Islam and Popular Music in Senegal: The Emergence of a 'New Tradition'

Article excerpt

The city of Dakar is a visual and verbal testament to the pervasive influence of Islam on Senegalese popular culture: ubiquitous fleets of yellow and blue cars rapides, the city's main transport system, display across their hoods the word alhamdulillahi(1) (Praise be to God); streets are named after important local Muslim figures: Allees Thierno Seydou Nourou Tall, Autoroute Seydina Limamou Laye; businesses such as Clef Minute de l'Islam (Islam Instant Key) on Avenue Blaise Diagne incorporate religion into their name: images of the mosque of Touba, the holy city of the Mouride Sufi order, grace the facades of small restaurants and bread kiosks; and in a local nightclub, well dressed Dakarois dance to popular singer Youssou Ndour's hit song about the founder of the Mouride order, Cheikh Amadou Barnba. In this article I explore the influence of Islam on a single aspect of Senegalese popular culture, but one which more than any other has transcended international boundaries, namely popular music.

Almost every Senegalese popular musician has a repertoire that includes several songs that could be characterised as Islamic, but the vast majority of them take the form of praise songs not to God but, like `Mame Bamba', Youssou Ndour's hit mentioned above, to a marabout or Sufi religious leader. I suggest that such songs represent the emergence of a `new tradition' in which the form of the griot's praise song, originally sung to honour ruling families and nobility in Wolof, Haalpulaar, Mande, and numerous other societies of the western Sahel, converges with the reality of a social order that is based on a uniquely Senegalese variety of Sufism. The trend is new in so far as `pop' music is a relatively recent phenomenon, having been introduced into Senegal, according to Panzacchi (1994), after World War II via American, European and Afro-Cuban music that was played in Dakar nightclubs; the trend reflects tradition in so far as it borrows from preexisting forms of verbal art.

The analysis presented here places the emergence of this hybrid form of praise song in its social context by examining the dynamics and entailments of two patron-client relationships, one secular, one religious, that dominate the structure of Senegalese society. The first to be discussed is the secular relationship between griots and the people they praise, while the second is the religious relationship between Sufi leaders and their disciples. In the light of these social considerations, I will suggest that the recent adaptation of the praise-singing tradition to Islam represents the opening of a middle ground in which a multiplicity of cultural, religious and commercial factors converge to shape the nature of contemporary Senegalese popular music.

In one of the earlier scholarly studies of popular culture in Africa, Johannes Fabian remarks on the importance of music as a cultural force: `in countries such as Zaire, popular culture comprises a complex of distinctive expressions of life experience ... Excepting perhaps the sports, popular music is undoubtedly the most conspicuous carrier of this new culture' (Fabian, 1978: 15). Fabian's observation on the role of popular music in Zaire can also be extended to Senegal, where the cultural importance of popular music culminated in its central role in the 1988-89 urban movement known as Set-Setal. Youssou Ndour's song `Set' (`Clean') actually became an anthem of sorts for the multifaceted movement which comprised numerous aesthetic, cultural, political and even spiritual dimensions, and whose most visible effect was the cleaning up of Dakar streets and the appearance of colourful murals and monuments throughout the city.(2) But in addition to the important influence of Senegalese music at home, Senegalese musicians are, among Africa's best known and most popular in the international sphere, thus the added factor of an international audience and market is a potential force in shaping the future of Senegalese popular music. …