Back in 1996 I was living in Dakar, Senegal, in an apartment overlooking the Marche Fass. My building was right next to the staging area for buses to the Casamance, the region of Senegal south of the Gambia. The Fass neighborhood was, at the time, home to one of the largest Diola communities in Dakar (the Diola are an ethnic group concentrated in the Gambia, Casamance and Guinea Bissau). Throughout the neighborhood there were cassette stalls that would blast recordings of Diola music, day and night.
It was at one of these stalls that I first heard this recording of music from Thionk-Essyl, a town in the lower Casamance region, located 71 kms north of Ziguinchor, the regional capital.
Twenty years later this recording remains one of my favorites. I don't know how it was recorded or by who, but it is a beautifully balanced recording of a total music event, a musical symbiosis between dancers, a terrific bugarabu percussionist, a choir of female vocalists who are providing a rhythmic ostinato with wooden clappers, and an ALTO SAXOPHONIST!
I don't know the history of the saxophone in Diola music. One article I have read claims the instrument was adopted by Diola ensembles in the 1940s. This is one of the few roots or neo-traditional styles of African music that I know that features the instrument. If you know of other styles, please share!
Casamance Thionk Essyl
As the title of this post suggests--and even though I don't have the musical education to defend or debate this assertion--this recording most reminds me of Ornette Coleman's harmolodic music, a universe where harmony, melody and rhythm are in constant dynamic interchange. The saxophonist alternates between playing repetitive rhythmic motifs and longer melodies; between accompanying the percussionist and leading the chorus of female vocalists. Listen to the passage that begins at the 12 minute mark on the B side of the cassette!
This terrific video, featuring another ensemble, recorded at a wedding in the Gambia, gives you a very good sense of the total music event. Pay attention to the choir, their dancing and percussive accompaniment is beautiful. Just imagine being in the middle of this!
Give this cassette an hour of your time and you won't regret it!
Thank you to Dr. Peter Mark of Wesleyan University for his time. The map of Thionck Essyl was copied from this recommended article of his. The first picture was taken from an article on wrestling in Senegal in a recent issue of Jeune Afrique. The picture below was scavenged on the web, thanks to the photographer!