Talking Drums Of The Walo Walo

Tama Troupe

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.

Tama Troupe

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.

A Music Known To Few Outsiders

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 Troupe

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.

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Drum Talk

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.

Tama Troupe

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.

A Fat And Tubby Bass

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.

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Tama Troupe

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.

Tama Troupe

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.

Tama Examples

DRUM! Notation Guide

Tama Music

Adam Novick is a producer for Village Pulse, a record label that specializes in traditional African percussion.