The Rules of Life from a modern-day West African Griot

Calabash! chats to Batch Gueye the Bristol-based Senegalese singer, musician, dancer and storyteller about the challenges of 2020 and what we can learn from his music.

 ‘If you stay in one place, you never grow up,” explains Batch as we talk about his eclectic mix of albums.

 ‘I think in life you must grow up because if you go to that culture, they eat this one. If you go to this culture, they eat different things. If you’re fussy, you’re never going to live anywhere, just your country. And that’s how I’m going to hold my music.”

The two albums he released in 2020 are a case in point.
‘Do You Hear Me’ is a self-proclaimed mix of “Afrobeat, dancehall and reggaeton”, while ‘In This New Land’ delivers an intriguing blend of blues, Flamenco and African rhythms.

 “You can have your own music and your roots, but you can learn another culture,” says Batch. “It’s my first time to release these kinds of albums, because every time I release world music, I say why not? I should learn this one, why not? I should learn that one. I play jazz too. I’m open-minded.”

The lyrics of life

 Life lessons form a key part of Batch’s lyrical influences. Being a Griot, his songs, whatever the genre, all tell a story. 

“I call all [my albums] ‘life aid’. Everything I sing about is: how to behave, what money can do to you, why family is important, what life can do to you, who you are, respect, understanding, being open-minded – just like a history to history.”

‘Do You Hear Me’ encapsulates this ethos, with parables of truth, love and friendship; while his latest release, ‘In This New Land’, shares his experience of leaving his family in Senegal and of his sacrifice in coming to the UK.

“I am the one who comes to support them, because one of my dinners [here] can feed 10 people [there]. I would rather have breakfast and lunch and not dinner. I give it to them.”

The words in the song ‘When I Left Home’ echo this sentiment:  “So it’s really hard, so when I left home, I took a piece of you”. It’s a poignant moment on the album, as Batch laments while waves lap a beach accompanied by a Spanish guitar played by Algy Behrens.

“When I left my homeland, I took a piece of you.
I made the sacrifice. I always held you there.
By coming north, I want to keep you safe, but it’s so hard. I held you close, so far from home, I always felt you there. By coming here, I made a sacrifice in this new land.”

Having met in Bristol in 2013, Batch and Algy have been recording together ever since, when time allows in between their own careers.
Until, finally, they were happy enough with the songs to release an album.

Algy, is a multi-instrumentalist and producer, who studied with Senegambian and Gypsy Flamenco guitar masters for many years and with Batch’s soulful voice and his flair on the guitar, they have created a fulfilling album, and there are plans to play it live.

“I’m hoping to tour with him. We just try to see this project, how people love it, how we can get on together because it’s up to the people how they respond.”

Hard work is a form of prayer

In Senegal Batch ran his own dance company and he has performed with the best of the West African country’s artists, including Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Cheikh Lô.

Lô, like Batch, belongs to the Senegalese Baye Fall movement, which believes hard work is a form of prayer. The group is renowned for its colourful patchwork clothes and dreaded hair, which adds extra panache to the music and dance performances.

After arriving in the UK, Batch put his many talents to work. He formed the Batch Gueye Band, releasing three albums to date. Creating a melodic mix with West African instruments, the band has performed at a host of festivals, including WOMAD in 2014.

Batch is also vocalist and sabar drummer for Fofoulah, a London-based quintet that fuses jazz and electronic with West African beats, and he has continued teaching dance in Bristol, where he runs regular workshops.

So, how has the lockdown impacted his career?

“When this happened, I did not let it go. I was doing dance lessons in the park in the summer and when it started getting cold I began teaching dance on Zoom. But all my gigs were cancelled, so I lost a lot of money,” The Batch Gueye band had planned to tour in 2020.

“It’s really tough because for all of those albums, from ‘Moytou’ (Batch Gueye Band, 2019), ‘Do You Hear Me’ and ‘In This New Land’, the money is not here – we can only sell them online. I never have funding. I’m doing everything with my pocket.”

Keeping faith in life

It has been a challenging year for artists, and Batch is juggling many projects to make ends meet. But his resilience and deep-rooted values keep his faith in life, and there was a simple reply when I asked for his hopes of the future: “I want the world to hear me.”

And I think we should listen, because we could all take something away from a modern-day Griot as we try to make sense of the world.

Calabash! The UK’s African Music Guide is an online magazine and events guide dedicated to African music happening in the UK.

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