Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sufi Beats

The music on this record has cracked my mind open, again and again. I had a cassette of it in my car for one entire summer, and parts of these rhythms are encoded into my muscle memory, even if I don’t exactly understand what’s happening. With the hypnotic click-clacking sound of the rim-shots, these beats remind me some of funky desert insects rubbing their legs together, of coded communication, encrypted alien transmissions. And then, in a flash, it turns into the percussive equivalent of a Bach fugue, with phrases getting tossed around, from drum to drum, staggered, inverted, at double time, in dense woven patterns, everything bunched together in an incomprehensible knot in places, and then opening up with bits and snippets of silence turning into vast stretches before those bass drums explode in a thundering roll.

I scored this album on a whim, I think, mostly inspired by the disarming stylishness of Boubacar Diagne on the cover. The big smile, the knit cap, the hefty medallions, the shades, the flowing boubou. And those drums! They look like old out-of-commissioned boats you might see at a dock somewhere with the rope/rigging and the skin/sails. Diagne (pronounced djah-een) leads this ensemble of Senegalese Sufi drummers. They call this tabala Wolof – I’m thinking "tabala" is the word for the drum, and Wolof is the ethnic group. Sufism is very popular in Senegal. Many popular Senegalese musicians, particularly Cheikh Lo, are devotees of Sufi mystics. There’s a lot in common with Senegalese sabar drumming. Like with sabar, the tabala Wolof players play using a stick in the right hand and they strike, mute and slap the drum head with their left hands. (The title of this track, "Bak," is the name for these inventive, extended drum-call/breaks that sabar drummers tag on to the start of their rhythms.) With the stick they can get a sharp attack on the muted or open skin, or they use it to make a clicking rim-shot by hitting the drum’s side or edge. The technique is similar to that used by Brazilian samba drummers, particularly of the lead repenique.. As in other parts of West Africa, in Senegal Afro-Cuban music was hugely popular in the 50s, 60s and 70s. And so you’ll often hear hints of the Cuban clave (also known to Americans as the Bo Diddley beat) on some songs. But there’s another, equally funky "clave" that you’ll hear a lot in Wolof music. It goes something like (four) AND/ ONE, TWO, THREE (four)AND/ONE, TWO, THREE - and you’ll hear it sometimes here. One other thing to listen for is the way the rhythms can shift from 4/4 to 6/8, with a kind of underlying 16th-note pulse changing, on cue, to an underlying triplet pulse.

This is on the excellent Village Pulse label, which was started by a couple guys from the Pacific Northwest who went to Senegal to study sabar drumming and then realized there were loads of incredible musicians who’d never been recorded. So they made a few trips - to Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bisau - with digital recorders and mics and basically started their own label. Pretty much everything they’ve released has been first-rate. Unfortunately they’ve not released anything in several years.

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