Where Ancient Meets Urban…

I remember when I was about nine years old going to the Chicago Field Museum and wandering through the Senegal exhibit. When I sat down in the museum’s replica of a colorful Dakar public transport minibus called a “Car Rapid” and watched a film that gave the impression that you are riding in one driving around Dakar, the busy sights and sounds on the screen amazed me. Little did I know that years later I would be sitting among people in colorful African bubus, using one of these minibuses as my daily mode of transportation, witnessing the very same sights and sounds I’d seen in the film. In fourth grade I got exposed to Senegalese music when my teacher invited a kora player into the class to teach us about the griot musical tradition in West Africa. It made a great impression on me and sparked my interest in African music, but I never imagined I would be spending a year of my life in Senegal, witnessing griot culture live and direct.

Flash forward to my senior year at Knox College. I took part in organizing a concert for Black history month aimed to bridge the experiences of Africans and African-Americans through music. We invited the Senegalese hip-hop group Gokh-Bi System to perform. They combine traditional Senegalese instrumentation with funk, hip-hop, and reggae rhythms, and rap in Wolof, English and French—they rocked the house! (They are part of a group of artists represented by Ancient Meets Urban Music…yes, I based the title of my blog on their label name— it’s the perfect description!) Through working with and becoming good friends with the members of this group I was made aware not only of the extent of the hip-hop scene in Dakar, where it is estimated that there are over 3,000 local hip-hop groups, but also of the complexities surrounding the roles of griots in contemporary Senegalese society. Even still, after a decade of interest in Senegalese music and culture I couldn’t fathom that two years later I would be calling Senegal home.

Now I find myself living in Senegal, with the incredible opportunity to spend a year soaking up Senegalese culture and exploring the ways that contemporary music, specifically hip-hop, lives along side and interacts with the rich Senegalese griot tradition.

Let’s backtrack a bit… a griot is a French term used all over West Africa to refer to a person who is part of a hereditary line of traditional artists/musicians/historians/storytellers. Before colonial times, griots from every ethnic group in West Africa kept oral histories and made their living by performing songs of praise at ceremonies for nobles. While griot culture is still very important and prominent in Senegalese society, the succession of colonization and the slave trade, globalization, modernization and other changes within the country has caused people to create new art forms that adapt the art of their ancestors to modern context– the most pervasive being hip-hop.

So, the question becomes: how does a 24-year-old griot, for example, who has grown up listening to American rap and R&B but also listening to their parents and grandparents sing and play drums at different ceremonies, use all of these influences to create music that reflects her identity as contemporary, urban and African?

I have now been in Senegal for more than a month and the prominence of music in daily life here is astounding. The air is filled with music and sounds at all times… every evening as the sun sets I hear haunting religious chants, crackling sabar drumming, the newest mbalax release blaring (which happens to be Thione Seck’s Diaga at the moment), followed by the newest Rihanna hit. Every taximan, bus driver, and Car Rapid conductor, is always playing music from reggae to old school American hip-hop to 1970’s Cuban rumba. Griots still sing praise songs at weddings, baby naming ceremonies, religious festivals, and there are hip-hop shows and rap battles every weekend. The crossroads of ancient and urban in Senegalese society, and especially its music, is undeniable.

For the first month I was staying with a family in a suburb of Dakar called Pikine. Pikine is known for being a crucible of culture…. The suburb came to be about fifty years ago when people from many different village regions of Senegal came to Dakar to find work. This melting-pot of a suburb means that there is representation of traditions from many different ethnic groups. Just in my host family’s neighborhood alone there are families from Serer, Wolof, Jola, and Peul ethnic groups. Living in this area was quite an experience. I had a crash course in Wolof, spending every day with a big, big, big lively, loving family in a neighborhood that resembles more of a multi-ethnic recomposed urban village than best online casino a city neighborhood. I would stumble upon something amazing around every corner, ceremonies to dance parties to local concerts… every day was a surprise!

The biggest event in my first month was the holiday of Tabaski. Tabaski, or Eid al-Kebir, is the holiday where Muslim people celebrate the devotion that Abraham showed to God by being willing to sacrifice his own son. At the last moment, God who was pleased by Abraham’s utter devotion, sent a ram to be sacrificed in place of his son. Now, Muslim people all over the world sacrifice a ram to symbolize this devotion to God.

In Senegal, where 90% of the populations is Muslim, the holiday is based on religion but is also an occasion for a big family get together. The days leading up to Tabaski are a bit like that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the states when people are frantically shopping and preparing for a big family party…. Traffic around Dakar was horrendous (more than it usually is), the town was full of the hustle and bustle of people moving around buying potatos, onions, transporting rams strapped to the tops of cars, buying fabric to have new extravagant outfits made, buying new shoes and accessories, cleaning houses and braiding hair… and braiding hair… and braiding hair…. I’ve never seen so much hair braided in my life!

In my host family’s house six rams were killed, one bought by each married man. They were skinned and cleaned by the men, and cooked in various delicious ways by the women. Some of the meat was grilled, some was saved for later to be eaten with rice, and some was given away to needier families. After Tabaski if you’ve eaten too much lamb and feel a bit sick, people say in Wolof “khar bi dala mbeuk?” which means “Did the sheep give you a good head-butt?”

The night after Tabaski is a time to dress to impress, take pictures, and go out and dance! The women, especially, are absolutely stunning in their perfectly tailored, beautifully embroidered, colorful dresses. Each neighborhood usually has a big sabar party on this night…. Sabar is the name of a traditional kind of drum played in Senegal and also the name for the kind of music that is played on the drum as well as the dancing that goes along with it. The sabar party consists of lots and lots of people gathering in the street in big oval with the drummers (always men) at one end. Hundreds of women sit in plastic chairs around the oval and run into the center and dance up a storm when they hear their favorite sabar rhythm played. Sabar dancing and drumming is extremely complicated and there is a special dance to go with every rhythm and new rhythms are created every day. Much like new songs or new fashion, there are new popular sabar rhythms every few months.

Sabar drumming is the special skill that most male Wolof griots learn while growing up.
I can’t wait to meet some drummers and dancers and learn more about this, look out for a more in-depth post soon…. For now, here’s a little taste of what a sabar party is like. The clip is a bit noisy and chaotic but such is life in Senegal…

I have had an amazing whirlwind of experiences in these last weeks and it has taken some time for me to get in the swing of things… to understand the layout of Dakar, to learn how to bargain for taxi prices, to get used to certain inconveniences of the developing world (ex, electricity cuts), and to get a general grasp of how thing work here. My first month showed me a broad spectrum of music and culture in Senegal without me really even trying to discover it. Now that I’m feeling comfortable and confident I’m prepared and excited to delve deeper into the music scene.

It is clear that griot culture is alive and well in Senegal and it is also clear that hip-hop culture is thriving. I’m looking forward to diving in and getting a more profound understanding of what both of these musical cultures mean to people.

16 thoughts on “Where Ancient Meets Urban…

  1. Wonderful writing on your new experiences in Senegal! I am a friend of your mother. We attended Jr High and High School together – even sang in the choir with one another. Have a wonderful year in ,what appears to be, a very vibrant culture…


  2. What an exciting start of your journey. Like Gil, I, too, am a jr/sr high friend of your mother’s who shares her love of music and all the arts. I look forward to future postings and the chance to learn about a culture so new to me.


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