Monday, February 2007
Up-and-coming Senegalese musician Modou Gaye combines jazz influences with Sufi singing to come up with something altogether new — Sufi jazz
On stage stand a saxophonist, a bass guitarist and a drummer. A fourth man kneels before a strange, long wooden instrument, something resembling a large xylophone. He grabs hold of a stick and begins to play. Notes gush, then flow down like a river of light raindrops. A beat or two later, the antique wooden and stone caravanserai of Wekalet El-Ghouri resound with a cascade of crystal-clear notes.
“O God, my accomplice, I call You Sindidi (leader), faithful God. I give You my soul. I leave my body to the earth in You,” chants Modou Gaye, the player of the strange instrument — a balafon. His lines are recited from a Sufi poem extolling God’s magnificence.
One by one, the other instruments follow his lead: African tones and the serenity of Sufi chanting meld with the warm timbres of the saxophone and the upbeat energy of the drum.
Welcome to Sufi jazz.
Although the 32-year-old musician hails from Senegal, Gaye’s Sufi jazz was born right here in Cairo.
“It was here that I met musicians with whom I felt I could do good work, musicians who were able to live an instrument’s spirit, not only produce notes. We thought, ‘Why not form a band’?” he recalls. His group, One World Music, was born in 2001, bringing together a Chicago jazzman, a Swiss double bass player, Nubian percussionists and singers, an Egyptian Sufi singer and, of course, Gaye himself.
“The most amazing thing,” he continues, “is that all the musicians who hear this music for the first time immediately feel that they’ve heard it before.”
One World Music’s first show back in 2001 was so successful that the Ministry of Culture decided to finance a Sufi jazz concert every Ramadan. “Even now, people still reminisce about it as our best concert,” says Gaye of the gig, which was held in the heart of Islamic Cairo at Beit El-Harrawi.
From Senegal to SwitzerlandWith Sufi orders still vital in Senegal, Gaye says his artistic upbringing began when he was a child. Belonging to the Layenn brotherhood, a prominent Senegalese family known for its strong religious spirit, both Gaye’s father and grandfather were sheyoukh, he says. The latter, Sheikh Jibril Gaye, was the mukhaddam, an adviser to the Mahdi, a spiritual guide who appeared in Senegal 126 years ago.
Gaye’s father, Sheikh Momodou Sakhir Gaye, was a master of the Layenn brotherhood as well as a poet. He founded the École coranique franco-arabe [French-Arabic Qur'anic School] in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, in 1957. Momodou died in 2001 and an annual moulid has been held yearly honoring his memory ever since. Gaye’s mother hails from the Fall family, members of which founded the first Senegalese Qur’anic schools 300 years ago and were later disciples of the Mahdi.
At the age of eight, Gaye started to sing his father’s poems, and three years later was leading aisha prayers. He speaks of his father with love and admiration: “We loved each other so much. His behavior was always noble and generous. He treated us — his children — as he treated all people. He set an outstanding example of someone giving to others.”
While studying Islamic philosophy at Fes University, Morocco, friends and teachers advised Gaye to travel to Egypt to meet other musicians. “In Morocco and in Spain, too, where I traveled for some time, I found that something other than Sufi singing existed. I met musicians and [began asking] myself questions about music, questions to which I could not find answers in my country. I knew that I could look for them in Egypt.”
The young artist arrived in Egypt in 1995 and soon began participating in music workshops. In the process, he hooked up with jazz composer and acclaimed DJ Fathy Salama, with whom he sang in Wolof, his Senegalese mother tongue.
In 1997, Gaye heard about the Gouna International Ethnic Music Festival and decided to form a band and give it a shot. He persuaded his young African percussionist and dancer friends to play and dance to African folk music — and sure enough, the band won first prize.
“Our music was broadcast, and then things [really started to happen]. People began to talk about me, saying ‘Take Modou’s phone number and let’s jam!’ ” says Gaye.
One year later, in 1998, he was a guest at the first round of Zuwera: the Egyptian World Music Bands Concert. The concert had been in the works for six months and boasted technological innovations including video projections complementing the songs. (The show has since been broadcast more than 10 times on Egyptian channels and has influenced scores of young Egyptian musicians.) “People understood that creating a new music was possible in Cairo. Two years after this show, five new world-music bands had been formed,” Gaye notes.
From there, Gaye began to dabble in theater. Director, composer and music critic Dr. Tareq Sharara was looking for African musicians to accompany one of his projects, The Lion and the Jewel, a play by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.
“Modou led the percussionists and sang as well,” recalls Sharara. “His voice was very beautiful and so genuine that I offered him [the chance] to take part in a stage music CD I was preparing.”
The Cave was the theme of the CD, based on Surat Al-Kahf of the Holy Qur’an and the story surrounding it, and on the notion of meditation. Gaye sang in Wolof, joined by other artists performing in the English, French, Greek and Armenian versions.
Gaye explains that Sufi music is based on Andalusian rhythms, while Senegalese singers use something called the Baifail rhythm. He hit on the idea of melding the two and throwing in influences from his favorite jazz idol, Miles Davis, and soul singer Marvin Gaye to come up with his Sufi jazz.
“At the time, the late 1990s, Modou’s music was very slow, calm and religiously oriented, with basic touches of jazz. It was an appeal for meditation,” recalls Sharara. “Now, what has become the Sufi jazz is more and more commercial.”
Despite its growing popularity with live local audiences, Sufi jazz has yet to find a commercial niche here or abroad. Gaye’s singles, recorded and distributed in Switzerland, are now out of stock and the jazzman is looking for a label in France.
As for breaking into the Senegalese market, Gaye isn’t optimistic: “Senegalese show-business heavies are puzzled by me, a young Senegalese artist playing all over the world, without any manager, without any production network.”
Until a contract materializes, Gaye is still making the rounds in Cairo’s music circles, hoping to meet prominent musicians, particularly the legendary Nubian singer Mohammed Mounir. He is also waiting for the second part of a TV documentary produced privately by Audrey Murano and Bruno Dutertre of Rill Production. The film will focus on his musical career. The first part has already been shot in Europe and Egypt; shooting on part two is scheduled for later this winter in Senegal.
While he waits for his career to take off, Gaye is honing his skills on the hang, a new metallic percussion instrument created in Switzerland by the PanArt company. To date, only 3,000 or 4,000 players in the world own the instrument, making it, in short, a small circle of initiates.