Drumming in the Shadow of a Satellite Dish


Standing on the threshold of a mud house, Kebba Jafouneh lifts a drum above his head and taps out the name of a drummer who is missing from our recording session. We have no other way to call him. We are only a couple hundred feet from the main highway in the Gambia, but we have crossed into a world still without electricity and phones. While we wait for the drummer to arrive, my eyes keep turning to the giant Gamtel satellite dish by the highway. Its white, curved back looms over the courtyard wall like a planet that had drifted near us. The sight of the dish renews my anxiety that time may be running out for the traditional Mandinka drum music that Carl Holm and I have come to record. Drum music still plays a role in daily life for many of the cultures in Senegal and the Gambia. But lifestyles are changing, and the changes are presenting musicians and their music with unprecedented challenges. Rushing to embrace Western culture, West Africans risk losing a vast musical heritage.

Flourishing traditions

Traditional percussion thrives so vigorously in West Africa, it might seem ludicrous to suggest that it is at risk. Walk for a day anywhere in Senegal or the Gambia, and chances are you will hear some style of traditional drumming. Passing through the countryside, you might see a Mandinka percussion ensemble playing for women while they hoe a field in rhythm. Walking through a village, you might run into a Serer troupe drumming for a "baptism" - the common name for the ubiquitous childnaming ceremonies. Or perhaps you will come across a troupe of Wolof children drumming on plastic containers and tomato cans, stopping to tighten the plastic bags they use as skins. Wandering at night, you might pass a courtyard full of Qadiriya worshipers swaying to the rhythm of Tabala Wolof drummers, or you might hear bougarabou drumming drifting from a Jola celebration in another village.

The widespread demand for traditional music still sustains a class of professional drummers. Sabar drummer Mapathé Diop, who now teaches and performs in the U.S., recently joked that he used to make more money playing in Senegal.

Unprecedented changes

Change is nothing new to traditional music in West Africa. Today, the Mandinka play an orchestra of three drums, but oral tradition says they adopted the drums from the Firdu Fula. Before that, the Mandinka apparently drummed on calabash gourds floating on pans of water, a style of drumming that continues today among some Mandinka women. Bourgarabou drummers now play four drums; a century ago, they played only one.

Nor is change necessarily bad, for every tradition began as an innovation. But West African life is changing at an unprecedented rate and in unprecedented ways. Modern transportation has already ended the use of slig-log drums for long-distance communication. Among the Jola, only a handful of people still know how to play their version of the slig-log drum, called the emombulai. Marathé Diop still knows a rhythm traditionally played to summon help for a snake bite, but he refers to it as something from the "old days."

An influx of radios and boomboxes

In many parts of Senegal and the Gambia, Western technology is just starting to arrive. Telephones are still far from common, but as of this year, we can call from Seattle to many of the artists we have recorded - or perhaps, call their neighbor.

In villages with electricity, most convenience stores now play a radio or boombox, and many neighborhoods have at least one television. In the rural areas, few people can afford batteries, but everyone wants a Walkman or a boombox. People asked us for these items more often than anything else.

Consumer electronics are affecting traditional artists in two ways. First, they are beginning to erode the demand for professional musicians. In Dakar, we attended a Jola baptism, where people danced not to a live bougarabou drummer, but to a homemade tape of bougarabou drumming, played through a rented public address system. There, we also attended a Wolof baptism, where only the first half of the entertainment was live sabar drumming. The rest was taped Afropop.

Second, consumer electronics are helping to fuel an interest in Western and Western-influenced culture. Until recently - and perhaps still in some areas - people heard only the music of their own culture and of the cultures around them. Now, radio stations offer a continual diet of Afropop, as well as reggae and Cuban salsa. A thriving black market in cassette tapes offers a variety of music that at times struck us as remarkable. We passed boomboxes playing French accordion music, early American country and western, Korannic singing, Bob Dylan, and Mauritanian folk music.

An eye and an ear toward the West

A year after immigrating to the USA, Mapathé confessed to me he now realized he had taken the richness of his people's music for granted. Like many West Africans, he had set his mind toward America, without distinguishing between its standard of living and its culture.

In Senegal, the interest in contemporary Western music has given birth to the style of Afropop called m'balax. The style is named after the basic supporting rhythms in sabar drumming. Band members are typically steeped in traditional percussion. At a baptism in Dakar, we saw an impressive sabar performance by Youssou N'Dour's lead dancer. But m'balax incorporates only a fraction of the wealth and complexity of sabar or any other style of traditional West African percussion.

Nevertheless, m'balax has captured the hearts and minds of young Senegalese and Gambians. Mamadou Ly, a veteran Mandinka drummer and a founding member of the National Ballet of Senegal, has taught several generations of Mandinka drummers in Senegal and the Gambia. But he expressed dismay that kids are no longer interested in learning Mandinka drums. "They want to listen the new way," he said, referring to m'balax and other styles of Afropop.

Mapathé recently told us his son Thione has now become a master drummer in his own right. "When someone wants to have a baptism, now they send a cab for Thione and his troupe." But Mapathé also says Thione spends much of his time playing in a group "like Youssou N'Dour."

The influx of Western instruments seems to be everywhere. While we were staying in Dakar, some young Serer women from our compound proudly took us to hear a Serer drum troupe performing down the street. Upon arriving, we found the drummers joined by a man playing a red electric guitar. When we were negotiating a recording contract with seventh generation Tabala Wolof drummer Boubacar Diagne, Boubacar surprised us by asking that we never permit his troupe's music to be mixed with synthesizers. We had no idea he even knew what a synthesizer is. Yet despite his concern, he refused to record without letting Qadiriya worshippers sing through a public address system, as they normally do.

Changing lifestyles

Perhaps the biggest threat to traditional drumming comes from changes to the way people live and work. Life is so intricately intertwined with music, almost any change to lifestyle could change the region's music. Obviously, if Mandinka farmers ever become able to afford tractors, their farming rhythms will become obsolete.

Among the Jola, some music is played only during male circumcision. This month-long mass ritual, which occurs only once every decade or so, is difficult and painful. Today, perhaps as many as 30% of Jola men choose instead to be circumcised by a doctor. As the ritual serves to transmit traditional Jola culture from one generation to the next, this development threatens more than just the music.

Adapting to the inevitable

The threats to traditional West African percussion are hard to characterize as cultural imperialism. The changes that are occurring clearly appear to result from free choice. What could be freer than the consumer electronics market or a thriving black market in cassette tapes? And given the nature of the forces driving the changes, the changes are probably inevitable. What concerns Carl and me is that these changes are so rapid, they could erase a vast musical heritage before the world - including West Africa - appreciates what it has lost. Senegal alone has approximately 26 languages, and each of these represents a culture with its own styles of music and dance.

Researching the liner notes for our recordings, I was surprised by the lack of scholarship in West African culture in general, and in the region's traditional percussion in particular. Few styles of West African percussion have been recorded or studied in any depth, and some remain to be recorded at all. Some of the styles of drumming seem fathomlessly deep. The Wolof, for example, play drums to put children to sleep and to heal the insane. Before these traditions disappear from daily life, we hope they can be more fully documented and given a chance to live on as art.

Positive developments

The governments of Senegal and the Gambia have taken some positive steps to promote the traditional music of their people. In downtown Dakar, the government has established an arts center which provides a place for professional folkloric troupes to rehearse. The grounds include the home of Senegal's best known sabar drummer, Doudou N'Diaye Rose. Doudou performs internationally and serves as a de facto cultural ambassador.

The Senegalese government has also sponsored the National Ballet of Senegal. Founded more than a quarter of a century ago, the troupe has performed a variety of traditional music has performed a variety of traditional music and dance in almost every nation in the world. In the Gambia, the government has aired a regular radio broadcast of traditional music. Carl and I first heard it while staying at the compound of a Mandinka drummer in the Gambia. Each day, when the show was about to start, the compound's bustling courtyard fell to a hush while the adults gathered around to hear it on a transistor radio.

However, Senegal and the Gambia apparently do not have the resources - or possibly the interest - to document their traditional cultures, nor to market their traditional cultures through audio and video recordings.

Technology as a solution

Recent developments in audio electronics have made a new generation of field recordings easier and less expensive to produce. Similar developments in video editing systems will soon make video productions much more affordable. REcordings such as ours are helping to document the region's music to some extent. In our case, the recordings also provide traditional artists an opportunity to earn royalties from their recordings.

We are encouraged that the interest in traditional music appears to be growing in the West, especially for drum music. However, despite the huge commercial success of some hybrid recordings by new-age labels, the market for pure traditional music is still relatively small. For now, at least, it cannot sustain the level of documentation and study we feel the region's music deserves. However, in the next decade or so, the development of broadband internet access may permit affordable high-fidelity audio and video broadcasts to niche audiences throughout the world. If content is king, as the internet community currently maintains, the cultural heritage of West Africa could provide an interesting future for its traditional artists.

Another recording session is over

With the satellite dish still looming over us, we have finished our recording session and are cleaning the dust off our mic cables with baby wipes. While we work, the troupe's singer asks if we can send him a battery-powered megaphone. Without it, he explains, he simply cannot compete with other Mandinka singers.

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