Percussion and Discussion
Continuing into the next day, rhythm seemed to be a pervasive element everywhere we went. In the afternoon, Ibrahima, Lamine, Rich, Hiro and I attended a wrestling match at Stade Demba Diop. The sound of drums filled the corridor leading to the arena as we passed men praying on a large rug just before the entrance. Before the matches began, each of the wrestlers made an elaborate entrance onto the field. One of 3 or 4 troupes of drummers would commence by playing the Ya Nu Moom rhythm, then launch into a medium tempo triplet based rhythm as the wrestler and his entourage would slowly dance their way towards the drummers, then to the middle of the ring. The one exception to this routine was for wrestler Paul Maurice, a wrestler from the Serer ethnic group, who had a different troupe of drummers and a group of female griot singers. During the matches, the Wolof drummers were also joined by singers, who’s message was translated to me by Lamine as “let the best man win.”
Wolof griots, known as gewel, are involved in many aspects of Senegalese life, including entertainment, politics, sports, religion and life cycle ceremonies. The importance of gewel, as well as their place in Senegal’s highly stratified caste system were among the topics of conversation at a dinner hosted by Dr Fallou Ngom, a former student of my father and peer of Ibrahima. Fallou is currently finishing a year traveling throughout Senegal and surrounding countries on a Fulbright scholarship to study Ajami, the use of Arabic script to write indigenous languages such as Wolof, Serer, and Peul. Ibrahima and Fallou, although very good friends, did not seem to see eye to eye regarding the effects of the caste system on gewel life. Ibrahima related several stories about injustices faced by gewel as a result of their caste. In one instance, a man born into a gewel family became a prominent business man and eventually a supreme court justice, but was still routinely disrespected. Another story involved Youssou Ndour, who sent a messenger to ask the father of a woman from a higher caste for her hand in marriage. The father told the messenger to go back to Youssou Ndour and tell him what he is. Fallou, on the other hand, spoke of how gewel is a mark of distinction. He cited their role as masters of language ,their historical importance in communicating the wishes of chiefs to their constituents and their power to lift someone up or tear someone down, as evidence of their elevated status. My experience in Senegal was far too brief to be able to draw any conclusions about the social status of gewel, but I think that the high caliber of musicianship that I witnessed in Dakar reflects the importance of being raised and educated in a gewel household on the formation of many musicians. At the same time, I can understand how the perception that certain people are born into an occupation can lead to notions of inequality.
Soiree Senegalaise – The Grand Finale
My last full day in Dakar did not begin well. I woke up early and made the first of several trips to the bathroom. As Ibrahima put it, I was finally paying my “travel tax”. Later in the day, I began to develop a fever, and any time that I moved around at all I would start to feel nauseous. I decided to stay put rather than to go visit the university with the others, hoping to be able to recuperate before my 24+ hour journey home the next day. Thankfully, Mrs. Pope took very good care of me, bringing me dry toast from the boulangerie, and tea and chicken noodle soup that she had brought from the US. In the evening I was feeling a little better, but far from back to normal. Ousseynou invited a griot friend of his who played an instrument called the bongo – a thumb piano with 7 keys attached a large wooden box, which he knocked with his free hand in between notes – to come and sing praises for us. The griot had a great voice that resonated throughout the courtyard. He taught me to play some simple melodies along with the accompanying percussion before leaving.
By 11 o’clock I was feeling well enough to consider going out, after all, it was my last night and I still hadn’t seen any live mbalax. Ngalla, as always, said he would be happy to take us out, and that there should be a lot of options, since Tuesday was the night for mbalax at many of Dakar’s nightclubs. He took his time getting ready, and we left the house sometime after 12:30. As I got into the cab with Rich and Ngalla I was still a little nauseous, but it wasn’t terrible. We drove first to a casino/club by the shore, not far from the Medina, but they were having an international club night. Another club by the shore also had a DJ, and a club called Sahel, on the other side of the Medina had an mbalax/salsa night that Ngalla didn’t seem too thrilled about. Just 4 You and Pen’Art, were both featuring music of a more laid back variety, so finally, as a last resort we checked out the Madison Club, which I had driven by several times without having gone inside. The artist that night was Salam Diallo, who, according to Ngalla played “real mbalax” that we would enjoy.
The inside of the club had plush leather booths, mirrors along the walls, and a medium sized dance floor in the middle. The band was set up in the back corner, and as we walked in Salam Diallo was being interviewed by a reporter from Walf TV. There were about 10 or 20 people scattered around the club, and me and Rich were sure that we had missed the show. The interview was broken up by some slow musical interludes from the band which featured 3 percussionists – one on tama, one on mbung mbung and one on what looked like a narrow djembe – 2 backup singers, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, and an instrument called a xalam, a stringed instrument, about the size of a ukulele but with a thinner neck, an oval body, and a tone that resembles a banjo. After the interview, the band launched into a mid tempo song, as Diallo tried to get some equipment issues worked out. The song featured many interlacing rhythmic parts that came together perfectly without anyone finishing on what those of us with western musical training would consider “beat 1”. I let Ngalla know how much I was enjoying it, and he told me that it would get much better. Pretty soon the set started in earnest. At some point, without my noticing, the club had gone from being virtually empty to standing room only, with several people joining us in our booth. Salam Diallo did not sing in the traditional griot style, but instead stuck with tassu and a more MC type of approach, passing the mic fairly often to one of many griot singers who took their turn on the stage.
While Diallo worked the crowd, the percussion section pushed the music forward, playing accompaniment rhythms interspersed with polyrhythmic breaks that would keep any jazz musician on the edge of their seat.
The night continued to build in intensity as a group of guys got up on the stage one by one to show off their dancing skills. The style of dancing was similar to what I had seen at the sabar, lots of high energy kicking and spinning, all the while keeping ones balance and coordinating with certain hits from the band perfectly.
After about an hour of this, a group of 8-10 drummers began to set up on the dance floor. What occurred next was a sort of sabar within a night club, an event known as a Soiree Senegalaise. The drummers played as men and women got up to dance one at a time. A female griot came up to sing praises and the xalam player took out a wad of about a dozen 5000 CFA notes (a little more than $10 each) and handed them to her one by one. The percussionists played for an hour or so, then the band started up again. Another griot took the stage, and called out praises for a few people in the audience who then came up to give him money. It was after 4:00 and both Rich and Ngalla had to get up early the next morning so we decided to call it a night. The place was packed and as far as I could tell we were the first ones to go home. On the way back I noticed that all of my symptoms had completely gone away.
My flight back home lead me through Boston before going back to New York. While I was on the bus between terminals, a man wearing a drum necklace asked me if I was coming from Senegal. I asked him how he knew and if he was a drummer. As it turns out, he was from the Sing Sing family and manages a group of Sing Sing Juniors who live in Boston. We talked about Dakar, Khadim’s master craftsmanship and the difficulty of getting visas for Senegalese musicians before parting ways. Somehow it didn’t surprise me to run into someone with a connection to my musical experiences in Dakar. A side product of the closeness of many Dakarois to their neighbors and extended families is that these sort of occurrences are commonplace.
My overall experience in Senegal was overwhelmingly positive. In addition to all the great music, Ibrahima, Ousseynou and Miriam were the perfect hosts, making sure that we were always taken care of, and well fed. Lamine and Ngalla were extremely generous with their time and I enjoyed our many conversations. I felt a great camaraderie with all of the Parkland group, and everyone in and around the house. I feel that I definitely took certain privileges that go along with being American for granted, and leaving was especially tough knowing that, as much as I thought that getting the time and the money to organize the trip was hard, it will be much much harder for my Senegalese friends to visit me, considering the extreme difficulty of getting a visa. Of all the places I’ve visited, I feel like I could go back to Dakar time and time again and continue to learn from both the music and the generosity and openness of many of the Senegalese people I encountered.