A few years back I prepared a mixed media exhibition called Sabaru Demb – A Rhythmic Experience. It consisted of sounds and texts on Senegalese rhythms of sabar and stories related to them and their origins, and on their transmission. It proved to be a very popular show among visitors at the time and I remember having thought that I would like to show the work elsewhere too. Now is the time that I want to return to the material and add something new to it in the form of photography and perhaps video too. Sabar is, after all, also very visual!
The way sabar permeates the Senegalese society is wonderfully complex. If you have ever visited the country, you understand how sabar belongs to everybody and can be found, heard and participated in practically everywhere and any time of the day – or night. The beat that carves itself into your auditory memory – or dance moves – can be inspired by a number of things, for instance by the national fish and rice dish ceebu jën:
“You have to spice your Ceebu Jën. Otherwise, your husband will divorce you!”
Or rhythms can describe the area in which you live, such as the fertile land of Waalo in the north:
“Waalo-Waalo! Waalo-Waalo! The Sugar is in Waalo. The water is in Waalo. The rice is in Waalo. Waalo-Waalo! Go up to Dagana. Go up to Richard-Toll. Go up to Ndar-Geej. Waalo-Waalo! Say whatever you want. Do whatever you want. You don’t dislike. You don’t like. All happens! Come on Ndaanan, man or woman. Woman! Woman! Woman! A woman herself needs to have nice teeth. Nice teeth! Man! Man! A man himself needs to have money. Money! Money!”
The apprenticeship* in sabar is much about learning by mimicking and soon enough it becomes, as one artist in our residence recently put it, “a way of being.” Children are allowed and encouraged to take part in playing with drums already when the drums are still taller than them. When you are in a griot‘s house and dance sabar, you are being watched and encouraged to show that you have got the move, and there are no measures of what is right or what is wrong even if the choreography for each rhythm can be very complex. If you think of your steps too much, you’re already a little behind with the rhythm! When you dance sabar you “expand” and show your real height, and that’s what I really love to watch.
Sabar is also present in almost all the Senegalese films that I have seen. Watch Djibril Diop Mambety’s short La Petite Vendeuse du Soleil and you’ll see a bunch of girls with polio dance sabar on the streets of Dakar; or meet the enigmatic dancer in Hyènes by the same director; Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s adaptation of Bizet’s opera in Karmen Gëi has an opening scene in which two female protagonist challenge each other into a sabar duel; and similarly there is a fantastic opening scene of a wrestling match in Moussa Tourés’s La Pirogue. Every time I see sabar in any form, I take this indescribable pride in being connected to it. On a wider level, my interest in the sabar culture relates to my interest in movement. It may well be that I’ll have the chance to go back to Ethiopia later in the year. If this happens, I would really love to document the language of movement there too. But more of that later.
* A highly recommended book reference for anyone interested in the apprenticeship of sabar drumming: Patricia Tang’s Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal is based on her own experience among some notorious drummers. A good read.