This year's Medina Baay Gàmmu (Mawlid), scheduled for this coming Friday night, is set to be unlike any other in history, with visiting heads of state and the inauguration of the newly renovated mosque. However, amidst all the good news, Sheex Baay Caam has just informed me that the man who has led the chanting at the Gàmmu for decades and was to lead it again this year has just died. Baabakar Caam (Babacar Thiam), blind since his birth in a Séeréer-speaking Ñoominka fishing village, became a renowned Islamic school teacher, spiritual guide, and the most formidable Taalibe Baay Sufi chanter. Personally picked by Baay Ñas and educated by Baay Ñas's blind cousin, Usmaan Faati Jàllo Ñas, Baabakar Caam was the indispensable element at any major Taalibe Baay religious meeting for decades. He will be buried today (Wednesday, February 24) in Medina Baay, Kaolack.
I wrote this sketch shortly after the interview that Abdu Salaam Caam and I conducted with Baabakar Caam on September 24, 2004 in Medina Baay. I hope to add more details about his life soon, including photos and recordings.
He Who Sees Nothing but God: Baabakar Caam
If being a muqaddam is for a hereditary and privileged class, Baabakar Caam breaks all the rules. Not only is Baabakar Caam not the son of any major muqaddam, or representative of the Ṣūfī order, but his father was a convert to Islam and a simple fisherman. Baabakar Caam was born in the coastal fishing village of Sum.
I first met Baabakar Caam at Baay Ñas's house in Dakar, before Dakar's yearly Gàmmu celebration where he was to lead the chanting that night.1 I did not find the imposing figure I might have imagined from the many times I had heard his powerful chanting from afar at important meetings or on cassettes. He is not a small man, but he is blind, and his eyes are always closed and usually cast downward. His speaking voice, though gravelly from decades of intense chanting, public speaking, and school teaching, still displays the wide range of pitch, volume, and stylized expresseness that one expects of public speakers in Senegal.2 That day, as I have noticed is often the case, he wore the kind of white robe whose large green front embroidery is associated with the Nigerian Hausa but which has become a familiar sight among Senegalese Taalibe Baay due to their long acquaintance with Hausa.
I had been sitting with members of the daayira (religious association) of students from a high school in Kaolack, who filled the large, unfurnished central room of Baay Ñas's Dakar house. Baabakar Caam came in and sat on a thin matress set up for him against the room's broad wall. As religious figures normally do when surrounded by disciples (whether directly attached to them or disciples in general), he pronounced a prayer formula in Arabic and added a more specific prayer in Wolof at the end. At the end of every phrase, members of the audience would repeat “ᵓāmīn yā Rabbī.” At the time I knew from hearing his name regularly that he was the principal dhikr and poetry chanter (sikkarkat) of the Taalibe Baay in Senegambia, which requires memorizing dozens of volumes of the poetry of Baay Ñas, Būṣayriyy, and other poets as well as long recitations on the life of the Prophet and the Qurᵓān. I did not realize that he was also both a recognized muqaddam in his own right, leading dozens of daayiras throughout Senegambia, and a respected Arabic teacher who runs a well known Islamic school (daara and majlis) in the town of Pasi.
I did not have a chance to talk to him at length at that time because after praying for the high school students I had accompanied he was led off to rest and prepare for the chanting. I knew that he would certainly need this rest and preparation, as he would chant for a total of about half the time from midnight until sunup at around 6:30 in the morning, reciting hundreds of lines of poetry from memory and repeating the dhikr countless times. Even the chanting style he does, with its long, sustained, and intensely projected notes, is far more difficult and potentially tiring than the faster and less intense chanting style of many young people today. For a 65-year-old who has spent most of his life traveling the rugged roads of Senegambia and chanting through the night, I imagined, this must be an exhausting lifestyle.
Several months later3 a member of the Research Committee, Abdu Salaam Caam, spotted Baabakar Caam in the mosque at Friday prayer and hurried back to see me and suggested that we interview him. Baabakar Caam was staying at the house of his departed teacher, Omar Faati Jàllo Ñas, where he usually stays when he visits Medina. (Even years after a leader's death, the house they once lived in is referred to as their house.) After the 5:00 afternoon prayer, we walked out to the area behind the Mosque where he was staying, and the young man who was serving as his “bëkk-néeg” or assistant went into the room where he was staying to inform him of our desire to interview him, and without delay the young man motioned us to enter the room.
As the chanter sat up on his bed, an upright electric fan buzzing next to him in this hot, tin-roofed room, Abdu Salaam Caam and I then took turns explaining the purpose of our visit. Without hesitation, he invited us to begin our questions, which as usual began with his family history.
Baabakar Caam is a Ñoominka, of a Séeréer-speaking fishing community on the coast of the predominantly Séeréer Siin region. He was born in 1940 in the village of Sum. His father followed the example of an older brother and converted to Islam early in life, changing his name from Sàmbare to Bubakar, but of his four grandparents only his father's mother ever converted. He says of his father: “I was the first [of the family] to know Baay, but he died a Taalibe Baay” after Baabakar introduced his father to Baay. His father's friend Mamadu Siise, the imam of the mosque in the nearby town of Funjuñ, encouraged his father to send the young boy to study the Qurᵓān. The imam was a disciple of Maalig Si of Tiwaawan, not of Baay Ñas, but they decided to send Baabakar to the imam's son, a disciple of Baay named Alliw Siise (not Baay Ñas's closest disciple of the same name), who lived in Jaleñ, a neighborhood of Kawlax near Medina Baay. Baabakar continues: “God gave me the good fortune that the one they assigned to teach me was a Taalibe Baay, and that was Alliyu Siise the son of Mamadu Siise. And as I was with him, a Taalibe Baay, I would accompany him to Medina for the Gàmmu and the Siyaare [meeting where disciples bring their leader offerings] and to be in the town.”
Asked if he began studying Islamic disciplines (xam-xam) there, he answered, “No, I just studied the Qurᵓān, and I was a child too so I would also beg (yalwaan) and bring back àddiya and give it [to the teacher].” That is, he subsisted on leftover food that people of the neighborhood would give Qurᵓān students as they knocked on doors after mealtime, and he would bring back whatever money they gave him as an offering (àddiya) for the teacher.
After studying there for 10 years with Siise, he says, “I packed up and went to a scholar called Sëriñ Omar Faati Jàllo, a great Muqaddam of the Fayḍah [Baay Ñas's movement]. Sñ Omar Faati Jàllo was living in his ancestral village, Ñaseen Waalo—that's where I studied the [Islamic] sciences (xam-xam), as well as the Qurᵓān and the poetry (qaṣīdah) of Baay.” Omar Faati Jàllo was a close relative of Baay Ñas and one of the most active muqaddams in spreading the movement around the region.4 And, like Baabakar Caam, he was blind but taught both blind and seeing students. I asked him how Omar Faati Jàllo taught him, and he answered: “he would teach me 'directly' (mubāsharatan) by hand. He is like me [blind] but whenever Baay would write a book, he would read it to him [Omar Faati Jàllo], and he then would sing it back—both poetry and books of [Islamic] sciences, Baay taught all this to him, but he told him: as I teach, you only need to listen, because learning is only hearing. It is not the eyes that see learning—it is the heart that knows it. So he [Omar Faati] flourished (sax: sprouted) on that. Whenever Baay taught, he was present, and whenever he interpreted (firi) the Qurᵓān, he was present, and he [Baay] would teach him books himself, so he could have knowledge. And the way they taught him is also the way he taught me.” Baabakar Caam says that when a seeing student made a mistake in recitation Omar Faati Jàllo would point out in the book where the passage was and say “it's not like that—look at the book—it's like this.”
I told Baabakar Caam that I had heard that Baay Ñas was very insistent that Omar Faati Jàllo be given an education and taught to work rather than left to beg as many blind people do. Caam answered: “He was his relative—they have the same grandfather. Instead of teaching him to beg, Baay's father Allaaji Abdulaay Ñas said, let's not send him away to learn how to beg—bring him to me. So they brought him to him, they sent him to Abdu Mati Caam of Kóosi—which is where the Fayḍah started—and he taught him the Qurᵓān until he memorized it. After he had memorized it, Baay told him: I'm the one who will teach you the Islamic disciplines (xam-xam). Father (Baay)5 had the Qurᵓān taught to you, but I'll teach you xam-xam myself.
Baabakar Caam spent 20 years with Omar Faati Jàllo Ñas in the village of Ñaseen Waalo studying the Islamic sciences and learning the arts of chanting the dhikr and the poems of Baay and delivering the gàmmu narrative on the side. He says of Omar Faati Jàllo: “He was the gàmmukat of the community [péey], and wherever there was a gàmmu, Baay would delegate him to gàmmu there.” Omar Faati Jàllo had two jobs at most of these gàmmus, both of which Baabakar Caam often has when he does gàmmus: he did the gàmmu proper, or the narrative of the life of Muḥammad (read the chapter on gàmmu), as well as the chanting before and after the delivery of the gàmmu narrative. Omar Faati's most conspicuous job, however, was to lead the chanting at the Medina Gàmmu each year, joined by other lead chanters Muhammadu Kabiir Fay and Baaba Njaay and a troupe of awukats, or apprentices who chanted the response. Baay Ñas himself was the gàmmukat at the main Gàmmu. Chanting at these gàmmus was an opportunity for young Baabakar to practice the poetry lessons he was learning back in Ñaseen Waalo, and through his supporting role as an awukat in Omar Faati Jàllo's troupe he gradually learned the chanting art of his teacher.
On one occasion as he accompanied his teacher to Medina to chant at the Great Gàmmu, his teacher told him to chant some poetry before the meeting began so that perhaps Baay would hear him. In preparation for a large meeting, supporting members of the night's troupe often spend an hour or more chanting in the absence of their leader and before the attendees settle in, both to announce the meeting to nearby residents and to allow different members of the troupe to take on the role of the leader. Indeed, Baay did hear him and asked his son Haadi:
'Who is this kid who's chanting the Hamziyyah [of Būṣayriyy] so beautifully and capably?' [His son] told him it was a student of Sëriñ Omar Faati Jàllo, and [Baay] said 'Really? Then Sëriñ Omar has found his replacement (kuutal), he has a successor (xaliifa)!' That was when he told Haadi, 'Go bring him to me. This is not enough for me—I have to meet him face-to-face.' Haadi took me there, and that was when he said: 'Are you the one who was singing the Hamziyyah?' I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Ah, this Hamziyyah is beautiful! Who are you staying with?' I said 'With Sëriñ Omar Faati Jàllo,' and he said, 'Stay with him and don't leave him: your gift (sa mbir) will only be realized at his hands.' He then told what he had told me to his son Haadi and told him 'May you all love him and may you respect him and help him, for his time will come, and his sun will rise. It is for your sakes that he has just mentioned the name of the Prophet of God, Muhammad [through chanting]. You put the one who names the Prophet [through chanting poems] with the one who can praise the Prophet [through the gàmmu narrative]. You will love and respect him, especially you, Muhammad al-Haadi and go with him to the gàmmus.' What he wanted [Haadi] did a lot. He followed these counsels and wherever he did a gàmmu I was his chanter (woykat).
Thus, Baay had already decided at this first encounter that Baabakar Caam would succeed Omar Faati as the Gàmmu chant leader at both the Great Gàmmu and at smaller ones around Senegambia, meaning of course that he would need to work closely with his son Haadi, whom he had been grooming to succeed him as Medina's gàmmukat. The two together presented the Medina Gàmmu, with Haadi as gàmmukat and Baabakar as woykat from Baay Ñas's death in 1975 until Haadi's own death shortly before the 2005 Gàmmu. Baay also counseled Baabakar concerning his teacher: “'Stay with him as he stayed with me, and if you stay with him and don't leave him, everything he got from me you will get from him.' I followed that counsel, and wherever you saw him you saw me, until he could no longer go everywhere and he delegated me to go on his behalf.”
After 20 years as Omar Faati Jàllo's student and companion, in about 1970, Baabakar had begun to take over many of his teacher's public functions. His teacher had already given him an ᵓijāzah muqayyad, and at this time he gave him an ᵓijāzah ᵓiṭlāq (later reinforced with a second one from Haadi Ñas). After these two decades, he says, Omar Faati Jàllo “perceived that I was ready to go and sent me off, telling me: Don't go to Sum [his remote natal village] because I know that this generation will need you. Go to Pasi, because Pasi is an international route [French] and if Dakar needs you, you go, if Bànjul needs you, you go, and you'll be able to go anywhere else that needs you in the country.” It was not until he had moved to Pasi after thirty years of study and apprenticeship that he finally married and began to have his own disciples and students. He set up a Qurᵓānic school (daara) and an Arabic school (majlis). Although he delegates the Qurᵓānic teaching to two other teachers, he himself takes care of teaching the older students the Islamic sciences.
Pasi has three Taalibe Baay daayira, all associated with his religious leadership, as well as numerous other daayiras in other towns around Senegal and Gambia. He has not counted the daayiras around Senegambia under his authority but his disciples organize a siyaare (ziyārah) meeting every January in Pasi, where each daayira comes to pay him their respects and bring him their hadiyyah. Many of these daayiras are concentrated in the islands of the Saalum Delta among his fellow Ñoominka fishermen.
1The Gàmmu of the Jëppël neighborhood, held in a large open space near Baay Ñas's Jëppël house, is the largest of many yearly Gàmmu celebrations in Dakar. The Gàmmu in question occured on the night of April 24, 2004.
2Judith Irvine (1974) has written about the distinction between “noble” (géer) and “griot” (géwal) speech in Senegal, noting that even non-griots tend to use the stylized speech patterns associated with griots when speaking in public, although to do so to excess may lead to the same social stigmatization applied to griots. In religious speaking, I would add, speakers may use highly stylized speech without any negative impact on their social standing.
3We conducted this interview on September 24, 2004.
4See the interviews collected by Aamadu Njaay in the region for Umar Faati Jàllo's role.
5“Baay”: Although he uses the word as a proper noun here as if it were a name, clearly he means it in the Wolof sense of “father”—i.e., Baay Ñas's own father, Allaaji Abdulaay Ñas.
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