Arts, Arts Fest 2023

In Waaw Waaw BC, Students Connect With African Culture Through Drumming

Some nights, on the fourth floor of Lyons Hall, rhythmic drumming can be heard echoing throughout the hallways. There are different layers in the music—multiple rhythms work with each other to create a unified song. Voices chanting “waaw waaw” accompany the music as the drumming dies down. 

This music comes from Waaw Waaw BC, a West African drumming ensemble open to all students to learn and perform the Sabar drum style, which hails from Senegal. 

“This is the first African ensemble [we’ve] had at BC,” Timothy Mangin, co-director of Waaw Waaw and assistant professor in the music department, said. “Africa is underrepresented in the curriculum. So it’s a way to show a living, vital cultural tradition.”

Waaw Waaw will perform at the 25th Annual Arts Festival on April 29 at O’Neill Plaza. While multiple music groups will perform throughout Arts Fest, the history and culture behind Waaw Waaw differentiate it from other ensembles at Boston College, according to Mangin. 

“We play rhythms and those are what people usually dance to,” Mangin said. “And then there’s something called a bakk, which is a composition from an elder.” 

Waaw Waaw is currently preparing four rhythms featuring bakks. Each rhythm has a rich cultural history behind it, dating back to as early as the 12th century. One of the rhythms is called Baar MBaye.

“It’s beautiful when you see it danced by women, especially elder women, when they dance,” Mangin said. “It is very graceful and beautiful.”

Lamine Touré, instructor and master drummer for the group, is a member of one of Senegal’s oldest griot families. According to Mangin, this means that it is Touré’s family’s responsibility to ensure that the traditions, histories, and stories of his people are maintained and upheld to withstand the test of time. This often comes in the form of the group’s drum music. 

One of the rhythms that Waaw Waaw is practicing, called Nsupp, has a special meaning in Sereer culture. Nsupp is played to a certain individual in order to honor them, according to Touré. 

“A long time ago they worked together, like farming,” Touré said. “They like to play, the women, so that can give them energy. So if you’re a hard worker, I can play Nsupp to honor you.”

Throughout rehearsals, Touré will say the words “waaw waaw,” which means “good job” or “excellent” in the Wolof tradition. Touré said he says these words in order to create a supportive environment where mistakes can be easily mended with more practice. 

Touré runs through beats multiple times to ensure that all students understand the rhythm and the hand coordination needed to play each one. 

The drumming itself is called Sabar, which refers to a single drum or a group of drums together. Craftsmen called lawbe create the sabar drums from either dimb or baawbaab, which are hard materials that help create the drum’s echo. Once the drum is created, members of the griot families, like Touré, have the responsibility of putting the drums together with a goatskin drumhead. 

There are numerous different types of drums, each with the ability to make different types of tones and noises that contribute to the diverse sounds in the Waaw Waaw BC ensemble.

Ben Hetherington, a student in the drum ensemble and MCAS ’23, said he joined Waaw Waaw BC because he wanted to learn both about music and African culture. 

“I was interested in learning how to play drums because I didn’t have any experience,” Hetherington said. “I also study Africa. Like I’m an international studies major and so it’s always interesting to me.”

Hetherington said that getting to perform at Showdown this past year with Waaw Waaw was one of the most exciting performances he has had in the group. 

According to Mangin, the drum ensemble also played at the annual African Student Organization Fashion Show. Mangin said other venues around New England have also invited Waaw Waaw to perform. 

The group takes in teachers, students, or alumni at any level of experience. For Waaw Waaw, its goal is to preserve culture and foster a sense of community. The group aims to ensure that every person feels included in Waaw Waaw.

“​​In the previous semesters, we’ve had an equal amount of women and men,” Mangin said. “People from South America and Mexico, Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, people from really all over.”

Hetherington said that being in a club like Waaw Waaw at BC allows him to get out of his comfort zone.

“Basically, from my perspective, like you look at a serious, typical like BC students that are like, from like Connecticut or New Jersey and like a lot of like finance majors, guys that have names like Ben Hetherington,” Hetherington said. “I just feel like it’s just like a great way to kind of get out of your comfort zone and be exposed to something like different than that.”

For any new members to Waaw Waaw, Touré stressed that community was at the core of the drum ensemble.

“We just have to be patient, but with Sabar, people can really relax,” Touré said. “The answer is to help each other, bring people together, check the stress out, and recharge.”

April 25, 2023