Of all the locations in Dakar, the Sing Sing Géwël House in Medina is an enduring representation of Senegalese culture. The Sing Sing Family, the family of the Baj Géwël Ndakaru or Head Géwël of Dakar, is responsible for the historic, cultural and spiritual traditions of Dakar. The knowledge possessed by this family provides a connection to the region’s past, stretching back over two centuries of generations on the Cap Vert peninsula. But they are also significant to the present day as members of the Sing Sing family have also been an important part of the popular music scene over the years, providing rootedness and innovation.

On a very immediate level, because of their skills as musicians and dancers, members of the Sing Sing family are very often featured in popular video clips in rotation in Dakar. On another level the tradition and artistry of the Sing Sing family is alluded to through the use of images or other signifiers. The focus of this discussion is the use of géwël iconography, specifically the image of the Sing Sing Géwël house in Medina.

The home of the Sing Sing family in the community of Medina is a traditional compound of wooden structures. A white wall runs along the front of the compound, distinguished by the phrase Sing-Sing Rythmes written on it in large letters. It is a welcoming place and throughout the day people come to the compound to visit, to seek advice, to sell wares, to hire musicians and dancers, or for countless other reasons. So in addition to music and dance, this place has significance to the larger community for many reasons.

The Sing Sing Gewel House.

The Sing Sing Géwël House, Medina, Dakar.

Historically, this is the oldest géwël house in Dakar. It has the strongest connections to the forces, energies, traditions, and people of the Cap Vert peninsula. This compound, and it’s outer wall, symbolizes the géwël and the central role that their multitude of roles play for the community. This house has become an icon or image that represents deep roots in the cultural (especially music and dance) traditions of Senegal.

While knowledge of the Sing Sing family may not be readily known outside of Senegal, those who know the cultural landscape of Dakar or of Senegal will most likely know about the Sing Sing family.  The commonality of this knowledge in Senegal allows for interesting visual conversations to take place. Through the manipulation of images an additional layer of information is added to every visual dialogue. If one is familiar with Senegalese videos, one is aware of how they use iconography to sign and signify.

An example of the iconic use of the Sing Sing Géwël House is found in jembe drummer Mor Thiam’s 2005 CD Back To Africa. The Sing Sing family is represented on the project since Mbaye Dieye Faye, a son of Vieux Sing Faye, Baj Géwël of Dakar, plays sabar on the CD. But Mor Thiam also signifies a connection to the géwël tradition in a more subtle manner. On the inside back cover (behind the CD), Mor Thiam includes a photo that features a woman dancer surrounded by a group of drummers.

Photo from Mor Thiam's Back to Africa CD.

Photo from Mor Thiam's Back to Africa CD.

The inclusion of this photograph says a great deal. This photo was taken in front of the Sing Sing Géwël compound in Medina, Dakar and the drummers are all members of the Sing Sing family.  The most prominent drummer in the group, sitting to the front right of the picture, playing the cól (thiol) is Vieux Sing Faye, the Baj Géwël Ndakarou. To the left of the photo, in a kneeling position with his back to the camera is a gentleman that appears to be Mor Thiam. Since the CD was not recorded at the géwël compound, and Vieux Sing Faye does not play on the CD (though his son does), the inclusion of this photo clearly has a purpose.

In the liner notes it says that this CD is Mor Thiam’s recording debut as a leader. This project is thus an opportunity for him to express his ideas, not only musically but also in the presentation of that music to the public. The liner notes say that for Mor Thiam this CD is a gesture of “fealty to the traditions and musical circles that launched him in the world-at-large.” He titles the CD Back to Africa, and he literally takes the project back to Africa. He records it at Xippi Studios, Youssou Ndour’s studio in Dakar. He uses Senegalese musicians. And each song is either traditional Senegalese music or inspired by traditional musical forms. And what better way to underscore and signify on the theme of Back to Africa than to position oneself at the location that is associated with deep cultural and musical roots – the Sing Sing Géwël House. This picture is a statement of both his close connection to Senegal’s traditions and his géwël heritage. It is another symbol of his respect for “the traditions and musical circles that launched him.”

Another example of the géwël house being used to represent roots and tradition is in a 2005 music video by Amadou & Miriam, the blind husband and wife singing duo from Mali. The video, Fast Food Senegal, a song about migration, is set in Senegal. A significant portion of the video is shot at the Sing Sing Géwël compound and features members of the Sing Sing family. Some of the children dancing and playing, and quite a few of the young men and women shown in the video are members of the Sing Sing family. In the scene where the young man consults with elders before embarking on his journey, the elders are Vieux Sing Faye and El Hadji Moussa Faye, the two patriarchs of the Faye family. And it is in the Sing Sing Géwël compound that he says his good-byes before departing on his journey. The Sing Sing compound, serving as the home community of the central character in this video represents stability, tradition, connection. Here the character is known and has a place. But this is all left behind, replaced by a set of documents, once he embarks on his journey.

The inclusion of the Géwël house in the video is also a way of connecting Amadou and Miriam to the heart of the music scene in Senegal. This is signified in the departure scenes where one of those giving the central character a good-bye handclasp while holding a baby in her arms is Vivianne, sister-in-law of Youssou Ndour and a major part of the popular music landscape in Senegal. Youssou Ndour’s cameo as a cab driver is an additional signifier of the connection to Dakar’s popular music scene.

This video is significant to the Géwël Tradition Project for other reasons.  The story depicted in the video – a young man who leaves Senegal for Europe in search of a way to make a living, separated from family and community, subject to constant surveillance – is all too familiar in Senegal. The Géwël Tradition Project is working to develop options for young géwëls other than that of departure.

Sipho Bellinger in front of the Sing Sing Géwël House.

Sipho Bellinger in front of the Sing Sing Géwël House, 2006.