Kairaba in Senegal: Sabar, Kairaba HQ, and Bomb-ass Food

The Senegalese love their most popular style of music: Mbalax. Kairaba’s first show in Senegal was at a club called Palais du Cultur in Thies, opening for a somewhat famous MC called Mode Faye. His group consisted of drum set, bass, keys, 3 singers and a battery of 5 percussionists: one tama (talking drum) and 4 in the sabar ensemble. It was mbalax with a twist.

The power of the sabar ensemble is something to be reckoned with. As a percussionist who has studied complex polyrhythmic forms of drumming for over a decade, I suddenly feel like I know absolutely nothing! If you saw me in the audience watching, you would see me shaking my head whispering “how the hell…!”

The drums are made of hollowed out wood one to two feet long with a goat skin on the top. They are played with a switch in the right hand which gives a crack sound that could wake those in a coma. The left hand plays tones and slaps that form the foundation of the rhythm, the three main drums being of low, mid, and high tones, and the fourth (with a looser skin) giving a thud sound akin to nothing I can think of. I perceive the execution of sabar like the layout of a baobab tree: a huge trunk of an accompaniment-type polyrhythm that branches off into other directions in order to deliver the life-force to the trunk. These branches are short, syncopated breaks that stretch the concept that we know of as “time”. The cracks and tones of these breaks are played in unison but sound like gunshots from a cavalry of 50, some firing in rapid succession, some with thoughtful space. It is stunning. And even more unbelievable is the dancing that accompanies this insane percussion. These short bursts of breaks last for between 2 to 15 seconds, and the dancers are intricately linked to each note, always making sure to hit the ending “WHAP!!!” with a hip thrust or something equally as hilarious. The point is to throw the audience into amazement and laughter at the same time, while one-upping each other late into the night (like 5 am night).

Kairaba HQ

Kairaba is staying at a hotel-type place that is in slight disrepair and is up for sale. It is right on the beach and surrounded by a paradise of palm trees and sand that is relatively trash-free. There are 3 round buildings with 4 rooms each that were parceled out to Kairaba and selected members of Diali’s family and close friends who take care of logistical details. We are on the edge of Mbour, just down the strand from the town of Saly, which boasts 4-star hotels, restaurants and plenty of foreigners on vacation.

Kairaba HQ is situated among a maze of sand streets, some full of shops with hand-painted, misspelled, endearing indications of what is sold or done there. There are lots of taxis and horse-and-buggies for transport, striking a noticeable contrast to Mali where motos are preferred. People prefer to wear western styles here, and especially the younger generations can be found wearing clothes with either 50 Cent or Obama emblazoned on them somewhere. The air is cool and clear near the coast but gets substantially more life-threatening inland. The absence of auto emissions laws (or enforcement there-of) pretty much sentences the entire population to a respiratory illness at some point. Its as if it were a contest to see how dilapidated you can let your vehicle get and still use it as transport.

Deadly Food

Diali’s sisters come to the HQ every day around noon and begin preparing the day’s meal, to be served around 3:30 and feed about 20 people. There are four main dishes, the most important of which is Chebu Jeun. There are two main types: red and white. This is the national dish of Senegal and is made with fresh fish and a plethora of vegetables over fried rice. With Chebu Jeun, as with all dishes here, people gather around a large platter on the floor and eat together with their right hand. The veggies and fish are cooked in large chunks so they must be broken up and parceled out during the gorge-fest that is the midday meal. For example, if the cassava lands in front of you, you need to break it up into large pieces and toss a bit to everyone there. The food is so good we all can’t believe it. We look forward to it every day with our mouths watering and often stagger away from the empty platter like a beaten-down weary-eyed boxer.

Then there is Thiou (pronounced “chew”). Served with fish balls or fried fish (lots of fish here), it is reminiscent of beef stew with a brown sauce and root veggies. This is Jonathan’s favorite. Next is Yassa, a sauce with a suicidal amount of onions and Dijon mustard, alongside the requisite veggies and fish. Last is Mafe, a thick peanut butter sauce that is hard to not kill yourself eating. Mom and Dad – I’m doing my best to stay alive around all this feasting. It’s hard, but we are managing.

The next post will be about our music engagements here, the whole point of coming. You won’t believe it.


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