Thursday, March 18, 2010

Layers of Meaning in Senegal: Yaye Fall Sisters Madelayne and Thioro Mbaye

I stumbled across this video on a friend’s facebook page and have since played it dozens of times... I just love the haunting melody, beautiful imagery and how much meaning is tied up in the clip! Although “Saliou Mbacke”, by Madelayne and Thioro Mbaye is only a six-minute music video, it contains many layers of meaning and illustrates important elements of Senegalese culture.

In Senegal about 95% of the population are Muslim, the majority practicing Sufism. Within this Sufi sect, there are a number of different subgroups. The primary subgroup is the Mouride Brotherhood. Members of this brotherhood follow the teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a religious leader and poet who lived during colonial times. While he wasn’t a direct adversary of the French, he challenged their rule non-violently, stating that the only superior he would ever obey is Allah. His teachings focused on hard work, prayer, and devotion, emphasizing the Prophet Muhammad’s saying “Work as if you’re going to live forever, pray as if you’re going to die tomorrow” and his message gained (and still has) an immense following. The French were so uneasy about Amadou Bamba’s profound influence on the Senegalese population (had he wanted to, he could have surely raised and army), that they exiled him from the country twice, once to Gabon from 1895-1902 and once to Mauritania from 1903-1907. This attempt to squelch his following, however, was completely fruitless and Mouride followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba hold a prominent place in Senegalese Muslim society to this day. There is only one ever known photo taken of him and it has become iconic. The image of him wearing a white robe can be seen all over Senegal on everything from murals to minibuses to necklaces.

So what does he have to do with this song? Well, Seringe Saliou Mbacke, for whom the song is dedicated, was the fifth great Khalif (leader) of Mouridism and the last son of Cheikh Amadou Bamba. He is credited with developing Touba (a holy city for Mourides) from a small village into the second largest city in Senegal and also opening up many Islamic schools. He died in 2007 at the age of ninety-two and was buried in Touba. This song honors him and all of the advancements he made for Mourides and Senegalese people. His image along with the image of Cheikh Amadou Bamba can be seen fading into the background of some of the shots in this video.

Ok so... now we know that it’s a devotional song dedicated to Seringe Saliou Mbacke, one of the great leaders of the Mourides. But...there is yet another twist to this video...(so cool how much information can be gleaned from a 6 minute video!) Not only are the Mbaye sisters Muslim and Sufi and Mourides, but they are a part of an even more distinctive subgroup.... these women are Yaye Fall. Yaye Fall is the term used to refer to women who are followers of the Baye Fall movement (yaye meaning mother in Wolof and baye meaning father). A little complicated, I know.... maybe this can help: From larger to smaller group these women are Muslim>Sufi>Mouride>Baye Fall.

What exactly does it mean to be a Baye Fall??? Well… I’m still learning myself and still have questions but I’ll share what I know so far…. From what I’ve learned, anyone who has the love of God in their heart can be a Baye Fall… they must live a life of peace and love and devotion to God.

Baye Fall aim to live their lives similarly to a man named Cheikh Ibra Fall, the most dedicated disciple of Cheikh Amadou Bamba who embodied the values of Mouridism by showing complete and utter devotion to his Cheikh through which he became closer to Allah. He acted as Cheikh Amadou Bamba’s assistant, bodyguard, laborer, and fund-raiser and is referred to as “the light of Mouridism” because of the way he reformed the relationship between the Cheikh and his followers. For Mourides, the relationship that Cheikh Ibra Fall had with Cheikh Amadou Bamba is the template for the purest form of devotion and in turn the path to Allah.

Physically, people who are a part of the Baye Fall movement like Madelayne and Thioro Mbaye can be distinguished by their dreadlocks and wearing of colorful patchwork clothing as Cheikh Ibra Fall is known to have done. During his time Cheikh Ibra Fall wore the same clothes for so long that they became worn out and patched up with different colored fabric… Because of this bedraggled appearance, he was thought by some to be crazy but for him and his followers this appearance represents detachment from physical beauty and worldly possessions.

There are a number of internationally famous musicians who are part of the Baye Fall movement like Cheikh Lo, Carlou D, and Nuru Kane… it is not rare to see dread-locked, patchwork clothes-wearing members of Senegalese bands all over the world. This is another reason that this particular video is so special-- As rare as it is to see women who are part of the Baye Fall movement, it’s even more rare to see some who are also performing musicians! In the clip, not only are these women singing, but they are playing different percussion instruments like the sabar drum and calabash; instruments primarily played by men. In addition to these two forms of percussion, the sisters have one more way to keep the rhythm… While walking around and singing and collecting alms for their Cheikh (as many Baye Fall do), they are using the coins that they collect in their calabash bowls as a rhythm instrument as well!

Anyway… While I know that this post is a bit roundabout and incorporates a lot of different elements, I find the layers of meaning gleaned from this simple six-minute video to be amazing! Through the haunting voices of the Mbaye sisters and the imagery chosen by the filmmakers (for whom there is a link at the bottom of the post), anyone who watches the video can learn something new about Sufi Islam in Senegal and the cultural and religious stories and icons that are so important and prominent in their society to this day.


  1. I learned so much from this - thankyou! And my Ivorian friend, reading it here with me "seconds that." Great job, very respectful but not fawning. Thank you!

  2. I found this so interesting, and love the music, Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  3. Hello,

    I read about your project in the Fulbright blog and I'm very interested in connecting with you. I'm in Madison, working on a project in Dakar. I'll be going again in December. Please send me an email if you have a chance. Thanks!

  4. How are you?
    Interesting breakdown of the video..

    I just got back to Massachusetts from Dakar where I was recording hip hop with rappers in the Africulturban Center in Pikine...
    I was wondering ifyou could give me a little information about what your experience was like with the people in that organization. I got some amazing recordings on a sort of exploratory mission to just record some Senegalese hip hop and I'm looking to find a way to publish (produce and promote) some recordings....looking for people interested in pursuing the mainstream promotion of Senegalese cultural contributions!!

    Bob Moriarty

  5. Excuse me may i have any senegal law form mail id please help me for justice my id

  6. Hi there, thanks for the nice article. I mostly agree with your perception of the Baye Fall, I have to say that there obviously much, much more too it. It´s pure mystic... as is every way to God.
    I would be grateful, if you could shine more light on the subject of the Yaye Fall. What is their role in the organisation, what is expected from them or how is their characteristic? Do you know something about this? Thank you

  7. Thanks for this nice article! Yesterday in my hometown in southern Italy I had talk with a Senegalese man wearing the hairstyle and clothing you describe, he gave me a necklace beacause he said he could see that I love Africa and I acted like a yaye fall :) Thanks to you, now I know what he meant and I feel wery honoured ^^
    Please keep on posting such interesting contributions!