Like sabar drummers, Walo Walo drummers often use rhythms to represent words. The Walo Walo say the tama can talk because its wood and skin used to be alive.
The audience knows by convention what the rhythms represent, just as English speakers know the notes to “Happy Birthday” represent the words “Happy birthday to you.” For example, while soloing, a drummer might praise someone in the audience by playing the drum strokes ran dan dan gan dan, ran dan dan gan dan ta xin dan to represent the words “Lo dé ti xalat (don’t be sad); Fi kofi guénou douleur geunne (nobody here is better than you).”
A drummer’s solo can consist entirely of such phrases. The tradition so permeates Walo Walo culture, most people in the audience know what the drummer’s phrases mean.
The women’s two buses soon stop to refuel at a shiny new Mobil station. Like most rented vehicles in Senegal, the buses were nearly out of gas when they arrived to pick up the women.
The station seems out of place, surrounded by a windblown expanse of sand and a rustic neighborhood of cement compounds with corrugated asbestos roofing. Below a tall sign in the shape of the Mobil Pegasus, two attendants in red uniforms finish their prayers on the sidewalk, kneeling and touching their foreheads to the cement.
While the attendants pump gas, the women and drummers swarm around the pumps, still dancing and drumming. A dancer becomes inspired, and the drummers pause in place to concentrate on playing for her.
One of the attendants puts his hand over the thiol to stop the music. The women and the drummers let the attendants chase them all back onto the buses, but not before the thiol player whips the attendant’s hand with the last stroke of his drumstick.
During a break, a drummer hangs his hat on the troupe’s thiol. The Senegalese admire many aspects of American culture, but traditional drumming still permeates their neighborhoods.
Like similar drums played by various cultures across West Africa, the tama permits a drummer to control its pitch. The drum has a carved wooden shell shaped like an hourglass. Each end is covered with the belly skin of an iguana, and the two skins are laced to each other with string. Holding the tama under his armpit, the drummer plays the front skin with one bare hand and a curved wooden stick, while changing the drum’s pitch by squeezing the strings with his arm.
The Walo Walo have four sizes of tama. From largest to smallest, they are the bopp, bal, nder bal, and nder. Traditionally, a tama troupe has two nder, for a total of five tamas, plus one thiol. The principal soloist plays the bal. The other drummers usually play supporting parts, but they may also take turns soloing.
The thiol is a carved wooden kettle drum. The bottom is closed, and the top is covered with goatskin, held taught by wooden pegs. The thiol is sometimes used in sabar, and the Walo Walo play it the way sabar drummers do, with one bare hand and a thin, flexible branch about 16” (96 cm) long. Before playing, the Walo Walo thiol player knocks the pegs loose enough to make the drum sound fat and tubby.
Arriving at the neighborhood where the naming ceremony will take place, the tama troupe climbs out of their bus and, still playing, leads the women in a procession through more unpaved streets. As they walk, other people join them, as though drawn by a Pied Piper.
The procession spills into an intersection that is blocked by a crowd. A tarp spans the intersection like a circus tent, supported by ropes and poles. In its shade, the women take their place in a circle of rented metal chairs, several rows deep. Outside, a group of men sit quietly, while onlookers mill around, and a pushcart vendor tries to sell ice cream.
The drummers stop to share a meal in the host’s nearby compound, while the local imam blesses the newborn in private. The drummers eat together, crouching around two large bowls of seasoned rice and beef, pressing the food into bite-size balls with their hands.
Refreshed, the drummers enter the tarp and start to play, while the women take turns dancing in front of them in a blur of colorful fabric. Each dances for just a few seconds, in a burst of energy, waving her arms and throwing her legs in high, forceful steps, or placing her hands on her knees and gyrating her buttocks toward the drummers with unpredictable twists and turns, while the other women point and giggle. A young man in a shirt and tie jumps in their midst, fanning his knees outward and flapping the fly of his trousers, as though cooling something hot.
Not to be outdone, the lead tama drummer makes a running leap toward the center pole. He grabs it high with both hands and hangs in the air, clutching his drumstick between his teeth.