Senegalese Music: A National Emblem, Renowned Worldwide

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While the music scene in Senegal was once dominated by other countries, Senegalese contemporary music managed to take off nationally in the early 1970s before gaining global recognition between 1980 and 1990. This has raised Senegal’s prominence both on the continent and world stage.

For many Senegalese people, religion is of utmost importance and plays a large part in people’s daily lives. While the great majority of the country’s over 17 million people are Muslim (97.2 percent), there are also Christians (2.7 percent) and animists (1 percent). The country also has people from various ethnic backgrounds, primarily the Wolof (51.8 percent), Fula (18.5 percent), Serer (11.5 percent), Mandinka (9.8 percent), Jola (4.7 percent) and Soninke (2 percent) people.

Across this diverse range of identities, music remains sacred in Senegal and is often incorporated into religious events, playing an essential role in society, whether traditional or modern.

Senegalese music then and now
Senegalese music got off to a rocky start in the contemporary era, thanks to the domination of foreign music, particularly Cuban salsa music, which was prevalent in the years prior to independence in 1960.

Salsa music arrived in Africa via the close relationship between the continent and Cuba, dating from the time of slavery. Many African music fans are nostalgic about this musical era, as seen in comments under this salsa music by musical artist Balla N’diaye.

The group Africando (of Senegalese origin) remains a classic of the genre, with this song, Lindas Africans.

This song by musician Laba Sosseh, singing in Spanish, with the group Super Star de Dakar, is a good example of the Cuban influence in Senegal:

On April 4, 1960, Senegal obtained independence from France, and Léopold Sédar Senghor became the country’s first president. He served as head of state from 1960 until 1980. A poet as well as a politician, he played an important part in promoting the value of Senegal’s musical heritage, and often wished for a band that could accurately convey the breadth of Senegalese culture.

In 1970, the first such band, Orchestra Baobab, was forme.

The music they created helped build a musical identity unique to the country. This also inspired a burgeoning music scene with other bands and musical artists, leading to the emergence of great artists, trailblazers, and cultural ambassadors from Senegal.

Musicians embracing tradition
Senegalese music also benefits from the wide-ranging diversity of languages used by the various ethnic groups. But it is Mbalax — a musical rhythm originating from the Wolof people, based on mixed percussion instructions such as the tama, or “talking drum,” and the sabar and other instruments such as the piano, drums, and guitar — which is the most popular music in the country.

This musical rhythm pushed Senegalese music to the international scene and powered its increasing popularity. This is also because Wolof is the mother tongue of 40 percent of the population and is understood by almost 90 percent of the population.

Numerous great names in Senegalese music have emerged from this musical movement. In particular, Youssou N’dour, still called the “king of Mbalax” due to his long career and prolific discography, is the perfect example of this.

Youssou N’Dour is the most famous of the Senegalese musical artists. In January 2023, the magazine Rolling Stone named the king of Mbalax one of the 200 greatest singers of all time, honoring his rich musical career, with around twenty albums to his name and songs that have seen success worldwide. Born in October 1959, Youssou N’Dour started making music when he was very young and made his first appearance on stage when he was just 13. He was part of several bands and orchestras before starting his own group, Super étoile de Dakar. In 1984, he released his first album, “The Lion,” which launched his international career as a musician.

This rapid success worked in his favor, leading to him writing the 1998 Football World Cup Anthem. Youssou has also received several international awards. Aside from his career as an artist, author, writer, and musician, he is also a politician (he has been Minister of Tourism and Leisure twice), as well as a businessman.

We should also mention Omar Pène, Thione Seck, Alioune Mbaye Nder, and Lemzo Diamono — all great musical artists who should be included on the list of ambassadors for Senegalese music. Alongside these men, there are also great female artists such as Coumba Gawlo, Fatou Guewël, Aminata Fall:

New musical genres
Traditional Senegalese music has also inspired other artists who are breathing fresh life into the form. Viviane Chidid finds herself between two generations of artists: although her first recording was Mbalax, she also does R&B, rap, and hip hop. Her latest solo song shows off her talent.

The new generation of musical artists bring a modern touch to their work while remaining faithful to Wolof. The artist Wally Seck is an example of this, singing about love in his latest song, entitled Balma, with an R&B style mixed with a traditional/modern rhythm.

Rap has not been left behind
Rap has a strong foothold on the Senegalese music scene today. Didier Awadi is one of the early pioneers. His long career as an artist committed to African independence, fighting corruption, and many other causes has gained him recognition worldwide. His latest song, “Quand on refuse on dit non,” speaks volumes about his commitment.

In an article on the Senegalese news website Enquête +, he explained the thinking behind this song from his latest album.

Other names are also lighting up the Senegalese rap scene, such as Daara J, Fou Malade, and Nix.

Senegal continues to make itself seen and heard on the international stage by constantly renewing its musical traditions, an example that could inspire other African countries and provide a different image of the continent.

Find a playlist highlighting Senegalese music below, and for a full assortment of eclectic music from around the world, see Global Voices’ Spotify profile.

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