September 15, 2015
We dance, therefore we are.
Dance, in the African aesthetic system, is not a singular activity. Rather it is a multidimensional social event. To speak of dance, in this context, is to also speak of music. It is also to speak of community because dance is a communal event in the African context. Dance is filled with meaning and reference, with homage and signification, with joy and sheer exuberance. During a discussion following Boston premiere of the film, Sabar, Life is a Dance, a question was asked about the relationship between dance and drums. Chiké Nwofia, producer of the film, explained, “Dance is a conversation, . . .there is a dialogue between the drummer and the dancer, . . .” which is why “no two performances are the same.” It is “an inseparable relationship between the drum, between the dance, and between the people,” Professor Robert A. Bellinger added. Their discussion about the interactive energy between music, movement and community follows.
When the rhythm changes, so must the dance.
The place where the conversation between the dancers, the drummers and the community is most evident is at a tànnibéer or sabar party. These are celebratory, communal events in which all members of the community may participate, or have their say. In the following clip, filmed at a tànnibéer in Medina, Dakar, Senegal in June 2008, these conversations are well illustrated. Some of the elements to be attentive to are:
-the dancers entrance into the circle
-the dancers style and technique
-the dancers interaction with the drummers
-the dancers interaction with the community
-the response of the community to the dancers
To dance is to be healed, reconciled and restored.
– African Proverb
Dancers, because of their ability to illustrate the rhythms of the drum, the memories of the collective past and the beauty of the community, have a significant role. When dancers who do this well enter the circle, it is a special moment. To see a dancer work their magic in various settings over the years, one becomes familiar with that dancers nuances and begin to anticipate their special moves.
This final clip is of one dancer, Colé Mbasse Seck, demonstrating her skills in several gatherings. The first section of the clip is from December 2008 to the rhythm Kaolack; the second section is from August 2005, where she enters the circle dancing Ceebu Jenn, which is later changed to Bara Mbaye; the third section is from July 2006 to Bara Mbaye. Watching the three performances you will get a sense of how this dancer interacts with the drummers and the community. But even as you begin to recognize the dancers particular style, you will also recognize that no two performances of a dance are the same.
August 22, 2015
Doudou Ndiaye Rose
1928 – August 19, 2015
Doudou Ndiaye Rose’s family is from Njanjoor in the Waalo region in the north of Senegal. His parents were Ibrahima Ndiaye and Coumba Rose Niang. Though géwël on both sides his family did not play the sabar. Doudou wanted to play and sought out information from those who knew, particularly among the Lebu. The history and rhythms of the sabar tradition he learned he passed on to his children.(1) Doudou Ndiaye Rose also used his remarkable talents and skills to develop innovations on the traditions that he learned. The most notable innovations are structured music classes for children, developing saber groups composed of women, and the majorettes which still exist today. Another innovation of Doudou Ndiaye Rose is the gorong yeguel, made by tuning one of the lower drums higher.(2)
The innovations Doudou Ndiaye Rose made are presented in the film clip below.(3)
This is the Rosettes in performance at a wrestling match.(4)
- Interview with Mamadou “Thiouna” Ndiaye, oldest son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose by Sipho Faye Bellinger and Kapono Ciotti. July 30, 2005 in Guediwaye, Dakar, Senegal.
- Interview with Mamadou “Thiouna” Ndiaye, oldest son of Doudou Ndiaye Rose by Sipho Faye Bellinger and Kapono Ciotti. July 30, 2005 in Guediwaye, Dakar, Senegal.
- The clips in the video demonstrating Doudou Ndiaye Rose’s innovations come from National Geographic Explorer, c. 1980s. (Géwël Tradition Project Archives)
- The video of the Rosettes performing at a wrestling match is taken from an RTS 1 special: 30 Years of Television, 1972-2002. (Géwël Tradition Project Archives)
August 22, 2015
This video is clips from the April 2008 Sing Sing Tradition concert at Suffolk University in Boston, MA. Vieux Sing Faye, his sons Moustapha and Aziz Faye, and his grandson Malick Ngom were at the university as Distinguished Visiting Scholars and Artists in Residence for the Black Studies Program at Suffolk University. The concert was the culmination of their residency.
August 21, 2015
August 20, 2015
The story of life is best told by deeds. -African Proverb
This statement speaks to the value of life. We are measured by how we live, by how we affect the lives of those around us – especially family and community. This week we have witnessed the passing of two significant Géwël Elders – Vieux Sing Sing Faye and Doudou Ndiaye Rose. As immeasurable as this loss is, this is also a time to remember the deeds of these men. During their lives they each worked to protect the values and traditions that are central to Senegalese society. But they also extended the boundaries of those traditions. Their children will continue to carry their work forward. Their many students will continue to carry their work forward. And we all, as we remember the lives of Pa Vieux and Pa Doudou, will also be carrying their work forward. Asé.
The video begins with comments by Moustapha Faye, eldest son of Vieux Sing Faye and Ndeye Thiam, and then has words from other members of the family.
This is the last interview with Doudou Ndiaye Rose, done after he helped lay Vieux Sing Sing Faye to rest. It is followed by an article about his passing.
August 19, 2015
Vieux Sing Faye
24 June 1937 – 18 August 2015
Sing Sing Faye, Baj Géwël Ndakarou, was an institution not only in the city of Dakar, or the country of Senegal. His significance stretched beyond the borders of Senegal to span the world. But his base was in the community of Medina, and it was here that his significance was experienced daily.
I was fortunate to have Pa Vieux Sing Faye as a father and a friend; to have spent time with, worked with and learned from him. He will be greatly missed by family and friends.
– Sipho Faye Bellinger
March 30, 2015
In the not too distant past, learning about sabar or other African drum and dance traditions required having an actual teacher. In reality, this still holds true. There is no substitute for a good teacher. But now sabar has an on-line presence. As these sites proliferate Americans are getting more exposure to sabar, which is a good thing. However, not all sites are created equal and many of the problems that exist in the real world transmission of traditional cultural knowledge are amplified on-line. This is a presentation of some of these challenges as a way to help those interested in learning about sabar or other drum traditions in their assessment of teachers and websites.
Learning about sabar, or other African traditional drum traditions can be a wonderful journey. However, this journey has many challenges that can make it difficult to learn these traditions. One of the challenges with African cultural traditions is the way they get transformed when they travel outside of the continent. It is kind of like a bad game of telephone because it generally falls prey to certain myths about Africa.
The most damning myth is that Africa is a continent of oral (or preliterate) traditions. In most western minds, literacy is considered to be the cornerstone of civilization, which then relegates non-western societies and cultures to an inferior status. Orality is wrongly considered to be less definite than writing and capable of widely fluctuating. And since everyone is capable of talking and listening, it is also believed that every person in Africa possesses traditional and cultural knowledge. (1)
This connects to another extremely colonialist/racist myth – that every African person can sing, dance and play the drums. The result of this is a view that sees every African person as a knowledgeable cultural scholar regardless of the reality of that person’s actual background. Regrettably, there are many Africans who take advantage of this ignorance by presenting themselves as bearers of cultural knowledge and thus perpetuate and strengthen the belief in these myths. The biggest difficulty with this is that the pseudo-knowledge does not only get passed on to the naïve or unsuspecting “student.” But often travels far beyond the reaches of the person who presents that misinformation. But the myths about Africa do not exist as separate entities. They are usually riding on top of ideas and attitudes that are part of the western self.
Privilege is one of these attitudes. Privilege allows many outside of Africa to feel that learning even a little bit about an African cultural tradition (even though it may only be a little more than they knew when they started) makes one an expert on the cultural tradition. It is not uncommon to see statements on-line about how years were spent learning one or more of these traditions. These statements usually conclude with a claim of attaining mastery. Even when there seems to be some reverence for the tradition there is limited recognition that the traditional drummer or dancer, who is born into and raised in the culture, and speaks the language of the drum’s ethnic group, will achieve mastery only after many years of devotion to the tradition. In most of these cases, the teacher is only named as a way to provide legitimacy for the skills or knowledge they are claiming to possess. This reflects a sense of superiority over African traditional knowledge, so that even when one is learning, they are not really learning. (2)
Once I attended a workshop with drummers from Percussion de Guinea where a young man asked: “How do you get to play so fast.”After an exchange between the translator and one of the drummers he was told: “They practice for eight hours each day.”The young man responded with disdain: “I don’t have that kind of time, isn’t there some secret you can tell us?”
Even when told the path that has been trod to develop expertise, like this young man, many will look for shortcuts. When this attitude is combined with the lack of recognition that a drum is connected to a people and their cultural sensibilities, you have quite a few who assume that it is not necessary to learn technique to play these instruments or to dance to the rhythms they produce.
When this attitude is combined with the unbridled enthusiasm that one has for the tradition, it leads those who are neophytes to think of themselves as more than that and they want to share/teach what they know before they really know it. The internet allows folks to create blogs, websites, tumblers, and what have you to disseminate information that they have not fully grasped.
Another factor that influences the transmission of West African drum and dance traditions in the United States is the domination of the ballet style. It is through the various African national ballets and performance companies that many in the States were first introduced to these systems of music and dance. Presently, the many videos posted, most often on You Tube and Facebook, have taken the primary role of introducing people to these cultural performance traditions. What these two mediums share is that they are both presenting these traditions to audiences outside of the cultural homelands of these traditions. In order to capture and keep the attention of these audiences, the dancing and drumming have to be as “hot” as possible. While this is exciting and fun to watch, it is only one part of the whole. But this is the part that gets people excited and motivated to learn these dances and rhythms.
There is some really good information on-line provided by “students” who have taken time to really study the cultural practice and know it before trying to teach it. I am writing this not to promote or attack any particular site. The purpose of this is to provide some things to consider when looking at information on sites, including this one.
Language, the medium of communication, is often an area where complications arise. In many cases, languages from “the west” (English, French, German, etc) are not the first languages of an African musician. For them to translate cultural concepts and ideas into the western language often leads to gaps or lack of clarity. Sometimes there is a mismatch between the western language of the African teacher and that of the western student; if the translator is not fluent in both the language translated from and the one translated into there can be a loss of information. Sabar drums (and all drums) have names in the languages of the people who play them. Sometimes this cultural knowledge is disregarded, misunderstood, or ignored. In one egregious on-line example it was stated that variance in the names of drums could be attributed to the European language that came with colonization rather than the different African languages that were indigenous to the people. Eurocentric approaches that ignore African systems of knowing are a major difficulty. This can also result in the mispronunciation or mis-spelling of common terms described in on-line writing. Contrary to the “myth of orality” African languages do have systems of writing and thus a way of spelling terms and this should be recognized and understood. However, this requires a level of respect for African systems of knowledge and a willingness to step away from the entrenched ignorance of a colonial mindset. This mindset is reflected in the use of terms that are culturally loaded, such as referring to ethnic groups as “tribes.” (3)
Privileging European epistemic systems is also reflected in assessments or descriptions of the sabar drum and dance traditions. In discussing African cultural traditions from a European perspective, even when the describer seems to be impressed with what is experienced, there is a tone of condescension towards it. So you may find descriptions of sabar drumming as “beating,” “exciting syncopated crazy drumming” or as “chaotic brilliance”; sabar dance may be described as having a “limb-flinging motion” or be compared to martial arts. While these may be apt descriptions of how sabar drum and dance appear to a western mind, it does not come close to describing the actuality of what sabar is.
Another major issue is having a limited sense of the history or culture associated with the sabar tradition. The result of this is viewing the drum as primarily an instrument of entertainment. So even when drums are seen in an event they are thought of as being played “after all the formal ceremonies are finished,” when the reality is that in just about every case drums are an essential part of the formal ceremony.
A western mindset also leads people to try to place sabar in a hierarchical relationship with other systems of drumming. For example there are some who claim that learning to play sabar drums will enable you to play any type of drum. Aside from the fallacy embodied in this notion, this completely ignores African knowledge systems. Sabar drums, and every other drum in Africa, have specific techniques, specific histories and specific rhythms that one must learn in order to play them.
Lastly, the sense of privilege allows one who is outside of the tradition to make conclusions about what the future of sabar should be. This rarely involves any sense of supporting the people who have the responsibility for this tradition. Most often it involves some idea about how to acclimate the sabar to western institutions, such as gyms and exercise places because it is “much better cardio-vascular exercise” than can be found at such venues.
If drum and dance traditions such as that of sabar, are stripped of technique, removed from cultural connections, separated from traditional knowledge systems, and repurposed as systems of physical exercise one has to ask, what does this new form of cultural imperialism mean for the future of these cultural traditions?
(1)For more information on the significance of the oral tradition see the post The Géwël and African Intellectual Traditions March 11, 2009 on this blog site.
(2) An extreme example is a gentleman who wrote about his attempt to become a griot during a 6 month research trip in several countries in West Africa. He wrote about the difficulty he encountered in this despite learning to play several griot instruments and being taken in my a griot family. His lack of success he attributed to “his conspicuously foreign appearance” and his “attempts to remain a disinterested observer.”
(3) While the dictionary definitions of “tribe” and “ethnic group” do not vary greatly it must be recognized that words not only carry denotative meanings, but connotative meanings as well. The word “tribe” has connotations of being primitive while the term “ethnic group” does not. For a discussion of how words can represent privilege and domination see the article “Why Are White People Ex-Pats When the Rest of Us Are Immigrants?” http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration
August 6, 2014
Shake hands now and come
Hands are a very important part of the human body. It is with our hands that we experience the world. The sense of touch is most intimately associated with the hands and we like to use our hands to touch things – to feel their textures, their temperature, their weight, their density. There is a reason for that. Fingers are some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body and thus are the richest source of tactile feedback.
The hands also have the greatest positioning capability of the body which allows us to use the hand not only to perceive the world that is within our reach, but to also manipulate the world around us. This is due to the skeletal structure of the hand. The skeleton of the human hand consists of 27 bones, most of which (14 bones) are the phalanges or the bones of the fingers. There are 5 bones that connect the fingers to the wrist (metacarpals) and 8 that connect the wrist to the forearm (carpals). The fixed and mobile parts of the hand adapts to various everyday tasks through the arches formed by the relationship of these bones to one another. There are longitudinal arches (the rays formed by the finger bones and their associated metacarpal bones), transverse arches (formed by the carpal bones and distal ends of the metacarpal bones), and oblique arches (between the thumb and four fingers). 1
Hands are particularly important to those who play traditional drums because it is the hands that bring out the sound of the drum, even when that hand is using a stick. Yet there is no one particular type of hand that is more suited to the drum than any other. A drummer’s fingers may be long and thin or short and thick; their palm can be enlarged by callouses or smooth like a baby’s skin; they may be hard or supple; they may be old or they may be young. And just like people, no two drummers will have the same hand. This is one of the things that makes a drummer’s hands special. As special as a drummer’s hands are, they are often an unnoticed aspect of drumming.
Like other paired organs, (eyes, feet, legs), each hand is dominantly controlled by the opposing brain hemisphere, so that handedness, or the preferred hand choice for single-handed activities such as writing with a pencil, reflects individual brain functioning. Handedness, ones preferred hand choice, is very significant in drumming. Also ones handedness affects which hand plays the dominant role, especially when you are first learning. But to be an effective drummer you have to develop a balance between the hands, so that your weak hand becomes as strong as your dominant hand, and so the sounds between the two hands match. This is one of the first steps towards developing the balance, or equilibration that drummers need to have. As Sule Greg Wilson wrote in The Drummer’s Path, “If both your hands work, then so do both sides of the brain.”2 The balance between the hands reflects the balance between lobes of the brain, which reflects ones deeper connection to/understanding of rhythm and time. It is also an important part of the journey towards balance between the physical, the mental and the spiritual.
In discussing drums, percussionist Rocky Maffit said ”under knowing hands they [drums] are capable of complexity, subtlety, and power.”3 The particular phrasing of this comment is significant. It is the hands that bring out the drum’s range of expression because the hands are “knowing.” The idea that the hands of the drummer possess a particular body of knowledge that allows them to bring out the voice of the drum is an insightful description. An important part of a drummer’s training involves developing the hand -its sense of touch, the shape of its arches, its movement through space – so that it can make the drum talk.
In his song Grandma’s Hands Bill Withers sings about the many skills that were expressed through his Grandma’s hands. In one line he says: “Grandma’s hands played the tambourine so well.”4 It was not the Grandmother, but her hands that held the knowledge of how to make the tambourine sing.
A drummer’s trained hands are a wonder to behold. “The drummer’s hands stroke, dart and weave, like a boxer’s hands.” A drummer’s hands can bring out the full expressiveness of the drum. A true drummer understands that drums are not just struck, but that they can also be tapped, snapped, brushed, rubbed, and stroked and they are able to use their hands to caress the full range of tones and slaps from the skin on the drum. It is the hands of the drummer that enables drums to communicate, to “rustle, ripple, march, dance, bend, and buzz.“ A drummer’s hands can make “drums laugh, but can also” make them “give voice to tears.” A drummer can use a rubbed finger to make a drum moan, use a slap to make the drum shout or use a caress to make the drum whisper or tell secrets. It is through the hands of the drummer that drums become the life of the party, whether providing the rhythm for a carnival strut, a slow burial pulse, or for a rebellion.5
It is not only playing rhythms, the combinations of tones and slaps. A drummer’s “knowing hands” are not only skilled in the production of sound. They also understand how to manipulate the energy of the sound. The drummer knows how to either send the sound energy through the body of the drum and into the earth, or pull the sound energy from the drum and send it out to the heavens.
In the hands of a trained drummer, the drum communicates. On the earthly plane the drum is part of a community and shares the values, emotions, and aspirations of its community and it is able to communicate aspects of that community’s history. So traditionally speaking, the drum is the voice of the community in which it is a member. To say a drum is a member of the community is to recognize the drum as a being. After all each drum has a body, and each body has a particular shape and size. And once the skin is attached a drum has a head. But it is the drummer’s hands that bring out the drum’s voice. It is when the human skin of the hand comes together with the skin of the drum head, whether that is cow, goat, lizard or other, that the drum is brought to life and is able to share its message with the community.
But the drum is also a spiritual entity and is a vehicle of communication between the world of humans and the world of spirits. But whether it is being played for earthly or spiritual purposes, traditional drumming is not about the drummer. The drummer is merely the vehicle that the message comes through. To play traditional drums, one’s hands become part of the drum and one’s being the extension of the drum. The drummer is a conduit for the passage of the rhythmic energy between the corporeal and spiritual planes.
In order to do this the drummer must take the time to develop that most tactilely sensitive part of the body – the hand. The full preparation of a drummer’s hands is not only a physical undertaking. It must also encompass the mental and the spiritual for a drummer’s hands must be an extension of the brain and of the heart. To be a traditional drummer means that one is engaged in developing “the head, the hand and the heart.” This is an essential, though often overlooked part of drumming.
1. General information about the structure of the hand from Wikipedia entry on Hand (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand)
2. Sule Greg Wilson, The Drummer’ Path, 40. Additional information about the relationship between the hand and the brain from Hand Movements by J. Randall Flanagan and Roland S. Johansson (http://psyc.queensu.ca/~flanagan/papers/FlaJoh_EHB_02.pdf),
3. Rocky Maffit, Rhythm & Beauty, the Art of Percussion, 65
4. Bill Withers, “Grandma’s Hands” on Just As I Am, 1971
5. excerpts from Rocky Maffit, Rhythm & Beauty, the Art of Percussion, 45, 62 & 63
January 1, 2014
This has been a somewhat quiet but constructive year for the Géwël Tradition Project. The focus has been on using the materials from the archives to present ngéwël history and culture and the work of the project to the public through presentations, publications and an increased on-line presence. Our biggest accomplishments were:
Géwël Tradition Project opened a Face Book Page
Moustapha Faye was the Visiting Scholar and Artist in Residence for the Black Studies Program at Suffolk University, Boston, MA. Moustapha’s fourth residency for the Black Studies Program was a huge success.
The Géwël Tradition Project: Supporting A Living Tradition
An article on the Géwël Tradition Project was published in the Spring issue of African Arts Magazine.
Dancing Through Time and Space: African Dance and the Géwël Tradition of Senegal at Suffolk University
An article on the dance class that the Project has taught at Suffolk University since 2005 was published in the Journal of Pan African Studies, an on-line journal.
The Géwël Tradition Project would like to wish everyone a prosperous and productive New Year! May we all continue to learn from and share with each other. And int hat spirit we invite you to continue to visit the Géwël Tradition Project’s blog and Facebook page. We also invite you to read the articles about the project in the publications above, and please let share your comments on either the blog or Facebook page. Thank you for your continued support in 2014.
January 1, 2014
The child looks everywhere and often sees nought; but the old man sitting on the ground sees everything. –Wolof
One of the most important natural resources that a community has is its elders. It is said that a long life brings wisdom. An elder is a repository for a lifetime of learning and experience as well as for the wisdom gained from his or her elders. So a physically long life, by linking to previous generations adds cultural, historical and spiritual length to a physically long life. And because during their lifetime elders have welcomed many when they entered the world and have bid farewell to many who have departed, elders know their communities. This is why they are and should be revered. To gain knowledge from an elder, to have the opportunity to listen to or converse with an elder, and take in the wisdom that such an exchange will bring, is a special thing. But it is an even greater blessing when one can sit in the shadow of an elder, even if only for a brief time. To share space with an elder during moments of quiet reflection, to feel the wake of their energy, amassed over their lifetime, washing over you, and through you, informing you and enriching you with its power. This is special. As we start the new year The Géwël Tradition Project would like to remember all of the elders who have made a transition from this plane, especially Elhadji Moussa Faye and Nelson Madiba Mandela.
A parent dies in the body, but not in the minds of the children. –Ganda