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Senegal trip adds rhythm to Rambax

Yatma Thiam and his tama (talking drum) troupe performing at Rambax's evening drum and dance party in Dakar, Senegal, on June 3.
Yatma Thiam and his tama (talking drum) troupe performing at Rambax's evening drum and dance party in Dakar, Senegal, on June 3.
Photo / Patricia Tang

For 11 members of MIT's African drumming ensemble, "Rambax," the West African nation of Senegal was more than a vacation destination. This past spring, the MIT student musicians spent three weeks playing, studying and absorbing Senegalese culture during the group's first summer study tour.

On Sept. 14, Rambax co-founder and director Patricia Tang and some of the group members spoke about their extraordinary trip during the first Arts Colloquium of the semester. The presentation, attended by faculty, students, members of the Council for the Arts and Council Scholars in the Arts, was hosted by Associate Provost for the Arts Alan Brody.

Tang organized and led the trip to give the group a chance to study and perform the traditional art of sabar drumming within its cultural context -- among and for the Wolof people of Senegal.

"We did not want to arrive there with this idea that we would show the Senegalese how to play their own music," said Tang, associate professor in the Music and Theater Arts Section and a specialist in Senegalese music. "We wanted to show them that we cared so much for Senegalese culture that we wanted to learn their art."

Students lived and practiced with the family of Lamine Tour̩, co-founder of Rambax and a native traditional Senegalese drummer. Tour̩ is an MIT lecturer in music and theater arts.

Sabar drummers use one hand and one stick to create either a dance rhythm or a "bakk," a musical phrase that is composed by musicians, "griots," and is passed down through the generations. "Mbalax" is the basic accompaniment beat played on the smallest drum, and "tulli" and "talmbat" are the two bass drum accompaniments. Together they create the basis by which the lead drummer carries the main beat.

There is no sheet music and the resulting sound is a chaotic, frenzied beat that starts at your foot and works its way up to your bobbing head until you cannot help but dance. It is beautiful and wild and harmonic at the same time.

The students not only strengthened their drumming abilities, but also held a poster exhibit and social hour with students from Universit̩ Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal. Students from both continents shared ideas and scientific, mathematic and musical projects.

Students also performed. One night they set up two street festivals, one for children and one for adults. The next night they performed at the Soiree Senegalese, a nightclub that features pop music along with traditional drumming.

"We got a great reception from the people there," said Sasha Devore, a graduate student at the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology, who has been drumming for four years. "It was absolutely amazing. We did so much and everyone was so excited to show us their culture and their way of drumming and to learn our way and to really share in the experience. I would definitely go back."

Rambax was created in 2001 after Tang had spent several years studying Senegalese music. She lived in Dakar, Senegal, from 1997 to 1998, and the experience was unforgettable, she said. She felt her students needed context to fully understand the art of sabar drumming.

"We used to say, 'wouldn't it be fun to go to Senegal,'" said Tang. "But within the last year, we realized that we had several of our students graduating, and that it was now or never. Students even went so far as to buy their plane tickets before we had received funding from the school for the trip."

Prior to traveling, Tang put her students through a cultural orientation. Students were taught the importance of eating with their right hands and sharing a communal food bowl as they do in Senegal. Although there were many health and cultural concerns, the students were more than prepared upon arrival and even learned enough of the Wolof language to offer thanks and compliments to their hosts and townspeople.

"We showed the people of Senegal how culturally diverse our MIT group was," said Tang. "We have students from Brazilian, Vietnamese, Hispanic backgrounds ��� all different nationalities who come together for the love of drumming."

At the presentation, Tang showed videos of Rambax's performances in Senegal. In each video, the drummers smiled with exuberance as they felt the rush of what Devore called, "losing themselves inside the music while remaining focused on your surroundings."

"Our drumming has changed since we came back," said Devore. "We learned the cultural rhythm. We have context now. When we play, we can feel the ocean; we can smell the smells and feel the dust. We drummed ourselves to exhaustion and simply lost ourselves in the music. Our drumming has definitely changed since our trip."

The tour was funded in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT, the offices of the Chancellor, Dean for Undergraduate Education and Dean for Graduate Students, and the Music and Theater Arts Section.

For more information on Rambax, visit their web site at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 5, 2005 (download PDF).

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