Senegal has a very dear place in my heart. It’s mostly because of my fascination with her music. A close friend of mine gave me a cassette recording that had Senegalese drumming samples on it back in the 1980’s. Because I have a particular fascination with percussion music which have survived through centuries, I decided that one day I wanted to learn how to play the “Wolof” style of sabar that originated in Senegal. The particular recording Tom had included on the cassette was this performance by Doudou N’diaye Rose, which he orchestrated on an Island called Île de Gorée off the coast of Dakar, Senegal.
I’d thought that one day I would have to visit Senegal in person to hear sabar, but I didn’t know when. Alas, it turned out that I didn’t have to wait very long at all. While I was living in Tokyo, I had been studying Korean samulnori drumming with an ex-pat community of Korean drummers I’d met in Ueno park. About six months into my study, our teacher commented that he’d met a sabar drummer who was keen to join our class. In marched a very tall Senegalese gentleman carrying a sabar! He told us about his drum and demonstrated. We played our Korean drums to demonstrate our style and he tried to riff off it. (Drummers like to explore fusion of their respective styles. More on this later in the Indian/Japanese section.)
Afterward I asked him about how he came to study sabar. He explained that his father was Doudou N’Diaye Rose! He and several of his brothers had moved to Japan because there was tremendous interest among the Japanese community in studying Senegalese dance. I was astounded. I asked if I could study with him. He welcomed me and five or so other students to join him and his brothers during the dance classes and sometimes separately at music venues when we could book them. So I was able to study from the son of the master himself! (Photos from Wagane’s performances can be seen here: http://www.rhythmuseum.com/senegalese/Wagane.html) When it came time for me to leave Tokyo, I felt very sad to give up my drum classes. But Wagane insisted that I must go to Dakar to visit his father. And so I added it to my list of places I would one day travel.
Dakar is set on a promontory that extends from the west coast of Africa. It is surrounded by fishing villages with boats littering the many beaches and harbors. The climate is so dry in the region that it feels desert-like as soon as you leave the seaside.
I took a ferry boat to visit the scenic island where Doudou had conducted his performance those many years ago. Île de Gorée is a small fortified island in the harbor just outside of Dakar. The island has a tumultuous past as the Portuguese, Dutch, British and eventually the French all fought to control the island during the European attempts to colonize trade routes to establish shipping ports across Africa, Asia and the Americas.
The saddest part of the island’s history is that African countries eventually entered the slave trade, providing human labor from other countries in the region to sell for goods the European’s brought to Africa. The buildings that were involved in this dark time in Senegal’s history are now museums on the island. The island has not changed its architecture since the colonial presence. It is a stirring place to visit, in part for its beauty, and in part for its troubling history.
When it came time for my visit to the N’diaye home, I sought out the location based on a description I’d received of the neighborhood. Doudou has a large nuclear family, each having houses in downtown Dakar. I was not sure I was going to be successful in finding the right house. But sure enough, I went to the right city block and the food merchant operating out of a wheeled cart knew exactly who Doudou was.
I went to the building the food merchant indicated and peered into the door. (Doors are left ajar all the time in Senegal.) A woman about my age saw me and asked how she could help. “I’m looking for Doudou N’diaye Rose” I said. (All conversations were in French.) She said, “Oh, we are going to visit Papa tonight. He moved to a different neighborhood. But first you must eat! And we have to dress up.” She led me to a living room where there was a large portrait of Doudou in a large formal yellow robe. I sat for a while there, totally dumbfounded at how lucky I was to have found this place. I felt like I was meeting the Prime Minister, for Doudou is one of Senegal’s premier ambassadors. (along with popular singers Mansour Seck, Yousou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita)
After dinner the entire family dressed in formal wear to see Doudou in person. We crammed into two small taxis and made our way over to the second Rose estate.
They asked me to meet Doudou alone. His home was decorated with gorgeous fabrics, drums and traditional art. But the building itself was a very spare concrete block design. Doudou was attending to some accounting matters with his agent when I arrived. But then I got a chance to tell him about how much his music had inspired me when I was in high school and how much of an honor it was to study with his son in Tokyo.
I had seen pictures of the time he brought his family drum troupe to the Kodo Earth Celebration in Japan, which I had also attended. I remarked that I regretted so much not having been able to see him lead a Taiko-Sabar fusion band. Having nothing really that significant to give him, I told him I’d like to give him my CD. So I did. And he thanked me for coming so far to see him. I was walking on air as I left.
In addition to amazing percussion traditions, western African nations also have various traditions of stringed instruments in the fashion of the Kora from Mali. Senegal, Gambia, Casamance and Mali were once part of the Mail Empire. So after the land was segmented into countries, the traditions of the past followed independent artistic trajectories. Kora happens to be one of my favorite instruments. So I got a chance to see a lot of artists across the region playing this amazing harp, or its relatives.
My Senegalese trip was an overwhelming feast of rhythm. I attended a regional concert in Louga, a neighboring town to St. Louis on the northern coast of Senegal where I was able to hear dozens of different sabar styles from around the country. I also explored the Casamance region where the Djembe is more the prevailing drum. (All of west Africa used to be part of the kingdom of Mali. So they share instruments across regions. But certain tribes focused on using some specific instruments in their communities. So the drum traditions vary a good deal across the countries of West Africa today.)
Geologically, you won’t discover anything surprising in Senegal. Culturally, for certain. But this country is a coastal region with very little mountains, like my old home South Carolina. So you’ll find your fascination in the people more than the place. Musically, it may be one of the most fascinating countries in the world. I think that the power of hearing call to prayer every day from childhood must have some formative influence on the children.
I recommend several documentaries and sources if you’re interested in discovering the musical culture of this amazing country:
Youssou N’dour’s I Bring What I Love Baaba Maal http://www.baabamaal.tv/ Remembering Doudou N’diaye Rose on Public Radio: https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-08-20/remembering-doudou-ndiaye-rose-master-who-brought-senegalese-drumming-world
Take me home: Leapingaroundtheworld.com
Follow @Leapingaround on Twitter: twitter.com/leapingaround
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Flickr album of Senegal and Casamance: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63009420@N00/albums/72157603663374245
Master drummer Doudou N’diaye Rose attends to business
Dakar coastal views
View of Île de Gorée
Call to prayer in St. Louis
Sunset View in St. Louis
A high-speed study of architecture and foliage in Casamance region
Sunset on the cruise from Casamance
(External) Sample of Kora and singing style of Senegal: