NRC Weekend, 10-11 May 2014, science section (p.7)
And then I tell you: `Katamboom’
Interview, Linguistics: for six years Yoad Winter carried out a research into the drum language of Senegal. The players drum messages like `I go wash my child’ or `I’m hungry’, using hundreds of rhythmic elements.
By Mischa Spel
How does an Israeli linguist arrive in the midst of the griots in the inlands of Senegal? In the case of Yoad Winter, by chance.
Winter works at the Utrecht University, and lives in the same city. His daughter followed a drumming course for children. And there he came across a Senegalese drummer. By hearsay he had known that there existed something like African "drum language". `Out of curiosity I made an appointment to talk about it once. And then another appointment followed, and then more appointments.’
Drumming in Senegal is a business for people who were born to this profession. Griots, groups of poets, singers and musicians, accompany all sorts of ceremonies with their singing, music and dancing. `What made me most curious was to realize that the Senegalese drum language works in a way that is fundamentally different than drum languages in Ghana or Nigeria’, says Winter. The languages spoken in those countries are `tonal', like Chinese: a word uttered in a different pitch may have a different meaning. The drums imitate the sentence’s melody. But Wolof, the language spoken in Senegal, is not tonal. Furthermore, the rhythms of the Senegalese griots do not imitate the spoken language, and nonetheless they follow specific linguistic patterns. For Yoad Winter this was a reason to go on a research trip to Senegal. He visited Senegal four times in six years, created working contacts with, among others, the family of the well-known drummer Doudou Ndiaye Rose, and based on this research, he wrote an article that will appear later this year in the academic journal Language.
`What makes the Senegalese drum language interesting, but also complicated, is that the rhythms have meanings, but not all Wolof speakers understand them’, says Winter. `You can compare it to the leitmotifs in Richard Wagner’s operas: musical motifs that indicate specific themes – love, a spear, salvation. You know that they are there, you can learn how to identify them. But not everybody who listens to Wagner knows the meaning. This is how Senegalese drummers work. You can’t use the drum for `speaking' to each other. They react to subjects appearing in the ceremony, and repeat them with rhythms with the corresponding meaning.’
How did you know what each rhythm means?
`I gave the drummers a word and asked them to play the translation, for instance `child’. What happens if you then add an adjective? Big child, small child, thin child? From the rhythmic addition we can then abstract meanings. All players use the same core sounds. However, the way in which these sounds combine with each other may greatly differ.
You often hear rhythms reoccurring. Takatam, takatam – silence – boom boom. What does it mean?
`I’d be happy to be able to answer that. But to recognize what a rhythm means you need to know which family is playing, and to know all the rhythmic variations and rules.’
Can you turn any sentence into a rhythm?
`No. `I go wash my child’ – that’s something that every drummer can play. But when I replaced the word `child’ by `car’, it seemed that there was no corresponding rhythm, ha ha.’
The rhythms often sound repetitive. What does it mean? That you say the same thing over and over again?
`The drummers use linguistic materials and translate them to rhythms, which they subsequently use for free improvisation. In the next part of the ceremony they introduce a new theme. What we experience as repetition is often a complex polyrhythmic interplay between different players.’
How did you extract a message from this web of meaningful rhythms?
`Normally I interviewed one player at a time, otherwise I do not hear what’s going on. Funny, but often it didn’t work. The drummers are artists, and they like to demonstrate what they can do.’
`For instance, someone played the rhythmic equivalent of `a dish with fish and rice’, and another player picked it up and played `I’m hungry’, and another one responded `me too! me too!’. In this way it becomes a sort of conversation. The research was real fun in places where the tradition was not yet eroded. In one town the smallest children took part in the improvisation. An eight-year old girl told a story about her school and what she liked to eat, and her brothers immediately responded to that on the drums.’
How did you process all the material? Did you put all rhythmic elements on a computer?
`No, it was a rather straightforward research. We found and registered around 150 basic rhythms, from which you can create an infinite number of sentences. I think there should be a total of a few hundreds rhythms, which indeed would be easier to process by using computers.’
What stops you?
`Money. These are professional musicians. We are rich Westerners. This makes it unethical to pay according to local tariffs. The research works out the best if the drummers come together as a group, because that’s the way they are used to: you don’t play alone. I’m now looking for more funds and would be happy to create a team for further research. But this is expensive and labor intensive. Ten days net research require one month work.’
`It’s Africa. The circumstances are very different, mainly because of the heat and because of poverty. In addition you have to bring people together, since many people move from one town to another in search of work. And if it works out to bring them together, there must be food for everyone. Ideally I should have worked as an anthropologist and live with one family for months. But I have too many responsibilities to be able to do that. I wish I found this topic twenty years ago, when I was freer. Only at that time I didn’t have the knowledge I have today, and I would not have come to the idea, ha ha. In life we often come across this paradox.’