Journey Within

African Music as Social Fabric
Harris Eisenstadt

Abdoulaye Wade post-election posters; Dakar
Abdoulaye Wade post-election posters; Dakar                                                            Harris Eisenstadt©2007

Introduction: Why Africa?

I received a Meet the Composer Global Connections Grant to do a project with Senegalese filmmakers and musicians in Dakar March 2007. It had taken me more than four years to find a way back to West Africa, where I spent two months in 2002-03, studying Mandinka kutiro drumming, staying at the home of Gambian griot Foday Musa Suso. That trip had a profound effect on my worldview. I was floored by the nobility with which Africans lived their lives, often in the face of incredible material poverty, as well as their hospitality.

I came close to returning in 2004, when I was awarded a residency by a Swiss/Senegalese arts organization to attend an artist residency in Senegal. The project was cancelled due to lack of infrastructure. I had been so excited to go back, and was so disappointed when I found out the residency was cancelled. It was back to the drawing board. When I found the Global Connections program on Meet the Composer’s website in early 2006, I called up my friend, composer Willow Williamson, and we began to get our application together.

Willow was almost 9 months pregnant the day we finally finished our application! When we found out that we were successful a couple months later, we were elated and surprised. The logistics of Willow traveling with 9-month old Lamine were made easy since Willow’s husband, Souley Sao, is Senegalese, and his parents have a compound in Dakar. I stayed with them for 4 weeks. A week after arriving in Dakar, I went back to Brikama, Gambia for 10 days. It was fascinating to get a sense of the differences between a West African town (Brikama) and a major West African city (Dakar), as well as mud hut, thatched-roof village life on the overland trip from Dakar to Brikama. Amazingly, I felt more overwhelmed returning to Dakar from Brikama then I did returning to New York from Dakar. This speaks to the degree of Dakar’s urban sprawl and Western (read: French) influence. It’s Africa, it’s a developing world capital, but it’s also a place where the coastal neighborhood of Almady reminded me of Malibu.

We were funded to give a series of workshops on film scoring, multimedia collaboration, and improvisation to filmmakers and musicians in Dakar. At the end of four workshops, there would be a screening of short films by the filmmakers along with the music we created. As it turned out, my five weeks in Senegal and Gambia consisted of trying to realize a grant project that was underfunded. In the end, the performance and screening never happened, as the filmmakers didn’t end up shooting footage due to lack of equipment and resources, and we had no funds to hire musicians. We were awarded enough money for a plane ticket and living expenses and that was it.

Though I felt that our hands were somehow tied in trying to accomplish what we’d set out to do, I was inspired by my African hosts and friends to make the mosdt of my time there and learn as much as possible, given the circumstances. I took regular lessons on sabar, the traditional Wolof drums. I delved into mbalax, a vibrant style of Senegalese popular music. And, I made a return visit to see my friends and teachers in Gambia. As in 2002-03, I feel fortunate to have spent time in a part of the world full of mystery and beauty.


My fascination with West Africa began in 1998 with an all-day lesson at composer/percussionist Gerry Hemingway’s house in New Jersey. Among the many ideas and musics that Gerry turned me onto that day was West African drumming. He suggested I go to Abizaid, an African and African Diaspora dance studio in Soho that’s no longer there, and sit in with drummers in the various classes. For much of 1998-99 I hung mostly with AfroCuban classes, learning basic patterns on okonkolo, the smallest of the three drums in a bata ensemble.

My study of West African music began in earnest the first day of fall semester 1999 at the California Institute of the Arts. I was there on scholarship in the first year of Wadada Leo Smith’s MFA African American Improvisational Music program. Leo encourages investigation of world music traditions, and CalArts is famous for its pioneering West African, Indian, and Indonesian programs. I was walking through the music school and heard some thunderous drumming. I followed it and ended up at the African music classroom. Alfred Ladzekpo was hammering his Atsimevu (Ghanaian Ewe lead drum) with a broad grin on his face and a classroom full of drummers and dancers. I can still feel the vibrations from that day. They have stayed with me as I’ve gone on to investigate other West African drumming traditions.

I was immediately reminded of some kind of combination of Billy Cobham and Art Blakey in Alfred’s playing. He has this incredible sense of precision and deep groove along with an immense power and swing. By contrast, his elder brother Kobla Ladzekpo, with whom Alfred co-founded the African music program at CalArts almost 40 years ago, reminded me of Steve McCall and Denis Charles, with his looser, more abstract concept. I studied Ghanaian music for those two years at CalArts, and after graduation continued to dance with the ensembles while living in LA.

As life-changing as my experiences in a classroom with African music were, I realized that I needed to go to Africa to experience the music in its cultural context. In 2002, my friend, composer/percussionist Adam Rudolph, put me in touch with his old colleague Foday Musa Suso. I subletted my room, put gigs and teaching on hold, and spent two months in Gambia studying Mandinka drums. At last, I began to get a sense of music as social fabric, accompanying my teachers to – and performing with them – at life cycle events (baby-naming ceremonies, weddings, manhood and womanhood-training celebrations) and in outdoor recreational contexts for women who just wanted to let off some steam on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, dancing to the rhythms they have known since they were infants.

Ghanaian, Gambian, and Senegalese music cultures have profoundly influenced my approach to the drum set and composition. The history of jazz drums begins in New Orleans, but of course its roots are in the centuries-long slave trade and the introduction of African rhythms to the Americas. African-derived rhythms via Western instruments and rhythm concepts set the course for jazz drums, pre-dating Baby Dodds and developing through Papa Jo Jones, Sonny Greer, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Paul Motian, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, and Sunny Murray.

For me, the challenge is not necessarily the translation of rhythms from West African drum ensembles to a jazz situation (though its fun to do and yields interesting results), but ultimately to gather inspiration, to strive to develop my own concept, informed not only by African musical rhythms but African life rhythms. That is to say, my music draws inspiration not just from African music, but from an African life-view, a sense of community, family, tradition, and value systems.

Week 1: Dakar

A breeze of a flight on South African Airways (6 1/2 hrs from JFK to Dakar!), picked up at the airport and whisked back to the Sao family compound. Slept from 6am until 2:30pm then walked around their neighborhood. Elections went peacefully today. Senegal will wake up tomorrow morning with some news as to whether Abdoulaye Wade, the incumbent president, managed the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a second round run-off. We shall see (note: Wade ended up winning handily). It feels wonderful to be back in West Africa. The first time I came to this part of the world in 2002, I spent the first sleepless night sitting outside staring at the stars, confounded by how unfamiliar everything felt. I feel much more settled this time, and figure I'll just unpack, read a little and crash.

One of the members of the Sao family, Babacar, took me to the family compound of the sabar group Sing Sing Rhythm, one of the major sabar families in Dakar, introduced me, made it all cool, etc. Thank you Babacar! My teacher for these weeks will be a 19 year-old named Malick Faye. This young dude is superbad. The Faye family were psyched that I seemed to be picking stuff up fast and Malick did a lot of improvising on top of the two skeletal rhythms he showed me. A couple months studying kutiro drums in Gambia winter 2002-2003 has given me some facility with one-hand, one-stick West African drumming traditions. Sabar and kutiro are closely related, yet somehow worlds apart.

Medina neigborhood of Dakar, Senegal
Medina neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal                                                                     Harris Eisenstadt©2007

It should be said that the entire family knows these rhythms inside out, plays them, dances them, hears them from when they're in their mother's stomach, feels their mom dance to them, and understands them literally as Wolof vocal syllables. During my lesson, one boy barely 4 years old was playing along with us on a flipped-over wash pale. Incredible! It’s been such a frustrating pleasure to sink or swim speaking French again in this Francophone country. The last time I spoke French extensively was in Gambia. There are so many immigrants living there from Francophone West Africa, so I had the chance to work on my French a little. But Gambia is formerly a British colony while Senegalese was a French colony. In Dakar everyone speaks some French, and almost no one speaks English. I try, and people are patient with me, which I appreciate.


Mbaye Dieye Faye and band at Sahel nightclub; Dakar, Senegal
Mbaye Dieye Faye and band at Sahel nightclub; Dakar, Senegal                                   Harris Eisenstadt©2007

Last night I went to a club called Sahel with my friends Abdoulaye, Xady Guey, and Jacob. Mbaye Dieye Faye was playing mbalax with his band. What an incredibly rich tradition this music has... It is just around thirty years since Les Etoiles de Dakar, the band that gave a teenage Youssou N'Dour his start in the late 70s, combined the influences of sabar rhythms, salsa, ska, folk, rock, funk, and jazz, and the music is now vastly popular throughout Senegal and beyond! It’s hard to find words to describe the feeling in that small club, with its Wembley-sized speakers. We arrived at midnight and nobody was there. The concert was supposed to start at 1am. By the time they began at 3am, the parking lot was packed and the dance floor was empty, with a ring of people politely allowing the band to warm up on the first couple tunes. By the time the fourth song started, Mbaye Dieye Faye had taken the mic from his warmup vocalist and the place was going off! Almost no one drinks alcohol here (Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country), so it was just dancing energy, powered by the ubiquitous gunpowder green tea and soft drinks. Everyone got their major swerve on. Every single person in the club (except the few tubabs – read: white folks/foreigners) was an incredible dancer! Beyond comprehension the way people's bodies move here...


So far we've both played mbung mbung drums in my lessons. Today was the first time my teacher Malick Faye played thiol (pronounced "chol") while I played mbung mbung. Thiol is a heavy, closed bottomed, large circumference, barrel-shaped drum. Mbung mbung has a more resonant bass tone (open bottomed) and a higher-pitched left-hand thwack. The upshot of this was that when Malick would show me rhythms, all of a sudden they sounded very different because he was showing them to me on a different-sounding drum. Before long he grabbed an mbung mbung as well and played both. It’s such a wonderful, rewarding challenge to learn these rhythms in our over-before-I-know-it 90-minute lessons. Feels a lot different than my experience with my Mandinka drum teachers in Gambia a few years ago. With them, we'd spend all morning and afternoon playing. Dakar is different. It is a city, people are busy, and the Sing Sing Rhythm family charge by the hour. They don't really have the space or the time for an all-day hang like I had in Gambia. It’s some seriously swinging drumming! The pulse is so wide-open, again like Mandinka drumming due to the lack of a bell to lock things down.


Incidentally, every afternoon when I'm over there my teacher’s aunt is frying beignets, tiny donuts with sugar sprinkled on liberally. Neighbors come through buying 4 for 100 CFA, the equivalent of 20 cents. They're delicious! I've treated myself after each lesson, not only out of politeness but also because I've worked up an appetite, and, well, they taste yummy. Willow and I had a meeting with our grant program advisor Modibo today as well. We met Modibo at the compound where his organization has two rooms of 8 Pentium 4 computers and one lovely air-conditioned conference room. We will give 4 workshops on film scoring and collaboration there starting March 15. Modibo also organized an interview with Radio Senegal International for this coming Monday morning.


Sing Sing Juniors celebrate Wade's Victory; Median neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal
Sing Sing Juniors celebrate Wade's Victory; Medina neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal     Harris Eisenstadt©2007

Have just returned from an 11pm-1am concert of sabar drum and dance on Rue 41 in Medina, the neighborhood where I take my lessons. My teacher's group, Sing Sing Juniors, was playing. He is part of the Faye family, one of the three most famous sabar families in Senegal (the others being Doudou N'Diaye Rose’s family and the Mbaye family). What an incredible concert! Ostensibly a celebration of President Abdoulaye Wade's recent re-election, it seemed like a good excuse for the residents of Medina to party on a Saturday night. I had a great lesson with Malick earlier this afternoon - my 5th, and as with my experiences studying Mandinka drums in Gambia, the rhythm skeletons that we work on in each lesson come to life when played by a whole ensemble for a ring of 300 or 400 mostly female dancers.

Met Doudou N’Diaye Rose this afternoon. He has made sabar drumming internationally famous with the help of his 100-strong family of wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (he’s fathered 40 children!). I found his phone number on the internet, called him up, and went over to one of his four wives' homes today to meet with him. I wanted to see how much it would cost to study with a member of his family, guessing that he wasn't interested in teaching a tubab (foreigner). My assumption was correct. One of his sons, Tapha - about 45 years old I think - would teach me if I would like. Thing is, I already have a great teacher with the Sing Sing Rhythm family. Malick Faye has endless amounts of strength and a young lifetime of knowledge. So I think I’ll stick with Malick. Its also not really ok to study with two of the different sabar families, so I’m sticking with the Sing Sing’s.


Went to Youssou N'Dour's club Thiossane last night. As it turned out, there was a killing mbalax band, led by vocalist Abdougide Seck. The band had two sabar drummers, one tama (talking drum) player, two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drum set, backing vocals, lead vocals, and guest dancers. He had two fantastic guest vocalists come up and sing a tune or two; it’s fascinating to hear the myriad variations here on the classic, Islam-derived almost altissimo register these guys all sing in. Soaring, nasal melodies over burning rhythms and hypnotic guitar/keyboard/bass ostinati. Every instrument in the group is essentially playing a drum part. We arrived a little before 2am and there was a sleepy acoustic guitarist and keyboardist warm-up act, then a comedian. He had a kind of Cedric the Entertainer vibe, but in Wolof. Needless to say, his humor was lost on me, but the crowd seemed to enjoy his jokes, and before long it was time for Mr. Seck's band. His group did what any good mbalax band must do; inspire people to dance. Seems like most of these groups (from seeing these two and hearing a bunch of other mbalax on the radio and cds/cassettes) adhere to some pretty hard and fast guidelines; I-IV-ii-I, ii-I-iii and I-IV chord progressions, 6/8 over 4/4 tunes with 6/8 bridges and double-time shout choruses as it were. The effect when the music takes off always manages to bump up the energy level a couple notches.

Interestingly, the term "jazz" here means a lot of things, none of which seem to have anything to do with the ding-ding-a-ding standard so many have set for jazz to be authentic. Proof once again that jazz is a global music and the argument that it must adhere to 1920-1955 American standards is short-sighted, Western-centric and, ultimately, elitist. Fascinating actually, since here anything down-tempo, instrumental, or even folksy singer/songwriter-oriented seems to fall under the jazz moniker.

Just had some delicious yassa for lunch, by the way. White rice, fried onions/peppers in a mustard/oil/pepper sauce with grilled chicken. We ate out of one large bowl as always (traditional African style), and I had to put down my spoon before to long as the penchant to keep ingesting mouthfuls of rice and assorted goodies tends to inflate one's stomach, and my tummy felt a little sensitive yesterday, so I want to make sure to take it easy.


I was walking around the corner from where I’m staying and heard some drumming in the distance. My friend Xady Guey (adopted daughter of Willow’s in-laws) said “I think it’s a Serere celebration a little ways from here.” The Serere are another group that lives in West Africa, and they play their version of sabar drums. As it turned out it was not a Serere celebration, but a Susu wedding party. The Susu are an ethnic group from Guinea, and were playing their rhythms on Malinke djembes, balafons and dunduns. There were 200 people, mostly women and children enjoying a wedding after-party. I’m so psyched that I actually heard drumming off in the distance and found it, since Xady Guey wasn't sure exactly where it was. It happened several times in Gambia in 02-03 that I’d hear drumming in the distance at night, search and not find it. And for what its worth, though I enjoyed the Susu djembe/dundun music immensely, I’m a sucker for the one-stick one-hand drumming. My allegiance as a stick drummer, I suppose.

Guelph Jazz Festival

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