Tama drummer Abdoul Rakhmanne Gueye and his troupe find steady work performing for the Walo Walo who live around Dakar. Abdoul makes sure the music never strays too far from comedy.
The lead drummer abruptly turns toward you and drills you at close range with a burst of strokes from the drum tucked under his arm. You feel each strike hit you and penetrate you with energy. Before you can recover your senses, four more drummers join him, and together they circle you, hammering you from all sides. Their strokes land close together, in shifting geometric patterns, and their pitch rises in overlapping waves, as each drummer presses his arm against the lacing around his drum.
Most days in Dakar are a struggle. The air is gray with dust, and if the endless greetings and negotiations have made your throat sore, you feel like you’re breathing sandpaper. Every cab ride threatens to fog your mind and sting your eyes with the black exhaust spewing from tailpipes around you. Every neighborhood walk means slogging through sand while watching out for thieves and quicksand pools of freshly buried garbage.
But this moment has revitalized you, as though you had just drunk a shot glass of Senegalese tea – bitterly strong, thick with sugar, and instantly electrifying. As the drummers swirl back into place in front of the bass drummer and once again step flamboyantly to the beat, a glow lingers in you, tingling your fingertips, and you sense you’ve glimpsed what life is like among the Walo Walo.
At an intersection near Dakar, spectators watch people take turns dancing to celebrate the naming of a child, while Abdoul’s tama troupe performs in the shade of a tarp.
Over the last decade or so, West African superstars like Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal have introduced a global audience to the Senegalese talking drum, or tama [TAH-mah]. These artists often add tama to their mix of Western instruments and other Senegalese drums. But outside of Senegal, few people know of the drum’s traditional music.
In Senegal, only two cultures traditionally play the tama: the Dakar Wolof and the Walo Walo. Each descends from one of five ancient Wolof kingdoms. The Dakar Wolof occupied the area where the French later built Dakar. The Walo Walo occupied the delta region of the Senegal river, to the north, an area still known as Walo.
The Dakar Wolof are best known for sabar drumming. They specialize in playing an orchestra of seven different sabar drums. [For a description of Wolof sabar drumming, see the August/September 1997 issue of DRUM!] Sometimes, the Dakar Wolof also play tama. Depending on the financial means of the person hiring the music, a drummer might play a single, unaccompanied tama, or a group of drummers might play as many as three or four tamas of various sizes. But far more often, if the Dakar Wolof play the tama at all, it is to accompany sabar drums.
In contrast, the Walo Walo do not traditionally play sabar drums. Instead, they specialize in playing an orchestra of five tamas of various sizes, to which they add a bass drum called the thiol (CHOAL). One Senegalese historian believes the Walo Walo have played the tama for perhaps as long as three-and-a-half centuries.
Tama drummer Diebril Dieye playfully puts on a serious face.
Pulling on the front bumper of a brightly colored bus, tama drummer Abdoul Rakhmanne Gueye [AHB-dool RAHK-mahn GAY] helps try to free the converted step-van from the sand. The Senegalese call this style of bus a “car rapide,” but as often happens, it has become stuck in one of the unpaved streets that surround Dakar’s tiny urban core. With undampened spirits, Abdoul turns to passersby and showers them with a greeting from his tama.
This is not just any car rapide. It is headed for a Walo Walo celebration to name a two-week old infant, and is filled with women wearing robes shinier and even more colorful than the robes on the women walking by. The women have hired two buses to transport them to the event, and they have hired Abdoul’s troupe to perform there.
Spirits have run high since the women and drummers boarded the buses in Pikine Tally Boubess, one of Dakar’s village-like suburbs. Along the way, drumming, clapping and singing have streamed from the glassless windows. Suddenly, the bus lurches forward. Abdoul and the others dodge out of its way and climb back in, and the party is back on the road.