Making our way south along the West African coast, we go from Mauritania to Senegal. Like every country in Africa, the borders of Senegal are defined by colonial history. If you've ever looked at a map of Senegal and wondered how Gambia got where it is, well... blame England and France. Old French trading posts still dot the Senegal River, although their purpose has largely been lost due to the transition from boating to highways for moving trade goods. While the country still has a number of traditional tribes living inland from the coast, desertification and a huge spike in population are pushing many people to the cities.
There are a couple of musical strands I've explored so far. The first is music sprouting from the creative cauldron stewing traditional tribal musics, brought by migrants entering the cities, and various forms of Western music. Hip-hop, pop harmony, choral music, even Cubanismo have all been blending with tribal musics to create their own new hybrids. One very popular genre, called mbalax, is an electronic pop style descended from sacred music of the Serer people, called Njuup. Kind of wild to think that music that had a central place in circumcision rites has metamorphosed into electronica, but I've seen enough odd transitions in my global trek already I'm not really surprised.
The other strand is the tradition of the griots (or gewel, in the Wolof language). Like Mauritania, the griots are hereditary musicians. They serve as family historians, conflict mediators, war chanters, and bearers of news. Their role is deeply spiritual. Griots are present at births, weddings, and funerals, and serve roles in a variety of other religious services. Unlike Mauritania (for the time being), the social class boundaries of the griots is easing, and many griots are marrying outside their class.
That last point is just one sign of traditional musics adapting in the face of great change. Like the majority of Senegalese, griots face enormous economic difficulties and many have been exploring other avenues of performance for the sake of survival. A number of griots have developed international careers, becoming concert performers. This has led to a number of genre cross overs, with griots performing with jazz and European classical musicians. There has also been a widespread search for new definitions of what it means to be a griot, for new ways to adapt the traditional function of the griot identity to a country undergoing dramatic social change.
One of these griots is Ablaye Cissoko. A singer and kora player (the kora is a kind of harp... or maybe the harp is a kind of kora, depending on how you look at it), Mr. Cissoko has performed in many countries across Europe. One of his shows, "Le Griot Rouge," tells the legend of the man who invented the kora. He has also collaborated with trumpeter Volker Goetze on three albums and a documentary, titled "Griot," and has also played with Montreal-based ensemble, Constantinople, playing traditional Persian music. He's a busy guy, is what I'm saying. The song I'll share, Souma Manone, is the first track on the album, Djaliya, with Ablaye Cissoko playing with Volker Goetze and François Verly.
If you're interested in what other music Senegal has to offer, you might check out sabar drumming, used to accompany the sabar dance.