Sabar: Puzzling Drumming From Senegal
The m’beungbeung toungoné and m’beungbeung bal are accompanying drums that always play m’balax. Both are goblet-shaped and open at the bottom, but the toungoné is smaller and tuned higher. For many rhythms, the two m’beungbeungs play m’balax parts that differ from each other. The n’der is a solo drum. It’s shaped like an m’beungbeung, but taller, sometimes extending almost three feet. It can produce both a deep bass tone and a high, sharp stick tone. A second n’der sometimes plays an m’balax part. This part often differs from the m’balax played by the m’beungbeungs. The lambe is the primary bass drum. Its bottom is closed and its sides bulge gently, making the drum somewhat egg-shaped. The lambe plays the accompanying part called the touli. The gorong talmbat is the tenor accompanying drum. It’s shaped like the lambe, but it’s slightly smaller and tuned higher. It plays the accompanying part called the talmbat. The gorong yeguel, added to sabar in the 1950s by sabar drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose, is now the principal solo drum. It’s shaped like the lambe, but it’s strung tighter and has a bright bark.
If a troupe is missing the lambe or gorong talmbat, the drummers might add a drum called the thiol (pronounced chol, to rhyme with coal). The thiol resembles the lambe and the gorong talmbat, but its size is between the two. A drummer can tune a thiol to serve as either a lambe or a gorong talmbat. Alternatively, a drummer can use the thiol to play a part called the touli-talmbat. As the name suggests, the touli-talmbat combines the parts played by the lambe and gorong talmbat.
A soloist usually plays the gorong yeguel or the n’der. However, any of the drummers can take a turn soloing and usually do so at some point in a performance. Wolof drummers call the solo part the xar (the x sounds like you’re clearing your throat).
A member of the traditional woodcarving caste, called the laubé, carves the drum shells. A drummer mounts the goatskin himself. First he soaks the skin to soften it, then he lashes it to the pegs, weaving cords through slashes in the skin. Last, he shaves the hair off the top.
Wolof rhythms have heavily influenced another style of Senegalese drumming, called Tabala Wolof. Tabala Wolof is the ritual drum music of a Senegalese Sufi order called the Qadiriya. Qadiriya drummers play during nighttime worship to inspire ecstatic singing. Unlike sabar drumming, the lead drum is a massive wooden kettle drum. A drummer plays it with two long sticks, which are half as long and almost as thick as broom handles.
In some ways, Tabala Wolof parallels African-American gospel music. Both styles are sacred, and both were born from African rhythms about the same time - in the late 1700s. During worship, Qadiriya worshippers even sway to the same “gospel step” as American worshippers.
The Serer people, who live primarily south of Dakar, also play sabar drums. However, they use the drums to create their own music, with its own distinct flavor. Their music relies less on flams and more on fast, interlocking triplet rhythms. To some extent, Serer drum music resembles the drum music of the Mandinka and Jola, who live even further to the south. However, the Mandinka and Jola each play their own style of drums and have their own distinct style of drum music.
The Road Ahead
Sabar drumming has permeated many aspects of Wolof culture. Like other West African peoples, the Wolof have used drumming to heal the insane, cast spells, and communicate, using rhythmic patterns to represent spoken phrases. Traditionally, the Wolof even drum to put children to sleep.
As Senegalese embrace the culture of the “developed” world, the world seems to be embracing aspects of Wolof music and dance. In recent years, Stevie Wonder has hired a Senegalese dancer to consult on a music video, and a Wolof drum troupe has opened for the Rolling Stones. Youssou N’Dour has found international acclaim, and though most of his music is only tinged with m’balax, his success is still introducing the world to some of the flavor of sabar drumming. If current trends continue, sabar drumming and dance will have a growing influence on the world’s popular music and dance.
Adam Novick is a producer for Village Pulse, a record label that specializes in field recordings of traditional African percussion. This article is in part adapted from the notes to the Village Pulse recording Sabar Wolof: Dance Drumming of Senegal.