De Volkskrant, 6 May 2014, science section (p.19)
The drum has its own grammar
Interview with Yoad Winter, linguist
By our correspondent
Indians use smoke signals and in Africa people talk with each other using drums. At any rate, this is what we once read in Donald Duck (a popular Dutch weekly for children). But is it true? This question has kept linguist Yoad Winter (Utrecht University) busy for years. That’s why he has conducted a research about the Senegalese drum language, which is soon to be published in the academic journal Language.
Can you use drums for talking: this question has surely been asked before. Isn’t it?
`Sure, but it was usually musicologists and anthropologists who studied drum communication. As far as I know, I’m the first linguist to study it.’
And what’s the answer?
`In many parts of Africa drums are used as a tonal language. The drum tries to imitate the sounds of the language. In this way drum languages may function as a sort of a speech surrogate. How precisely these drum were used for communication we don’t know very well. They were used in ceremonies and probably also to warn when an enemy came near, or to summon someone who was out in the field.’
`The Sabar drum language of Senegal is not tonal, and is not quite similar to the Wolof language spoken in Senegal. But the music does thoroughly follow certain grammatical patterns.’
So how does Sabar work?
`When I posed the question if whether people use drums for communicating with each other at a distance, I was often laughed at. `A drum is not a telephone’, they would say.’
`But on the question on whether you can use the drum for communication, I often heard: `Of course, the drum speaks’. You might compare it with a painter: Van Gogh might also say that his paintbrush or canvas speaks. But we shouldn’t take it so literally.’
How should we see it then? Can Senegalese people use drums for talking or not?
`You can’t just go asking someone to listen to a rhythm and
tell you the meaning. The language changes too much between locations and
families. Furthermore, the drums are not used this way. They support spoken
stories and poems.’
`You can see it this way: we know in our Western music countless melodies and rhythms that accompany words like I love you. In the Sabar drum language the same sentence may each time get the same rhythm. It’s not that the translation is always identical, but there is much more consistency and less ambiguity.’
To what extent are unambiguous rhythms the same thing as a language?
`As a linguist you know how language is organized. In the rhythms of the sabar I recognized the logical variations that languages employ. The rhythms are not arbitrary. They exhibit syntactic processes, for instance negation, plurals and singulars, you name it. I was really amazed by the complexity of the rhythms.’
Are you yourself musically literate?
`Not in African music. I used interpreters in this research. I spoke with various griot families. The griots are the bards of West Africa, the carriers of history and folk stories. But their traditions have been changing over time. They often act as modern artists of literary improvisation who create stories based on music, similarly to contemporary rappers.’
`I’ve quite often witnessed that they started a rap text about somebody who was present. If it was me, then I was naturally the white man who came watching. Sometimes the texts are socially engaged and concern immigration and politics, but they may just as well be about common matters, such as: I like to eat potatoes, or there go the girls, they gossip with each other.’
Did the griots understand what you were researching?
`I had the best thinkable introduction in Senegal. I worked together with Doudou Ndiaye Rose. He is the most well-known griot of Senegal. Doduou, a shortened form of Mamadou, is already in his 80s, and is recognized as the father of Senegalese drum music, also because he has 43 children who are also professional drummers.’
`I met him through one of his sons who had come in the Netherlands as a musician. Without introduction you don’t go very far in Senegal. I worked with two griots who recognized the rhythms for me. They know precisely how the rhythms work, each drum stroke has a name, even the smallest variation.’
Does every Senegalese child learn to play the sabar?
`In principle, griots learn it as children. These are often traditions kept within the family. But you often see that the knowledge [of the drum language] starts to disappear. The young generations are less accomplished [in it]. Certainly if they grow in Dakar they are influenced by other sorts of music. Together with the increase of emigration within Africa, the drum languages get endangered. This is not terrible but the music is becoming less language-like, and in that sense more similar to music in the Western world.’