Sabar circles: where the magic happens
Sabar from Senegal
Sabar is the generic term for both the dance event, the drum and the dance. Sabar finds its origins in Wolof culture but with the spread of the Wolof language and culture, most of Senegal embraced sabar. Within the general term of sabar, every dance event has its name (taneber, ngente, mariage, tur), every drum part of the sabar ensemble has its name (thiol, tungune, mbeung mbeung, nder) and every rhythm you dance to has its name (thieboudiene, barambaye, njaari gorong). Sabar is part of life (and not death) in Wolof society, and most celebrations resonate on the sounds of the sabar drums, singing and dancing. Sabar events take the shape of a circle, drummers included and the backs of the (women) participants protect what happens in the circle from eyes that are not supposed to be part of sabar.
The ones animating the party, usually considered the best dancers, drummers, singers and cooks, are the Nguewel people. They are part of a bigger group called ñeeño, which more or less entails all crafts: the Laobé traditionally working the wood, the (silver)smiths, the pot and pan makers and the Nguewel for their culture crafts. Their role in society has traditionally been one of interdependence: before colonial times the kings (Geer, nobles) had its Nguewel to praise him through singing, dancing and drumming. And the Nguewel needed the kings to make a living.
There are no more kings in the Wolof empire, but the Nguewel have stood through time and still go on demand. Whereas before that demand would be primarily on praise singing and on occasions guiding soldiers into the battlefield, nowadays the Nguewel entertain and stir up the sabar parties. And where Geer and Nguewel would not mix in private lives, nowadays sabar attracts all kinds of people, whether it be for fame, love, passion, or money, and everybody is a sabar artist.
Sabar is the most beautiful dance I have ever seen, with it enchanting lightfooted groundedness, its elegance, its ecstatic rhythms and the pure joy that coming out of all those bodies. The rhythms speak to me like no other rhythm I had ever heard before. Sabar struck me like thunder. Ever since my first encounter, sabar has changed me and my life for good.
Sabar circles: Where the magic happens
So what is it with sabar that seems to have both a magical appeal and also scares the hell out of people?
I would say, from my personal experiences and observations, magic happens in the sabar circle. It’s a place where rules are bent, critics heard and emotions acknowledged. Entering the sabar circle means daring to be seen, connect to the drummers and to express oneself. I would say that the sabar circle is a reflection of life, including its hardships and happiness. Sabar cures and makes ill when not in harmony with oneself and to me, sabar teaches me all lessons in life a person must learn. Sabar is like facing a mirror: sabar is honest and one cannot fake sabar or take a shortcut. Although avaricious in the beginning, sabar will be generous to you at some point in time, when you’re on the right track.
I can only speak for myself, but when I enter the sabar circle I enter a momentum in time, place and space where I am both absent and present. I am more present than ever in a way, but my mind is in a different place: when asked afterwards what steps I danced I don’t remember. It doesn’t really matter really, it only matters what emotions you put in your dance, your connection to the drummers and the audience. Your steps are a means to an end: expression. Entering the circle and not knowing the language or not knowing what to say comes with great confusions between both dancer and spectators and dancers and musicians.
Sabar is one of the most difficult dances to learn, not in the least because of the rhythms that come with sabar dance, but also because learning sabar means learning how to move all over again.
This is why many dancers outside Senegal are having a hard time learning sabar and why even professional artists may be frightened by sabar.
When executed perfectly, that is: in tune with music and audience, an enormous adrenaline boost and dizzying bliss runs through you after your performance. Upon entering that phase, you’ve become a druggy: you need more of this blissful feeling! As a result you start making room for sabar in your life: you start combining city trips with sabar workshops, you turn your living room into a dance floor and you can hardly keep yourself from practicing your steps while waiting for the train. You vision yourself smashing a sabar event, your solo has become the most spectacular, people applaud and cheer for you and you’re so high in the sky you can hardly come back down to earth.
That’s what sabar does to people.
Stay tuned for the next blog!
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