Kutiro-Balafon-Sabar = Drums Ensemble…


***  Kutiro (Junkuran) – Gambian Tantango Drumming ***

Fabricated By: Chief Yagbe Awolowo Onilu Oakland CA

!!! Drum troupes play for recreational dances and various festivities. The Mandinka, descendants of the Mandeng peoples of western Africa, now reside primarily in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. Among the Mande people in general, rhythm expressed as drumming is linked with all forms of movement, be it dancing, wrestling, procession, or agricultural labor. 

== There is a defined hierarchy within the ensemble where the Belengo = Sabaro takes the fore, both musically, and socially. A Drummer will begin a long apprenticeship, usually starting in youth, gradually working from Kutiro to Sabaro as his skill increases. The Tantango ensemble is employed in many life-cycle rituals circumcisions, fertility, agricultural and recreational, wrestling events.  The most prominent such event is recreational dance Bantaba and singing held in a wide-open space in the center of a village or at a crossroads in town. Participants amass in circles which can vary in size: sometimes with barely enough room for dancers, at other times as large as city blocks with rented folding chairs placed along the sides of the street for guests. The Bantaba events begin with a signature recreational dance – Lenjengo, danced primarily by women and girls, and which typically includes a collection of rhythms, songs, and dances leading up to the “Lenjengo” a fully engaged dance-music gathering that could go on indefinitely. The term Tantango is often used to refer to any of these Drums, and sometimes the ensemble is called a Seruba ensemble after the name of an important dance event in which they are played. The ensemble is used throughout the Gambia and Cassamance as far east as Tambacounda.

Fabakary Badjie Kombo Brikama Gambia













** Evidence from neighboring drumming traditions suggests that the Mandinka may have fashioned their Drums after models used in their new Senegambian homeland or even acquired them there. Both the name and the shape of the Mandinka Sabaro (Belengo) and Wolof Sabar Drums are very similar, and the method of attaching the head to the body is the same for these two as well as for the other Mandinka and Wolof Drums. But in contrast to the Mandinka ensemble, fixed at three Drums and rarely augmented, Wolof Sabar-based ensembles consist of more Drums and can accommodate large numbers of players. In the case of celebrations with many participants, the Mandinka ensemble is still not augmented; rather, many ensembles play for smaller groups within the larger crowd. In addition to Wolof influence, there is also an exchange of rhythms between Jola and Mandinka, even though the Jola play the very different Bougarabou, a group of three of four large Drums played by a single person with bare hands. The practice of wearing iron jingles (Jawungo) around the wrist is widespread among Mandinka and Jola Drummers as well as Bala.

Suruwa (Wolof) Kutiro Ensemble Senegal

!! Each Drum is played with one hand and a short stick approximately of nine inches long; the two Kutiro (Junkuran) Drums are sometimes played with both bare hands. The minimal vocabulary necessary to play the Drums consists of two different hand strokes and two different stick strokes. The hand strokes are an open bounce (kun) where a clear tone is produced, and closed damped stroke (Ba) where the fingers press on the head and remain there. The stick strokes are a bounce (Din) and a press (Da). With two hand sounds and two stick sounds on each Drum, a strikingly full orchestral sound can be created by just the two Kutiro (Junkuran) Drums.

Fula Kutiro (Junkuran) Drums Set: Chief Yagbe Awolowo Onilu

(( As a village rather than urban event, Lenjengo can be contrasted in organization with analogous urban Jembe drumming (Dununba)events in Mali and Guinea. In Lenjengo a long-term compositional process is at work with a specific sequence of pieces. While the Sabaro Drummer  plays the phrases linked with the entrances, exits, and other movements of the dancers, the two Kutiro (Junkuran) Drummers play the identifying parts that are unique to each dance.

== The stage presentation Mandinka drumming and dancing has a history that is now over half a century old. New traditions have developed, moving drumming in a variety of directions. Although some of these traditions flourished abroad, the general recognition of Africa as a wellspring of a deeply entrenched culture of drumming and dancing still operates. The number, diversity, depth, and uniqueness of drumming traditions in Africa are astounding. So is the musical sophistication and power that can be routinely achieved by a small ensemble of instruments with a limited palette of sounds.

Alassana Camara Kombo Brikama Gambia

*** Drum Call – The Drum call begins all ceremonies. The Drums speak the opening prayer and request blessings for the dance ceremony to begin. The purpose of the Drum call is to contain the spirits that would normally be invoked through the dances. The Drum call is also called “Baque.” Each ethnic group has its own “Baque,” and within each ethnic group every family has its own special rhythms that are passed down from generation to generation. 

(( The Mandinka Drum Ensemble consists of three Drums. The leader plays the long Sabaro (Belengo) = Fabakary Badjie – Kutiribaa (Junkuran Baa) = Alassana Camara – Salif Mane Kutirindingo (Junkuran Ding) = Yafaie Colley – Bolong Sonko – Jaliboy  (Donkilo Jalo) = Alfuseni Jarju (Karang Dingo) = Apprentice

** Traditional percussion thrives so vigorously in West Africa; it might seem ludicrous to suggest that it is at risk. Walk for a day anywhere in Senegal or the Gambia, and chances are you will hear some style of traditional drumming. Passing through the countryside, you might see a Mandinka percussion ensemble playing for Women while they hoe a field in rhythm. Walking through a village, you might run into a Serer troupe drumming for a “baptism” – the common name for the ubiquitous child naming ceremonies. Or perhaps you will come across a troupe of Wolof children drumming on plastic containers and tomato cans, stopping to tighten the plastic bags they use as skins. Wandering at night, you might pass a courtyard full of dancers swaying to the rhythm of Kutiro (Junkuran) drummers, or you might hear Bougarabou drumming drifting from a Jola celebration in another village.

Mandinka Kutiro Ensemble Gambia

== The widespread demand for traditional music still sustains a class of professional Drummers.  Today, the Mandinka play an orchestra of three Drums, but oral tradition says they adopted the Drums from the Firdu Fula. Before that, the Mandinka apparently drummed on calabash gourds floating on pans of water, a style of drumming that continues today among some Mandinka Women. Bougarabou drummers now play four drums; a century ago, they played only one. The  Kutiro (Junkuran) Drum uniquely identifies the Mandinka people from the Gambia. The Kutiro (Junkuran)  has more than three rhythms each with its own intro, dance, and song. 

Mandinka Kutiro Rhythms (Julo): Yanda – Ferre – Serrahule – Kangkouran – Jola Nyaaka – Jaliso – Karolinka – Tah King Kingo – Jambadongo = (Daba Tantango) – Musubah – Baara Wulo = (Ketaa/Musota) – Balantah = (Boying) – Suruwah – Duma – Mbarama Sendengo – Lenjengo – Kingo – Nyoboring – Nyaaka. Other Rhythms are normally played during special occasions like Initiation ceremonies, Masquerade dance.

Sabaro = Belengo Yagbe A Onilu Oakland CA

The Kutiro (Junkuran) three Drums each play different roles during the drumming session. The taller and slimmer Drum called “Belengo” leads the session. It does all the intros and all the free styles during the drumming session. It also signals and controls every dancer’s movement. The medium-sized Drum called “Bere Mentengo” normally serves as a backup Drum and always holds the timing of the rhythm. The smaller Drum called “Kutiro” serves both as a backup Drum and as a base. The “Kutiro” occasionally does free style right in the middle of a dance to signal to dancers that they are either showing the right moves or that they are being respected as an important person dancing. Kutiro (Junkuran)   Drummers.

Mandinka Drums Kutiro (Junkuran)  indeed speak! If a Drummer is thirsty, he can pass the message without speaking. And also, if  one Drummer in the group drifts away from the others while performing, the other Drummers can call his attention in the Drums.

Junkuran = Kutiro Ensemble Yagbe A Onilu Oakland CA

**Belengo (Sabaro) =  7″ Diameter 25 ” Long…(4 1/2″) **Junkuran Baa (Kutiribaa)  = 9 1/2  Diameter  17″ Long…(4 1/4″) **Junkuran Nding (Kutirindingo) = 7 1/2″ Diameter 13″ Long…(4″) **Forango: Manko (Mangrove Wood) Stick Diameter (7/16)  9″ long  **Jawungo = Bell – Iron Rattles **Kusango – Peg (5″Long) Hole = 3/4 or 7/8″)  **Bora or Bisango – Beard or Skirt for Sabaro Minango – Bush Antelope Skin Baa = Goat Skin **Fasango – To Lace **MandukoMallet Kembo (Mahogany Wood) Duto (Mango Wood)  

!! A lot of West African musical instruments have been introduced to the world to represent the Mandinka people. But all those instruments belong collectively to the Mandinka (Mandeng) people of West Africa in general. Rhythms help define the differences and locations of a certain subset of this larger group. The Kutiro (Junkuran) Drum uniquely identifies the Mandinka people from the Gambia. Other rhythms are normally played during special occasions like initiation ceremonies, masquerade dance.

Fabakary Badjie – Bolong Sonko Kombo Brikama Gambia 1987

 **The real motive behind the promotion of Kutiro (Junkuran) is to take it out of the cultural ceremonial functions in which it is mostly used and bring it into modern Mandinka music in order to make it more visible to the world. In doing so, people will be able to uniquely identify modern Mandinka music and quickly relate it to the Mandinka people from The Gambia. Among African Drum traditions, Mandinka Kutiro (Junkuran) drumming is closely related to the tradition but comparatively little-known outside of Gambia and Senegal.  A Kutiro (Junkuran) event includes drumming, dancing, and singing, which weaves a standard repertoire of short, strophic call-and-response songs with improvised social commentary based on melodic formulae.

Stefan Yunusa Monssen Kombo Brikama Gambia

 == It is clearly evident that the musicians actually like being around each other, as they meet on a daily basis to hang out on the frequent days without work; some members regularly walk several miles in order to do so.  Extensive sitting, with the accompanying sipping of tea, sharing of meals and conversation, is an integral component of the social life of Drummers.  Ensemble members usually assemble at a venue several hours before their performance in order to sit and relax; food and drink are then usually supplied by the host of the event. Despite the erosion of venues and practices, Kutiro (Junkuran) drumming is still relatively easy to encounter and thankfully remains a vital part of Gambian life.  

TanTan – Jankuran Jola *Mamadou Dia*((Foula)) Senegal 1987

Griot, Jaly, or Ayan (keepers of African oral traditions) dies, they literally take libraries of African music and dance to the grave where it is entombed and lost to the world forever. Since the music and dance of Africa is largely an oral tradition that is verbally passed down from one generation to the next, sheet music is not available. Younger generations of Africans no longer practice or know the traditional music and dance of their Ancestors, therefore, African music and dance is an endangered species. All of the Drums are played with a pencil-sized stick (in the strong hand) and a bare (weak) hand, which allows for a wide range of stroke qualities that can create the illusion of more than three drums playing. Some repertoire and styles use two bare hands for the Kutiriba part; special pitch bending effects are created by pressing the center of the drum skin with the elbow (weak hand) on the Kutirindingo and Kutiriba. The Belengo = Sabaro Drummer also commands a police whistle that may be played in a rhythmic fashion, delineating short motives and longer phrases, or simply blown in natural tandem with his breathing, adding an edgy, frenetic craziness to the mix.  A Kutiro (Junkuran) event includes drumming, dancing and singing, which weaves a standard repertoire of short, strophic call-and-response songs with improvised social commentary based on melodic formulae.

                     ***The  African Balafon: Listen – Feel & Move

    An instrument known to have existed during the Mali Empire, the Balafon has been and still is popular in West Africa. Its name has a Manding origin but the name varies in some parts like Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. Balafon means the “act of playing the Bala,” with “Balan” corresponding to the instrument, while “fo” a verb meaning “to play” in the Malinke language. Guinea’s Susu and Malinke peoples, as well as the Manding people dwelling in Senegal, Mali, and Gambia are the popular users of the instrument. Balafon traditions were also recorded in Chad, Cameroon, and around the Congo BasinIn Ancient times, the Balafon is considered a sacred instrument that is exclusive to trained and skilled caste members. It was stored in a temple for safekeeping and can only be played at certain traditional and ritual occasions such as funerals, weddings, and festivals. Not to mention that the Balafon has to be purified first before being played.

According to one of the Mandingo myths, the first inhabitant of the Earth coming down from the sky was a blacksmith. It is certainly not by chance that the Balafon played an important part in the history of the accession of the kingdom of Mali. Castes formed, and among them the blacksmith was found at the center of all craft activities and became powerful. Without him there would be no weapons for hunting, nor farming implements, nor cooking utensils. He was master of fire and wood. Traditionally, it was he who sculpted the shell of the Djembe, or the slats of the Balafon.  The Bala-Fola’s gesture is the same as the blacksmith’s. Beating with the stick is the same movement as with the hammer and the slat replaces the anvil. Everything seems to indicate that the first Balafon players were smiths.

 Amongst thousands of percussion instruments, there is an important family, the mallet instruments. Xylophones, vibraphones, marimbas,  have a common Ancestor – the African Bala. The culture of Balafon music is highly developed in the countries south of the Sahara desert and the tropical rain forest.  With the ethnic groups like the Senoufos, Bobos, Miankans, Lobis,  Toussiens, Samogos, Gouins or Tourakans (Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Ghana) a large Bala can have up to 21 slats. Normally, the Balafon is tuned from the lowest to the highest note, usually in a pentatonic chord (five tones), like, for example, the black mallets on a piano keyboard. Nowadays, “western” chords can be found as well, like diatonic and chromatic. But at all times, African musicians have known how to cope with influences coming from abroad in an own, original style.

Gum-rubber mallets on a balafon: A Balafon can be either fixed-key or free-key. The Balafon is generally capable of producing 18 to 21 notes, though some are built to produce many fewer notes. Balafon keys are traditionally made from Béné wood, dried slowly over a low flame, and then tuned by shaving off bits of wood from the underside of the keys. Wood is taken off the middle to flatten the key or the end to sharpen it. In a fixed-key Balafon, the keys are suspended by leather straps just above a wooden frame, under which are hung graduated-size calabash gourd resonators. A small hole in each gourd is covered with a membrane traditionally of thin spider’s-egg sac filaments – nowadays more usually of cigarette paper or thin plastic film to produce the characteristic nasal-buzz timbre of the instrument, which is usually played with two gum-rubber-wound mallets while seated on a low stool or while standing using a shoulder or waist sling hooked to its frame. This effect is accentuated by the sound of metal bracelets attached to the player’s wrist. Mallets and resonators are fixed on a frame of wood sticks and strings made of goat’s skin.

Regional traditions: As the Balafon cultures vary across West Africa, so does the approach to the instrument itself. In many areas the Balafon is played alone in a ritual context, in others as part of an ensemble. In Guinea and Mali, the Balafon is often part of an ensemble of three, pitched low, medium and high. The Susu and Malinké people of Guinea are closely identified with the Bala, as are the other Manding peoples of Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia. Cameroon, Chad, and even the nations of the Congo Basin have a long Balafon traditions. 

The Bala, kora , and the Ngoni  are the three instruments most associated with Griot bardic traditions of West Africa. Each is more closely associated with specific areas, communities, and traditions, though all are played together in ensembles throughout the region. Guinea has been the historic heartland of solo Balafon.  The Balafon, also known as Balafo, Bala, Balani, Gyil, and Balangi, is a type of tuned percussion instrument. It is played by using two padded sticks to strike the tuned keys.

***The gyil  is the name of a buzzing  Balafon common to the Gur-speaking populations in northern Ghana, Burkina Faso, southeastern Mali and northern Ivory Coast in West Africa…

In some cultures the Balafon was and in some still is a sacred instrument, playable only by trained religious caste members and only at ritual events such as festivals, royal, funeral, or marriage celebrations. Here the Balafon is kept in a temple storehouse, and can only be removed and played after undergoing purification rites. Specific instruments may be built to be only played for specific rituals and repertoires. Young adepts are trained not on the sacred instrument, but on free-key pit Balafons.

                                    *** Sabar Wolof Drums ***

 Sabar drumming is the very exciting syncopated drumming of the Wolof tribe in Senegal and Gambia. The Jola and Mandinka Sabar is very rare. The only place to see this Sabar is in rural areas during a ceremony such as a naming ceremony, wedding, or birthday. Wolof Sabar can be seen throughout Senegal and Gambia in urban areas as well as rural. Sabar is not complete without the dance this is true with most drumming in West Africa. The dance is a very beautiful style… almost even like a martial arts. Sabar dancers display incredible flexibility and agility.

The Sabar drums are traditionally peg tuned…but some players today are using the more modern method of rope tuning. There are 5 drums in the Sabar family and they all have different sounds and roles to play in the music. The M’balax drum is the main rhythm drum and is fairly high in pitch and medium size. The N’der drum is the tallest and highest in pitch and is the lead drum and plays a lot of ‘calls’ or signals to cue the group what to do. The Toongani was originally a Mandinka drum called the Kutiro but was in recent years added to the Sabar ensemble. This drum is the smallest drum and has a unique bass sound.  The Joll is the lowest in pitch of the bass drums. It play various patterns and is also a solo drum. The highest pitch of the bass drums is the Tahnbat. This drum plays interweaving patterns sort of opposite the Joll. All drums are played with hand and  stick. 

In Gambia and Senegal the most common place to see Sabar drumming is at a ceremony such as naming ceremony, wedding, birthday, or return from Mecca. These ceremonies typically happen in the streets. It is very popular even outside the Wolof tribe. Most ceremonies of all tribes in Gambia and Senegal will have Sabar drumming at the party. Typically Sabar drumming and dance will start after all the formal ceremonies are finished. During a naming ceremony the child is given a name one week after he or she is born. In the morning the baby will be prayed for… as well as all the family prayed for… and during this time the baby’s head is shaved. Depending on what tribe the ceremony can have different events that follow. Typical food at this ceremony is benechin…or jaybuchin. 

Sabar drums are essential musical instruments in Senegal. Since the Sabar is used for so many purposes – ceremonial, celebratory, popular and other – it is a prominent part of Senegal’s musical landscape.
Originating sometime before the 14th century among the Serer people of the Sine-Saloum region of Senegal, it has also been adopted by the Wolof people, and is also played by the Lebu. There are six different drums in the Sabar drum family, each with a particular role and tonal range. There is the Cól, which is the lowest pitched of all the Sabar; it plays the bass accompaniment. The Talmbat has a more tenor tone and plays a supportive line. The Mbëngmbëng which plays the central rhythm of each piece of music. The Mbëngmbëng which augments the Mbëngmbëng parts. The Nder which is the high pitched lead drum, And lastly the Tungane which plays lines that counter and complement the Mbëngmbëng. There is also the Gorong Yegel which is a Cól that is tuned very tight so that it is high pitched like the under.
Sabar drums use a system of pegs and lacing to hold the goat skin heads enlace and to tune the Drums to their proper pitch. The drums are all played with one hand and a stick, called a Gallan. A full Sabar ensemble will usually consist of all of the different drums mentioned, but these may be augmented with additional Sabars so the ensemble can range from 6 drums to 14 or more. Sabar can also be played with as few as two drums, an Mbëngmbëng and a Talmbat.

Reference Sources:  Wikipedia = Roderick Knight = Charry  Eric = Erik Silverman = Cultural Survival Inc  =  Mosheh Milon = Stephan Yunusa Monssen = Souleyman Diop =  Gert Kilian = Stream Africa = Mike Bennett = Rob Holland = Harun Black = Rob Simms = David Frazier = Google Search/Photo = Carl Holm @ Village Pulse =  Gewel Tradition Project =


3 thoughts on “Kutiro-Balafon-Sabar = Drums Ensemble…”

  1. So nice to see this in my inbox. I have been sitting with music of the Sosso and Malinke and my ears have been so happy. This music is yet another texture of this part of the world. So rich and varied. Some more to fall in love with about Africa and it’s traditional arts and music cultures. Amazing that all of this sound is created primarily 16 distinct sounds (four on each drum). I’m looking forward to sitting with this music at some point soon as the summer opens up. Thank you so much for the work you do and for keeping your door open for other children who are called to the drums of Africa. We appreciate your work so much.

  2. Temple Bey = I love and appreciate you Baba … you are a most Divine gift to this world … I am honored to exist in a time that a being like you walk amongst us. I ask the Most High to empower you with all that you require for your journey. ASE! ASE! ASE!

    1. Peace Yagbeh,
      NOW, I am the BLESSED one; to receive this astute & informative narrative regarding the Kutiro & SaBar Drums, as well as the substance of music, dance and ritual behavior of the Wolf an d Mandinka people. I could go on & amp; on with my acknowledging such creativity, suffice it to say, I am honored to have BLESSED with live encounters with both of these ethnic groups, as they engaged in cultural activities, such weddings, births etc. I intend to continue my instruction, LEARNING & practice efforts to assert the dynamics of culture via music & dance… FORWARD EVER…

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