Sabar: Puzzling Drumming From Senegal

Sabar Drumming: Puzzling Rhythms From Senegal


Walk for a day in any of the neighborhoods that surround Dakar, and chances are you will hear a crackling sound drifting toward you from one of the sandy, unpaved streets. At first it sounds like someone crushing a wicker basket. But the sound doesn’t stop, and you realize it’s symmetrical and shifting, as though someone were folding wicker in an endless series of kaleidoscopic shapes. Then you notice that the sound is floating on a chorus of bass voices, which seem to be conversing about something urgent.

You walk toward the sound, past young women braiding each other’s hair, past short-haired sheep tethered near doorways, past children drumming on tomato cans, and the sound grows stronger, block by block, until you turn a corner, and suddenly it fills the air and shakes your chest, and what was a brittle sound now rings with overtones.

You see a crowd of women blocking the street. They stand with their backs to you, wearing brilliantly colored gowns with elaborate embroidery. You walk closer and see that they surround a circle of painted metal chairs, where more women sit. Some giggle and point toward a young woman.

She is leaning forward slightly, with her hands on her knees, clutching the hem of her gown, which is pulled up over her back to expose her white cotton undergarments. You wonder what the women are pointing at, for the woman seems absolutely motionless. Then you see that her buttocks are swirling and leaping as though with a life of their own, and she is pursing her lips and wincing with the force of her concentration.

In the direct path of her gyrations, a group of young men are drumming with whip-like sticks and bare hands. Grinning and dripping sweat, two drummers in front watch her backside and accent her thrusts. Some of the drummers in back stare upward as though looking at something far away, their jaw muscles flexing with the pulse.

Before you have understood what you are seeing, the woman throws her pelvis sharply backward, then runs to a chair, laughing, while another woman springs to take her place. You have found sabar.

A Living Tradition

Carved out of reddish mango wood or mahogany, covered with goatskin, and circled with pegs, sabar are the traditional drums of the Wolof people of Senegal. The drums’ stone-age look brings to mind both the raw energy of Wolof drumming and its ancient roots.

Drumming and dance are a way of life for the Wolof. The term “sabar” refers not only to the drums but also to the music played on them, the dance that accompanies them and the gathering to dance. For the Wolof, drumming and dance still accompany most social gatherings, including weddings, naming ceremonies for children, official events and parties thrown just for fun. Because Senegal has a high birthrate, naming ceremonies occur especially often.

Sexuality infuses Wolof dance perhaps more than it does the dance of the surrounding cultures, such as the Fula, the Mandinka and the Jola. Some Mandinka call Wolof dancing “dirty.” But for the Wolof, sexual innuendo is cause for laughter.

Wolof dance celebrates sexuality explicitly, with a mixture of seriousness and comedy. While a woman dances with her buttocks, one of the drummers might playfully approach her from behind, until she realizes what is happening and runs away shrieking. Both men and women dancers usually end their dance with a suggestive gesture of their pelvis.

For one dance, women step to the chant “Oubil m’barke n’diaye, dékhine kai,” which roughly translates to “Open up your robe and show me your sweet dish.” On the last beat, the dancers briefly hike their robes, while the crowd squeals.

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