Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal

Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal

Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal

Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal


Masters of the Sabar is the first book to examine the music and culture of Wolof griot percussionists, masters of the vibrant sabar drumming tradition. Based on extensive field research in Senegal, this book is a biographical study of several generations of percussionists in a Wolof griot ( géwël) family, exploring and documenting their learning processes, repertories, and performance contexts-from life-cycle ceremonies to sporting events and political meetings. Patricia Tang examines the rich history and changing repertories of sabar drumming, including dance rhythms and bakks, musical phrases derived from spoken words. She notes the recent shift towards creating new bakks which are rhythmically more complex and highlight the virtuosity and musical skill of the percussionist. She also considers the burgeoning popular music genre called mbalax. The compact disc that accompanies the book includes examples of the standard sabar repertory, as well as bakks composed and performed by Lamine Touré and his family drum troupe.


Griots are best known as artisans of the spoken word. Serving as oral historians, genealogists, storytellers, and praise-singers, griots have played a significant role in cultures throughout West Africa for over seven centuries.

This study examines the role of Wolof griots in contemporary Senegalese culture. Unlike griots from other ethnic groups who are known for their verbal artistry, Wolof griots (géwël) are unique in that they are masters of the sabar drum. in Senegal, sabar drumming appears in everyday events ranging from life cycle ceremonies to sporting events, political meetings, and the popular music scene.

A closely guarded tradition, sabar drumming has been passed down for centuries from one generation of géwël family percussionists to the next. Traditionally, rhythmic phrases (or bàkks) played on the sabar were derived from spoken word, allowing the drums themselves to “speak” through rhythmic representations of verbal utterances. in recent times, there has been a shift toward creating new bàkks that are no longer based on spoken word but are rhythmically more complex, highlighting the virtuosity and musical skill of the percussionist. This development suggests that Wolof griots should not be seen as verbal artists but rather as percussionists, for it is their skill as drummers that has allowed them to perpetuate and enhance their role in Senegalese society.

This book focuses on several generations of percussionists within one géwël family, the Mbaye family. By examining their changing musical repertories, performance contexts, and creative processes, I explore the way géwël percussionists have used the sabar drum to adapt to changing social realities. Through the sabar drums and the rhythms associated with them, the hereditary knowledge of Wolof géwël is largely responsible for the continued empowerment of griots in Senegal and beyond.

The griot phenomenon is found in many societies throughout West Africa. Written descriptions of griots date back to 1352, when the North African traveler Ibn Battuta described his encounters with griots at the court of Mali. in . . .

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