Rhythmic Snapshot: West Africa


You could spend six months in Senegal and barely scratch the surface. Its sabar, tama, bougarabou, and djembe traditions are an endless source for drumming inspiration. You’ll see tama players in front of small shops literally playing to drum up business and coax customers in. You’ll see sabar drums played at wrestling matches, street parties, and weddings. As you probe deeper you’ll find out that there are many distinctive groups of drumming traditions, many of which are hereditary and specialize in worship (tabala or xiin) or healing and trance (n’depp).

If you’ve ever listened to Doudou N’diaye Rose, you know how powerful sabar drums can be. His recording, called Djabote, with an orchestra of 50 drummers, is a classic that should be in every serious drummer’s archive. These Wolof drummers create long phrases, or baks, which are constantly evolving and lengthening. In Dakar you’ll find yourself drinking Chinese gunpowder tea with drummers long into the night as they sing and create the baks that they’ll use the following day at the gig.

One of my favorite artists of all time is Youssou N’dour and his Super Etoile de Dakar. These cats have been together since the 1980s and are James Brown tight. He’s the leading practitioner of the modern mbalax style, which fuses sabar, tama, and trap drums with full electric band and horns. As a drummer, seeing how Youssou’s three percussionists play together without stepping on each other has been a huge lesson in listening.

To move your feet after sundown, saunter down to Youssou’s own nightclub, the Thiossane, where you can catch him weekly. You’ll see a side of him you won’t see on one of his tours in the States, as he lets the understudies sit in with the band and invites visiting artists up to sing and dance. It’s the master-apprenticeship tradition alive in the 21st century.

A fun day trip from Dakar is the ferry ride to Gorée Island where you hear the distant sound of djembes coming from the top of a hill where a former colonial castle is now inhabited by locals — a wonderful symbol in itself. Or, if you are traveling between Dakar and Bamako, stop off in Tambacounda, a region famous for its rich djembe tradition. Tambacounda has traditionally been the proving ground for many a djembe master and is the birthplace of Abdoulaye Diakite, who was soloist with the National Ballet Of Senegal for 18 years.


Historically, Mali was the center of the great Mali (Mandeng) Empire and it is still a huge landmass with a mixture of ethnic groups and instruments. This is the very heart of djembe country. While Guinea may be known for its younger generation of djembefolas, with their mathematical precision and rudimental technique, the Malian style is associated more with melody and tasty solo chops. Many Malian drummers offer workshops in the capital, Bamako, and in surrounding villages.

If you’re in Bamako, don’t be surprised if you see kora great Toumani Diabaté playing at a café, or Salif Keita at a local club. For more adventure, head into the historic Wassoulou region, legendary for both its singers and crazy ternary rhythms, which a master djembefola can manipulate like a rubber band, slinging you back and forth between hearing a rhythm in three and four, slow and fast, straight and swung.

The largest ethnic grouping in Mali is Mande, which includes both the Malinke and Bambara people. In the Bambara djembe tradition, drums are usually smaller and lower pitched than what you’ll see in surrounding areas, and accompanied by just one or maybe two dununs. Music is often accompanied by stringed instruments and balaphone along with the ever-present kariyan bells that the women play to start up the tunes and give them energy. Recordings to get you ready for a trip to Mali should include anything by the late Soungalo Coulibaly or cult hero Sega Sidibe.

If you’re up for an adventure, for a trip you’ll never forget head up to Timbuktu for the Festival In The Desert, held every January along the Niger River. Often cited as the birthplace of the blues, here you’ll experience the stringed n’goni, which has inspired world-renowned artists like Ali Farka Touré and Habib Koité.

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A woman plays the kariyan bell, Mali.

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Carving dununba. Guinea.

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Praise singers, Guinea.

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Sabar drummers, Senegal.

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Sidiki Yayo plays kora, Guinea.

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Bus-stop water break, Ghana.

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Famoudou Konate, Guinea.

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