Talking Drums Of The Walo Walo
Continuing a tradition that has thrived for perhaps three and a half centuries, a tama troupe weaves rhythms on five tamas and a bass drum called the thiol.
A Storm Of Rhythm
The traditional Walo Walo repertoire consists of dance rhythms and artistic compositions, called baks. Drummers play baks to demonstrate their artistry and warm up the audience. Some baks endure for years. Others come and go, like top-40 pop songs.
Each dance rhythm has four supporting parts which lock together to accompany the soloist. The supporting parts are the first mbalax, second mbalax, touli and bass touli. As in sabar, the mbalaxs provide the most basic accompaniment, and the touli adds a tenor voice. The bass touli is unique to tama. It provides the primary bass voice and is played on the thiol.
Traditionally, two of the tamas double the touli or one of the mbalax parts. At times, for effect, several of the tamas may share a single part. In the rhythm called Dagagne [dah-GAHN-yuh], tama drummers play the following supporting parts, represented in Ex. 1 by the Walo Walo vocalizations for the various strokes on each drum. In this notation, geen sounds like green without the r, x sounds like you’re clearing your throat, and the r in ran is rolled (as in Spanish), to represent a hand-stick flam.
In the flam (the ran stroke), the hand stroke seems to lead the stick stroke like a grace note. In context, the grace note combines with the flams and counter-rhythms of the other drummers to create a precise, super-fast division of time. Together, the flams give the music a feathery quality.
Like many sabar rhythms, Walo Walo rhythms often incorporate a relentlessly simple part, like the touli part to Dagagne. These simple parts are surprisingly difficult to play in context, for they usually anchor the pulse in a whirling storm of syncopated rhythms. The drummer playing the simple part is typically dripping with sweat and concentrating so hard he appears to be – as the Senegalese might say – in a trance.
In the evening, back in Pikine, Abdoul’s fellow tama drummer Diebril Dieye [ja-BREEL JAY] sips a glass of quinquiliba tea in a neighborhood restaurant. The glass is hot, and he holds it gingerly between his thumb and little finger. Diners sit beside him on the restaurant’s two plank benches, quietly munching sandwiches of grilled meat and French bread, which they hold in sheets of surplus Dutch newspaper. The cook prepares a batch of mayonnaise that will sit unrefrigerated overnight, ready for tomorrow’s customers.
Diebril says the tama is the most difficult of the drums played in Senegal. “How do I know?” Laughing, he answers his own question: “Because you never see a white person play one.”
Diebril explains that the drummers in his troupe all belong to a hereditary caste of entertainers, or griots. For them, he says, the tama is easy to learn, for it is in their blood. Diebril says he didn’t begin playing until he was 13, when his older brothers moved away and left a tama behind. He says he had heard his brothers play so much, he was able to play the drum immediately, without having to learn.
Before performing, the tama troupe shares a meal with Village Pulse producers Carl Holm and Adam Novick (holding spoon at bottom).
Syncopating The Backbeat
As with many Senegalese styles of drumming, Walo Walo rhythms often place the bass drum in opposition to the downbeat of the dancers. In this way, the bass drummer answers the dancer’s steps. This style contrasts with most American and European music, where the bass almost always lands on the dancers’ downbeat.
For example, when a performance turns to the dance rhythms, Walo Walo drummers traditionally start with a rhythm called Ganass [GAHN-ahss]. In this four-beat rhythm, the bass drummer plays only the backbeat (the second and fourth beats). In the first half of the phrase, the drummer plays directly on the second beat (creating a simple backbeat syncopation). In the second half of the phrase, the drummer actually plays just on either side of the fourth beat (creating a more sophisticated syncopation, syncopating the backbeat), as you can see in Ex. 2.
This bass drum part also illustrates another technique that Walo Walo rhythms share with many other styles of Senegalese drumming: using simple counter-rhythms to create strong syncopation. The dancers feel each measure as having four even pulses, and the first half of the bass part emphasizes this feeling (one-and-AH-TWO-and-ah-three-and-ah-four-and-ah). However, the second half of the bass part emphasizes feeling the measure as having six even pulses (one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-FIVE-and-SIX-and). This gives a firm way to hear and play the last two notes, but causes them to land just on either side of the dancer’s fourth step.
As you get up to leave the restaurant, a young sabar drummer from the neighborhood says he recognized several “bad kids” outside. He and Diebril offer to accompany you to the main street, to find a cab. On the way, in the darkness, you hear a chorus of men singing Sufi prayers in a building somewhere nearby.
Riding back to Dakar on a road mercifully free of heavy traffic, you ponder the sweet-sour blend of ecstasy and suffering in this culturally rich and terribly poor nation. Weary and fighting depression, you find yourself longing once again to be drilled with energy by a swarm of tama drummers, and prepare to settle for another shot of Senegalese tea.
Adam Novick is a producer for Village Pulse, a record label that specializes in traditional African percussion.