The sabar drum (Sabarro in Mandinka) is by far the most common
instrument in Gambia. You can hear it at every family gathering,
Catholic Church meeting, political rally, Baay-Fall Islamic meeting,
and marketplace. Many Gambians say if there aren't sabars at an
occasion, nobody will go. The sabar has become the backbone of
almost every Gambian music group.
Contemporary Gambian popular and semi-traditional music is generally
designated as "Mballax,"
named for a family of traditional sabar dance
rhythms ubiquitous in the country's music. A group of sabars is
an essential ingredient in all such music.
The nder, the lead sabar drum, is longer and higher-pitched than
The mbėng-mbėng is the mid-range accompaniment sabar. Like the
nder, it can produce several different pitches and tones using
The gorong talmbat is a bass sabar and (unlike the mbėng-mbėng
and the nder) has a closed end and rests on the ground, somewhat
like a non-directional subwoofer.
The lamb looks almost identical to the talmbat but is lower by
an interval of about a third and has short tuning strings. Unlike
the nder and mbėng-mbėng, both bass drums produce only one pitch.
The xiin (not pictured) is shorter and stouter in shape and is
a favorite drum of adherents of the Baay-Fall sect.
The gorong babas is a lead sabar with a sound similar to the nder
but has the same shape as the lamb and is a very recent addition
to the sabar family. Today's premier sabar player, Doudou Ndiaye
Rose, invented the gorong babas as a replacement for the longer
nder, which he found awkward to carry around during concerts.
Sabars usually play in groups of at least three and sometimes
even dozens. Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the most famous player in Senegambia,
sometimes includes over a hundred of his children and grandchildren
in his concerts. The sabars repeat complementary and predetermined
patterns, each player occasionally breaking from his pattern to
improvise. All the players watch the nder player for sometimes
abrupt and complicated transitions between rhythms. As with any
other instrument in The Gambia, sabar players are traditionally
only male, although in some rare settings, females also play
Sabar rhythms have many different functions. The most well-known
rhythms today are the dance
rhythms, since the traditional context of many of the other rhythms
has disappeared. Dance rhythms include the Mbalax and Ceebujen
and the sabar.
The ndėpp is played at exorcism rituals, and the gajarde is the
victory rhythm played for returning warriors. The gajarde is still
well known even though traditional warfare no longer exists because
it is also played for victorious wrestlers. Traditional wrestling
is the most popular spectator sport in Gambia, and wrestlers are
the modern heroes of Gambia.
The Sereer and the Mandinko also play forms of sabars. Sereer
sabars are a bit larger than Wolof sabars, while Mandinka sabars
are much smaller, although construction and tuning of these instruments
is similar. Mandinka drums, suruba are commonly called sabar soose
in Gambia, which means "Mandinka sabars" in Wolof. The
Mandinka sabar is about 10 inches tall, whereas the smallest Wolof
type, the Mbėngmbėng, is a musical drum that is usually at least
2 feet tall.