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Mbalax (or Mbalakh) is the national popular dance music of Senegal and The Gambia. Mbalax is a fusion of popular Western music and dance such as jazz, soul, Latin, and rock blended with sabar, the traditional drumming and dance music of Senegal. The genre's name derived from the heavy use of accompanying rhythms used in sabar called mbalax.


History and Influence

Mbalax in its current form developed in Senegal in the 1970s. Up to that time popular music was dominated by Haitian kompa, Congolese Soukous, American Soul and Funk, as well as, most prominently, Cuban music, as interpreted by Senegalese musicians. Influenced by the 'back to roots' philosophy of Negritude and the receding influence of colonialism, artists began to mix these sounds with traditional Senegalese music and forge new sounds incorporating their new national identity. Musicians began singing in Wolof (Senegal's largest national language) instead of French, and incorporated rhythms of the indigenous sabar drum. Dancers began using moves associated with the sabar, and tipping the singers as if they were traditional griots.

Among the bands that played this new style, Etoile de Dakar (starring Youssou N'Dour and El Hadji Faye), and Raam Daan (starring Thione Seck), were the most popular and innovative and are credited with the modern sound. Since becoming popular, both Mbalax and its associated dance have spread to other region such as Mali, Mauritania, Ivory Coast and France. This dissemination has come about through radio, audio cassettes and televised video clips.

Following worldwide trends in pop music, modern Mbalax has evolved to contain keyboards, synths and other electronic production methods. As Jazz, Funk, Latin (especially Cuban) and Congolese pop music influenced the early sounds of Mbalax, today it is increasingly influenced by RnB, Hip-Hop, Coupé-Décalé, Zouk and other modern Caribbean, Latin, and African pop musics. Recently, Mbalax artists have frequently collaborated with artists from these genres, such as Viviane Ndour's recent collaborations with Zouk star Philip Montiero and French/Malian rap star Mokobe. However, its sabar rhythms and Islamic influenced vocals continue to make Mbalax one of the most distinctive forms of dance music in west Africa and the diaspora.

Mbalax Dance

Mbalax Dancing is popular in nightclubs and social gatherings as well as religious and cultural gatherings for example; weddings, birthdays, and naming ceremonies. Although it is popular among all ethnic and socio-economic groups, it is most popular among young Wolof. Movement varies across age and gender lines. Mbalax dance style incorporates pelvic gyrations and knee movements.

New Mbalax dance movements are constantly emerging, this often occurs with the increasing popularity of a particular song. Patricia Tang describes some of the new movements:

"Examples of such dances are the ventilateur ('electric fan', which describes the motion of the buttocks swirling suggestively); xaj bi ('the dog', in which a dancer lifts his/her leg in imitation of a dog); moulaye chigin (which involves pelvic and knee movements that perfectly match the sabar breaks); and more recently, the jelkati (a dance in which the upper arms, bent at the elbows, move in parallel motion from left to right). Interestingly all of these dance crazes are closely tied to sabar breaks, and some (such as tawran tej) are even named for the vocal mnemonics of the sabar rhythm they accompany."[1]

Music and Instrumentation

A talking-drum player with Youssou N'Dour

Senegalese songs are usually unwritten, and certain instruments or musical styles are reserved for specific genders or age groups. In the past, only griots could perform music. Their traditional role was transmitting oral history, genealogies and social rankings, diplomacy, and storytelling. Today, griots continue to participate in naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals.

Music is performed using instruments such as drums, balafon, riti, Tama (talking drum), sabar drum. In the 1970s Western instruments and equipment such as the flute, electric guitar, piano, violin, trumpet and synthesizer have been incorporated into the music, to accompany the dance. In addition to the instrumentation, humming, chanting and singing (in either Wolof, French or English) are used to accompany the music that the dance is done to. The lyrics of mbalax songs address social, religious, familial, or moral issues.

According to author Patricia Tang:

"The rhythmic foundation and primary identifiable feature of modern mbalax is the sabar…in Wolof gewel percussionist parlance, mbalax literally means 'accompaniment'. Within a sabar ensemble, different drums play different roles, and mbalax refers to the accompaniment parts played by the mbeng-mbeng. However, the mbalax part varies rhythmically from one dance to another.[2]



  1. ^ Tang, Patricia (September 2007). Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 159.  
  2. ^ Tang, Patricia (September 2007). Masters of the Sabar: Wolof Griot Percussionists of Senegal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. p. 155.  

Addition information was garnered through interviews of Senegalese nationals.



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