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African Music in Flux: Diasporic Connections from Senegal to Puerto Rico

traditional Senegalese music performance

A traditional Senegalese music performance enjoyed at WARC during the 2019 faculty development seminar. Photo courtesy the author.

In this essay, Errol Montes-Pizarro, a 2019 participant in CAORC’s faculty development seminar to Senegal and a mathematics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey, discusses his ongoing research into historical and contemporary trends within Senegalese music and how West African musical traditions can be used to bridge geographic and cultural divides.

I am a mathematics professor who has also been researching about African popular and traditional music for more than 20 years. In my research, I give particular attention to the relationship between music-making and other aspects of African history, politics, and culture as informed by the latest research in musicology, cultural anthropology, and my own fieldwork. The main focus of my work has been the history of Caribbean influences on several musical genres in the African continent since the early 19th century to the present time and also, reciprocally, recent influences of African popular music on the Caribbean.

I was fortunate to make my first trip to Senegal about ten years ago, when I was researching the differences and similarities between the Senegalese music scene of the early 2000s (primarily hip hop and mbalax) and that of the late 1960s and early 70s, when Hispanic Afro-Caribbean music was the main vogue.

As a participant in the 2019 CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar to Senegal, I was able to visit the country for a second time and, while there, pay attention to other aspects of Senegalese society and musical traditions that I mostly overlooked during my first visit.

For example, I learned about the specific ways that Islam is practiced in Senegal, an issue nicely discussed by fellow seminar participant Sobia Saleem in her CAORC blog article. This new perspective also prompted me to look more closely at the relations between Islam and both popular and traditional Senegalese music-making. As is noticeable to even the most casual observer, Islam's pervasive cultural influence is visible in images and sounds found across almost every Senegalese city. Images of Muslim saints, like Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1850–1927), founder of the Mouride Sufi order, as well as other historical and contemporary leaders of the different Sufi orders, are ubiquitous in public and private places.

Senegalese billboard featuring Mame Diarra

Senegalese billboard promoting water branded Mame Diarra. Sokhna Mame Diarra Bousso (1833–1866) was the mother of Sheikh Amadou Bamba and the only woman saint for whom there is an annual pilgrimage in Senegal. Photo courtesy Miguel Corrigan.

Similarly, almost every musician in Senegal has in his or her repertoire a variety of songs related to Islam. Upon returning to Puerto Rico after the seminar, I continued researching this topic and read with interest the work of Fiona McLaughlin, who argues that Islamic-inspired songs “…represent the emergence of a ‘new tradition’ in Senegalese music.”*

Previously, during the period from the late 60s to the late 80s, when “Senegalese Salsa” was in vogue, there were almost no recorded songs within the genre that dealt with Islamic themes. That changed during the late 80s when some Senegalese “Salsa bands,” like Orchestre Baobab, released several songs inspired by Islam. In my opinion, the timing is related to Senegalese pop musicians finding more inspiration in their own culture, while choosing to move away (although not completely) from the influences that Afro-Caribbean music had in Senegal during the post-independence years. Islam is seldom, if ever, referenced in Caribbean music, whose religious references, when present, are more related to Christianity, Yoruba, and Central African religions.

Mouhamadou Bamba LP cover

Cover of the LP titled Mouhamadou Bamba (which is also the title of the first track in the album) published by Orchestra Baobab in 1980 (Jambaar PJ-JM 5000).

By participating in the Senegal faculty seminar, I opened this and other lines of new inquiry into musical practices in the African Diaspora. Since 2001, I have been producing and hosting for the University of Puerto Rico’s radio station (Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico) a one-hour weekly radio program called Rumba Africana. Through this program, I present African music and music from the African Diaspora to a wide audience in Puerto Rico, Colombia, and other countries. In the program, I place particular emphasis on the history of Africa and our connections to a multiplicity of African cultures, using the history of music of African descent as a vehicle.

In addition, I teach a course at my institution about the history of Afrodiasporic music and also lecture and give workshops about African music to grade-school audiences, both students and teachers, in communities and cultural centers throughout Puerto Rico.

After the lectures, students often approach me to express their shock in realizing how little they knew about Africa or how the historical and contemporary connections between our continents so often go unnoticed. These experiences have increased my awareness of just how important it is to highlight Africa as a diverse, complex, and vibrant influence on our everyday cultural and musical expressions, and not as a fixed, distant, and “primitive” influence, as it is often represented.

author demonstrates the mbira instrument

The author demonstrating the mbira instrument from Zimbabwe to elementary school students in Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy the author.

Finally, another project I am working on aims to transform my university course on African music into a series of workshops for local community leaders in Puerto Rico. The main objective will be to help community leaders and activists develop activities and messaging that will help overcome some of the misconceptions about our African heritage that still prevail in our hegemonic national discourse. Rather than offer moral lessons detached from their daily lives, my hope is to bring “Africa” closer to the popular imagination by sharing information people can relate to about the lives of African musicians, the political context and social backdrop for their creativity, and the multilateral flux of influences between Caribbean, Latin American, and African musical traditions.

Work Cited

McLaughlin, Fiona, “Islam and Popular Music in Senegal: The Emergence of a ‘New Tradition’,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 67. 4 (1997), pp. 560–581. See also McLaughlin, Fiona, “‘In the Name of God I Will Sing Again, Mawdo Malik the Good’: Popular Music and the Senegalese Sufi Tariqas,” Journal of Religion in Africa 30.2 (2000), pp. 191–207.


CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Senegal was organized with the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal, and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in African Studies: Boston University, Howard University, Indiana University, Michigan State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Kansas, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Errol Montes Pirzarro

Errol L. Montes-Pizarro was born in Puerto Rico and is a mathematics professors at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey Campus. He is also a researcher of the history of African and Caribbean music. He was one of 17 participants in the CAORC-WARC Faculty Development Seminar on Diversity, Religion and Migration in West Africa, January 6–23, 2019.

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