Doudou N’Diaye Rose Was Still as a Mountain

On this day, August 19, 2015, we mourn the passing of one of the greatest percussionists of our time, the Senegalese master Doudou N’Diaye Rose. I was never lucky enough to meet him, though I did encounter him once from afar. What follows is that short story, written on Friday July 18th, 2003.


I saw him by himself in one of the side nooks next to the dance floor. He was in a light blue traditional boubou, and it was dark so his face looked mysterious. He was still as a mountain while everything moved and flounced around him, just staring at the ground. He was old enough to be the grandfather of anyone there and seemed to act as such. What was he doing here in this place, full of nothing but young Tommy Hilfigers and Fubus?

We were in a club in Pikine, the Harlem of Dakar, to check out some music, and the band started at 1 am with kora, guitar, bass, drum set, and singers. Also on stage was a rack full of sabar drums side by side in a line, a contraption enabling the adaptation of the traditional sabar ensemble to accompany modern electric bands. The music, to this day, was the loudest I’ve ever encountered.

All through the set, drummers would appear out of nowhere, from the crowd, the side of the stage, from the behind the mic, and jump on one of the lead drums and play what sounded like a medley of syncopated Gatling guns. It ran me into the ground and I loved it; I could feel the goose bumps on the inside of my heart. Every now and then there was controversy and the music would stop, people would yell at each other in Wolof, a new drummer and/or singer would step up, and the music would resume without a second thought. People danced and I watched the young drummers in amazement. Again the music stopped, and people were gathering at the front of the stage, screaming at one another.

The old man’s name was Doudou Ndiaye Rose, and I later found out he was the most respected sabar drummer still alive. He had left his nook for the stage, picked up a stick, and silenced the entire Universe with a series of short blasts on one of the lead drums. Everyone moved in closer with wide eyes, and Ndiaye Rose started to play again by himself. He was a short man, and all I could see was the blur of a stick above his head, forming the yellow shape it does when you play with the correct technique. It’s like he was demonstrating that energy doesn’t fade with age, but with laziness, or from too much wandering in the realms of the West. He played and every animal out in the bush looked up. He played and called out things that all of us were too young to know. He played and sent us away. His whole body was sturdy and fixed, yet his arms and hands were smudges against the backdrop of people, and I saw his mouth and lips going at the same rate.

When he was finished, I was also finished.

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