Defined as “the ability to adaptively shift from one emotional state to another, depending on changing contexts,” emotional flexibility is important for psychological wellbeing (Hinton, 2008, p. 127). Along with other creative cultural practices, musical performance can serve as a “flexibility primer” that “predisposes” a person to emotional flexibility (Hinton, 2008, p. 127). Medical anthropologist and psychiatrist Devon Hinton maintains that the presence of multiple simultaneous or sequential patterns in musical performance can produce “attentional shifts” that inspire corresponding psychological transformation. As the mind shifts the focus of attention to different melodic, rhythmic, timbral, textual, or other patterns within a performance, emotional changes also occur. Emotional flexibility represents one aspect of the broader category of psychological flexibility. Medical ethnomusicologist Benjamin Koen (2005, 2006, 2008a, 2008b, 2013) has applied the theory of psychological flexibility in his work on music, prayer and healing in eastern Tajikistan. Koen shows how various features associated with the musical genres of falak and maddâh/maddoh prime psychological flexibility, and thereby facilitate healing.

I argue that musically facilitated emotional flexibility depends upon an individual’s “habitus of listening,” or the tendency to respond and interpret the meaning of musical performance in certain ways (Becker, 2004; 2001). Judith Becker explains that the way we listen and respond emotionally to music is “not natural, but necessarily influenced by place, time, the shared context of culture, and the intricate and irreproducible details of one’s personal biography” (2004, p. 71). An individual’s habitus of listening and emotional expression is also shaped by social position, power relations, and expectations based on factors such as gender, age, and ethnicity (Burkitt, 1997).

As is common in the Mande area[7] of West Africa, Mandinka society is characterized by a tripartite system of hereditary social groups often referred to as “castes”. These groups include foro or sulaa (“freeborn”), nyamaaloo (“artisan”), and jongo (“slave”), though the slave category has been abolished in many areas. The nyamaaloo group is further broken down into the categories of jali (bard), numu (blacksmith), karanke (leatherworker), and fino (religious praise specialists).[8] These historically endogamous groups pass down specialized knowledge from generation to generation and depend upon patronage from “freeborn” people, as well as other groups with specialized skills (see Charry, 2000). Jali are often referred to as “griots”[9] in English, which is a general term to describe West African hereditary specialists with expertise in praise singing, genealogy, conflict mediation, instrumental performance, and other skills that vary by region, ethnic group, and family.

Individuals born into different hereditary social groups face distinct expectations about appropriate forms of conduct, emotional expression, and participation in performance. Jali and other griots[10] are expected to be boisterous, loud, and emotionally expressive, while foro or sulaa (“freeborn”) individuals are expected to be more reserved (Arnoldi, 1995; Grosz-Ngate, 1989; Hale, 1998; Irvine, 1990; Janson, 2002). In her work on Wolof griots and emotion, Judith Irvine suggests that normally reticent and “heavy” nobles require inspiration from griots in order to gain the “passion and energy” that are necessary for “creative action” (1990, p. 134). Irvine’s study is consistent with my work among jali performers in The Gambia, who describe emotional transformation as an important aspect of their work.

While the position of jali in Gambian society is to some extent unique, the emotional impact of music is not limited to jali performance. The Gambia is also home to a diverse variety of musical performance styles that feature performers who do not come from jali backgrounds. In addition to jali performers, this article addresses the contribution of non-jali performer Fatou Ceesay who performs in a popular music style not defined by hereditary restrictions.

Baadinyaa, Emotion, and Social Life

In September 2013 I attended a women’s group performance in the village of Kembujeh where I had lived in 2006-2007 while working as a community health worker with the US Peace Corps. Full of mango and cashew orchards, Kembujeh is on the main highway just two kilometers northeast of the large town of Brikama. On this visit, a group led by village health worker and jali Nyima Cham performed in a family compound next to a garden full of maize and eggplant. Accompanied by women’s percussion instruments including the bidong (20-liter plastic jerry can) and the jiikijo (calabash water drum), the group sang a song featuring the following words:

Eh, love, baadinyaa came because of love
Baadinyaa came because of love oh, being neighbors also is love[11]

In the style typical of Mandinka percussion and dance events, the lines were repeated in call-and-response fashion. The lead singer varied her part, while the response remained fairly close to the original text and melody. The percussionists played the popular Mandinka dance rhythm known as lenjengo and women entered the circle one by one to dance.

This song was one of the most popular at events that I attended in 2012-2013. It was only one of many songs, however, whose texts dealt with the topic of baadinyaa. Literally referring to the relationship between children of the same mother in a polygynous context, baadinyaa is used as a more general term for kinship or positive/ loving relationship.[12] When I asked about the ubiquitous presence of lyrical references to baadinyaa in Mandinka songs, people articulated complex ideas about sociality, performance, and health in The Gambia. The most in-depth explanation of the meaning of the song described above was offered by Fatou Ceesay,[13] a female performer from Wassu in the Central River Region. She explained:

Being neighbors is also baadinyaa. That is why they sing it in the song...Even if you and a person are not biologically related...If you love me, I love you, it is as though you love my whole family. Not so? Me also, I love your whole family. Love, baadinyaa, they are all the same. If you and a person just love [each other], you become kin.[14] (Personal communication, April 14, 2013)

Fatou Ceesay’s explanation of the song text articulates the concept of baadinyaa as meaning more than biological kinship or birth. Ceesay also underscores the emotional basis of baadinyaa by equating it with love (kanoo). Though kanoo can be used to refer to romantic love, Ceesay’s usage reflects a broader concept of love as caring relationship.

Also important in Ceesay’s discussion is the idea that baadinyaa can be extended in social networks. Rather than representing a singular connection between two people, baadinyaa involves an extended family relationship. That is, love for one person ideally entails love for that individual’s family, broadly defined. This is key for understanding the importance of baadinyaa in social life in The Gambia and as embodied in health performance. Rather than an abstract philosophy, baadinyaa is lived through day-to-day interactions and expanded through social networks. For example, meeting a stranger and discovering that they are related to your friend can create an immediate connection and sense of mutual obligation. Bonds of baadinyaa that extend beyond biological relations and beyond two individuals can also provide a social safety net that supports individuals and families through difficulty.

Not specific to The Gambia, nor to health performance contexts, the concept of baadinyaa plays an important role in social relationships in the Mande area of West Africa. In their work on the Mande concept of the hero, Charles Bird and Martha Kendall (1980) emphasize the tension that exists between the concepts of badenya/baadinyaa and fadenya/faadinyaa[15] (“father-childness”). Literally referring to the relationship between children with the same father but different mothers in a polygynous context, faadinyaa/fadenya signifies more broadly a relationship characterized by conflict and competition. According to Bird and Kendall, although the competitive motivation of fadenya produces heroes, they ultimately return to support the community that they came from: “The Mande system of fadenya-badenya is structured so as to assure the prevalence of badenya” (1980, p. 23).[16] Based on my work in The Gambia, I argue that the prevalence of baadinyaa is not assured as Bird and Kendall suggest. Rather, performers actively cultivate baadinyaa in the face of the conflict and competition that are also a part of social life.

While this article focuses on baadinyaa, the concept of faadinyaa provides an important reminder of the prevalence of conflict, and associated emotions such as anger and jealousy, in musical performance contexts. As music therapist Gary Ansdell notes, musical community is a social process that involves “recognising, living, and working through periods of discrepancy, disunity and dissonance (each of these being locally and culturally defined)” (2014, p. 194). In health performance participants must negotiate the tension between individual voices, difference, and collective action in community.

Rather than solely an experience of social harmony, performers often find that their musical abilities attract jealousy and malignant attention. For example, one popular jali explained that she regularly lost opportunities to perform when rivals refused to give out her number, or told people (incorrectly) that she was sick in hopes of gaining performance opportunities for themselves. At the same time, musicians frequently attributed their illnesses and injuries to jealous rivals employing sorcery to undermine their performing careers. For example, a male jali dealing with a chronic hand problem that prevented him from playing explained to me that it had been caused by envious people wishing him harm. Competition is also evident in performance contexts themselves where performers of various kinds vie for attention and monetary donations. One jali explained that people needed to know when to sit down and let others receive recognition: “Since the morning...you are performing. If somebody comes with their band...You should sit down.”[17]

The existence of competition and conflict alongside solidarity and harmony characterizes many performance contexts in The Gambia (and elsewhere). Conflict and competition, however, were seldom addressed directly in the songs I heard in Gambian performance contexts, with the exception of historical references. As noted above, participants in performances consistently emphasized baadinyaa as a topic in songs, and as a goal of performance contexts more generally. More than a natural consequence of musical performance, baadinyaa represents a resource that performers draw on to manage conflict and promote social and emotional health.

Baadinyaa and Health

As noted above, ideas about baadinyaa are also deeply imbricated with health and healing. The Gambia is a medically pluralistic society in which people utilize a variety of therapeutic options, including biomedicine, indigenous herbal medicines, and spiritual treatments. In this predominately Muslim country, local therapeutic practices in The Gambia frequently incorporate Islamic beliefs, and many of the most sought-after practitioners are marabouts (moroolu, Mandinka), who are Islamic scholars and teachers.

People make health care choices based on the options available to them as well as ideas about the causes of different illnesses and the effectiveness of different treatment options. For example, a jali friend whose performing career was interrupted by an injury that did not respond to biomedical treatment attributed his problem to witchcraft and sought help from a number of marabouts. In contrast, for illnesses such as malaria, which is widely recognized as being caused by a parasite spread by mosquitos, people are more likely to seek biomedical treatment. These health care choices are also limited by the options available in a context of severe immiseration. Many health posts are extremely understaffed and lack even the most basic medicines and equipment.

According to Gambian conceptualizations, interpersonal conflict and jealousy are important causes of health problems. A breakdown in baadinyaa can contribute to health problems by making people vulnerable in various ways. People may fall victim to the ill intent of witches, known as buwaalu or suutamoolu in Mandinka. Furthermore, a breakdown in social support can negatively impact health by causing psychological stress and decreasing individuals’ access to resources such as nutritional food and health care.

A male jali performer explained that anger and other emotional responses to social conflict, can produce psychological illness:

You see...some disagreements, some kinds of gossip, some kinds of sorrows, they bring sondomoo [heart/mind] illnesses onto people. You might see somebody sitting there who has been separated from another person. They are talking only to themself. They are talking, they are talking. You might say, “This person is angry.” It is not just anger. Because some problems wound the sondomoo. They are angry, but it is wounding their sondomoo. Us jali run after that person to advise them, to beg them, to cause them to forgive...to show them what anger does to a person. “What will anger do to you?” That is all healing.[18] (Personal communication, June 2013)

According to the musicians and people living with chronic disease with whom I worked, many illnesses have roots in social conflict and negative emotions such as anger. Jali are particularly skilled in mediating between conflicting parties and helping people to transform negative emotions and restore baadinyaa.

Although ideas about baadinyaa and health in The Gambia are to some extent culturally specific, the connection between social, physical, and psychological wellbeing is well established and more broadly applicable. Having stronger social networks is associated with better physical and psychological health[19] (Butler & Sbarra, 2013; Cacciopo & Cacciopo, 2014; Cornwell & Waite, 2009). Gary Ansdell writes, “our understanding of both illness and healing should include our ability to imagine the network of connections of which a person is part, and how these contribute to supporting or undermining the help they need to achieve a level of wellbeing” (Ansdell, 2014, p. 48). Understanding health performance in cultural context demands a view of healing that goes beyond particular physical ailments to consider the social contributors to ill health as well as the social and emotional resources that promote resilience.

Jali Musicians, Anger, and Baadinyaa

Mandinka jali with whom I worked in The Gambia described their work as a form of emotional intervention to manage jealousy and aggression, and to promote love and baadinyaa. Tatadindin Jobarteh, a prominent jali renowned for his skill on the kora (21-string bridge harp) explained:

In our jaliyaa tradition, if a problem enters the family, we the jali, if we are aware, we get up quickly, to run, to go to those family members that have sadness [kuyaa] between them, to talk between them, to talk between them, to bring peace, to bring peace. Yes. To see who is in the right, to give that person their due, to advise the one who has errored. That is our role. That is the role of the jali. To bring peace that stays.[20] (Personal communication, June 2013)

Jali have long played important roles as mediators and go-betweens. In working to resolve conflicts, jali also draw on the concept of baadinyaa in order to remind people that they must look beyond the details of a particular disagreement to think of the good of the broader community.[21]

Tatadindin Jobarteh used specific examples to demonstrate the way music can help listeners to achieve emotional flexibility and transform emotions such as anger and jealousy. In conversation with me in June 2013, he explained that the previous week he had performed with his family’s band in a nearby village. The Salam Band is a popular group that incorporates traditional jali instruments such as the kora and bala (xylophone with gourd resonators) alongside guitars, keyboard, drumset, and Mandinka and Wolof drums.[22] The Salam Band performs regularly for all kinds of events, including weddings, naming ceremonies, and festivals. After a performance in the town of Brufut (Western Region) in June 2013, Jobarteh was approached by a stranger who said that listening to the music had allowed him to overcome a deep grievance and be reconciled with an estranged family member.

Jobarteh explained:

He said a very painful thing happened to him, but today, since I played at his place, next to his compound, he said he was sitting in his house listening to me. I played one song. It’s a new song called “Saba” [“Three”]. I said the world is three days. Yesterday and today. Tomorrow is in our ignorance, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, whether you will die, you don’t know. So I composed that song for that reason. This man came after the program and called me.
He said to me, “I have a pain, you know. My brother sold my compound and went to Europe.” He told me, “He didn’t say a thing to me. The compound that I was depending on, he sold it and went to Europe. I have that pain here. I said that tomorrow I would go to the jalango [fetish/idol]... and destroy him [i.e. Put a curse on him]. But your song caused me to forgive.”
I breathed...That day I breathed and breathed. I said, “Eh, Allah.” I said to him, “You were going to take him to the jalango to destroy him?”
He told me, “I swear to God, I was going to destroy him.”
I said, “Forgive.”
He said to me, “No, I have forgiven. Your song caused me to forgive. I forgave, Tata. I swear to God.”
I told him, “No, forgiveness is good. You will not have a problem, just see. Follow God.” So he took out 100 dalasi and gave it to me. It was not long ago. Last week.
The day before yesterday he called me. Yes. Because I gave him all my contact information. He called me and said, “You see forgiveness is good.” He said to me, “My younger brother called me. Since he left he hadn’t called me, but yesterday he called.”
I said to him, “Eh! How is it?”
He said to me, “Yes, he found work now. He has work at a car tire-fixing place. The place where they fix tires. Because that was his work here. So when he went he looked for that work and he found it. He said to me, he promised me a lot of money. He said he will send me one thousand euros. He said I must wait a little because the work he has is a lot. Now he has four jobs. He packs fridges. They pay him for that. He is working in a shop and he is working at the tire-fixing place. He has three jobs now. So he has money...He is hopeful...He will send me money. He said I should buy a compound with a completed house on it.”
I said to him, “Aah! Praise be to God.”
He said...“This music of yours saved me. It saved him.” He said to me, “If you had not played here, I had said that in the morning when the sun came up I would go...But your show here, that healed my heart/mind [sondomoo].”
I said to him, “Yes, that is pain that pills cannot heal. Only music can heal it. Allah helped you.”[23]
(Tatadindin Jobarteh, personal communication, June 2013)

Jobarteh’s story ties together complex ideas about music as a form of healing that helps manage emotions and steer people toward appropriate behavior defined in religious[24] and relational terms. In Jobarteh’s story, the emotional impact of the song performed next to the man’s compound facilitated the process of forgiveness that enabled the man to be reconciled with his younger brother. The emotional impact of Jobarteh’s song (which I can only guess at based on his story) emerged from the man’s particular habitus of listening, shaped by his previous experiences, social position, and individual preferences. Jobarteh’s story also raises many questions regarding the ways in which musical performance influences emotional transformation in ways that are both culturally specific and also more broadly relevant.

Jobarteh explained that unresolved anger such as that experienced by the man from Brufut can result in mental illness and chronic pain in the jusoo (liver/heart) and the sondomoo (heart/mind). Though sondomoo is usually translated as “heart,” it is used to refer not to the physical heart, but more broadly to a person’s emotional heart, mind, or whole being. Similarly, jusoo can refer to both the physical and emotional heart or liver; it is also used with modifiers to describe a person’s character or mood. For example, the phrase a jusoo bota le, literally “her/his heart is gone,” can be translated as “s/he is angry.” The phrase a jusoo diyaata, literally “her/his heart is sweet,” can be used to refer to someone who is generous or ambitious. Both the sondomoo and the jusoo represent social and emotional aspects of self, which are not easily healed through biomedical treatment (“pills”). In this area, musical interventions are particularly powerful.

Jobarteh elaborated on emotional ailments residing in the sondomoo and jusoo as follows:

Anger can make a person’s sondomoo crazy. Anger can make you stop behaving like a human being and become like an animal. You will not be able to feel sympathy. Some kinds of anger can do that...Our healing is also in that area, to go to angry people who have conflict between them, to calm them down. People who are doing something that they should not be doing, we create an advice song for them, we play the music that can decrease the pain in their sondomoo so that it does not rise up to the head [kungo].
For some kinds of pain they will say, “they have cancer, chronic cancer.” Some kind of pain can also become cancer.[25] They also become chronic. That is pain that is in your jusoo. It is not a disease [saasaa]. That is pain. That is sondomoo pain. It is chronic, it is chronic...it can make a good person into a bad person. It can also make you an island because you will not trust anybody anymore. You will not like people because...Your pain does not allow you to cooperate with people because you have had this pain for a really long time. Music can decrease that kind of pain.[26]
(Tatadindin Jobarteh, personal communication, June 2013)

Jobarteh recognizes that music cannot treat all illnesses; diseases like malaria require other kinds of treatment such as “pills.” For ailments that have socio-emotional roots, however, musical performance is often the most effective treatment. In the Gambian context, the strong association of music with baadinyaa, evident in lyrical references as well as discourse about music, primes listeners and participants for particular kinds of emotional responses. Music can serve as a flexibility primer that facilitates the transformation of painful emotions such as anger, jealousy and grief, which reside in the sondomoo and jusoo, and restore baadinyaa.

Musical Performance and Stigma

As noted above, health performance in The Gambia is not limited to music performed by jali. Although caste identities continue to shape individuals’ emotional expression and musical involvement, in contemporary Gambia people are also challenging caste-based expectations and taking on new performance roles that are not defined by hereditary restrictions. In this section I focus on the popular songs of Fatou Ceesay, a female performer not from a jali background. I got to know Ceesay through my work with the Allatentu Support Group for people living with HIV/AIDS. Diagnosed with HIV in 2005, Fatou Ceesay released an album with the Allatentu Support Band in 2006.[27] In addition to providing information about HIV/AIDs prevention, Ceesay’s songs address the problem of HIV-related stigma in The Gambia. Her songs have been used by members of the Allatentu Support Group to help new members come to terms with their HIV positive status.

HIV-related stigma represents a major challenge for the effective control of HIV/AIDS in Africa (Airhihenbuwa, 2007; Agnarson et al., 2013; Ansari & Gaestel, 2010; Fetene & Mesfin, 2013; Turan & Nyblade, 2013). Former UNAIDS director, Pieter Piot elaborated on the impact of stigma as follows:

HIV/AIDS-related stigma comes from the powerful combination of shame and fear — shame because the sex or drug injecting that transmit HIV are surrounded by taboo and moral judgment, and fear because AIDS is relatively new, and considered deadly. Responding to AIDS with blame, or abuse towards people living with AIDS, simply forces the epidemic underground, creating the ideal conditions for HIV to spread. The only way of making progress against the epidemic is to replace shame with solidarity, and fear with hope. (Quoted in UNAIDS, 2002, p. 7)

Though more than a decade has passed since Peter Piot made this statement, my experience working with people living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia confirms that stigma remains one of the greatest obstacles for successful prevention and care programs.

People living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia describe HIV-related stigma as a breakdown in baadinyaa that is often more disruptive than the physical symptoms of the disease itself. Stigma prevents many Gambians from participating in free testing programs and prevents people from disclosing their HIV positive status to their partners. People living with HIV/AIDS have been disowned by their families, divorced by spouses, or thrown out of their houses, all as a result of the stigma surrounding the disease.

One of the resources that people living with HIV/AIDS have used to address stigma in The Gambia is musical performance. While the experiences of people living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia are unique,[28] important parallels exist with musical responses to HIV-stigma elsewhere in Africa (see Barz, 2006; Barz & Cohen, 2011). For example, Gregory Barz (2006) has shown that music has played a central role in the movement to promote “positive living” and improve wellbeing among people living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Members of the Allatentu Support Group in The Gambia have also taken inspiration from the popular Ugandan musician Philly Lutaaya who, like Fatou Ceesay, was open about his HIV positive status.

On her album, titled Teriyaa (“Friendship”), Fatou Ceesay sings about her experience as an HIV positive woman. She challenges the association of HIV/AIDS with adultery and death, and emphasizes the support and care available to people living with the disease. The title song “Teriyaa” has been particularly popular among members of the Allatentu Support Group with whom I worked. Performed to a reggae beat with Mandinka kutiro drums, the song emphasizes the importance of maintaining caring relationships in the face of chronic disease:

Friendship, oh friendship is not an easy thing
When she was not sick, she was your friend
Now that she is HIV positive, she is still your friend
Teriyaa nna wo Teriyaa, Teriyaa kanoo maŋ dii nna wo Teriyaa
Kabiriŋ ate maŋ kuuraŋ, ate le mu i terimaa ti
Niŋ HIV ye a muta, hani bii i terimaa le mu
Do not leave her, she is your friend
Do not throw her away, she is your friend
Kana a bula, hani bii i terimaa le mu
Kana a fayi, hani bii i terimaa le mu
Myself, I am HIV positive
My husband does not have it, and he did not leave me
Women oh, I will advise you
If your husbands have this, do not leave them
And men also, if your wives have this,
do not leave them, do not leave them there
They are your wives, your husbands
I ka nte meŋ je teŋ, HIV le benna
Duŋ n keema maŋ a soto, aduŋ a maŋ n bula
Koto musoolu wo m be ali yamari la
Niŋ alila kewolu ye ñiŋ soto, ali kana i bula
Niŋ kewolu fanaŋ duŋ, niŋ ila musoolu ye ñiŋ soto ali kana i bula,
ali kana i tu jee
Ali futuu musoolu le mu, a niŋ ali futuu kewolu le mu
Do not leave each other
Friends also, do not leave each other
Ali kana ñoo tu jee
Teroolu fanaŋ kana ñoo tu jee
Friendship oh friendship is not an easy thing Teriyaa nna wo Teriyaa, Teriyaa kanoo maŋ dii nna wo Teriyaa.
The first words that were used
Gave it a bad name
Some called it the “dying disease”
Some called it the “adulterer’s disease”
And it should not be called by these names
Kumafolo meng fo ta ama
Wo le ye a too kuyaa
Doolu ko saatakuuraŋo le mu
Doolu ko jenekuuraŋo le mu
Aniŋ a maŋ naa wo la
An illness is simply an illness Kuuraŋo mu kuuraŋo le ti

Fatou Ceesay’s song “Teriyaa” is consistent with the broader theme of loving relationship prevalent in Mandinka songs. Ceesay challenges the listener to maintain caring relationships even in the face of a stigmatized disease. By using the medium of music, Ceesay adds power to her advocacy for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS and challenges the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Ceesay’s music profoundly affected the self image of many people living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia, as well as challenging the stereotypes and assumptions of the wider public. One member of the Allatentu Support Group stated that the Teriyaa album "has brought stigma down a lot." The President of the group asserted, “this cassette [Teriyaa] has caused baadinyaa to come properly. That is a very important thing” (personal communication, January 2013).

In 2012-2013, I attended several support group meetings where, alongside seasoned members, new members watched the Teriyaa music videos for the first time. Experienced members explained to the newer ones that Fatou Ceesay was a former member of Allatentu. The video sparked conversations about HIV-related stigma and helped members to come to terms with their HIV positive diagnosis. One young woman explained,

Teriyaa made me think. When I first came [to the Allatentu Support Group], I came confused. I didn’t have time for people...I would be sitting by myself...If someone talked...it went in here [one ear] and out here [the other]...But one day, I was just sitting, they put this Teriyaa cassette there. I listened until Teriyaa finished. They said the woman who sang Teriyaa, she had the disease... Just listening to Teriyaa. I completely forgot [worries]...at that time I would sit at home [by myself]...but since I listened to this Teriyaa, it completely took my mind off this disease…Teriyaa is the reason we don’t worry about this disease anymore. Our medicine, that is important. If we don’t have that, that will be a problem for us, but we get medicine. Teriyaa has made us forget the disease now.[29] (Personal communication, August 20, 2013)

Though the idea that “Teriyaa has made us forget the disease now” might suggest a denial of the challenges associated with living with a life-threatening disease, this young woman’s testimony must be understood within the context of HIV-related stigma in The Gambia. The Teriyaa album helped her to manage the shame and anxiety she felt living with a stigmatized chronic disease and create positive relationships with fellow group members. As this member’s testimony shows, even for members who joined the support group after Ceesay’s death in 2007, the Teriyaa album continues to powerfully affect their self-image and understanding of how to live well with the disease.

The experiences of Allatentu members demonstrate both the profound social disruption caused by disease-related stigma, and the role of musical performance in facilitating emotional flexibility, transforming negative identities and promoting baadinyaa. Kari Batt-Rawden, Susan Trythall, and Tia DeNora (2007) write,

Illness is often estranging: it partitions friends and loved ones and sequesters the sick from their everyday life worlds and social networks. This sequestering is spatial but it is also temporal; it divides the “sick” individual from the ongoing social times and thus from the opportunity of sharing and shaping those times in the flux of the here-and-now…Illness imperils our ability to make, communicate and share meaning, pleasure, and emotion...Participating in culture — whether through consumption or production is, we believe, the means through which we connect with others, the way we tell each other that we are not alone but together. (Batt-Rawden, Trythall, & DeNora, 2007, p. 66)

The experience of living with a stigmatized chronic disease frequently disrupts social support networks and can result in isolation, anxiety, and fear. Musical performance can promote social connection and emotional resilience, and thereby improve wellbeing (Ansdell, 2014; Pavlicevic & Fouche, 2014). In the Gambian context, the strong association of music with baadinyaa, evident in lyrical references as well as discourse about music, primes listeners and participants for particular kinds of emotional responses. Musical performance can serve as a flexibility primer that enables performers and listeners to adjust their response to chronic disease from anxiety and fear, to care and hope.


Biomedical research has tended to identify disease in relation to particular parts of the body or mind of an individual (Scheper-Hughes & Lock, 1987, p. 21). Understanding music as a flexibility primer, however, demands a more holistic perspective that recognizes the way social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of experience affect healing (Koen et al., 2008; Ansdell, 2014). As Marina Roseman writes, “When healers heal, they bring together a multiplicity of life’s intertwined strands. Those strands converge in the music, dance, drama, poetic texts, and other techniques of performing and visual arts they use to reach their therapeutic ends” (2008, p. 18). Not confined to a simple physiological process, the transformational potential of health performance depends upon the weaving together of different “strands,” or different ways of knowing and being.

In this article I have examined relationships between musical performance, emotion and health in The Gambia. The central concept of baadinyaa, which is a prominent theme both in Mandinka songs and in discourse about music and health, highlights the social and emotional aspects of music, health and healing. Just as the root causes of health problems may lie in social and emotional disruption, processes of healing through musical performance are similarly social and emotional in nature. Not an inherent feature of performance, emotional responses are shaped by identity, social position and power relationships, as well as individual experience and preferences. In the face of conflict and stigma, performers such as Tatadindin Jobarteh and Fatou Ceesay use musical performance, and its association with baadinyaa, as a resource to address negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and thereby promote healing.


[1] All interviews were translated from the original Mandinka by the author. Transcriptions of Mandinka texts (included in endnotes) follow the conventions established in A Practical Orthography of Gambian Mandinka (WEC, 1988), with the omission of tone markings for readability.

[2] Baadinyaa, haani moolu kono, a ka jaatakendeya sabatindi je...Wo damma faŋo kañanta le. Wo le ye a tinna...a ye nafaa soto...nna dookuwo le mu.

[3] The smallest country on the African mainland, The Gambia is divided into five regions and one city (Banjul). The Gambia is entirely surrounded by Senegal except for the Atlantic coast to the West, and the two countries share important cultural and linguistic commonalities. The Gambian population is over ninety percent Sunni Muslim, with a significant Christian minority. Major ethnic groups include the Mandinka, who make up thirty-six percent of the population, as well as Fulbe (Tukulor, Fula, Peul), Wolof, Jola (Diola, Karoninka), and Serahuli (Soninke) (Gambia Bureau of Statistics, 2003).

[4] The term Mandinka refers both to the most widely spoken language in The Gambia and the largest ethnic group in the country. Mandinka share common linguistic and cultural practices with other Mande groups in West Africa. Although I focus on Mandinka speakers, the word baadinyaa has also been incorporated into other local languages such as Jola. Because of the longstanding close interaction between ethnic groups in The Gambia, much linguistic and cultural exchange has occurred. In many parts of the country, people from different ethnic groups live in close proximity and intermarriage is common.

[5] Niŋ tantaŋo be keeriŋ, ali si ñoo kanu...kambeŋ, a si dung ali teema, alila siñoyaa si beteyaa, alila baadinyaa si beteyaa, sondomoolu si ñoo kanu...Niŋ i ye a tara ite kiliŋ be siiriŋ i be i mira la, a ka kuuraŋ jamaa le wuluu. Niyo maŋ lafi detoo. Niŋ a deteta doroŋ, a fele a ye problemo naati.

[6] Because of widespread cultural exchange between ethnic groups in The Gambia, many of the themes addressed in this article have broader relevance and are not specific to the Mandinka.

[7] The Mande cultural area consists of the former Mali Empire of the thirteenth-fifteenth centuries, spanning the countries of Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso (Diawara, 1997).

[8] Though occupational specializations exist among groups found throughout West Africa, specific nyamaaloo categories and specializations (referred to by different names) vary by region and ethnic group.

[9] “Griot” is a French-derived term of uncertain origin, see Charry (2000) for discussion.

[10] Though I am focusing on jali and other griots, other nyamaaloo groups are similarly expected to be more expressive and boisterous.

[11] Eh, kanoo, baadinyaa naata kanoo le kamma, baadinyaa naata kanoo le kamma oh, siñoyaa fanaŋ mu kanoo le ti.

[12] Mandinka language experts Muhammadou Bah, Sarjo Dumbuya, and Adama Njie advised me on this translation of baadinyaa.

[13] No relation to the popular singer Fatou Ceesay whose songs are discussed later in this article.

[14] Siñoyaa fanaŋ mu baadinyaa le ti. Wo le ye a tinna faŋo i ka a laa denkiloo to...Haani niŋ i niŋ moo maŋ wuluu fereŋ...Niŋ ite ye nte kanu, nte ŋa ite kanu, a ka muta ko ite ye nte la family bee kanu. Kodi? Nte fanaŋ ŋa ite la family bee kanu. Kanoo, badinyaa, wo bee kiliŋ. Niŋ i niŋ moo kanuta doroŋ, ali baadinyaata.

[15] Badenya and fadenya are the Bambara equivalents of the Mandinka baadinyaa and faadinyaa. Bambara is a Mande language closely related to Mandinka.

[16] See Charry (2000) for a discussion of how the concepts of badenya and fadenya help shape musical development and creative expression among the Maninka.

[17] Kabiriŋ somandaa...i te be jaliyaa la...niŋ moo naata niŋ ala band...i ñanta sii la.

[18] I si a je...sonko doo be jee, fitino doo be jee, kuyaa doo be jee, a ka sondomoo kuurango samba nang moo kang. I si a jee, moo si tara siiring, a ye a tara a ning moo bota nyoo la, a be diyaamu la a fango la a damma. A be diyaamu la, a be diyaamu la. I si a fo, “kari be kamfaaring ne.” A manke kamfaa damma ti de. Because kuu le be keering meng i ye a long ko, a ning a sondomoo le be, a be a sondomoo barama kang. Yes. A kamfaata, bari a be a sondomoo barama kang. Ntolu jaloolu ka bori wo mari le nooma, ka i yaamari, ka i daani, ka i saabarindi, ka i yaamari, ka i daani, ka i sabarindi, ka i yitandi ila kaamfa ka mune ke moo la. “kaamfa be i ke la nyaadii le?” wo bee mu jaaraloo le ti.

[19] See Roth (2014) for discussion of badenya relationships as social security in urban Burkina Faso.

[20] Wo le ye a tinna ntolu la, nna jaliyaa cosaanoo kono, ning problemo dunta family to, ntolu jaloolu, ning nga kalamuta, n ka tariyaa ka wuli, ka bori, ka taa ka wo family nying, kuyaa be meng teema, ka diyaamu i teema, ka diyaamu i teema, ka peace naati, ka peace naati. Yes. Ka je, meng taa mu boloo ti, ka ala boloo dii ala, meng boyi ta, nga yaamari. Wo le mu ntolu la role le ti. Jaloolu la role mu wo le ti. Ka peace sabatindi.

[21] See Hoffman and Kone (2000) and Conrad and Frank (1995) for related discussion of griots and mediation among Mande groups.

[22] Among the Mandinka, drums are not traditionally considered a jali instrument.

[23] Kewo doo naata n kaŋ, a ko, kuu dimindiŋ baa le keta ala bari, bii, kabiriŋ n playta a yaa, ila koridaa dala, a ko a maŋ taa dulaa to, a ko a be siiriŋ ala buŋo kono, a be n lamoyi la. Ŋa julu doo kosi, julu kutoo le mu... “Saba.” n ka fo a ye, “Saba.” “Kiliŋ, ali ŋa kiliŋ kiliŋ, fula, n kana fulaŋ fula, saba, n kana ñoo saban saba.” N ko duniyaa mu tili saba le ti. Kunuŋ aniŋ bii. Saama be ntolu be kumpo le to. because i maŋ a loŋ saama mune be ke la, fo saama i be faa la, you don’t know... So ŋa wo juloo teyi wo le kamma. Keendiŋo ñiŋ a naata, after programo a ye n kumandi. A ko ñe, “nte niŋ pain le be ñoo la you know. Nna brother wo le ye nna koridaa waafi, a taata Europe.” A ko ñe, “a maŋ feŋ fo ñe, nna koridaa m be jiikiriŋ meŋ ma, a ye waafi, a taata Europe. Aniŋ wo la pain be ñoo la jaŋ. N ko saama m be a samba la jalaŋo to, m be a samba la jalaŋo to, ka destroy. Bari ila ñiŋ juloo... n yamfata.” Ŋa n henda, Anna wo luŋo n hendanta, ŋa n henda, n ko “eh, Allah.” N ko a ye ko, “i be a samba la jalaŋo to, ka destroy?” a ko ñe ko, “bililai wadilai, m be a destroy la.” N ko a ye, “i sabari.” A ko ñe, “no, n sabarata. Ila ñiŋ juloo faŋo ye n sabarindi. N sabarata, Tata.” Bililai wadilai, a ye kali. A ko ñe, “n sabarata.” N ko a ye, “no, sabaroo, a beteyaata le...kuu te ke ila, a jiibe doroŋ, aniŋ Allah bula ñoola.” So a naata a ye dalasi kemoo bondi a ye a dii nna, a ye n soo ala. A maŋ mee. Last week. Yes... So, n naata. Kunuŋko, a ye n kumandi. Because ŋa nna contactolu bee dii ala, a ye n kumandi, a ko ñe ko, “i ye a je sabaro beteyaata le.” N ko a ye ko, “Yeah?” a ko ñe ko, “n dooma, a ye n kumandi. Kabiriŋ a taata a maŋ kumandi. But kunuŋ a ye n kumandi.” N ko a ye ko, “eh! A be ñaadii le?” a ko ñe, “yes, a ye dookuwo soto saayiŋ. A ye dookuwo soto moto siŋba dadaadulaa. I ka motoolu siŋo dadaa daameŋ. Because wo le mu ate faŋo la dookuwo ti jaŋ. So kabiriŋ a taata a ye wo dookuwo ñiniŋ, a naata a soto. A ko ñe, “a ye n promise kodi baa la. A ko a be euro wuli kiliŋ kii la ñe. A ko bari ŋa a soo domandiŋ, because a ye dookuwo meŋ soto a siyaata baake, saayiŋ a ka dookunaani ke. A ka fridge-packo ke, i ka joo wo la, a ka dookuwo ke magasin doo to, a ka dookuwo ke moto siŋ dadaa dulaa. Oh. A ye dookuwo saba soto saayiŋ. So kodoo be a bulu. A si kodoo soto noo le. Jikoo be ala. A ko ŋa so. Kari fula a be wo le dookuula, a be kodoo kii la nna, a ko ŋa koridaa looriŋ bandiŋo saŋ.” N ko a ye, “aah! Alhamdililai!” a ko, “niŋ i ye a tara nte,” a ko, “ila ñiŋ musiko a ye n save la. A ye ate save. A ko ñe niŋ i ye a tara i maŋ play nuŋ jaŋ teŋ nuŋ, somandaa niŋ faanoo keta, nte ko n ka taa.” A ko ñe, “bari ila play jaŋ, wo ye, a ye n sondomoo heal.” N ko a ye, “yes, wo le mu pain ti meŋ i ye a loŋ ko, borikesoo te wo jaara noo la, musiko doroŋ ne si wo jaara noo. Allah faŋo le ye i deema doroŋ.”

[24] The Gambian population is over ninety percent Muslim. Ideas about music, emotion, and morality, are shaped by religious beliefs in this predominately Muslim context. While musicians (both male and female) must negotiate their performance practice in relation to religious expectations, most people do not consider musical performance to be incompatible with Muslim beliefs and practices. Furthermore, musicians such as Jobarteh use their performances to express religious devotion.

[25] Although he was speaking in Mandinka, Jobarteh used the English word “cancer” to refer to a serious chronic illness.

[26] Kamfaa si moo sondomoo ñaameŋo le. Kaamfa si bondi noo hadamadiŋyaa plaaso to like daafeŋo ti. I te balafaa soto noo la. Kaamfa doo be jee wo le ka wo le ke. Wo le ye a tinna ntolu jaloolu fanaŋ, niŋ ŋa loŋ ko, kaamfa be dulaa kari to, n ka wuli, ŋa taa, ŋa wolu teema fo, kaamfa ye meŋ je a ye baŋ. Jamaano ye sumuyaa...ntolu fanaŋ la jaaraloo be wo le bundaa to, ka taa moo kaamfa too kaŋ mennu i ye a loŋ ko i dunta ñoo la, ka i tenkundi. Moolu mennu i ye a loŋ ko i be kuu kaŋ meŋ manke siloo ti, ŋa yaamari juloo teyi iye, ŋa kosi iye pur i ye a moyi, pur i ye wo yaamaroo noo kaŋ. Aniŋ mennu i ye a loŋ ko sondomoo dimiŋo be ila, ŋa musiko play, n ka meŋ ke musiko, n si musiko play meŋ si wo sondomoo dimiŋo ñiŋ jiindi, a kana sele i kuŋo la. Katuŋ dimiŋo doo be jee, i be a je la i be a fo la ko, “cancer le be ala, chronic cancer.” Dimiŋo doo be jee, wo fanaŋ ka ke cancer ti. Wo fanaŋ ka chronic. Wo le mu pain ti meŋ i ye a loŋ ko a be ila jusoo kono, a manke saasaa ti. Wo mu pain le ti. Jusoo la pain le mu wo ti. A ka chronic, a ka chronic...a si mookendoo faŋo ke moojawo ti. A si i ke island ti fanaŋ, bayi i te laa la moo la kotenke. I te lafi la moo la because, a manke ko meŋ ite le maŋ lafi moo la because dimiŋo meŋ be i bala, wo le maŋ lafi pur i niŋ moo ye cooperate, because a dimiŋo meeta i bala baake. Musiko ka wo dimiŋo siifa le jiindi.

[27] Fatou Ceesay passed away in 2007. The Allatentu Support Group for people living with HIV/AIDS released a remix of her album in 2010 in collaboration with popular performer Jaliba Kuyateh. The author performed with Fatou Ceesay and the Allatentu Support Band as keyboardist and backup vocalist.

[28] For a discussion of the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s HIV/AIDS treatment program, and the experience of people living with HIV/AIDS in The Gambia, see Cassidy and Leach (2009) and Nyanzi (2012).

[29] Teriyaa le ye n miirandi. Nna naa folo, wo waatoo n confusiriŋo naata. N niŋ moolu buka taim soto...niŋ moo ye diamu...a ka duŋ jaŋ a ye funti jaŋ...bari luŋ kiliŋ doroŋ, m be siiriŋ doroŋ, i ye ñiŋ Teriyaa kaseto ke jee. Ŋa a lamoyi fo Teriyaa banta. I ko, musundiŋo meŋ ka Teriyaa laa, ate le ye saasaa soto...Biriŋ ŋa ñiŋ Teriyaa wo lamoyi, a ye n hakiloo bondi saasaa faŋo kaŋ ne fereŋ. Teriyaa le ye a tinna ntolu buka saasaa mira kotenke. Nna booroo, wo le kumayaata. Niŋ maŋ a soto, wo le be ke la m bulu problemo ti, bari booroo n ka wo soto. Teriyaa ye ntolu ñinandi saasaa la saayiŋ.


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