The Independent (Banjul)

10 June 2002

Gambia: 'The Battle of Sankandi' - An Appreciation

Banjul — The National Council for Arts and Culture is to be congratulated for helping our nation recover its past; 'Sankandi' is only one of several conflicts and battles, which disrupted the lives of people settled along the River Gambia, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Yet such battles of bygone years hold little interest for our students, who see them as dry bones in an abandoned pit! The challenge to teachers is how to find sinews and flesh for the dry bones to live again.

Mrs. Janet Badjan-Young (a talented Gambian dramatist, director and actress) has provided an answer in her magnificent 'Dance drama' production of the 'Battle of Sankandi'; first performed on 25th May 2002 at the Alliance Franco-Gambienne and at the Kairaba Beach Hotel on 3rd June 2002. It is a brilliant piece of theatre, which transforms and elevates the dry bones of history in to a poetic epic, by means of 'Dance-Drama' art form. For me this was delightful entertainment, spangled with historical and literary germs!

Janet Badjan-Young has borrowed elements of her play from ancient Greek tragedy (around 5th century B.C.) as well as from ancient Mali of Sundiata Keita (around 13th Century A.D). The dialogue of 'Sankandi' is in Mandinka, but she skillfully uses three griots (two males and one female) to narrate and comment on the story in English. In ancient Greek tragedy, the Greek 'Chorus' (consisting of males and females who never left the stage) chanted songs that related to subject of the performance, during intervals between the action. Sometimes, they recited portions of verse, and even made observations on the conduct of the characters in the drama.

Students of history of ancient Mali will recall a similar role played by griots for the purpose of instruction and to heighten the pomp and solemnity of festivals. Balla Faseke, Sundiata's eloquent griot, played the important role of 'master of ceremony' at the great peace assembly of Mandinka kings and princes, warriors, and delegations of conquered peoples at Sibi.

Professor D.T. Niane reminds us that the 'traditional griots of Africa were the memory of Mankind; by the spoken word they brought to life the deeds and exploits of giants of the past'.

Sankandi: what a beautiful and colorful spectacle for feasting the eyes!

What pulsating music to awaken the emotions! What skill and artistry demonstrated by the dancer! Indeed as John Martin writes: on the stage, dance is also a means of communication, as was so imaginatively demonstrated in courtship of the lovers, by exquisite and graceful miming.

Janet Badjan-Young's earlier productions: 'Songs of Lawino' by Okot p'Bitek, and 'The ultimate inheritance' by Janet Badjan-Young were highly acclaimed, but the epic of 'Sankandi' is a masterpiece! A remarkable achievement for the playwright/Director and her energetic and talented cast of nearly ninety players! They deserve much more than congratulations or even bouquets of flowers.

Florence Mahoney is a Gambian historian

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