Sabar Drums

Sabar Drums

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 by 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?”