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Music of the Wolof of Senegal 

Bibliography of 
Wolof music 
The Kora  Music 
Artist Review 

Music is central to Christian worship. God wants to see the Wolof people of Senegal able to worship Him in their own language using their own instruments and their own style.

Music runs in the blood of the African people, and Senegal is no exception. There is a richness and beauty there that even the popular music world in the West has recently discovered. Artists such as Youssou N'dour and Baaba Maal are internationally famous and can be found in most good music stores. Peter Gabriel has described Youssou's voice as one of the finest in the world. He has an amazing 4-5 octave range and sings in English, French, Fulani, and Serer as well as his native Wolof. He has a huge number of recordings. A search of speciality music stores will reward the searcher with other great finds such as Samanka by the group called Xalam II. Or if you prefer, you can order albums by E-mail from catalogues found on the Internet. See our article on popular music in Senegal to learn more about the depth and variety of music in this country. ACI have a good page on music in Senegal as part of their orientation.

And then there are the unique instruments of West Africa. The truly Wolof instruments are xalam, the tama, and the sabar set of drums. But they are also influenced by the other instruments of the region such as the beautiful West African harp, the kora, the 1 string viola of the Fulani (riiti), the flute of the Fula, the balafon and they have adopted the tabala drums of the Maures.

The xalam is a five string lute. Some hypothesize that is was the predecessor to the banjo. Cora Connection have more details on the ngoni which is the name for xalam in Mali, as does the West African Kora music site (scroll down the page). The Museum of Musical Ethnic Instruments also has a page of the xalam with pictures and sound files.

The sabar drum ensemble is a set of 7 different drums, made from Dimba wood - which is very dense, dark and hard. They are headed with goatskin and each tuned with seven pegs and rope. Sabar is a site dedicated to the Senegalese sabar drums. It features Doudou Ndiaye Rose, a master of the sabar. It includes a detailed description of the different drums that make up the sabar ensemble. Musica Bambusa has a good description of the sabar collection, and they get a mention in the rhythm museum site. Village Pulse have produced an informative CD of tabala drumming (VPU-1003) called Sabar Wolof: Dance Drumming of Senegal. White Cliffs Media (9915) have produced a CD of Sereer sabar playing called Sabar: The Soul of Senegal.

The tama is an hour-glass shaped talking drum with an iguana skin at each end, laced together by strings which run along the length of the drum. Village Pulse have produced an informative CD of tama drumming (VPU-1008) called Tama Walo: Keepers of the Talking Drum.

The tabala drums are used by the Qaddiriyya sufi brotherhood in their religious music. Tabala drums are a set of hand carved tympani type drums. Musica Bambusa has a description of the tabala drums. Village Pulse have produced an informative CD of tabala drumming (VPU-1002) called Tabala Wolof: Sufi Drumming of Senegal.

In traditional Wolof life music, especially drumming, and dance, plays an important role in every major event. The central feature of Wolof music is rhythm, and not surprisingly the most common Wolof instrument is the drum. The performance of music is the realm of specialists, the griot caste (géwél). Apart from the griots, the blacksmith caste (tëgg) are masters of the drums especially the talking drum. But as in any oral culture, the performance of music demands a response and participation from the spectating crowds. So the Wolof react with their own type of frenetic dancing, clapping, chanting and sometimes singing.

Through songs the Wolof store their history, teach adolescents the secrets of adulthood, and praise important figures. Religious chanting frequently goes on all night, and is frequently heard blasting from loud speakers on public transport. Then modern popular singers have mixed the traditional Wolof rhythmic base with various modern modes of music to produce something that is distinctively Senegalese.

On this page you will find links to many audio clips and a few video clips, as well as information which will help you to appreciate and even possibly develop a passion for the music of West Africa.

See also our page on Wolof vocabulary relating to music which has details on many of the instruments of Senegal.

Please send us a message with new links you think are worth adding or any links that are no longer working.

Send a message to ForTheWolof

Annotated Bibliography of Wolof Music.

NOTE: A primary figure in Wolof musical culture is the griot. A man in the griot caste is referred to as a géwél. Those who play a 5-string plucked lute (xalam) while singing are called xalamkats.


    1. Coolen, Michael. 1982. The Fodet: A Senegambian Origin for the Blues? The Black Perspective in Music vol. 10 no. 1. Pp. 69-84. Coolen suggests a link between the Wolof xalam and the early banjo played by slaves in the USA. A second comparison is made between the structure of 12-bar blues and a similar musical structure of the Wolof called fodet. 10 musical transcriptions are included. "The xalam tradition of the Senegambia could well have contributed to the evolution of the blues tradition in the United States."

    2. Coolen, Michael. 1983. The Wolof Xalam Tradition of the Senegambia. Ethnomusicology vol. 27 no. 3:477-498. An overview of the performance context, music, and instrument.

    3. Coolen, Michael. 1987. Senegambian Archetypes for the American Folk Banjo. Journal of Western Folkore, April 1987, pp. 117-132. Important topics discussed include instruments similar to the xalam used by other groups, the names for 4 different types of Wolof xalam, the construction of the xalam, several tunings of the xalam (with charts), and playing techniques. Parallels between the xalam tradition and banjo tradition are drawn. "The retention of an African plucked-lute tradition in the form of the banjo could have been a conscious and important step in the history of a people's rise from slavery."

    4. Diallo, Oumar. 1984. unpublished paper courtesy of David Maranz, anthropologist with SIL. 16 pages. In French. Available from David Maranz or Paul Neeley.

    5. Duran, Lucy. 1981. A Preliminary Study of the Wolof XALAM (with a list of recordings at the BIRS). Recorded Sound (London) vol 79 P; 29-50. Important topics discussed include the construction of the xalam, its possible origins, the repertoire, and tunings (with charts). The second part of the article is a list of recordings held in a British sound archive, with details on each song.

    6. Hall, Sue R. 2000. Two unpublished articles on Wolof music, one concerning "applied ethnomusicology" among the Wolof and the other a summary of research materials on Wolof music. Available from the author.

    7. Joseph, George. 1979. The Wolof oral praise song for Semu Coro Wende. Research in African Literatures Vol. 10 (Fall 1979): 145-78. Also in the book 'Artist And Audience: African Literature as a Shared Experience' edited by Richard Priebe and Thomas Hale. Washington: Three Continents, 1977.

    8. Magel, Emil. 1981. Caste Identification of the Hare in Wolof Oral Narratives. Research in African Literatures vol. 12 no. 2, pp. 185-202.

    9. Magel, Emil. 1984. Folktales from the Gambia: Wolof Fictional Narratives. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press. Provides models that could perhaps be adapted to biblical parables.


    1. Coolen, Michael T. 1979. Xalamkats: The Xalam Tradition of the Senegambia. Unpublished dissertation, University of Washington. 288 pp. This is probably the most exhaustive study in English. Unfortunately, it is not available through interlibrary loan nor is it available for purchase from University Microfilms, it can only be seen on the campus of this university.

    2. Irvine, Judith. 1974. Caste and Communication in a Wolof Village. Dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. Available through interlibrary loan in microfiche, or for purchase through University Microfilms. The volume has an entire chapter (50 pages) on the sociology and oral traditions of griots. A must-read for understanding the social caste system and associated speech styles of the griots. No musical notations are included. There is a section on dyotile, "transmission of information," which looks possible for Scripture perhaps as much as does the genre of praise-singing.

    3. Leymarie, Isabelle. 1978. The Role and Functions of the Griots among the Wolof of Senegal. Disssertation at Columbia University. This volume is primarily a sociomusical and anthropological study with little emphasis on the music itself, but provides essential background context.


    1. Diop, Samba. 1995. The Oral History and Literature of the Wolof People of Waalo, Northern Senegal: The Master of the Word (Griot in the Wolof Tradition). African Studies Volume 36. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press. The focus of the book is an epic story in Wolof with English translation - which starts with Noah and the Flood! In addition, other chapters concern the lives of griots, oral traditions, and analyses of the historical epic transcribed here. A must-read for understanding of the gewel's art, laid out line by line. Provides an obvious model for biblical stories to be transmitted by griots.

    2. Sallah, Tijan. 1996. Wolof. New York: Rosen (Heritage Library of African Peoples). This book is an excellent short introduction to the people and culture as a whole. Mention is made of six genres of songs and 5 genres of poetry, some of which look like possibilities suitable for biblical messages.


    1. Sabar Wolof: Dance Drumming of Senegal - Mapathe Diop. Village Pulse 1003. Contains 20 particular rhythms, most of them dance rhythms, with brief description of each. The notes give insight into the world of Wolof drumming, mentioning historical events, names and origin of particular rhythms, a "rhythm used to heal the insane," and the constant interaction between drummers and dancers. Seven types of drums are described. No singing is included on the recording.

    2. Tabala Wolof: Sufi Drumming of Senegal - Boubacar Diagne. Village Pulse 1002. This is the "ritual drum music" of the Sufi (Muslim mystics) order known as Qadiriya. "Converts from the Wolof people incorporated traditional Wolof rhythms to satisfy their own tastes and to communicate Qadiriya messages in the Wolof language." Songs from a religious celebration are included. Tabala music is played on 3-5 tuned wooden kettle drums.

    3. Wolof Music of Senegal and the Gambia. Folkways cassette 04462. Recorded by David Ames in the early 1950s. The sound quality reflects the early recording date, but this is the only easily commercially available recording of traditional Wolof music other than the 2 above which focus on drumming. Primary tracks demonstrate xalam, sabar and tama drumming, tabala music, and women's songs. Contains 7 pages of notes.

    4. International superstar Yousou N'Dour has made dozens of recordings in the style of modern m'balax (the foundation rhythms of Wolof drumming), often with singing in Wolof above the worldbeat music. Further information about him is easy to find on the web, and his recordings are available in most large CD stores. Recordings of other urban musicians who sometimes sing in Wolof can also be located.

    5. Doudou N'Daye has issued recordings of traditional drumming and song, including the soundtrack to video 2 described below.

    6. Le chant des enfants du monde vol 1. Guinee/Senegal. Arion 64259. Contains about half-a-dozen children's songs in Wolof.

    7. Keur Moussa: Sacred Chant and African Rhythms from Senegal. Sounds True A337. Music from a Benedictine Abbey near a Wolof village. Some of the songs are sung in Wolof. Some of the music is simplified African music using instruments borrowed from the Mandinka ethnic group, including the kora and xylophone.


    1. JVC/Smithsonian Folkways Video Anthologies of Music and Dance. Africa 3-video supplementary set. Includes more than 20 minutes of Wolof sabar drumming and song, partially taken from the video below.

    2. Djabote: Senegalese Drumming and Song with Doudou N'Daye Rose and his Ensemble. 43 minutes of sabar drumming and song and dance. (1995 award-winning video)


    1. The ULCA Wolof site has many good links, including music.

    2. Wolof sabar drumming and other links of interest, including a site with Wolof phrases and a dictionary.


    The kora and balaphone are actually borrowed from the neighboring Mandinka, but have been put into use by some Wolof musicians in certain areas. Much research has been published on Mandinka music; the resources given here are the most thorough. CoraConnection has great articles on the kora, balaphone and the ngoni (Malian name for the xalam)

    Jessup, Lynne. 1983. The Mandinka Balafon: An Introduction with Notation for Teaching. La Mesa, CA: Xylo Publications.
    Knight, Roderick. 1968. An Analytical Study of Music for the Kora, a West African Harp Lute. MA Thesis, University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
    Knight, Roderick 1973. Mandinka Jaliya: Professional Music of the Gambia. Dissertation (2 volumes), University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Bibliography prepared by , Ethnic Music Coordinator, International Worship & Arts Network

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African Drum sites.

Tabala Wolof: Sufi Drumming of Senegal A CD of typical Wolof drumming used in religious meetings. This site has photos and a sample sound clip of Wolof drumming that can be downloaded.
Sabar Wolof: Dance Drumming of Senegal A CD of typical Wolof dance drumming. The site has photos and a downloadable sound file of Wolof drumming.
Sabar Drumming This is a site that is devoted to Senegalese sabar drumming.
A Guide to the Jembe Good explanation of one of the more famous of West African drums.
Encyclopedia of Percussion An excellent resource for information on drums. Drums relevant to the Wolof can be found under: D2 (djembe, djun-djun), S1 (sabar) T (tabala and tama)
David Thiaw A Senegalese drummer who has settled in Canada and offers classes as well as instructional tapes. The site includes on-line djembe lessons.
West African Music: Short description of West African music including harps, guitars and drums with links and sample audio and video clips to download.
Village Pulse Recordings: Catalogue of drum albums from Senegambia. The pages all have excellent graphics and sample audios.
Musica Bambusa have some good information on the djembes, djun djun, sabar and tabala drums.
How to reskin a sabar
A class project on the ngoni
A blog page on ngonis
Share notation website for sharing djembe rhythms
Dunun practice patterns
West African Percussion rhythms from Guinea and surrounding countries.
Dancing Hands collection of scores,notation and transcription of rhythms from West Africa.
Free Online African Drum Lessons.
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The Kora.

Cora Connection An excellent explanation of the Kora complete with a sample sound tracks which can be downloaded, diagrams and photos.
West African Harps Article on different West African Harps, including a video clips of the Kora being played.
The Art of the Kora from the West African Kora Music and Jaliya Culture website (available in French, English, German and Dutch)
Ravi page on the Kora
Wikipedia article on the Kora
Blog site on Koras
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Catalogues & Reviews of Senegalese and African Music

Cora Connection Music Catalog Reviews of the best in Kora music.
Africassette Music - Senegal Africassette catalogue set to go directly to Senegal. A good source of hard to get music.
Village Pulse Recordings: Catalogue of drum albums from Senegambia. The pages all have excellent graphics and sample audios.
African music reviews: RootsWorld. An index of reviews of african albums.
AFRISONG Records: The African Music Superstore Another potential source of those hard to find albums.
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Ethnomusicology Resources.

Great Commission Worship and Arts Centre (GCWAC) and Ethnic Worship & Arts Focus (EW&AF) index, a ministry of Frontiers Canada.
Ethnomusicology Training Links for missions-minded musicians
Ethnic Worship Music

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