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  • Traditional Poetry in Contemporary Senegal:A Case Study of Wolof Kasak Songs
  • Cheikh Tidiane Lo (bio)


This essay examines the contextual frame in which Wolof kasak songs are performed, the system of values they convey, and the artistic quality embedded within this poetic genre. It goes on to examine the change of the form as well as the factors that have contributed to the disappearance of the poetic genre in contemporary Wolof society. I claim that this traditional poetic culture, in spite of the disappearance of the cultural institution that birthed it, is being transformed, revived, and recuperated in novel forms in accordance with modern, urban realities.

Kasak is a poetic genre performed by Wolof and other Senegalese ethnic groups in the framework of circumcision initiation (Tandia 1999; Faye 2006). The choice of kasak songs may be justified by the desire to contribute to the exploration and preservation of a poetic form hardly known because of its esoteric features. In order to ground our work on a corpus collected from authentic sources, I have traveled to various villages to meet different people who were able to supply original oral texts. I used participant observation in one kasak performance and relied on my personal recollections as a former young initiate in a semi-urban setting. I watched video recordings of urban-based kasak events in Dakar and Thies, Senegal. This method has been adopted to analyze patterns of change from the rural to urban setting. My corpus, however, is composed of kasak songs essentially collected in the Saloum region, particularly in the Kaffrine Department where the Saloum-Saloum dialect is predominant throughout the songs. In spite of the modernization of the country, it still remains much attached to old Wolof oral traditions.

African oral poetry, especially West African, is marked by a genre called “panegyric” that is pervasive among traditional communities (Biebuyck 1972; Guèye 2010). Other genres, no less important, encompass heroic poetry—songs related to some professional activity, to household life, and to major rituals and entertainment events. Local taxonomies in each ethnic community differentiate the genres of oral poetry on grounds of themes, occasions, styles of delivery, and so on. Okpewho (1992) highlights the complex task of classifying that lies in endeavoring to classify the ethnic genres based on Western analytic categories, for many reasons. First, a vast number of genres are not easy to classify, and second, some of these genres overlap in many regards such as the performance style and structure. The high degree of intertextuality between genres renders the classificatory task ever more challenging (Ben-Amos 1976).

As for panegyric poetry, Ruth Finnegan (1970) assumes that this genre is the dominant one across the continent, although she provides evidence based on data only from South and West Africa. One of the explanative factors, she thinks, is the presence in a relatively recent history of powerful empires, like the Zulu Empire in South Africa and the Mande Empire in West Africa, alongside other numerous kingdoms. Finnegan teases out three major patronage systems regarding praise poetry: court patronage, religious patronage, and freelance or less specialized groups. The court patronage system comprises a group of highly trained professional poets in the service of an emperor or king who go through systematic training processes before being solicited by the royal family to keep a record of their genealogy. their genealogies, sing their glories both in formal and informal gatherings. They constitute the collective memory of a whole community. In many West African societies, these are castes, for instance, the gewel among the Wolof and the griot among the Mandingo of Sierra Leone. The religious patronage is a group of singers and spokespersons of certain religious families, especially the Sufi brotherhoods. They sing Sufi texts and poems during religious ceremonies such as Maouloud or the Birthday of Prophet Muhammed. The freelance poets are semiprofessional poets who peregrinate from one social ceremony to another, begging by means of their songs. They benefit from a relative amnesty to emit innuendos or threats to some deviant public leaders, or simply to those who fail to reward them on appropriate occasions (Finnegan 1970). Kasak genre hardly fits these three categories. Although it requires...

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