Senegal – Christmas in Casamance

    --“Sénégal – Noel chrétien en Casamance.” Disques Arion ARN58451, 36, avenue Hoche, 75008 Paris, FRANCE.

This review is mostly written by four Jola SIL co-workers who all originate from the Casamance region. Their comments come from Catholic, evangelical and Muslim perspectives, but all four reviewers have frequently attended a Christmas mass in the Casamance.

“I am very, very happy to have heard this recording. It brought my faith back to life, because these are very old songs that made me think of my childhood. They are songs that really touch the heart. Thank you.”

This recording is very well made and good. Overall, the recording is clear, except for a few times when it’s difficult to hear the words and to know the meaning if you have never heard the songs before. We liked it so much that we have barely stopped listening to it. All those who have listened to it have really enjoyed it. Christmas in Casamance is like this; in Dakar [the capital] it is different. A friend said it well: “It really makes me think of Casamance.” When we listened to it, straight away we found ourselves really feeling Jola. The instruments set the Jola atmosphere. The ringing of the bell [at the beginning of the album] is like a call to the time of prayer that is going to start, and it shows that we are in a Catholic church. When the bells are sounded rapidly, it means that there is a happy event. The Christmas celebrations in Casamance are a big thing, a great joy.

The words of the songs [in Jola and French] are very meaningful and deep for our faith; they are magnificent. I think that it is only possible to really express yourself in your own language. The words of these songs are very meaningful and go straight to the heart. It is true Jola [Jola Fonyi, the majority dialect], with no traces of other languages since those who are singing mostly have not spent time in Dakar. The songs are clearly understandable and as Jola people we appreciate them. We [including Muslim contacts] found the songs superb. All the words point to one meaning: the birth of Jesus who was the Saviour of sinners. The songs in Latin are good but one would understand them a lot better if they were translated into Jola. To experience something well, you need first to understand it. And we know that most young people today have not learned Latin. So they will experience a lot of difficulties in singing these songs since they don’t understand them. In the past [as a church chorister], Sophie used to sing them without understanding the meaning. Jacob had never heard the songs in Latin before. He thought of what his village elders had told him: “In our day, the rain came automatically when they sang certain Latin songs!”

The musical styles are very typically Jola with good drum playing. Jola music should be used [for worship] and these songs are typically Jola, especially the voices. You know straight away that it is Jolas who are singing, even in the other languages on this recording. In reference to the voices, it should be noted that they are very spontaneous-sounding. The choir has not over-rehearsed the songs. You should also notice that you hardly hear the Alto or Tenor parts. You really only hear the Sopranos and the Basses. Just like in the choir, the drums also play in “parts.” There are the little drums called mu tumpamu. They have a sound that is very thin [high], and you could say they represent the Sopranos. We also have the middle-sized drums called sisabarasu that play the role of the Tenors. And finally there are the big drums (Alto/Bass) called ùgaarau. You can also hear other instruments such as the iron bars called fubara. In one hand you hold a squared bar of iron, and in the other a thin metal baton. Then you tap the two together. The small calabash is call jifemaju. According to the rhythm of the piece, you hit the calabash very gently and it gives a really nice note. The étaling is an instrument that each candidate for circumcision holds in his hand during the circumcision. He hits it and dances at the same time.

Opinions differed over the mixture of languages in the recording (French, Latin and Jola Fonyi): “In this kind of recording I don’t think it is good to mix up languages, because the desire to understand the song comes as you listen, so there should not be any disruption,” said Jacob, while Elhadji felt “It’s a very good thing, since it allows us to appreciate worship in other languages. It adds variety and it’s good. A Jola person is someone who, I think, is very open to other languages, even if he is proud of who he is; so I don’t find any disadvantages with it. Even at the most profound cultural moments (during circumcisions) Jolas sing in other languages.” Sophie reflected: “For me, it would be better to record Jola songs without mixing them up. But if it was a concert [or service, as this was], I would record all the languages [together]. We have music tapes where there are only typical Jola songs. On the other hand, if it’s a group where there are Jolas, Mankanyas, and Creoles, as you find in the capital, obviously you will have a mix there. But if it’s a Jola situation, everything should be Jola.” In Anne-Cecile’s opinion, “It’s good and very important to mix the languages in a recording, because we know that the faithful who come to church are not all from one ethnic group, nor from the same tribe, so they do not necessarily understand the same language. For example, if you sang the whole Mass in Jola or in French, the other people who do not understand that language would feel a bit left out and would get bored. We know that a good Christian always has a desire to share with his neighbour. So, by mixing the languages in choosing songs, each person will find something, and the mass will be more fully experienced.”

“This recording is really a masterpiece - you can’t imagine how much I like it. It is a real balm to my soul. When I listen to it, it brings back all the good memories of my childhood. I have practiced and sung almost all the songs that are on the cassette. As I listen to them, I can sing along, and that gives me much joy. It is as if it was Christmas all over again, and I really love it.”

Sue Hall adds:

My first hearing of this album was at a Christmas party in the capital, when one of my evangelical Jola friends spent the whole evening glued to the stereo, reminiscing about Christmas in his home village as he heard the songs of his childhood. It was clear that my Jola friends would write a better review of the CD than I ever could!

This album is a recording of the music of a Christmas mass in the Cathedral Church of St. Anthony in Ziguinchor, southern Senegal. Ziguinchor is at the heart of the Casamance region and has a substantial Catholic population as well as growing evangelical and Muslim groups. The CD liner notes (in French and English) include a brief ethnography of the region, which is mainly populated by Jola peoples (speaking several related languages). 12 of the musical pieces are in Jola Fonyi, 2 are in Latin and 2 in French. The liner notes include brief notes of the musical origins of the pieces and composers’ names. Since Vatican II, the Senegalese Catholic church has developed a large body of liturgical music, mostly for choirs, drawing on local musical resources. Songs have spread from one region to another across the country as peoples have migrated for work and studies.

    --reviewed by Sophie Coly, Anne-Cecile Diatta, Jacob Coly, and Elhadji Coly, with Sue Hall

Published in Vol.2, No.1 of

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