Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar, Jali Ngal Mbai
L-R Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar, Jali Ngal Mbai

In 1973, Alhaji Bai Konte's record, Kora Melodies From The Republic Of The Gambia, West Africa, was the first album of kora music to be released internationally. Though mostly found in western Africa, the 21-string instrument has gone on to become a sonic signature for the entire continent. Marc Pevar and his wife, Susan Pevar, share the story of how this groundbreaking record came to be.

How did producing Alhaji Bai Konte's album come about?

Mark Pevar: We did a lot of planning, but it was also seat of the pants. My wife, Susan, received a grant to study the role of women in Gambian society. So, I had to figure out what I was going to do with my time there. [laughter]

Susan Pevar: My father, Harold D. Gunn, was an anthropologist, and my parents had come home once from Africa with a kora – that was Marc and my first time ever seeing the instrument. My father also had made a little cassette of what the kora sounded like when tuned and played properly.

MP: Her father recommended that we get advice from his colleague, Dr. Anthony King, in the UK. And Professor King advised that we should live with a griot* family – observing how they raise children and how they spend their time, and then I could also spend my time learning the kora. He recommended the musician, Alhaji Bai Konte, in particular. Dr. King said that he'd recorded a very large number of griots, and he found that Bai Konte seemed to know more arrangements and more songs than all the other griots that he'd encountered. He said he'd be a good person to live with. But we went to Gambia with no idea if Bai Konte would even be there, or if he’d be interested in hosting us. We went through many people to meet him, but, in the end, we lived there with him and his family from November 1971 to November 1972 – a full calendar year, almost to the day.

You bought the equipment from somebody who'd been to Africa and had recorded with the gear?

Malamini Jobate and Dembo Konte
L-R Malamini Jobate, Dembo Konte

MP: We had a meeting with the Library of Congress, and they recommended that we meet with Curt Wittig. They said he had some excellent field equipment that he'd told them he was looking to sell so that he could get some new gear of a higher grade, like a Nagra [tape recorder]. We anticipated we would have no electricity in Gambia. When I purchased it all from Curt, it came with a 12-volt battery, which also helped power illumination at night since there was no electricity or running water there.

You had a background as an acoustic guitarist, but had you recorded before?

MP: I had taken guitar lessons for four years from a blues and country musician named [Gerald Lawrence] "Jerry" Ricks in Philadelphia, [Pennsylvania]. I had been a semi-professional folk guitarist. I specialized in Piedmont finger picking techniques and blues, which I later discovered had suggestively strong ties to Mandinka kora musical culture. I'd bought a reel-to-reel deck, and I lugged that to my lessons with him to record what he was teaching me so I could practice and not miss anything. I also had a little experience using a Dictaphone that my parents used in their construction office. I used that to record shortwave radio news and other broadcasts that I sometimes shared with friends. I did that because I had a Telecraft shortwave multiband radio that tuned in all over the world. I would record some of the news material to let people hear how vastly different the reporting was for the very same story on the same day, and things like that.

Would you then contrast that news material and edit different segments together once you'd recorded it?

MP: No, I did not know how to edit. I did not learn how to edit with tape until later when we returned from Africa. I met with Dr. Kenny Goldstein, a PhD head at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Folklore. He listened to the album and he said, "Marc, if you're going to be making a record, you've got to learn how to cut tape. I'm going to show you." He did, and that's how I learned to edit. Later on, I found out he'd produced over 500 folk and blues albums for people like [Samuel John] "Lightnin'" Hopkins, Ewan MacColl, and Reverend Gary Davis. [laughter]

When you were listening to shortwave radio, did you ever pick up international music?

MP: I do remember hearing Radio [Havana] Cuba, as well as some samba and different rhythms. However, most of the music that I would hear internationally turned out to be jazz and classical music from America. [laughter] I heard very little local music.

What tape machine were you using for the recordings with Bai Konte?

MP: The Sony TC-772 half-track stereo recorder. We still own it, but it's not operational now. The half-track had twice the high fidelity as the 1/4-inch reel-to-reels that most people had at the time for home use.

Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar
L-R Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar

What type of tape did you use?

MP: It was Scotch 206, 1.5 millimeter archival quality. Even today it still has not visibly shed any of its magnetic coding. It's phenomenal tape. We stored it very carefully at room temperature. No tapes needed to be baked before we digitized them later.

How did the kora sessions begin?

MP: We were in Gambia for maybe two or three months before Bai Konte said something like, "Hey, will you record me?" I said, "We can send for some tape recording equipment." When we went to his compound, we wanted to be integrated into their community and have a chance to get to know each other as people first. We decided that we would not bring our tape recording equipment or say, "One of the things we want to do is to record your music," because then they would've looked at us differently. We left our equipment at the US Embassy, where they locked it up in an inner room. When Bai Konte asked if I could make a recording, he also said, "I would like to go perform in America. I want to bring my kora to America." We retrieved our equipment, brought it to the house, and started doing recordings every now and then. It was not the main thing we were doing while we were there – it was occasional. We would sometimes ask him if he felt like recording something for us. But, more or less, he took the initiative for when the recording sessions would happen. After we did one or two sessions, I had four songs to use as a demonstration tape. I made a couple of reel-to-reel copies and shipped them to the states using the Embassy's diplomatic mail pouch. We sent it to Folkways [Records]. That was the only label I really knew of.

But you didn't know anybody at the label.

MP: Right. [Moses] "Moe" Asch [Folkways' founder] didn't know us from a hole in the ground. But he wrote back pretty quickly, and he said he would like to make a record from the four songs I'd sent him. I said, "We would like to see more music on the record than just that." Also, what I'd sent was completely unedited.

SP: I just suddenly had this memory that his initial reaction on hearing the recordings was that this wasn't really "folk." It was almost like he didn't want to use it because it was too polished. In his letter, he said his complaint was, "I want something that's more like regular musicians playing. This sounds like it's a professional and that it was done in a recording studio." I wrote back and said, "Look, he's an extraordinary musician and this is the way he plays. There's no editing here. That's it."

Yes, that sadly reflects the tendency of "world music" gatekeepers to try to render rural music as "primitive." More than once I've been asked to downgrade the fidelity of mixes by labels, which I, of course, steadfastly refuse to do. Or I've met mix engineers who are not willing to give the recordings the same care and respect that they would if they'd been tracked in a posh studio.

MP: Exactly. So, resultantly, I became picky and said, "Look, I'd like this record to have a shot at being popular and not just an academic curiosity. It needs a nice cover. I want a color cover and here's the picture I want to use on it." And he told me he didn’t do color. Actually, he insisted that he would never do color. So, I put in a call to Rounder Records instead, and sent them the same thing I'd sent to Folkways. Rounder were more receptive, and the very photo that they used on cover is the one that I'd wanted.

That decision must have played a big part in the music finding a larger audience, which is evidenced by our talking about the album 50 years after its release. How many hours of recording did you do over the course of that year?

MP: I believe the LP was 42 minutes on the initial release. There were 36 tapes total, and each one was a half-hour long. So, there we had 18 hours. It was not all music, though. Some of it was background ambient sound, and some of it was storytelling in the Mandinka language.

Did you end up using tracks from later in the year, since you were learning and progressing as an engineer as you went along?

MP: No. My way of sequencing was to vary the pace; the tempo from one selection to the next, based on the feeling of it – the overall emotion.

You recorded the whole album in stereo.

MP: Yes, and those two Sony C-55FET microphones were spectacular. They had a cardioid pattern and a rotating capsule. The capsule was maybe the diameter of a quarter or a nickel and the thickness was maybe 1/4-inch. Since they could be pivoted, this meant that I could split one microphone between Bai Konte's mouth and the back of the kora – the round calabash part that points away from the player and towards the audience. I could position a single mic so that I was getting sound to the capsule from two totally different areas. You'll hear these tiny little groans and humming sounds that he would make while he was playing, which gives it a very personal intensity. Then you'll also hear primarily the midrange and low sounds coming from the hard surface of the kora. When I first started recording, I spent at least a half an hour to 45 minutes with him as he sat in one position on the floor, being very patient and smoking his little pipe. He was sitting there clucking and chuckling at what I was doing as I was moving the microphones around him while he was playing. I ended up determining that I could gain the most balanced sound if I was sitting a foot or two away from him.

The mic that you had pointed towards his mouth and towards the instrument was how many feet or inches away?

MP: Well, his mouth would have been maybe ten inches to a foot away from one side of the capsule. The mic would have been no more than six to eight inches away from the kora, and it always had to be a little off center because I was using a tiny little tripod. I did not have a boom. The microphone was sitting about 16 to 20 inches high, at the most.

And the second mic was positioned further away?

MP: The second microphone was placed within a foot with the capsule tilted straight towards the other side of the kora – the flat, leather part that faces the musician. The other mic was placed lower. It was maybe only a foot off of the ground. It was positioned pretty low.

You didn't have any boom stands?

MP: No, just very tiny aluminum tripods we found locally in the capital city. They were very dusty and dirty. Obviously, no one had bought them for years. I was a fool. I'd thought I'd go to Gambia and I'd be able to buy things like a tripod. I was lucky to find anything. It was quite something to live through. Even with huge silica gel packs for each sealed condenser mic, during the hot rainy season I was constantly drying the gel to avoid static discharge crackling. During the dry season – with equipment itself in a plastic garbage bag and inside an aluminum suitcase with a rubber gasket and the suitcase inside a second garbage bag – the microscopic abrasive Sahara sand of the Harmattan season, from storms 800 miles to the north, coated the tape deck and microphones in a film of dust. I had to clean all of the surfaces with cotton balls and Q-tips before every recording session. Once there suddenly were no more cotton balls or Q-tips anywhere because a freighter was delayed. Another time the whole country was out of gasoline except for a few barrels stashed away here and there.

Once you found that setup after 45 minutes, was that the setup you used for the entire year?

MP: Yes, pretty much. Aside from once where we recorded with some female singers outdoors.

Almost all of these recordings were done indoors?

MP: The majority were done indoors, which was a room maybe 10 by 15 feet – if it was that big – and with a corrugated metal roof overhead. The walls were whitewashed mud bricks, and the floor was cement – like around a 1/4-inch of cement on a mud floor.

And was there any carpeting on the floor or was it just the cement?

MP: Well, Bai Konte had his prayer mat he was sitting on. It was made out of 1/4-inch thick slices of bamboo or reed.

So, even the mat was a pretty hard surface.

MP: Yes, it was all reflective surfaces. But too much kora is recorded with direct cable and affixed acoustical pickups, or with a mic placed at the sound hole – avoid that like the plague! – or with digital effects of booming echoes, etc.

The Comorian duo I produced a record for did a "campfire" show in London with a West African expat kora player. He showed up to a tiny, outdoor show with a giant rig of floor pedals like some metal shredder! [laughter]

MP: We were just in the right place, at the right time. One person after another – like Pete Seeger [Tape Op #113], Taj Mahal, the New York Times' critic Robert Palmer, Richie Havens, Terry Gross (PBS/NPR), Elizabeth Cotten, and George Wein (founder of the Newport Jazz Festival) – all these people who were at the top of their specialties within the whole music and media industry instantly were attracted to the music. That is a tribute to Bai Konte and the mastery of his playing.

Jali Ngal Mbai, Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar
L-R Jali Ngal Mbai, Alhaji Bai Konte, Susan Pevar

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