Djembe & Mande Music Page/Review Section(last revision on 02/11/99)
TITLE: AFRICAN PERCUSSION: MANDINKA DRUM MASTER ARTIST: MAMADOU LY FORMAT: CD NUMBER: VP 1001 COMPANY: VILLAGE PULSE
TITLE: AFRICAN PERCUSSION: TABALA WOLOF, SUFI DRUMMING OF SENEGAL ARTISTS: VARIOUS FORMAT: CD NUMBER: VP 1002 COMPANY: VILLAGE PULSE
THESE CDS ARE DISTRIBUTED BY STERN'S AFRICAN RECORDS. PHOTOS AND NOTES IN ENGLISH AND FRENCH.
TITLE: AFRICAN PERCUSSION: SABAR WOLOF, DANCE DRUMMING OF SENEGAL ARTISTS: VARIOUS FORMAT: CD NUMBER: VP 1003 COMPANY: VILLAGE PULSE
I have the distinct pleasure of sharing with you a review written by Roderic Knight for the journal Ethnomusicology. I want to thank both Dr. Knight and Ethnomusicology for allowing us to use this review. You might want to visit their respective websites:
I also want to thank Eric Charry who kindly agreed to write a short introduction to Dr. Knight's work on Mande music.
Roderic Knight's 1973 UCLA dissertation on kora playing in The Gambia was the first of its kind. An accomplished kora player, Knight has written extensively on Mandinka music culture, including an unsurpassed article on drumming ("Mandinka Drumming," African Arts, 1974, vol. 7, no. 4, pages 24-35). His excellent Music of the Mande video series documents important aspects of Mandinka music in The Gambia and Senegal. He is a professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory College.
Review by Roderic Knight
From ETHNOMUSICOLOGY. Copyright 1994 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
With one fell swoop, these recordings, graced with the impeccable clarity and fidelity that we have come to expect of the digital process, fill a gap in the documentation of West African drum music. Until now, djembe drumming by the Maninka of Guinea, a companion genre to those presented here, was the only one well represented in commercial recordings. These releases document three more traditional genres that are widely popular in Senegal, where the
recordings were made, and in the case of the first and third, in neighboring Gambia as well.
From the style of presentation of these CDs, it appears that these releases are intended primarily for the growing general public with a taste for traditional African music. While this audience will undoubtedly gain much satisfaction from the immediacy and clarity of the recordings, the listener interested in a closer look (such as in the typical academic setting in which the recordings might be used) will find the accompanying written and pictorial documentation disappointing.
The recordings were made in Senegal in January and February of 1992. Each has a good cover photo in color, plus one or two others, but the latter are of postage-stamp size. The written documentation, although done carefully, is only a thumbnail sketch, filling barely two pages of the booklet. For the most part, the performers and their instruments are identified and described, but the actual instrumentation (especially in the Wolof sabar examples) is not always given. Any analysis of the rhythms or formal structure of the music is left to the listener. The titles and a brief attribute of each item are given, but not much more. Thus, although we learn the names of rhythms and for what sort of event they are played, the broader picture is missing: how common is the event, what is the typical
sequence of events, where does the music fit in, who takes part, how long is it, and what portion are we hearing? Although some of the selections are of ample length (between six and eight minutes), others are barely a minute long. Is the sequence on the recording condensed from a typical event, or has the sequence been altered? Finally, the majority of the recordings were made at prearranged recording sessions. While this is quite suitable for some types of music, and does help to assure a studio-quality recording, for events so eminently communal as drumming, the result is a noticeable emptiness. Where is the crowd milling around, talking, reacting, handclapping, shouting, and singing in loud choral response to the song leader? Some of the recordings were done on-location, but not enough to counterbalance the others. On the Mandinka album, although a few singers and handclappers are present, their numbers are small compared to the crowd that is usually present, and close miking of the drums further relegates them to the distant background in the recording.
In spite of the shortfall in documentation, these recordings represent a significant contribution to our knowledge of three major drum ensembles. A summary of their contents is given below.
Mandinka Drumming (VP 1001). Mamadou Ly, the leader of this
three-drum ensemble, is Gambian by birth, but was responsible for the Mandinka drum troupe in the National Ballet of Senegal for 25 years.This tradition, known as tantango drumming (though the term is not given in the notes), is the Senegambian equivalent of djembe drumming heard in Guinea and Mali. The performers, their instruments and basic techniques, and the basic performance settings are described in the notes, but the selections are a
potpourri of various events. Fittingly, the most time is given (in
selections 1, 5, 8, and 12, totaling over twenty-five minutes) to "Lenjen" (or "Lenjengo") and "Fere," the most commonly performed recreational dances. Mixed in with these, in no particular order, are some other recreational dance rhythms ("Karoninka," "Dimba," "Bougarabou," and "Bansango"), two rhythms associated with initiation festivities ("Chingo" and "Jambadon"), and two with wrestling matches ("Madiba" and "Yovoringo"--correct spelling:
"Nyoboringo"). A notable inclusion, mostly for the sake of human interest, is thirty seconds of spoken greetings between two of the drummers at the end. After a rapid exchange, the younger asks the elder if he is drumming well, and the elder replies that yes, he has learned properly, as evidenced by the girls dancing and singing happily to his beat.
Sufi Drumming (VP 1002). The tabala genre is the least familiar of the three on these CDs, and the only one that is not for dancing. The ensemble, led by Boubacar Diagne, consists of one very large and four smaller single-skin kettle drums, producing a polyrhythmic texture equally as complex and appealing as the dance drumming, but with a more leisurely pace. It is music to accompany devotional songs of the Khadriya Sufi order. Five of the selections (numbers 7-11), totaling over twenty-eight minutes, were in fact recorded at a "special religious celebration" with a men's chorus (and in one case a women's chorus) responding to an amplified (and thus
badly distorted) song leader. Unfortunately the actual event is not
identified, nor is the significance of the women's chorus versus the men's chorus, nor are the content of the songs or the titles of the drum rhythms given. The other selections, each identified by name, feature the drum ensemble alone. Again the notes do not indicate whether these items are always played alone, or whether this was done for the sake of demonstration. Lacking this information, one may nonetheless appreciate the clarity of individual parts, the technique of clicking the drum sticks on the drum shell, and the multi-toned sound of the ensemble.
Sabar Drumming (VP 1003). The twenty selections on this CD represent a unified whole--the variety of rhythms and associated dance steps that might be performed at a typical recreational dance event in Wolof communities, beginning with the usual warm-up rhythm. The exuberant sexuality of the dance style is described and some general comments are given about the style of the event, but these recordings are all devoid of context, so we hear no clapping, shouting, or squeals of delight. It is also not clear from the notes what an actual sequence of these dances might comprise and whether one might hear all of them or only some of them. Some of the items are also too short. "Yaba Composé" (number 6) is especially intriguing, starting slow, accelerating, then shifting rhythm, but it ends after only one minute. The leader of the ensemble, Mapaté Diop, and two other drummers are named, as are the instruments of the ensemble named and described. But since an ensemble may consist of between five and seven drums, it is not clear how many we are hearing in each example. Particularly notable are the examples
featuring the tama, a small hourglass drum, usually in duet or with other drums of the ensemble (numbers 12-17). The virtuoso and expressive nature of this drum is nowhere better demonstrated. The last three items (18-20) were recorded in Seattle with three drummers. They are models of studio clarity and help one decipher what is going on in the larger ensembles.
Roderic Knight Oberlin College
(submitted February 15, 1994)