Guelel Kumba is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter of Fulani heritage who is currently based in Oxford. He grew up in the Futa Toro region in the Senegal River valley, which encompasses areas of northern Senegal and southern Mauritania. His father was of Senegalese nationality, his mother of Mauritanian nationality.
Kumba’s paternal grandfather was a griot, the caste of musicians and oral historians, but his father did not continue in the tradition. Kumba’s mother died at an early age, and he was raised by his paternal grandmother in rural villages. The pastoral economy—centered on cattle herding—dictated that the family lived in different villages during the dry and rainy seasons.
As a child, Kumba participated in group singing and dancing and informal language dexterity competitions, but he didn’t actively pursue music. Several of his cousins were good traditional singers, and another was a drummer in the National Ballet. His father encouraged him to pursue academics rather than study the griot tradition, and he ultimately pursued sociology studies in Paris, where he lived from 1988 to 1995.
In Paris, Kumba began actively studying, transcribing, and performing traditional Fulani music. The city had a growing and vibrant West African music scene that helped aid this pursuit. Among his performances was a one-man play called Parole du Fleuve (“The Word of the River”) in which he told tales and sang songs from his childhood. Upon returning to Senegal Kumba pursued music further and interacted with popular Senegalese musicians including Salif Keita and Baaba Maal.
Kumba first came to the U.S. in 2001, initially to New Orleans and then to New York. In September 2002 Kumba first visited Oxford as part of a tribute to the late anthropology instructor Peter Aschoff, who had taught a blues course taken by a Senegalese friend of Kumba. Kumba was embraced by local musicians and moved to Oxford the following January.
In Oxford, Kumba discovered the close ties between North Mississippi blues traditions and Fulani music. He had heard soul and blues in Africa as a youth, but he didn’t recognize tangible connections between the different forms of music until he encountered the blues of North Mississippi hill country performers, notably David “Junior” Kimbrough. In Oxford Kumba has performed solo, accompanying himself on guitar, as well as with his band Afrissippi. His typical sets include a mix of traditional Fulani songs and originals.
Afrissippi has a shifting membership and includes Kimbrough’s son Kinney on drums, and guitarist Eric Deaton, who performed extensively with Junior Kimbrough and fellow North Mississippi bluesman R.L. Burnside. On the band’s 2005 CD Fulani Journey, Kumba and Deaton exchange verses (in English and Fulani) on songs in the style of both Kimbrough and Burnside, highlighting the similarities between the traditions.
In fall 2007, Kumba was one of two Mississippi artists to receive an Artist Support fellowship from the Fund for Folk Culture of Austin, Texas. He used the funds to produce Alliance, his second recording with Afrissippi (released spring 2008). The CD was produced by Jimbo Mathus and features fellow African musician Papa Assane M’Baye on percussion.
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