Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Beat goes on for Senegal's octogenarian master drummer

By Errol Barnett, CNN
February 29, 2012 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
Senegal's master drummer, Doudou N'Diaye Rose.
Senegal's master drummer, Doudou N'Diaye Rose.
HIDE CAPTION
The sound of Senegal
The sound of Senegal
The sound of Senegal
The sound of Senegal
senegal coumba gawlo
The sound of Senegal
The sound of Senegal
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mbalax, combining jazz, soul, and rock with traditional beats, is the dance music of Senegal
  • The godfather of the scene is the 82-year-old drummer Doudou N'Diaye Rose
  • His instrument is the sabar, the traditional drum played with the hand and a stick
  • Younger generations are fusing the sound with new influences to reach international audiences

Dakar, Senegal (CNN) -- Jazz, soul and a blend of rock and roll combine to make Senegalese music sound quite familiar, while the sound of the sabar, a traditional Senegalese drum, keeps the music true to its West African roots. I'm listening to the mbalax style of music for my latest "Inside Africa" assignment: to experience the special sounds of Senegal.

Without a doubt, the biggest name in Senegalese drumming is Doudou N'Diaye Rose. He's almost mythical; every person I interviewed spoke of him as the "sabar master." With more than forty children and an untold number of grandkids, he's been performing since the 1930's, gradually crafting the unique rhythm of this part of the world -- literally with his bare hands.

Meeting the legend was not what I expected. At 82 years old he has a small frame and is such a humble person. When we arrived at one of his homes, he was more concerned with our crew eating breakfast than showing off his many accomplishments. Doudou has performed with the Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, at the Cannes Film Festival and has been declared by UNESCO as a "living human treasure."

Most of his children learned from him, playing in a traveling orchestra. Even his female grandchildren formed a group, practicing on the rooftop. However, when Dakar's chief drum major -- who is draped in an elaborate Grand Boubou print -- steps behind his wide array of drums, modesty leaves the room.

The sounds of Senegal

The beats are complex, quickly changing from soft, rapid taps of the finger tips and palm to loud strikes by the galan, or stick. Strings pull the shaved goatskin surface tight and, by twisting a series of cylindrical pegs, each drum can be tuned just like a guitar.

Meeting Coumba Gawlo

Doudou explains that what I'm hearing is more than music -- it's a beautiful language reminiscent of his childhood in the Plateau district. A time when certain types of drums would be used to communicate certain ideas; calm, joyful messages for wedding ceremonies, or exciting, encouraging sounds for young men heading off to battle.

See also: Senegal island exposes horrors of the slave trade

The master of Senegalese drumming

Today, younger Senegalese artists are taking the Doudou sound and modernizing it. He often appears as a special guest on stage with artists like Coumba Gawlo -- currently one of the best selling female singers in the country.

When I watched her performing, she was serenading crowds in the local language of Wolof, belting out the mbalax sound as she was being lowered in a golden cage onto a smoke-filled stage. But even next to a curvaceous woman wearing a sparkling dress, Doudou holds his own -- an octogenarian with as much stage presence as a pop star.

Being African is not a matter of color -- it's about heart
Faada Freddy, Senegalese rapper

From inside a lively recording studio elsewhere in town I find more local artists who cite Doudou as their inspiration. Daara J Family is a group made up of Faada Freddy and Ndongo D, plus the support of drummers, electric guitar players and a keyboardist.

The sound is eclectic; I can hear Jamaican reggae influences in their beats and in Ndongo D's fast rapping style. Faadda Freddy tells me that in songs like "Bayi Yoon," they pull from the South African vocal tradition, essentially sampling from every place they've toured.

Local history is important to them as well. On Daara J Family's second album they included a song about Senegal's Goree Island as a modern way of discussing the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

But mostly, the group is optimistic and forward-looking. Ndongo D explains to me that while they pull from the Doudou-created Senegalese sound they want to include more aspects of music in the African diaspora because "we all came from Africa, and then went to different horizons to settle." Their aim is to connect with people globally.

See also: Beach life gives a taste of real Senegal

On this journey of discovery, it's becoming more apparent to me that music has been a powerful form of communication, expression and family bonding in Senegal. Getting to a place of a strong, almost spiritual connection is what mbalax is really about - even though it might sound quite foreign to many of us.

It was a privilege to meet Doudou (and even get a personal lesson in drumming), wonderful to see traditional music get a contemporary twist, and eye-opening to see West African artists reaching out to the rest of the world. Faada Freddy summed up my impressions best: "Being African is not a matter of color -- it's about heart."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1054 GMT (1854 HKT)
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0934 GMT (1734 HKT)
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
July 29, 2013 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
What if The Matrix, and other classic Hollywood movies had been made in Africa? This is what they'd look like.
January 29, 2014 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
The ruined town of Great Zimbabwe is part of a kingdom that flourished almost 1,000 years ago, and a bridge to the past.
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 1020 GMT (1820 HKT)
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
October 18, 2013 -- Updated 1025 GMT (1825 HKT)
Parts of the Star Wars films were shot in the Tunisian desert. The film set is a draw for tourists, but it will soon disappear under a sand dune.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1027 GMT (1827 HKT)
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 0437 GMT (1237 HKT)
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
May 27, 2014 -- Updated 1016 GMT (1816 HKT)
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
Artist Edosa Ogiugo captures the fabric of Nigerian life in bold brushstrokes.
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1415 GMT (2215 HKT)
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 1050 GMT (1850 HKT)
Unhappy with Liberia's image on the Internet, a photographer decided to present his own view, using GIFs.
April 25, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
IBM asked Africans to photograph the continent's greatest innovations and challenges. The results are breathtaking.
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.
ADVERTISEMENT