making music, writing culture

Tassou: the Ancient Spoken Word of African Women

Woman Poet Yandé Codou Sene Sings Senegalese Independence, African Creativity

Daily life in Senegal is lined with the sound of women’s voices; from these rise the sounds of ancient song and poetry, bawdy speeches, praises for community ancestors and religious leaders and energetic call-and-response that are the work of the region’s women griots. As the woman who sells my morning baguettes barks praise for my ability to speak Wolof, the attendees at a wedding down on the street chant for the drummer to start a new rhythm, and a voice from the dance radio station encourages women to work coolly despite the heat, the daily rhythms of my life here in Dakar are produced by the joy and wisdom of the region’s praise singers.

While the work of West African strumming male praise-singers or griots/jalis, has been studied by Western researchers from the earliest years of folklore and ethnology, the region continues to be animated by the rich voices of praise-singing women, whose poetry and song draw from detailed knowledge of the lineages of neighboring families, a talent for improvisation on ancient poetry, themes and rhythms, and an ability to bring a crowd into chanting and dancing communion in the space of a few poetic bars. Most importantly, a West African woman griot cultivates the power of  original voice to infuse any community gathering or social event with a sensory thickness that bears her artistic signature. With a voice that rises above the others in the community, she animates the moment at hand with her expertise in bending  breath, windpipe, resonance, poetry and dramatic flair.

Yandé Codou Sene: image via

In Senegal, these practitioners are part of the 10% or so of the Senegalese population who often identify as gewels (in Wolof) or gawlos (in Hal-Pulaar), or hereditary griots, whose male family members tend to foster a preference for either one of the vigorous Senegalese “talking” drums (sabar, tama, xiin, or contemporary djembe); dance; xalam (lute) or another stringed instrument; melodic Mandinke percussion balaphone or stringed kora; or the hearty singing of family lineages and histories (tagg). They accompany their chosen medium with the improvisation of animating dialogue at community events.

Today, many members of Senegalese gewel and griot families maintain these traditional forms as they shape their skills in song, sound and speech to become spokespeople and intermediaries for politicians and Sufi Islamic leaders/teachers (marabouts); use their facility with language and pedagogy as French teachers; draw from their heritage as community historians as researchers and writers; MC radio shows and club soireés, practice as popular musical and recording artists, or remain in their communities as speechmakers, oral historians and heralds, and ritual animators. The complexity of Senegal’s shifting and multiethnic urban communities allows us to map a number of routes, styles and contexts to professional griot performance, and these textures emerge in a spectrum of contemporary styles drawing from a multifaceted mix of song and poetic heritages. Often, these million ways of being a griot come into conversation as two or more share the scene or stage and improvise together, daring each other to answer one improvised stylistic flair with another. Women griots are most often the featured performers, and any pop music concert in Senegal is likely to feature a string of traditional poets as opening acts, guest performers, and MCs of the show.

Yandé Codou Sene of Gandiaye (in the state of Kaolack, Senegal) was one of a long line of women griots from the Serer ethnic group (who call their griots gewels) of the Sine-Saloum Delta and began practicing professionally as young as 15 years old. The Serer people are known especially for their rich knowledge of vocal and rhythmic practices that infuse their everyday language with complex overlapping cadences and their ritual with intense collaborative layerings of voice and rhythm. Her mother, Amadjiguène, was also a well-known woman griot in the region who taught her daughter the ways of Serer speech and song. Yandé Codou’s work not only helped to reinvigorate the importance of women griots in the region throughout the upheavals of national independence and regional economic disaster; it has inspired global interest in the voices of West African women.

Here, she raises the voices of the women of her community to praise her fellow Serer admirer and colleague, poet and president Leopold Sedar Senghor in her improvised poem, “Senghor”:

Of Senghor, she says in Angela Diabang Brener’s documentary, “Yandé Coou Sene, the Griot of Senghor”:

“My relationship with Senghor was unique. I traveled around the world, and he even put a jeep at my disposal. I convinced myself to cross the bridge for him. Leo was small in size but large in spirit. And we will not have two in Senegal: the tale, of a burst of nostalgia, the diva in dark sunglasses, across the bridge of Joal, a city that saw Leo…Kings and leaders invited me to gorge myself. They gave me something to eat and drink.”

Across the Serer ethnic group, which is traditionally less reliant on agricultural economies than fishing and craftwork, some individual communities reserve the role of griot only to certain families, while in others, these familial lines are more fluid and depend on individual preferences and talents. While some of these communities have converted to Sufi Islam or Catholicism, others have maintained a primarily Spirit-based worldview. Across these cultural facets, many Serer communities are known for their longstanding preservation of traditional healing practices, nature-based sorcery and soothsaying, love of inter-community traditional wrestling matches, and intense familiarity with the complex rhythms of the talking drum and the dance and song that accompany it. Senghor, Senegal’s first native president after independence from French Colonialism, was a Serer Catholic poet who drew from the gewels’ poetic traditions in his own surrealist work, and who praise Yandé Codou as the artist who best exemplified his African national concept of Négritude: the creative strength and cultural expertise of a newly independent African people. As he embodied a kind of national hero who accommodated the demands of postcolonial Europe for the sake of economic survival, his counterpart, Yandé Codou, refashioned a Senegal of her own: one whose thick aesthetic registers held a much more radical agenda of independent African mobility, women’s creativity and power-from-below.

Yandé Codou was a practitioner of the tassou (often spelled tasú), a form of sung and chanted poetry central to both everyday and ritual Serer life that is also used explicitly by the Wolof, Hal-Pulaar, Mandinke, Bambara and other regional ethnic groups. The powerful word play and voicecraft of tassou is primarily the domain of regional women called tassoukats, whose work as griots includes narrating the marriages, rites of passage,  infant naming ceremonies of neighbors and leaders; announcing community events door-to-door; MCing community events and soireés; and performing their tassou onstage as popular recording artists, often with a full backing band and dancers. Tassou practices of women’s speech and song overflow ethnic designations to infuse the African diaspora with a spectrum of poetic practices including slam poetry, children’s games, gospel music improvisations, vocal “diva” styles, double dutch, and even the story patterns and poetic rhythms of much women’s fiction writing. Like the male griots, they infuse these improvisations with tagg (pronounced tagoo): praises and stories from a particular celebrant’s matrilineal and/or patrilineal lineage (many ethnic groups in Senegal maintain matrilineal knowledge in partnership with the patrilineal leanings of Islam and the West).

Another important function of women’s tassou in Senegal is that of interlocution, or the process of “speaking in-between” two or more people or groups of people. Their work is to pass information in a number of directions while they, using their intensive knowledge of social mores, ritual obligation and interpersonal negotiation, artfully shape the communication to best suit the task at hand. Male and female griots alike have traditionally worked as spokespeople for political and religious leaders, mediators for those who wish to address these leaders, neighborhood deliverers of family news or interpersonal complaints. The tricky task of asking for money, complaining about social trespasses, or asserting boundaries is best done by the griots, who diffuse tension and resolve difficult communications with a smile, clapping and dance.

Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour‘s mother was a Hal-Pulaar gawlo who immersed N’Dour in the tassou tradition. His father was Serer, and although he was a pious Muslim who did not make music, educated N’Dour in the rich complexities of Senegalese national cosmopolitanism. In turn, he celebrated Yandé Codou’s work in their famous duet, “Lees Waxul”, which brought Yandé Codou into fresh popular stardom with a third generation of Senegalese young people. The title of the song translates to “that which cannot be said” and suggests that N’Dour and Codou can use their vocal aesthetics and deeply textured poetry to say the unsayable about the richness of life. The textures of these two artists’ voices together here is truly stunning, and resonates with the ineffable complexity of West African vocal mastery:

I hoped to meet Sene and speak with her about her work earlier this year, but I heard she was in weak health in her 78th year, a very rare age for the region, and resting with her family. She passed away peacefully on July 15th, 2010 to an international outpouring of praise for her work as Senegal’s poet laureate. Her biography sings the importance of women’s praise poetry and song to the creative life of West Africa and beyond. She also refused to be treated like a relic in the last years of her life by a culture industry that thrives on the idea of the “last surviving traditional artist.” In the last years of her life Brener’s documentary (following a previous one by Lawrence Gavron) engages Sene as an artist determined to represent the complexity behind her own artistry as she, while filming a collaboration with a contemporary male guitarist for the film, threatens to castrate the musician for “attempting to imitate” her. A shorter clip from the film is available here:

Senegal’s young people respect and admire Sene for her brilliant poetic, lyrical, vocal and rhythmic creativity, and her work is cited by generations of African writers and emerging hip-hop artists alike. The young women rappers with whom I work in Dakar often refer to Yandé Codou as they write and perform their lyrics, mimicking her vocal flourishes and extended enunciations; playing their vocal delivery into immense dramatic build, and citing her as they do so: “Yaa Yande Codou, dé!” (“You are so Yandé Codou!”). They carry one or two of Yandé Codou’s songs on their MP3 players and practice her poetic twists and rhythmic cadence as they write their own work. The young women’s hip-hop collective with whom I am working, GOTAL, sample Yandé Codou’s distinctive voice on their first recorded song, punctuating every eighth measure with the immediately identifiable sound of the famous tassoukat voicing the name of the song: “Jiggen” (“Woman”). Their choice to use Sene’s voice followed their admiration for the poet as well as their desire for an aesthetic of “Africanity”; a current popular music aesthetic–maybe along the lines of an American aesthetic of “soul”–that often involves sampling traditional sabar drums and other sounds into hip-hop productions.

Senegalese youth have been enjoying a national cosmopolitan pop music genre called mbalax for three generations. The style, which has a stronghold on the national airwaves, finds its basis in the fusion of tassou and other griot praise-singing styles. Although women artists rarely mananged to negotiate recording contracts until the 1980s, women mbalax rappers from traditional griot families, such as Ndella Xalas here, translate their tassou styles easily to the full production of polished Senegalese pop. Here, Xalas raps about the traditional cultural roots (“cossan”, pronounced “chossan”) of mbalax pop, praising her tassoukat grandmother in the process:

As Xalas points out in her song here, N’Dour (along with singers Thione Seck and Fatou Gewel) was a primary developer of the mbalax style, and his reverence for tassou and work with Yandé Codou underlines the importance of griot practices to the pop tradition. Many Senegalese women tassoukats work as pop singers for weekend soireés and spend the rest of their time making tassou in service to their local communities; if a tassoukat registers as a generous and talented personalité in her neighborhood or town, her hometown provides her fan base as they loyally support her in her transition to the international stage. Her success brings attention and wealth back into the community as she redistributes her earnings among local artisans, dancers, musicians and neighbors.

Along with traditions of song and speech, women gewels often accompany themselves with a dried, halved calabash gourd called a lekkit. Although male griots nearly always handle the drums (except in the case of Les Rosettes and a few others), the women griots of Senegal are master percussionists, using their overlapping voices, dancing bodies, and household items to build and improvise complex polyrhythms (called “bakk”, pronounced “bakoo”) as a foundation for their poetic work.

The tassou, in all its variations, is far from an endangered form, although its monetary value in the contemporary caitalist economy does not match the prestige and power the griots once had in rural Senegal. Here is a field recording of Wolof/Hal-Pulaar tassoukat Ami Collé Barry and her mother, Mama Guissé, of Medina, Dakar improvising a very sexy love song from a woman to a man in 2010:

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Enjoying your blog immensely. lii dafa neex.

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