The outer workers’ and artisinal suburbs of Dakar, Senegal (Banlieue) flicker with firelights each Thursday night, waving in the Sufi sacred night’s shifting air. Standing one one unpaved, lamplit crossroads atop a pile of Senegal’s famous fine Sahel dust, one can hear what seems to be an infinite trail of tumbling drums and echoing voices arising from the celebration of Baay Fall (Sufi) praise groups called dahiras. Groups of five to fifteen of the most ancient Senegalese drum, the xiin, echo the distance between the high smooth slabs of the area’s mudbrick buildings as old French loudspeakers, hung heavy from roadposts and rooftops, overwhelm with the blown-out voices of Sufi praise singers, their microphones set to maximum reverberation. Sufi praise singer Binta Sarr Diop (you can hear more of her work here) sings with her prayer and Qu’aranic study group, Dahira Mame Goor Fall, each Thursday night, each time at the home of a prayerful friend or group member. The Banlieue are less populated with Dakar’s business, government and tourism workers and more centered on multiethnic families whom have moved from rain-starved or poorly planted rural areas into the city to find subsistence. In the current Senegalese atmosphere in which jobs are extremely scarce even in the rapidly-growing city of Dakar, most suburban families must piece together informal domestic labor, odd/unskilled jobs, black-market sales of Asian goods, or the door-to-door (homes and vehicles) sale of spices, peanuts, tea or candies. In this atmosphere, the growing groups of Baay Fall talibés (or students, as all adherents of Cheikh Ibrahima Fall’s teachings call themselves) come together in a spirit of community in hopes that “toll bi dana mégn”: the field in which we labor will one day produce fruit.
Binta’s dahira is a special group in its own right; it brings together 70 or so young people from the Banlieue neighborhoods of Maga Daan, Medina Gounass, and other parts if Guediawaye/Pikine whom are the first in their families to join the Baay Fall Sufi brother-and-sisterhood. Among these are many teenage girls and young women who are the first in their family to undertake the status of a talibé, or Sufi student of the teachings of Cheikh Ibrahima Fall. The growing group of Baay Fall faithful represent a special contribution of Senegal’s determined youth to the survival of a struggling nation. Most volunteer a great deal of labor to public peanut farming projects or collect alms in the cities to send to drought-stricken village dwellers. As they grow dreadlocks and undertake study of traditional Senegalese cultures and community labor methods, they are exempted from five-times-a-day prayer and fasting; they pledge to live every moment in a higher state of prayer and must eat to maintain their restless labor for the sake of Senegal’s survival through economic crisis. They can be seen performing the difficult work of harvesting peanuts from the summer fields in order to buy livestock for the villages; digging wells for residents of the dusty Sahel, collecting change from auto passengers in halved dried gourds, and selling the blessed Senegalese staple of spiced Café Touba on street corners, giving all to be redistributed to the poorest of the community of Sufi faithful. Thursday night is a time in which Baay Fall maintain their bodily movement, spiritual study, and alms collection even as they gather ritually to laugh, enjoy each others’ company, and sing their hearts out. The exuberance echoes through the narrowest passages of outer Dakar’s overwhelmed alleys, and inspired new converts, often in their early teens, emerge at each Thursday night gathering.
These women devotees of Cheikh Ibrahima Fall’s teachings are called Yaay Fall (or “Mother” Fall) to further describe their special status within the Baay Fall (or devotees of “Father” Fall) group; as women, Yaay Fall hold a special connection to the women saints (particularly Senegalese Sufi woman hero Mame Diarra Boussou) whom the Baay Fall praise. Any woman displaying selfless giving, heartfelt kindness and honesty, and a willingness to do gritty work for the common good in the streets of Greater Dakar may be called a “Yaay Fall” by passerby–the name is a sincere complement to any woman who shows a willingness to sacrifice for the community. Yaay Fall
devotees maintain this commitment through constant labor, community peacemaking, and a deeply philosophical engagement with the people and world around them.
This clip features Binta Sarr Diop, who
has been teaching me about her life and faith for a year now, singing with the other young women about an hour into the two-hour service. Her husband, Moustapha Dieme , leads the second half of the program, for which the women dance and the men sing Allah’s praise.
The singing is accompanied by a Senegalese drum called a xiin, which has been used by a number of area ethnic group for milennia; many local drummers claim it is the region’s oldest talking drum and is imbued with special powers; in groups of 3-15, they animate he dancing at teh Baay Fall dahiras and demonstrate the beauty and melodic possibility of Sufi devotional drumming. Although many Muslim groups prohibit the use of drums with verses of the al-Qu’ran, the Baay Fall use the drum both to drive their relentless work in the hot peanut fields and to stir their communities to religious worship. This fusion of religious devotion with the materiality of everyday work and community life intersects in the world of voice, rhythm and music, and the effect is as breathtaking as it is philosophically complex.
I have included some photos below that the Baay Fall graciously invited me to take of their dahira; Mame Goor Fall, in late October 2010. They have been forthcoming, open and engaged since I first became involved with their group in early 2010, and they have taught me much about how young Senegalese people are devoting every minute if their lives to ensure that their families and communities survive the current economic crisis while maintaining the grace, peace, and vivid creativity that characterize their local culture.
I am taking my time before bringing a video camera into the space of a Sufi Dahira, but I found this beautiful youtube video of an unnamed Yaay Faal singing the Zikr praise songs in the Senegalese Mouride Sufi capital of Touba and walking with her dahira to celebrate the anniversary of their spiritual leader, Cheikh Amadou Bamba’s, historical return from colonial exile:
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