Sabar as a Living and Modern Art, Part I

November 29, 2009

Sabar as a Living and Modern Art – Part I, Kapono Ciotti

The Origins of Dakar’s Ultra-Hip Music Scene

A storyteller once told me that ‘all stories are true, and some of them actually happened.’ All the stories I’m going to tell you today are true, and having lived in Senegal, and having traveled throughout West Africa I believe that all of these stories actually happened this way. But you can decide for yourself.

If you had the opportunity to hear Dr. Belinger’s lecture on the origins of the Faye family, or you have studied the griot of West Africa you probably have a good picture of what it means to be guewel.

The guewel are the griot, or hereditary historians of the Wolof, Serer, and Lebu of West Africa. Among other thing, their role is to keep family histories through stories and song, to be the council of leaders in the government and to be the keeps of the Sabar.

It’s their role of ‘keeping the Sabar’ that I am most concerned with today, and it’s what I am going to spend the majority of this lecture on.

You are born guewel. “Dret la”. It is in your blood.  There is no substitute for guewel blood and no way of escaping being guewel if that was your born destiny.

The Senegalese Griot and the Mande Djeli

In the early thirteenth century somewhere between the current-day borders of Mali and Guinea lived the Chief Maghan Kon Fatta Konate, rule of Mande. Like the archetypal story goes, he had a royal wife and they had already had a son, Dankaran Touman, who was born to inherit the kingdom. But as fate and the gods would have it Maghan Kon Fatta Konate was meant to marry another, a woman of lowly rank and class, in fact even deformed and hunched-back woman at that. From their union was born Soundjata Keita, a boy of lowly birth, but favored by the spirits to one day unite West Africa under the Mande Kingdom. This is a long and intricate story, but one critical component was power given Soundjata by his griot or djeli, Balla Fasekke Kouyate.

In the Mande tradition the djeli is also a hereditary station in society. Story teller, singer, player of many instruments, but not the djembe, West Africa’s most popularized instrument. The djembe was reserved as the domain of the blacksmith some have said.

Today in countries that once made up the Mande Empire on is called to the djembe. There is no blood quantum requirement to play the djembe, there is no last name, or family association required to take up the art form. Schools of djembe have been set in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal by world-renowned musicians such as Famadou Konate, Mamady Keita, and others. Master djembe players take appranties or apprentices and pass on their knowledge to them.

In a subtle contrast, the griot, or guewel of the Wolof, Serer, and Lebu are also hereditary historians, however, their charge includes the main percussions instrument of the region, the Sabar.  And it is this small difference that is the root of very important role Sabar has played in the modern music scene of Senegal.

We’ll come back to this idea in a little bit.

Lak Daro Mbaye

Sing-Sing u Birame Gueye, Kewe yaye ou Awa Diange, Badj Guewel Ndakarou.

Mali Baye Manga ak Djakheri Baye Mangi, Boubou yoroup Soumbedjoun Kewe yaye ou  Menga Ndiaye. Aboulo Korothi.

Somewhere at the end of the eighteenth century or the early nineteenth century, when Dakar was still a village and the wind off of the Atlantic ocean had not yet been replaced by diesel exhaust, the Faye family patriarch, Birame Gueye Faye lived in his family compound where the neighborhood of Medina, Dakar currently stands today, the same place is ancestors, Vieux Sing Faye, Tapha Faye and Malik Faye still live. There were no city streets yet, no buses, or bikes, just walking paths from house to house and farm to farm. Like most families, the Faye family, besides being guewel kept a small farm.

Birame Gueye Faye had two sons,  Mame Sing-Sing Faye and Mousse Yess Faye. Well one day as the eldest son, Mame Sing-Sing returned one evening from farming on his plot, which was located in the direction of the neighborhood called Fann, his encountered a great spirit, one named Lak Dawr Mbaye. The Lebu of Dakar have long and complex relationships with the spirits of the plateau. Each district has their own spirit, which sometimes acts as a guardian, but other times can wreak havoc on the people.

Meeting a spirit along the path home must have been startled Mame Sing-Sing at the least. He was probably in fear of his life. At this particular meeting the spirit was not in a malevolent mood and as the two talked Mame Sing-Sing offered to leave Lak Daro Mbaye offerings of millet, milk, and other foods at the ceremonial spot called a khambaye at their family compound.

Over the years this knowledge helped the family be the pre-eminent geuwel of the region.

Both brothers, Sing-Sing and Mousse Yess took up the vocation of their father, however Sing-Sing, as the older brother took on the responsibility of keeping up the relationship with Lak Daro Mbaye and Mousse Yess took on the responsibility of becoming the villages Imam, an esteemed role in a predominantly Muslim country.

These brothers were Badj Guewelu Ndakarou, or the chief griots of Dakar and had an important role as advisors to the village chiefs. This relationship between the Faye family and the government of Senegal continues today as the family’s patriarch Vieux Sing Faye is retired from his government job and still acts as chief drummer at political rallies and events as well as presiding over the Ndawrabine ceremony, a ceremony that marks Dakar’s government leaders.

Dakar’s Sabar Scene

This relationship with Lak Dawr Mbaye and their place as the Badj Guewelu Ndakarou placed Sing-Sing’s grandson, Vieux Sing Faye at the forefront of a postcolonial music scene.

As Sekou Toure, Guinea’s president was forging ties with communist Russia, and China and recruiting the counties best drummers and dancers to star in his Ballets Africans, Senegal was creating ties with Western Europe and had a much smaller cultural resurgence. However the place of Sabar remained integral to life in Dakar.

As Dakar became an international port and center of commerce, so did the it attract guewel from all across Senegal: from the region of Kaolack the Djeri Djeri family of Thio Mbaye, from Walo-Walo the family of internationally renowned drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose, which forever changed the landscape of the sabar scene in Dakar.

As families formed their own drumming troupes in the capital city, rivalries and friendships formed. Vieux Sing Faye and his contemporaries, Doudou Ndiaye Rose and Ma Cheikh Mbaye, while being the closest of friends were also the fiercest of rivals, each, choosing his own path to fame on the sabar scene.

Each took turns filling roles in the National Ballets, each took turns on World tour, but the most coveted of positions was to be the most sought after troupe to play a Tanember.

A Tanember is the late night women’s dance gathering that is the mainstay of Dakar’s nightlife.

So at this point we pass through what we might consider history and I can start to explain how sabar created the roots of the ultra-hip music scene in Dakar.

Kapono Ciotti presents Sabar as a Modern and Living Tradition.

Kapono Ciotti presents Sabar as a Modern and Living Tradition.
Kapono Ciotti giving talk on the sabar tradition.

Kapono Ciotti giving talk on the sabar tradition.

Kapono giving talk on Sabar as a Modern and Living Tradition.

Kapono giving talk on Sabar as a Modern and Living Tradition

Moustapha Faye, Aziz Faye and Malick Ngom demonstrated the sabar tradition both before and after the presentation by Kapono Ciotti.

Malick, Aziz and Moustapha demonstrate the sabar tradition.

Malick, Aziz and Moustapha demonstrate the sabar tradition.

Those in attendance included faculty, students, staff and members of the Greater Boston  community.

At the talk on Sabar as a Living and Modern Art, photo exhibit by Prof. Ken Martin.

At the talk on Sabar as a Living and Modern Art, photo exhibit by Prof. Ken Martin.

Ndeye Ngom Faye takes a picture of her husband giving his presentation.

Ndeye Ngom Faye takes a picture of her husband giving his presentation.

Lamine Diallo and Lamine Touré listen to Kapono Ciotti's presentation.

Lamine Diallo and Lamine Touré listen to Kapono Ciotti's presentation.

Prof. Duncan Vinson and Prof. Stevan Radojev listen to Kapono Ciotti.

Prof. Duncan Vinson and Prof. Stevan Radojev listen to Kapono Ciotti.

Zapo Babilée and Prof. Ken Martin film and photograph the event.

Zapo and Prof. Ken Martin film and photograph the event.

Suffolk University student Matthew Wagner listens intently.

Suffolk University student Matthew Wagner listens intently.

Dean Kenneth Greenberg.

Dean Kenneth Greenberg.
Kapono Ciotti and Moustapha Faye.

Kapono Ciotti and Moustapha Faye.

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One Response to “Sabar as a Living and Modern Art, Part I”


  1. this is a good blog. will come back regularly to read more write up


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