Senegal is a multi-ethnic country, and its music reflects that. During the time of French control, some Senegalese even thought of themselves as French rather than African. However, after the Négritude movement took hold during the 1930s, many of the people began to promote their own African identity and Afrocentric culture.
The instruments heard in Senegalese music are similar to instruments used in the cultures of West Africa. And like much of Africa, drumming plays an important role in their music. More specifically, they’re known for a type of drum called the sabar. The sabar drum is brought to us from the Serer people. Originally, it was used as a means of communication and could be heard from nearly 15 km (9.3 mi) away! And I thought marching bands were loud. Sheesh. Other drums include the nder and the tama drums. Of course singing has long been a prominent part of African music and grew out of the griot traditions.
One of the most notable features of Senegalese music and dance traditions is a type of dance known as the mbalax. Meaning “rhythm” in Wolof, this dance was developed during the 1970s in Senegal and the Gambia. Part of it is based on traditional Serer religious music, and part of it is based on rhythms and styles of the African diaspora: jazz, blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop, soul from the US; varieté from France; Congolese rumba and zouk from Africa; several Latin styles from the Caribbean and US. And since they wanted this to be their own urban dance, they chose to sing in Wolof instead of French. The musicians not only use traditional drums but electric instruments as well.
As far as current (more or less) musicians out there now, I came across a few. Probably most notably, rapper Akon is known on an international level. Although he was born in the US (in St Louis, MO), he spent several years of his childhood in Senegal. I bought his album Konvicted back when it first came out in 2006. I think he tends to mix hip-hop and a little bit of R&B along with some Afro-reggae styles as well.
I also found an excellent collaboration between an English blues musician Ramon Goose and a Senegalese griot named Diabel Cissokho. Together, they created Mansana Blues, an album that merges African blues with more Senegalese and West African rhythms and musical traditions. There were times when I heard some of the musical influences from northern Africa, with more Arabian flavors mixed in. It’s an excellent album.
And then I found a rapper who goes by the name MC Solaar. He’s got more of the same dramatic orchestral sound that I love. He reminds me of the French-Congolese rapper Youssoupha, whose mother is actually Senegalese (and I have two of his albums). I really like his stuff. I might get some later on.
I also listened to the band Positive Black Soul. They are more of an Afro-reggae group, but with definite West African rhythms. However, there are also tracks that have more of a dance feel. Daara J is another musician whose music generally almost falls into the same category, but they utilize more hip-hop and Latin styles into their music (they sometimes remind me of the Cuban group Orishas).
Wagëblë is another rap group I sampled. Although the lyrics sound harder (even though I don’t know exactly what they’re talking about), the music behind it tends to use a lot of piano and strings – I really like what I listened to.
Talking about Senegalese music would be remiss if I didn’t mention Youssou N’Dour. Not only is he an accomplished musician, he also served as the Minister of Tourism for Senegal as well as working with many organizations promoting human rights and other social issues. His music draws on many of the rhythms and sounds of Senegal, using traditional instruments along with modern ones. And he borrows many of the Latin styles, soul, jazz, and hip-hop in his music. Baaba Maal is another famous musician, known for his ability to play guitar, percussion, and singing. He mainly sings in Pulaar.
Up next: the food