Bougarabou - Solo Drumming of Casamance

Text & 'Images, courtesy of VILLAGE PULSE RECORDS

Listen: Mansaba

IMAGEABUKO, THE GAMBIA--Sitting on the ground in front of his mud house, repairing a boom box with a broken pair of pliers and an improvised screwdriver, Saikouba Badjie hardly looks like an international recording artist. But Saikouba is a master of the solo drumming tradition that is a hallmark of his people, the Jola. And now, the world has seen the release of a digital recording devoted to Saikouba's artistry.

Titled Bougarabou: Solo Drumming of Casamance, the new release becomes the first published in-depth recording of bougarabou, the traditional one-person drum orchestra of the Jola.Image

Left: A dancer clowns with
bougarabou drummer
Saikouba Badjie in the


In carrying on the bougarabou tradition, Saikouba ranks as one of the hardest working drummers in West Africa. Unlike drummers from neighboring cultures, who generally work in groups of three or more, Saikouba drums alone, accompanied only by the bells on his wrists and the singing and clapping of the dance circle. When he performs, Saikouba typically starts in the evening and plays through the night without stopping. For some occasions, he plays for several days, resting only for light meals.

Saikouba finds plenty of work. He and the handful of other professional bougarabou drummers provide almost all the dance music for the Jola communities in Senegal and the Gambia. Like other West African peoples, the Jola incorporate dance into many aspects of their lives. From the frequent naming ceremonies for infants to the grand funerals for elder women, dancing and drumming help weave the fabric of Jola life.

ImageLeft: Saikouba pauses along the
path to his house in Abuko.


Saikouba can't tell you how old he is. Though he lives only a short walk from the large Gamtel satellite dish along the Gambia's southern highway, the sandy path to his thatched-roof house crosses into the rural world that West Africans call the bush. Here, written records mean little.

The birthdate on Saikouba's national identity card indicates he is in his 60s, but the stamina of his performances suggests the date is off by 20 years. "His mother just maybe make up something," explains Mamadou Ly, who served as a consultant for the recording. A founding member of the National Ballet of Senegal, Mamadou grew up not far away.

This afternoon, Saikouba tinkers in the shade of a mango tree, while two chickens walk around his outstretched legs. A friend sits on a salvaged tractor seat, brewing green tea over a small charcoal brazier.


Saikouba's real work starts at dusk. This evening, a group of farm women have hired him not for a special occasion, but simply for a night of entertainment.


Left: Saikouba prepares for
another performance.

Saikouba heats two drums by a small fire to brighten their tone, then leans them and two larger drums against a wood frame. The women form a circle with him, and he begins a performance that will last until dawn.

While the women take turns dancing in front of him, Saikouba teases their sense of the pulse with a driving bass, and at the same time, improvises melodic conversations by juggling the tones and overtones of his drums. Each dancer seems to float for a few seconds, as the conversations unfold against the swirling sound of the bells on his wrists and the steady pattering of his hands.

An assistant mops Saikouba's face with a rag to keep the sweat from blinding him and holds a jar so Saikouba can sip a tea-colored extraction of indigenous roots. "The Jola root make you strong," explains the assistant.

"Few people realize that traditional music is still popular in West Africa," says Village Pulse co-founder and producer Carl Holm. "If you grow up dancing to grooves that have been refined over generations, it's not easy to settle for any other type of music--not even for the drum music of the culture next door."


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