Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Verbal and Acrobatic Strategies in Senegalese Wolof Wrestling

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Verbal and Acrobatic Strategies in Senegalese Wolof Wrestling

Article excerpt

Senegalese Wolof wrestling is a largely untapped resource of narratives in which individuals who claim the title of champions of their profession praise themselves in terms that reveal their extraordinary verbal dexterity and physical prowess. Drawing on a variety of images, symbols, and themes, Senegalese wrestlers use words and literary devices in order to perform an oral art in which they brag about their strength and intrepidity with much bravado and ego in an attempt to instill fear or awe in their opponents. Yet such performers are not devoid of occasional humility. They frequently acknowledge the importance of their elders and peers, and at times, they pay them their elaborate respects. In so doing, the performers successfully use the narrative strategies of the griot. Incorporating audience re- sponses and giving the audience the opportunity to participate and take pride in this process, Senegalese wrestlers narrate their triumphs over adversaries in the same ways the griots used to praise kings, wrestlers, and other nobles. The wrestlers are praised in turn by griots and griottes (traditional singers) whose primary role in traditional African societies included the eulogy of heroes and heroines who triumphed over fierce adversaries. However, there are times when the wrestlers adopt the griots' functions and appropriate the griots' role of proclaiming the triumphant deeds of others in order to celebrate themselves. In being their own griots, Wolof wrestlers transgress the binaries and taboos between upper and lower castes in Senegal. Traditionally, Wolof wrestlers come from upper castes, while Wolof griots come from lower castes. However, even if, as Gorer suggests, Wolof wrestlers are accompanied by their griots to the arenas (49-50), modern fighters who usually come from noble (or gèèr) families praise themselves in bàkk and, thus, challenge traditions that regard extroversion and singing as the privileges of griots only. Extroversion and "shameless behavior" have traditionally been perceived in Senegal as inappropriate for upper-caste men. Drawing on many oral narratives of Wolof wrestlers and traditional griots, I demonstrate how these performance texts fit into the neglected Senegalese oral genre known as bàkk.

Defining Bàkk

Magel divides Wolof literature into six categories, including cosan (historical narratives), leb (folktales), lebatu (traditional proverbs), caax (riddles), woi (songs), and bida (magical-religious beliefs) (67). According to Magel, the six categories can be divided into two groups, such as cosan or "that which is believed to have actually occurred in the past, that which is accepted as true," and "all the other verbal art forms," which "are considered as imaginative creations, not to be accepted at face value" (67). One verbal art form that Magel does not mention is bàkk (boasting accounts). Bàkk (also spelled as baku, bakku, bakkous) are narratives that one uses to vaunt one's prowess in situations such as physical combats (as in wrestling), political speeches, and other conversations in which a person recounts his deeds and achievements as a means to impress the audience and instill fear or admiration in his rivals. Although they are apparent in many festivities such as baptizing ceremonies, weddings, political rallies, and other occasions, bàkk are commonly heard during wrestling matches, in which they reveal the combatants' crucial role in Senegalese culture. Camara and Mitsch write: "One of the three professional wordsmiths is the wrestler, whose song is the bàkk. With his words, he aligns himself as poet with himself as wrestler, whence the reflexive verb bàkku. The wrestler and the champion are designated by the same substantive in Wolof, mbër" (172). Indeed, the mbër plays an important role in Senegalese society, since he successfully appropriates the art of the griot to celebrate his combat prowess.

Irvine defines bàkk as a performance involving both praise and drumming (148). …

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