InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Jan 2003
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Sabar Accompaniment to the Wrestling Matches and Lion Dances of Senegal

By Kirsten M. Jensen

Adapted from "Gender Roles in Sabar Performance," by Kirsten Marshall, Copyright © Kirsten M. Jensen 2003. All rights reserved.

In Senegal, a sabar is a type of drum tuned using seven pegs. Traditionally, the body of the sabar is made from the trunk of a baobab tree. These trees are believed to contain spirits that give guidance to those who will listen. The seven pegs are made from a different kind of wood, and are said to represent the multiple drums that are part of the traditional Wolof ensemble. The drumhead is usually goatskin, but on some small drums, lizard skin may be used instead. The sabar is usually played using a thin curved stick.

Jensen playing sabar
The author playing sabar with Mo (Mamadou) Diagne

Although Wolof drummers buy the wood and skins from working men, they make and tune their own instruments. Traditionally, sabar drummers were members of the griot "caste." It is difficult to define griots in a sentence or two because their multi-functional roles are vast and complex. Nonetheless, a traditional story told me in Senegal explains what these men do.

A long time ago a Wolof village was fighting with a neighboring village. At one point the people decided they needed someone to accompany the warriors to battle to sing their praises and virtues in order to boost their confidence and morale and fight better in battle. They also wanted the same person to come home with the warriors and be the one to announce to the village the outcome of the war, who had died, who had survived, and who had done well. They appointed one man to be this praise-singer and announcer. After time, they decided he should have an instrument to accompany his singing and announcements, this lead to the birth of the Wolof sabar drum. This man would go to war and lead the army on the front lines, singing praises, and return to make an announcement. All the villagers would gather to hear the results of the battle. This is why the Wolof name for griot is guewel, which means to gather. (Personal interview with Tafa Faye, April 12, 2001.) Until the early 1980s, Wolof drummers were male. Today, however, there are a few female drummers in Senegal. To this day, boys learn how to drum from their fathers, in a mostly informal atmosphere. The youngsters observe their fathers drumming and begin to imitate the sabar rhythms on their handmade tin can drums. The fathers will correct their sons if they see them doing something wrong, either in the rhythm or in the technique. If the father feels confident in his sonís Mbalaq or accompaniment rhythm, he will ask the son to play an accompaniment part on one of the sabar drums for a ceremony or performance. The father will then encourage or critique him as necessary. This teaching method allows the father to go about his drumming without spending much time teaching his sons how to play. The sons watch, listen, imitate, and practice.

Sabar drumming takes place in three major contexts, and each sabar rhythm has a specific purpose or time when it is played. The first context involves musical performances in theatrical settings. These include political rallies as well as tourist events. The second context is community ceremonies such as marriages, baptisms, circumcisions, virginity celebrations, and womenís association meetings. The third context is during wrestling (Wolof: Lamb) matches and lion (Wolof: Simba) dances.

The rhythm heard during wrestling matches is called Barambaye, and only men dance it. In Senegal, there are taboos against women and drumming. When women are menstruating, they are supposed to stay away from the drummers and not touch the drums themselves. If they do, it is believed that it will bring bad luck to both the drummer as well as the woman. In addition, there are taboos associated with women and intimacy. For instance, a drummer is not supposed to be intimate with a woman and then drum afterwards without taking a "spiritual shower."

This is very noticeable in the sabar accompaniment to wrestling matches. Wolof wrestling, Lamb, is very popular in Dakar. Each wrestler has his own sabar drumming group and the competition between the sabar groups representing each wrestler is almost as important as the competition between the wrestlers. I attended a few of these events, and the sabar groups seemed to line the wrestling ring.

Each wrestler would come and talk with his drummers, often huddling together. The night before the wrestling match, the drummers construct new sabar drums. Inside these drums, they place the wrestlerís personal talismans or protections. The drummers also spend the night at the home of the wrestler so as not spend the night in the home of their wives. This is another example of the taboo against intimacy and drumming.

The dancing that the wrestlers do is different from the dancing that women do. The menís dancing is more a dance of force, a dance to show oneís strength, rather than oneís grace. This is especially noticeable in another male context, the Simba dance.

Simba dance
Man dancing Simba, the Lion

The Simba performance is based on an old Wolof legend and is a type of re-enactment. In the story, a whole village is burned down and the only person remaining is a young boy. Since this boy has no one to raise him, lions adopt and raise him. After he grows into his adulthood, he becomes a type of lion-boy. After a time, another village develops with a new community of people. The lion-boy tries to go and befriend the people of the new village, but he is rejected because the people are frightened of his lion qualities.

During the Simba performances, Wolof men in their early twenties dress up as lions with elaborate face paint. Cowry shells line their clothes, and round calabash shells hang in strategic places. They coat their bodies with oil, highlighting their muscles. (These men are usually in very good physical condition.) The men take on a new persona in these costumes and give frightening stares to anyone who looks their way. Often they even kick up the dirt behind them, as if they are rearing to pounce on someone.

I attended my first Simba performance after a sabar class in Guedejwei, a town outside Dakar. My friend Mo Diagne and I had heard the sabar drumming from the beach where we had our classes. Mo Diagne knew it was "Simba," as he had heard word of it earlier in the day. We followed the sound of the drums until we reached a roped-off gathering of mostly young children. Two Simba lions stood outside and glared at us. Mo Diagne motioned me to follow him and we went over to where a man was selling tickets. Later it was explained to me that a purpose of the gathering was to raise money.

During the performance, there is constant sabar drumming, and the Simba lions dance to show their strength. While they are dancing, they go around checking everyoneís ticket. If you are caught without a ticket, you are beaten. During the performance, a Simba lion came over and checked my ticket. Then, all of a sudden, we heard a siren and everyone got up and ran. I started to get up, but Mo Diagne told me to wait. The Dakar police came in and broke up the gathering. Apparently, these Simba gatherings are not legal without authorization from the police because funds are gathered.

Editorís note: For some background to sabar technique, as taught by Mapathe Diop, try

This study could not have been possible without the efforts of the following people.

I would first like to thank the University of Washington Undergraduate Education Department for awarding me the 2001 Nelson Mandela Scholarship, which allowed me to travel to Senegal.

I am very grateful for Sandra Chait, Associate Director of the Program on Africa for always being there for advice and guidance.

I would also like to thank WARA/WARC (West African Research Association / Centre) and African Consultants International / Baobab Centre (ACI) for helping me setup logistics for my stay in Dakar.

To Leon, Rose, Eda, and Sarita for delicious food and wonderful talks in SICAP Baobab (including the great company to Youssou N'Dour shows down the street at Thiossane).

I am indebted to my collaborator, translator, assistant, and friend Yacine Diedhu from Liberte SICAP who spent almost every day with me offering near perfect translation and invaluable insight into women and music in Senegal.

Thanks to the Papa Diop family in Pikine Talibou Bess for opening their home to me and bringing me in as part of the family. Also to Mo Diagne, and Thione's family in Pikine.

To the Sing Sing Rhythm Family in Medina for the wonderful Tandabeers (night sabar drumming performances) and to Kevin King for introducing me to everyone there and coming to pick me up at 1:00am to find these performances.

To Ismael, Arona, and Soloman on N'Gor Island for reminding me that the most important aspect of drumming is enjoyment and friendship.

To the person who inspired me to embark on this project and the one who summed it up with such grace during my last week in Senegal, master griot, internationally known sabar musician, and Chef Tambour Major, Doudou N'Diaye Rose. Also to his daughters and granddaughters who are showing the world women can play sabar.

Finally, my special thanks to my amazing parents and brothers for all their support and love and to the spiritual forces and protections that kept me happy, healthy, and safe through the duration of my travels.

InYo Jan 2003