West African Rhythms

March 30, 2011

Deborah Robin Croft, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs Office

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 Mbalax (or Mbalakh), is the national dance music of Senegal and Gambia, and you can hear it swirling in the air wherever you go in these West African countries.  During a whirlwind three-country visit to Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia, we had a chance to hear some of this music that was traditionally only sung by the Griots–combination mistrels-folksingers-oral historians–who played their special stringed instruments and sing in their native language, Wolof, to the accompaniment of the riti, balafon, tama and sabar drums. While in Senegal, I had the opportunity to visit a restaurant/art gallery where an excellent Griot musician interwove each of the names of our small entourage,  into an ancient serenade while we ate fresh Senegalese seafood.  

 Later, we went to the local Mali Market in Dakar, where we saw vendors plying all kinds of handmade wood carvings, colorful traditional fabrics, and beaded jewelry.  Of course, haggling is de’riguer for those of us who want to fit into the ways of the Senegalese people.  Everyone bargains in the marketplace.

After Senegal, we flew to Guinea-Bissau and heard Portuguese spoken as the main language.  Of course, the Portuguese also have a talent with cuisine so some of us had the Portuguese Steak with an egg on top. One of the secrets to Guinea-Bissau’s wonderful flavors is their fresh, local produce. One of their crop staples and main exports to India is the cashew nut.

After taking off and flying from Guinea-Bissau,  we went to see the Gambia. In the Gambia, we went to a local hospital in Banjul where the U.S. non-profit organization, Mercy Ships at http://www.mercyships.org.au/international-offices.php has been working with their all volunteer medical staff, to repair the cleft palates and cleft lips of mostly children. The doctors perform about two surgeries per day, not only putting a smile on these young patients’ faces, but changing their lives for the better.

After visiting the hospital, we had lunch at the residence of the US Ambassador for The Gambia, Pamela White. I wish I could say we had a dip in the Oceanside pool, but we had to fly back to Senegal instead.

Visit us at www.africom.mil/lync

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