Academic journal article African Studies Review

Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal

Article excerpt

Patricia Tang. Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. xiv + 209 pp. Photographs. Musical Transcriptions, Maps. Notes. Glossary of Terms. References. Discography. Interviews. Index. Includes CD. $79.50, Cloth, $27,95, Paper.

Patricia Tang's book on sabar music of the Wolof people of Senegal joins a growing list of works devoted to West African drum languages. The sabar drum is a single-headed membrane drum that is usually played in an ensemble of six to twelve players. Drawing on extensive fieldwork, this study situates sabar music within the Wolof indigenous caste system. In Wolof traditional societies, sabar drummers, an endogamous caste of musicians known as gewel (or griot), entertain and eulogize members of the geernoble caste. This book reaffirms the importance of key features of African drumming, including the conception of drum sounds as speech surrogates, the hierarchical nature of polyrhythm, and the complex interactions between repeated and improvised patterns. More significantly, Tang explains how social patterns of generational shifts within a particular sabar family mirror transformations in the larger Senegalese society. Richly illustrated with musical transcriptions, photographs, and a CD recording, this book of seven chapters also discusses the contribution of sabar musicians to the development of mbalax, a modern idiom that Youssou N'dour has helped propagate around the world.

Tang's ethnography is lucid and engaging. It privileges the voices of sabar drummers themselves and discusses the critical role of their individual agency in attuning their music to the changing needs of their environment. The author explores the links between musical sound and social identity by explaining the significance of two basic types of musical material, rythmes and bakks. Rythmes are short, repetitive patterns that are associated with specific dance patterns. Bakks, by contrast, are extended musical phrases, often composed over time, and usually associated with specific families. Interesting gender issues arise in connection with the performance of sabar music. …

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