Wolof sabar drummers play two different styles of music. One style consists of dance rhythms. The other, called bak, consists of elaborate rhythmic compositions. Drummers typically play baks before the dancing begins.
New baks appear in Dakar as quickly as new popular songs appear on AM radio in the United States. Wolof kids trade baks like American kids trade baseball cards.
In a sabar drum troupe, each drummer plays a drum with one bare hand and a stick about 16" long. The drums are tuned to answer each other by their size, shape and method of stringing.
Some of the drummers play accompanying rhythms, while others solo. The accompanying rhythms are carefully crafted so that when they are played together, they interlock to create simultaneous conversations. The bass tones from the hand strokes make one conversation, while the stick strokes make another.
The accompanying parts are called the talmbat, the touli and the m’balax (pronounced m-BAH-lakh, where lakh rhyhmes with lock, but the kh sounds like you’re clearing your throat). Each part provides a different rhythm for different dances. The most important of the accompanying parts is the m’balax, which a sabar drummer must first master before learning to play any other rhythm.
The m’balax has given its name to a Senegalese style of Afropop. The style emerged from the group étoile de Dakar, which included a young singer named Youssou N’Dour. M’balax Afropop typically incorporates one or more sabar drums playing an m’balax rhythm. However, m’balax Afropop rarely incorporates more traditional drumming than this, especially in the recordings exported from Senegal. Traditional sabar drumming continues to offer a universe of music not heard in current Afropop.
The most distinctive trait in Wolof drumming is the placement of the dominant bass beat, which always anticipates what rock and roll musicians call the backbeat. That is, if you count a rhythm as “1 - 2 - 3 - 4”, the Wolof place the strongest bass tones just before the 2 and the 4 (the backbeat). The amount of anticipation varies, depending on the particular rhythm being played. Each placement gives the music a subtly different flavor.
Another notable trait in Wolof sabar drumming is that the parts incorporate flams, or grace strokes (a drummer’s strokes landing together at almost, but not quite, the same time). When the drummers play together, their flams interlock to divide time into patterns much finer than a single drummer could play. The flams add a texture to the music that is feathery yet precise.
Sabar rhythms can be especially syncopated. Some are so strongly syncopated that even Wolof dancers have a hard time dancing to them. The more difficult rhythms give the better dancers a chance to excel.
Despite the intensity of syncopation, all Wolof rhythms are four-beat dance rhythms. There are no odd-metered rhythms, like 5/4 or 7/4. However, Wolof drummers do not count their rhythms. Instead, they relate them against a basic reference rhythm, the way that Afro-Cuban drummers relate their own rhythms to the clave.
The Wolof “clave” aligns with the English phrase “a real tall tree.” That is, you can hear the Wolof clave by repeating “a real tall tree, a real tall tree ...” The downbeat — emphasized by the dancers and by anyone clapping — always lands on the word “tree.”
Unlike Afro-Cuban drummers, who always play their clave as an essential part of the music, Wolof drummers do not usually play the Wolof clave explicitly. Instead, they use it as a mental reference. Typically, they play it only to start a bak in unison or to teach a rhythm to someone.
The Wolof approach to drumming is so intuitive and tuned to tradition that Wolof drummers do not have a name for their clave, just as Western musicians do not have a name for the even ticking of a metronome.