Music is our revolution
Photo courtesy of Tony Vacca
Tama drummer Massamba Diop brings his magic to Mandela Day 2009. Behind him is Baaba Maal.
Photo courtesy of Tony Vacca
On the banks of The Senegal River in Podor, Senegal, are left to right, Ibrahima Sall, Baidy Sall, Tantra Zawadi, Tony Vacca of Whately and Abiodun Oyewole
Image courtesy of Tony Vacca
The members of Bideew Bou Bess receive a blessing from their grandfather for a safe journey.
AP file photo
Sleeping children fill a room that serves as their classroom and living quarters in this 2013 file photo taken in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal. They wake up at dawn for their studies and then spend the day begging for food and money. Those who return without their daily quota are often beaten. In “Democracy in Dakar,” the documentary to be screened Sunday, Feb. 23, at Smith College, one young Senegalese tells the camera, “I’ve come to find out that all around the world, hip-hop is more popular in the difficult areas. One rapper from Thiaroye can bust a rhyme for a full day without stopping because there is a lot to say.”
The “tama,” or “talking drum,” that Massamba Diop cradles under his left arm and beats with the stick-like mallet held in his right in Tony Vacca’s Whately living room is extraordinary.
First, the drum, which he’s repaired as Vacca has been “talking drums” and rapping about rapping, was handmade by the tall, lean African percussionist in his native Senegal using lizard stomach skin as well as the heart of the sturdy dimba tree.
Second, as he compresses and releases the tama’s tension strings under his arm so that its diaphragm “breathes,” like a human, the drum actually does seem to talk, or even sing, as it has in its traditional African village role. There, it “spoke” in the pre-telephone days by various intricate rhythms to everyone in the village that a meeting has been called for, 9:30 tomorrow morning, for example.
“When I play that, everybody say, ‘OK, no problem.’ In our culture, everybody know that boom,” says Diop, who’s visiting the 63-year-old Whately percussionist as part of the shared Senegal-America Project he and Vacca began nearly two decades ago. As he pulls a piece of gut with his teeth as part of the another drum repair, Diop’s comfortable in the home he’s visited since 1996. About to head out to a gig in Los Angeles, Diop has performed with Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal and others at the London Olympics and other grand stages around the world.
Also, just like the talking drum’s traditional function in African villages, Senegalese hip-hop plays an important communication and societal role in Dakar and other population centers, just as it does in American cities, Vacca says.
Yet the same rap that’s strongly associated in the U.S. with money, cars and misogynistic portrayals of women has much gentler roots in Senegalese culture, as the Senegalese-American Project tries to convey in workshops and concerts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Hip-hop, it’s Masamba’s ‘griot’ world updated,” says Vacca, using the term for the traditional Senegalese role of oral historian and social commentary, the traditional “tassou” recounting Senegalese family legacies to inspire ordinary people through life rituals.
In the updated form of griots chanting their tassou, inspired by urban American street music, adds Vacca, “It’s ‘I’ve got a social consciousness and you’re gonna hear about it!’”
Vacca, Diop and other Senegalese American Project contributors plan to take part in a four-day Smith College residency beginning today focused on Senegalese hip-hop and rap and their role in social change in the West African nation. An opening concert will also feature the bands Bideew Bou Bess and Gokh-bi System, as well as performance poet Tantra Zawadi and Abiodun Oyewole of the 45-year-old, Harlem-based group The Last Poets.
Vacca, who first toured West Africa as a recent University of Massachusetts graduate in 1972, recalls hearing Senegal’s griot tradition updated through Baaba Maal’s music as social commentary “about ‘who you are as Africans and Senegalese … We don’t have to lose our identity, We have some values here the world needs, maybe people want to hear about: respect our elders, know your place, don’t accept where someone puts you.’”
“It was a beautiful, traditional thing,” he recalls of that moment in the 1970s, when, in this country, The Last Poets were “turning poetry into rhythmic poetry into socially conscious rhythmic poetry,” not all that different from Senegalese griot.
Later, American rap, in the words of The Last Poets’ Oyewole — whom Vacca knows to “Dune,” became “a Mercedes with a bad driver. Whose idea was it to take it over into girls and babes and cars and your teeth?” There also may be some social commentary, worth a single song on a CD, says Vacca, “But if the other nine aren’t kickin’ ass, what did you do?”
Part of the role of the Senegal-American Project, which began when Vacca traveled to Africa in 1995 and met Diop, who first came to this country the following year, is to share with both cultures that we are all connected, with common issues and common ground. With music as “the engine of social change,” the project’s website explains, “our fates are ultimately inseparable.”
With two CDs, a video documentary and 16 U.S. tours and a dozen African tours to their credit, the project has done festival and club performances, plus concerts and workshops in over 500 schools, working with nearly 400,000 students.
In Senegal, it’s also raised money to pay for new schools in Dakar, distributed more than 3,500 mosquito nets, sponsored free health-care screenings and trained a Senegalese team to do follow-up treatments and spawned a student exchange program with students from a Connecticut middle school that’s spawned its own Third World social action program.
Meanwhile, Vacca has launched a variety of collaborations, including a “Things Gotta Change” recording to convey, in each performer’s unique voice, that this isn’t just entertainment.
It’s an invitation to get involved:
“In every village and city in the world there’s always been love, ‘cause its your nature to be generous, Don’t be fooled by those who’d say we’re designed to be cruel, life’s about spirit, rhythm and flow, how connected aha we can go. Oh some in America are actin like Oh say, we don’t see, the power within you and me. We ring the bell of freedom in the land of the free, ’cause that’s how it works, if you’re askin’ me ... If you’re asking me, OK, I see there are troubles to face and rise above, ain’t no trouble can erase the power of love to free our minds, to open our hearts, to start today to make a new start, to find a way to heal the past, to love every moment to make true love last. To honor the lessons of loss and pain, and hear us all, we’re telling you again and again: we are the change.”
Voice of social change
In “Democracy in Dakar,” the documentary to be screened Sunday, Feb. 23, at Smith, one young Senegalese tells the camera, “I’ve come to find out that all around the world, hip-hop is more popular in the difficult areas. One rapper from Thiaroye can bust a rhyme for a full day without stopping because there is a lot to say.”
In a culture where some people have to go four days without eating and without electricity, where many live on one meal a day, “We show our vision first, before anything. … We have our own rules. It’s hip-hop. We don’t believe in your justice. Our struggle is not about asking people to vote, but rather to incite them to choose their leaders and let them know that all politicians in Senegal are the same. The time has come for Senegalese youth to organize themselves in political parties.”
In 2007, when the film was made, says Smith College anthropologist Caroline Melly, hip-hop played a critical role in elections, blasted out of vehicle speakers from government and opposition forces alike, as the key mode of getting messages across.
“Gangster rap or the way money, drugs and sex are glorified in contemporary (American) hip-hop, you don’t see in Senegalese hip-hop,” says Melly, who has traveled to Dakar many times since 2004. The Senegalese are 95 percent Muslim — a tolerant blend of traditions predominated by a mystical, spiritual Sufi tradition “with a deep narrative of respect for women and for secularity. The lyrics of Senegalese hip-hop tend to be about politics, about liberation from economic and political struggle and having the voices of youth heard.”
Senegal has a median age of 18 (contrasted with 37 in this country) and many of its young people feel disenfranchised and cut off from economic opportunity and lack any political voice. More than half of the men in Dakar are out of work.
In the U.S. young, urban males feeling marginalized gave rise to rap music. Imagine the frustrations in Senegal, where the lack of turnover in political elites and the extent of economic disparity — many living on the periphery of Dakar have no access to running water and live in mosquito-prone areas where malaria and dysentery are common — have much deeper roots.
Its songs sometimes call out for money and riches, says Melly, “but in way that’s more about betterment of society and less focused on individual wealth and accumulation.”
Music as a weapon
In a society where the frustration is so deeply and historically rooted, says Melly, “It really is a weapon, a means of being nonviolent but getting the message out there in a way that’s forceful and has had real political effects.”
If all this makes music calling for political confrontations dangerous in this Muslim country, Melly and Vacca say, the tolerance and diversity of Senegal society would seem to make fundamentalism hard to swallow.
“I would say that an intolerant brand of Islam would have no space in public society,” Melly said. But I wouldn’t say it’s not possible.”
Former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade had been known to crack down on people who opposed his regime, which ended in 2012, Melly says, but there weren’t the large numbers of people jailed for performances as there have been in some parts of the world.
Back in Whately, taking drum player Massamba Diop emphasizes the roots of this, saying what must be said through Senegalese tassou.
“When president comes to village, before the president talks, the griot get up, take the microphone, do tassou, says the village doesn’t have enough water, doesn’t have enough food. We need this, we need this, we need that ...’ The president say, ‘Wow, OK,’ he takes notes and say, ‘I think the village need a doctor, medicine, it need clean water.’”
As the Senegal-American Project approaches its 20th anniversary, Vacca says, his dream is to bring together not only the two cultures, but also different generations of performers from both sides of the Atlantic.
“My dream?” Vacca asks, answering his only question in his own enthusiastic patter as percussive and passionate as his performances are in any of his world rhythm gigs. “I want the older tradition, with Massamba, and the younger version, with Bideew Bou Bess, and the American side with Dune as the elder and Tantra Zawadi as a force to herself. And there’s no shortage of young folks there. It’s important the old school is in it, and the youngest are always attracted.
“It’s such a great affirmation,” he says, “that folks come up and go, ‘Yeah man!’ What more can you ask for?”
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Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.