Asalaa Maalekum, everyone! This week I wanted to shine a spotlight on just a few kinds Senegalese music and dance. Feccal means ‘dance!’ in Wolof. Music and dance are intertwined in Senegalese culture, so much so that it’s hard to talk about one without the other. Something I experienced on a regular basis was that in situations where people in the Pacific North West (Seattle, Portland, etc) might feel shy about getting up and dancing, Senegalese folks never seemed to have that hesitation. If there was music, it was only natural that someone would be grooving along. This post will be mostly videos – feel free to watch just a minute or two of each, to get an idea of the sound or movement, but I highly recommend you watch all of the last video on this post!
First we have Sabar, the traditional drumming and dance of Senegal. Sabar is a historically Serer music and dance (my host family is Serer!), originating hundred of years ago in the Senegambia region. Sabar dance is big and full of energy, using the dancer’s arms and legs to their fullest. I only saw Sabar being danced a few times while in Senegal – at a dance performance, and at my brother’s wedding. Though it’s not danced as often as other, more modern dances, even my 6 year old sisters knew the basics of Sabar and would try them out every time a song came on while watching TV. (It was adorable).
In Wolof, Mbalax means ‘rhythm’, and it is used to describe the specific rhythms used in Sabar music. However, the rhythms of Sabar and the more modern genres of jazz and pop fused together to create it’s own genre, also called Mbalax. Youssou N’Dour is the most famous Mbalax singer in Senegal, and I’ve heard it said that his music has done more for the country than all of the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations – organizations that do aid projects in Senegal, usually) in Senegal combined. Any time Youssou N’Dour came on the TV or radio, each of my family members would stop what they were doing to sing and dance along. Some other famous Mbalax singers are Pape Diouf, Coumba Gawlo, and Cheikh Lô (though Cheikh Lô is more of mix of genres).
The Kora is an instrument native to West Africa, specifically in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Burkina Faso. It’s a 12 stringed double-bridged lute harp (wow!), and is traditional to the Mandinka peoples. It’s made with half a calabash shell, wrapped in cow hide to create the drum base. How is the Kora different or similar to other ‘classical’ music and instruments you have heard?
Senegalese music and dancing isn’t all Sabar and Mbalax! People listen to all sorts of pop, rap, jazz, and hip hop from all over the world (every time I introduced myself I received a “Oh, Rheanna? Like the singer? I love her!). However West African pop, mostly from Nigeria, was by far the most popular. This song was blasting everywhere during my time in Senegal, accompanied by the dance Maître Gims does in the video. Most pop songs come along with a specific dance, much like the Whip Nae Nae, that everyone knew how to do. The few times I went out to the clubs, people would be dancing their hearts out to Nigerian pop until 6 in the morning. Do you like this song? Do you think it would be popular in the U.S.? Why, or why not?
There are many, many more kinds of music and dance styles from Senegal that I would love to explore with you, and hopefully I can play some for you when I come visit! This video above was made by a dance studio right next to my house in Mermoz, making an A-Z alphabet of different styles of African dance. How many did you know about before this video? Which ones would you like to try out?
Ba ci kanam, insh’allah!