The sabar drum (Sabarro in Mandinka) is by far the most common instrument in Gambia. You can
hear it at every family gathering, Catholic Church meeting, political
rally, Baay-Fall Islamic meeting, and marketplace. Many Gambians say
if there aren't sabars at an occasion, nobody will go. The sabar has
become the backbone of almost every Gambian music group. Contemporary
Gambian popular and semi-traditional music is generally designated as
"Mballax," named for a family of traditional sabar
ubiquitous in the country's music. A group of sabars is an essential ingredient in all such music.
The nder, the lead sabar drum, is longer and higher-pitched than the
The mbėng-mbėng is the mid-range accompaniment sabar. Like the nder,
it can produce several different pitches and tones using different
The gorong talmbat is a bass sabar and (unlike the mbėng-mbėng and the
nder) has a closed end and rests on the ground, somewhat like a
The lamb looks almost identical to the talmbat but is lower by an
interval of about a third and has short tuning strings. Unlike the
nder and mbėng-mbėng, both bass drums produce only one pitch.
The xiin (not pictured) is shorter and stouter in shape and is a
favorite drum of adherents of the Baay-Fall sect.
The gorong babas is a lead sabar with a sound similar
to the nder but has the same shape as the lamb and is a very recent
addition to the sabar family. Today's premier sabar player, Doudou
Ndiaye Rose, invented the gorong babas as a replacement for the longer
nder, which he found awkward to carry around during concerts.
Sabars usually play in groups of at least three and sometimes even
dozens. Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the most famous player in Senegambia,
sometimes includes over a hundred of his children and grandchildren in
his concerts. The sabars repeat complementary and predetermined
patterns, each player occasionally breaking from his pattern to
improvise. All the players watch the nder player for sometimes abrupt
and complicated transitions between rhythms. As with any other
instrument in The Gambia, sabar players are traditionally only male,
although in some rare settings, females also play
Sabar rhythms have many different functions. The most well-known
rhythms today are the
dance rhythms, since the traditional context of
many of the other rhythms has disappeared. Dance rhythms include the
Mbalax and Ceebujen and the sabar.
The ndėpp is played at exorcism rituals, and the gajarde is the
victory rhythm played for returning warriors. The gajarde is still
well known even though traditional warfare no longer exists because it
is also played for victorious wrestlers. Traditional wrestling is the
most popular spectator sport in Gambia, and wrestlers are the modern
heroes of Gambia.
The Sereer and the Mandinko also play forms of sabars. Sereer sabars
are a bit larger than Wolof sabars, while Mandinka sabars are much
smaller, although construction and tuning of these instruments is
similar. Mandinka drums, suruba are commonly called sabar soose in
Gambia, which means "Mandinka sabars" in Wolof. The Mandinka sabar is about 10 inches tall, whereas the smallest Wolof
type, the Mbėngmbėng, is a musical drum that is usually at least 2 feet tall.