What is Mbalax?

Mbalax is a style of dance music popular in Senegal and the Gambia. It began in the early 1970s. It was inspired by a tradition of the Serer people (an ethnic group from the west of Africa) called Njupp. To mark their reaching the age of adulthood, Serer boys were encouraged to create religious songs. The Njupp traditional style was mixed with other styles, such as jazz, soul, Latin, Congolese rumba, and rock – and out came Mbalax. Instead of singing in French, as most artists did at that time, Mbalax singers sang in Wolof (the first language of many Senegalese people).

What instruments does Mbalax use?

The main instrument is the sabar drum, a traditional drum from Senegal. It is used to set the rhythm of the song, and gives it a drumbeat which is unique. Other African instruments are also used, such as the balafon (a kind of Xylophone), and the timi (also called the talking drum, because it makes a sound like a human voice). The flute, electric guitar, piano, trumpet and violin are also popular instruments.

Who should I listen to?

Probably the most famous Mbalax singer is Youssou N’Dour. In 1994 he released his greatest international hit, 7 Seconds, featuring Nenneh Cherry. It has verses in Wolof, English and French. It is a song that explains why racism is unnatural, saying that no child is born a racist, and no child cares about the colour of anyone’s skin. Here are some of its lyrics:

And when a child is born
Into this world,
It has no concept
Of the tone of skin it’s living in.

Yousseau N’Dour also wrote and performed the official song of the 1998 Fifa World Cup. It is called La Cour des Grands, or in English, Do You Mind if I Play. Another popular Mbalax singer is Pape Diouf. In 2015 he released the hit song, Du Degn.

Why is Mbalax important?

Mbalax music is listened to all over Africa and the world. It is an expression of local Senegalese heritage, and shows that if Africans take pride in their traditions, they can use them to create great music and great art.