Notes on Islam and Popular Musical Expression in West Africa

Ryan Thomas Skinner, Columbia University

Hearing Islam
For nearly a millennium, Islam has been part of the rich and varied mix of cultural forms that shape the social worlds of West African societies. In contemporary West Africa, Islam’s deep regional history manifests in a modern-day continuum of belief systems and social practices, ranging from the more orthodox and conservative to the more syncretic and cosmopolitan. Echoing along this continuum are Islam’s many West African voices – voices which inspire piety, silence dissent, engage dialogue, and reveal new paths of spiritual growth and religious identity.

That these Islamic voices are strikingly musical is readily apparent to visitors to the region, particularly in its expansive cities where Islam finds its most diverse and dynamic expression. To walk through metropolitan centers like Dakar (Senegal), Bamako (Mali), or Conakry (Guinea) is to move through a dense soundscape of social sound and urban noise. Much of the former echoes the edifying verbal arts of local Islamic practice. Against the bustle of car horns, marketplace haggling, and local industry, one may hear the muezzen call the Muslim faithful to prayer (adhan), a mellifluous Qur’anic recitation from a respected spiritual leader (marabout) played on a taxicab tape deck, the cyclical chants of an itinerant Sufi brotherhood (tariqa), or the public benedictions (baraket) of praise-singers (griots) amplified by oversized speakers at outdoor marriage and name-giving ceremonies. These are all part of the urban soundscape of Islam in West Africa.

Islam and Popular Music
Yet, to call such spoken and sung expressions “musical” risks offending those who hold a more doctrinal perspective on Islamic verbal art. From this point of view, blessings, chants, recitations, and prayer calls do not qualify as “music,” per se, but as eloquent verbal expressions designed to heighten one’s piety through focused listening (sam’). Music, especially in its popular forms (as performed in concert halls and nightclubs), is said to inspire feelings which rival one’s affection for God and, for this reason, should be discouraged or even forbidden among the faithful. While this perspective may be found among certain conservative reformists in West Africa, it is perhaps more common to encounter those who accept a broader spectrum of musical expression within the context of Islamic practice in their daily lives.

Here, we must add popular music to our social palette of Islamic sounds in West African towns and cities. Though, there is an important distinction to be made between what Fiona McGlaughlin calls “popular Islamic music” and “Islamic popular music.” Working from the sectarian context of Senegal, where multiple Sufi orders (turuq) co-exist within a broader Islamic community, McGlaughlin describes a range of Islamic musical forms cultivated by Sufis. Performed on occasions of ritual gathering and pilgrimage, such music is typically characterized by chanting to the glory of God and may be accompanied by dance and certain forms of drumming. This popular Islamic music is consonant with a broader Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism, which, dating back to the twelfth century, and predominant throughout much of West Africa, emphasizes religious music as a means of heightening the righteousness of the pious listener, by bringing him or her closer to the spiritual world of God.

More recently, McGlaughlin has observed the emergence of a new tradition of Islamic popular music in Senegal, in which sacred themes are integrated into the secular popular music of urban dance bands. In particular, the traditional form of praise-song for respected patrons, common to many genres of West African popular music, is transposed to the relationship between disciple (taalibe) and spiritual leader (marabout) that defines the social and religious order of Sufism. This creates a distinctly Islamic form of musical praise which marks a singer’s and his or her audience’s allegiance to a particular Sufi order or Way (tariqa), such as the prevailing Tijaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Mouride orders in Senegal. Popular among urban audiences, for whom religious identity and popular culture are not perceived as discrepant, Islamic popular music has opened up new forms of spiritual and religious expression, which local and global popular music industries make widely available on recordings, radio and television broadcasts, and (controversially) in the secular spaces of concert halls and nightclubs.

The Sacred and Secular in Youssou N’Dour’s Mbalax
One of the best exponents of this fusion of urban popular music and Islamic devotional expression in Senegal today is Youssou N’Dour. Born in the burgeoning Senegalese capital, Dakar, N’Dour grew up around the communal and commercial sounds of urban life in this coastal city. N’Dour’s musical career blossomed in the late-1970s, when he popularized the mixing of local Wolof rhythms, known as mbalax, with the Afro-Cuban dance music popular at the time. Mbalax describes the complex percussive patterns performed on the sabar (Senegalese conga) and tama (talking drum) by traditional Wolof musicians (gewel) and is typically accompanied by lively (and often highly sexualized) dance. The new genre that emerged from this encounter of the modern and traditional – which also bears the name mbalax, and now includes flavors of jazz, reggae, funk, rock, and electronica – quickly became the hallmark of the “Senegalese sound.” Mbalax can today be heard throughout the world, performed by musicians such as N’Dour, Baaba Maal, and Thione Seck.

While much of N’Dour’s music is rooted in secular themes, driven by local and global political concerns (of human and civil rights in particular), he has, since the mid-1990s, used his art to explore his deep Islamic faith. N’Dour’s Grammy-award winning album Egypt (Nonesuch 2004) is a revelation in this regard. Produced in collaboration with Egyptian arranger and conductor Fathy Salama and released in the wake of the September 11th tragedies, Egypt is a cross-continental and intercultural reflection on Senegal’s multiple and syncretic expressions of Islam. Combing the orchestrated sounds of classical Egyptian music with the N’Dour’s own finely tuned mbalax sensibilities, Egypt draws attention to the cultural diversity of Islamic practice in Africa, but also to Islam’s unifying message of tolerance and peace worldwide. It is an elegant expression of the broader social and musical experience that defines Islam in West Africa, and connects it to the world.

Further Reading
Charry, Eric, “Music and Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L.
Pouwels (eds.), The history of Islam in Africa, 2000, Athens, Ohio University Press, pp. 545-573.

Durán, Lucy, “Key to N’Dour: Roots of the Senegalese Star”, Popular Music Vol. 8, No. 3, 1989, pp. 275-284.

Hirschkind, Charles, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics, 2006, New York, Columbia University Press.

Larkin, Brian, “‘Bandiri’ music, globalization and urban experience in Nigeria”, Cahiers d'études africaines 168, 2002, pp. 739-762.

McLaughlin, Fiona, “Islam and popular music in Senegal: The emergence of a ‘new tradition’”, Africa 67:4, 1997, pp. 560-581.

Tang, Patricia, Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal, 2007, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

About the author
Ryan Skinner (Ph.D., ethnomusicology, Columbia University, 2009) studies music, subjectivity, postcolonial history, and globalization in West Africa and its European and American diasporas. His current research focuses on popular music, personhood, and urban modernity in Bamako, Mali. He is also the author and illustrator of the children's book, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson, and an accomplished kora player.