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Voicing the Domestic: Senegalese Sufi Women’s Musical Practice, Feminine Interior Worlds, and Possibilities for Ethnographic Listening

From: Collaborative Anthropologies
Volume 6, 2013
pp. 73-102 | 10.1353/cla.2013.0023

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Dakar is thriving. From the threshold of my Medina apartment, I can hear the life of the city as it resonates from its high mud-brick walls, rises from its streets, and issues from its loudspeakers. The five daily Islamic calls to prayer—each issued by hundreds of local muzzeins during the holy hours—are confluent with the robust sounds of community life in the open air market. This city spills over with voices. Every interaction in Senegambian culture, thickened still in the crowded urban context, calls for a special communicative dance: a family greeting, a negotiation, a formality, a witty comment, a laugh, a praise, a blessing. The phonographic business of being in Dakar is entangled further in the music and song that, in this city of sound, overlaps polyrhythmically with itself in every last corner. As I live and work in its midst, I distinguish one special voice among the others: a woman’s voice rounded into a fearless Wolof tenor. It carries the regional Sufi devotional praise song, an insistent call-and-response, passionate improvisatory loops and whorls. I invite it into my dwelling. Singing along, memorizing its flourishes, setting my daily business to its rhythms over my years in Dakar, I am attuned.

As it carries her devotion to Allah, the voice of praise singer Sokhna Khady Ba stretches into long sonic strands of Sufi devotional prayer, emanates from the car stereos of the faithful, and extends into the homes of all within earshot of the city’s ad hoc Sufi soundsystems. Members of neighborhood dahrias—worship groups whose weekly streetside meetings are dedicated to spiritual learning and ritual voicing—test the sound of their rented speakers with Sokhna Khady’s cd before they set in with their own late-night chants, patterned on her unmistakable style. In the city’s dense artisanal neighborhoods, Sokhna Khady’s voice is integrated into the phonographic fabric from which the life of the city is composed even as it retains its distinct character. Long before I am able to witness Sokhna Khady perform her renowned late-night ritual chants, her voice accompanies my fieldwork: I hear its tones and timbres as it moves amidst the cityscape, confluent with the sounds of Dakar’s musical life.

This is an anthropology of sound: a phonographic engagement with a culture and the people who belong in it. In this world, Sokhna Khady’s faith animates the cultural body of Dakar through the medium of voice. My broader research shows how Senegalese musical culture exerts a critical force upon the circumstances of life in the postcolony as it provides a site for the ritual redistribution of wealth, the generation of resources through creative goods and texts, and a platform for signified political discourse. Most important, it is essential to an alternative social ecosystem by which the Senegalese struggle to live beyond the circumstances of postcolonial poverty and underdevelopment. Although the political materiality of women’s Sufi poetry, ritual song, bardic praise, and dance pop is less readily observable in its immediate spaces of performance than, for instance, in a political rally staged by an activist hip-hop group, its currency is very real for the people of Senegal, who foster its longstanding cultural importance with resources. An ethnography of this feminine vocal power calls for a sensitive, collaborative methodology as it traces the material movement of sound from Sokhna Khady’s private life into the public arena, where it affects the social life of Dakar and the other political entities that overlap with it.

In turn, my field site is multiple: the interiors of home, eardrum, heart, and the layered public sounds of the city. These decenter the immediacy of the site of performance, with its discernible audience and performer, sequence of events, and spectacular elements. Although the effects of such a performance tend to be more measurable than, say, those of a vocal technique or an inspired verse, I am interested in showing how a culture of women’s voicing contributes to an alternative sovereignty for the people of Senegal. I am therefore concerned with the notion of the body on two scales: the individual body of the singer herself as it...

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