The secret about Zimbas

Have you ever seen one of The Gambia's most interesting masquerade before? Well, if you haven't this is a chance for you to do so. Not only in this article will we bring you one of Gambia's best Zimba performers but also introduce you to the cultural background of Zimba.

 The Gambia Zimba cultural group is the best Zimba group in the country. It is led by a young man named Batch Sowe, who inherited and learned about the Zimba culture from his father. He is the founder of this group and the lead performer.

Batch started this group 15 years ago after learning about it from his father’s ex-students. He told us that his father was a big Zimba performer who taught many young people. His father has done his duty in passing the culture down to the younger generation and he became a student to his father’s students.

After completing his studies with his master and mastering the craft of Zimba, he brought together young talents from different areas starting from dancers, drummers and singers. They form the complete crew of the Zimba where the masquerades are needed to entertain the audience through the beats of the drum led by a griot.

Batch reveals that Zimba is a performance representing animals in the jungle led by a lion. The big lion which is played by himself rules the animal kingdom and controls the activities on the stage. The Zimba is a masquerade from the Wollof tribe among the Lébo caste. Zimba is originally from Mali and it was brought to The Gambia and Senegal by the ancestors of Wollof who were forced to migrate from the Sahara to West Africa in the 632D.

The group revealed the interesting interaction between the drummers, singer and performers to be a demonstration of the history of the Wollof ancestors.

˝Once there lived a man who went hunting in the forest and was attacked by a lion. He used a unique African song to calm the lion down and let him pass. ˝

Since then, the Wolof people have adopted this story in the Zimba performance to narrate history.

It is an African norm that a woman should not come close to the masquerade when it is dressed. A woman is not also allowed to wear Zimba costumes nor be at a place where members dress. The traditions have been passed on for centuries. The power of the masquerade is a sacred African believe and it is never to be disclosed to any living soul that isn’t related to it.

In nowadays society, the younger generation has found ways to learn some of these things but most of these restrictions are not followed. Yet still, a woman doesn’t dress in the costume nor can she be present where they are dressing. Since some of these masquerades are brought to entertainment grounds to amuse the audience restrictions such as the forbidden approach of the ladies is not followed any more.

We asked the members what is the reason, a lady should not be present in the process of transforming to the Zimba masquerade:

˝Woman is a being that is emotionally weak and gets scared easily. The dressing room is not only SACRED to us but it is also scary for women to stay at,” they said. Also, another reason is, the ladies are struggling more to keep the secrets so they should not be involved in the process to keep it secret and sacred still.

Nevertheless, during their performance at the Janjanbureh festival, they allowed the audience to come and dance with the masquerade and they say that it is nice for all to enjoy the show and the amusement. If they want to come closer, they can easily do so. It is not a bad thing.

The characters involved in the Zimba are 15 different characters representing different wild animals plus a vocalist and several drummers. A few of the characters are the lion who is the leader of the jungle, tigers, tigress, hyena, black panther, cubs etc. The drum is a strong part of traditional Gambia society and it is also a traditional instrument of the Wollof tribe. The Wollof call the drum ˝Sabarr˝ and the drummers are called ˝Sabarr Kat˝

In the Zimba performance, the vocalist who is normally a griot from the Wollof caste is the mediator between the audience and the performers. His singing dictates what they dance and what they drum. His song controls every behaviour of the performers. He could make them go wild, he could calm them down and he could also make them dance depending on the song he sings for them.

Albert, the lead drummer said, when there is a performance the vocalist would create a sort of a play where they creates the beats and the dance choreography. The whole group then trains together. They revealed that the training takes months and it takes at least a year or two to be a good performer.

Their group is not only performing, but they are also holding a skill centre where passionate dancers, drummers and singers are trained to realize their dream. Young people go through the process of grooming from the grass root and are turned into vibrant Zimba dancers, drummers or singers.

Albert showed us his palm which is covered in old blisters and dried skin which proofs that drumming is not an easy job to do. He went on to say that even though is not hard to learn to drum, it is also not easy to keep it up.

Most of the men in the group come from a caste system where each of the performing roles is rooted in their family’s history and they describe it as their heritage. Ahmed, the manager of the group said, he comes from a family of drummers, Bach comes from a family of Zimba performers, Alaz, the singer, is from the family of griots.

This triggered our curiosity thinking that if you are not from these families does it mean you cannot be a Zimba? The answer is no.

Even though it is easier for people from families with Zimba tradition, it is not exclusive. Youths who are passionate about the craft of Zimba are still groomed and nurtured and they can even become excellent performers. Hadim Joof (the tiger) is one of the examples. He was trained to be a Zimba and he is one of the best performers among the groups.

If you have seen a Zimba in real life or a picture, you can tell that their customers are unique masterpieces. One would expect costumes are being made by skilled designers but in fact, they are the ones who design and make costumes. They buy materials from the market, create designs and sew it with their own hands. Nonetheless, these materials are very expensive and are hard to find on the market.

Zimba is their life career and they are in it whether there is money or not. They have a talent for it and in it lies their passion. Zimba is their purpose in life. By performing on the programs and festivals they try to earn a living. 

The groups biggest challenge remains financial. Their wish is to pay members properly and buy better materials for the masks. Despite this, they sometimes do voluntary acts like partnering with schools to raise funds for the development of the school with no charge attached at the end. They also raise funds for underprivileged people with medical conditions where they try to help to pay for their medical expenses or to enable their travel out of the country to do treatments. They believe that these acts are part of humanity and they must help out in their way.

It goes without saying that Zimba is one of the best mask entertainments which you will never regret watching nor will you ever get tired of it.

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