Singing to the Heavens

Elias Estabrook - Senegal


May 2, 2012

Rhythms run through the blood of the Senegalese. As much they depend on their daily dose of thiebudiene, rice and fish, or atayaa, sweet tea, seldom can you find them without music.

Radios broadcasting ensembles of drums, some full and steady, others quick and pattering  — the nation’s most popular genre, mbalakh — accompany my cousins to the fields, urging them to toil on with a little more pep in their step.  At weddings and baptisms it’s the proper time to dance, as women flail their arms and stomp their feet to the drumbeat and the griot’s theatrical singing. If you’re lucky enough you might catch Youssou Ndour, the true king of Senegalese music, when he and his masterful band enchant a swaying, joyous crowd at one of Dakar’s nightclubs. In more tranquil rural towns, international tunes blare from aged stereos or flashy cellphones. Young men lounging around storefronts mouth the words to jams by Rihanna or Jennifer Lopez, or bob their heads to Lil’ Wayne and Jay-Z. Inside homes and shops, TVs run an almost endless reel of music videos, with everything from vibrant settings to breathtaking choreography. Change the channel, and you’ll find that wrestling matches are nothing without their pregame festivities, marked by groups of massive wrestlers showing off their quick feet and explosive style to the sound of djembe and tama drums.

Most fascinating and previously-foreign, however, is the spiritual and melodious chanting of the Quran. In my devout Muslim host community in particular, young men abandon the hip hop lyrics and incessant drumming to sing about God in flowing phrases of Arabic. When the dahira, the men’s religious group, convenes  a recitation every Thursday night, I find myself in the middle of a fusion of poetry slam, rap concert, and musical church service. Projected through microphones, the boys’ voices resound across the tranquil landscape, reaching the ears of surrounding villages and maybe even the star-filled heavens above.

Here (click on the link below), in video form, is a taste of that musical experience:

http://youtu.be/xde17ECkt4s

Elias Estabrook