Any discussion of Sufism in Sub-Saharan Africa has to include, if not start in, Senegal. Perhaps nowhere on the continent are Sufi Brotherhoods as pervasive as they are in Senegal, where the different orders are a part of national politics, many sectors of the economy, popular fashions, traditional and contemporary art, sports, and popular music. Today it is impossible to walk through the streets of Dakar, St. Louis, Kaolack or any other Senegalese city without being drawn in by the sounds and symbols of Senegal’s Sufis; from greetings, shop signs, and murals, to the singing of religious students in the streets, and cassettes playing in taxicabs, Sufi orders shape the physical space, imaginations, and relationships of the majority of Senegalese. And over the last ten years, with the dramatic growth in the religious cassette industry, Sufi songs have implanted themselves in the mainstream of Senegalese musical life. In fact, many Sufi artists now regularly outsell their secular counterparts, and for all of the international recognition that Mbalax and Senegalese hip-hop have received, the sound of urban Senegal (especially during Ramadan) is deeply religious.
There are three main Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, The Qadriyya, The Tijaniyya, and the Muridiyya. The most immediately visible, and the only uniquely Senegalese brotherhood, is the Muridiyya, which was founded in 1883 by Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba Mbàcke. The two pillars of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s teachings are submission (to both God and one’s spiritual guide, or Marabout) and hard work. After an ascetic life of study, meditation and teaching Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba was buried in 1927 in Touba, a city 200 km north of Dakar that is today the headquarters of the Mourides (and home to the one of the largest mosques in Africa). In his lifetime Cheikh Ahmàdu Bamba wrote many Khassaides, or religious praise songs, and the Mouride tradition of devotional singing dates back to the first generation of Mourides.
The most famous modern Mouride singer, and one of the first to make praise singing his profession was Abdou Lah Niang Ndar. He was born in the northern city of St. Louis and went by the nickname of ‘Guewelu Khadim’, which can be translated as ‘Bàmba’s griot’. (Niang was born into a family of weavers, who have a similar status as griots do in Wolof society.) Abdou Lah Niang was the most popular Mouride singer of the 1980s and early 1990s, performing at religious ceremonies throughout Senegal and for the Mouride Diaspora in Italy, France and Spain. He is one of the most intense vocalists I have ever heard (his ‘attack’ is similar to that of the late-great Wolof griot Ndiaga Mbaye). Sadly, but not surprisingly, Abdou Lah’s many years of singing destroyed his vocal chords, and during the last years of his life his voice was reduced to a raspy whisper. Abdou Lah Niang passed away two years ago.
Here are a few examples of his ‘Djaangi Rabb’ style of singing. These two cuts are excerpts of ‘Moukhadimoul Amdah’ one of his most famous recordings, and feature Abdou Lah with his six-man group.
Today, the most successful Mouride singer is Khadim Gueye. He was born, and still lives, in Touba. He is in his early thirties and has been singing religious songs for about ten years.
Ever since the release, in 2003, of his tribute to ‘Mame Sokhna Diarra’ (Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s mother) Khadim and his group have been in great demand, performing regularly at religious ceremonies and festivities throughout Senegal, and for Mouride communities in France, Spain, Italy, and the USA (he is a regular performer at the ‘Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba day’ celebrations that are held every summer in Harlem’s Little Senegal neighborhood).
This next cassette features Sokhna Dieynaba Lam, one of the few female Mouride singers (I know of only three who have released cassettes), and the sister of the celebrated griotte and mbalax star Kiné Lam. She was born blind and has released several cassettes with Demba Diop Thiaroye. (The inset picture on the cassette cover is a representation of the only known picture of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba).
One of the first disciples, and definitely the most famous, of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba was Cheikh Ibra Fall. Cheikh Ibra Fall distinguished himself from all of Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s earliest followers through his commitment to manual labor; he dedicated his life to spreading the Mouride faith, and to mobilizing the labor of the faithful for the support of the brotherhood. Cheikh Ibra Fall went on to found the ‘Baye Fall’, a sub-group of the Mouride, who follow his commitment to spiritual freedom through hard labor. Various groups of ‘Baye Fall’, who can often be identified by their patchwork garments, and dreadlocked hair, can today be seen in the streets of major Senegalese cities fundraising (sometimes interpreted as begging) for the brotherhood. The ‘Baye Fall’ have their own unique repertoire of songs accompanied by percussion; these Baye Fall rhythms have roots in the music of the Serere ethnic group (many of the earliest converts to ‘Baye Fallism’ were Serere farmers).
This next track is off this cassette featuring ‘Ngagne Seck’ and his group of Baye Fall percussionists from Rufisque, a coastal city close to Dakar.
The Tijaniyya Sufi order was founded in 1784, in Algeria, by Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Tijani, and is today the most widespread Sufi brotherhood in West Africa, with adepts in Mauritania, Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan, and Senegal (there are several different branches, or houses, in Senegal). The three artists featured below are members of the ‘house’ founded by ‘El-Hajj Malick Sy’, which has its headquarters in Tivaouane, a small city off the national road between Dakar and St. Louis.
Mbaye Ndonde was the most appreciated and influential Tidjane singer of his generation. He was born, in 1930, into a family of griots from Keur Dieumb Ndiaye, a small village not far from Thiès. He started singing publicly in 1949 and continued to perform up until July of 2000; he died on October 16, 2000. Throughout his life he was one of the most fervent supporters of El Hajj Ababacar Sy-who was one of El Hajj Malick Sy’s sons-and composed hundreds of songs in his honor. At the age of 19, at the request of El Hajj Ababacar Sy, Mbaye Ndonde moved to Tivaouane, where he lived for the rest of his life. Although hundreds of cassettes exist of his singing, Mbaye Ndonde did not go into a recording studio until 1996, and he released less than a dozen studio recordings. Today his son Doudou Kende Mbaye, who leads his own group and has released about a dozen cassettes, keeps his musical legacy alive.
Kabir Sene was born and raised in Thiès. After finishing Koranic school, and several years of Arabic study, he started to sing publicly, in 1988, with his group Sope Dabakh. The group has released six cassettes and continues to perform throughout Senegal.
This next track is taken off his third cassette. (The small inset picture on the cover is of Abdoul Aziz Sy, the Khalife, or leader, of the Tivaouane ‘house’ who passed away in 1997.)
Next up is an excerpt from a cassette by Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Ngom, which features a funeral elegy for El Hajj Abdoul Aziz Sy. I haven’t been able to learn anything about this artist.
The Qadriyya order, which was founded in the 12th century by Abdul Qadir Jilani, a native of the Iranian province of Gilan, is one of the oldest Sufi Brotherhoods in the world. The Qadriyya order was also one of the first to arrive in West Africa (Cheikh Ahmadu Bàmba’s father was a Qadir marabout). This next cassette features Cheikh Bou Diop, a singer from the Qadir center of Ndiassane, a small town north of Thiès, which was established in 1884 by Cheikh Bou Kunta.
The religious songs of the Qadirs are accompanied by a group of kettledrums of different sizes called Tabalas. This group includes six singers and six percussionists.
This post draws on interviews with Cheikh Babou, Abdul Aziz Kébé, Ahmed Saloum Dieng, Kabir Sène, and Doudou Kende Mbaye. I thank them all for their generosity and help. Next up… Sufi sounds from Mali and Burkina Faso.