Sens Sagna: spreading peace and unity through music and dance
Ibrahima ‘Sens’ Sagna
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“Manchester has a heart of music. It’s a very creative city. It has a story, a legacy. It’s the diversity, it’s who is here. I’m one of the people who is part of it and I’m proud to be part of it”.
Sens is a dancer, singer, storyteller and bandleader based in Whalley Range. He grew up in the Casamance region of Senegal and trained as an African ballet dancer in Gambia. Since moving to Manchester in 2005, he has become a popular figure in the music scene in the city and beyond. He is particularly known for his performances at music festivals, including Manchester Carnival in Moss Side, Moovin Festival in Stockport, WOMAD in Wiltshire, and Drum Camp in Suffolk, and also for his dance classes and drumming workshops. He also leads the Kajamor Family band, a diverse collective who combine a variety of African and African-derived musical styles. Across all of his activities, Sens mixes traditional and contemporary influences, sharing his love for traditional West African arts and for popular music genres from reggae to afrobeat.
Sens’ Musical Life Story
Sens’ earliest memories relate to traditional musical practices in Casamance. With a Jolla and Mandinka background, he participated in singing, dancing, storytelling and drumming in his home town of Ziguinchor. Sens explains that dance was at the heart of the culture and recounts that mothers started teaching their children to dance before they could even walk.
“As a kid, I did music and dancing but not in a professional way. Dancing and drumming and singing is in our stories, it’s part of our culture, our grandparents played it…we’ve grown up around the stories [of] the jeli…Even when I was going to primary school, I was into dancing and playing”.
Sens soon felt a call to be a dancer, but he found it difficult to pursue his ambitions to become a performing artist in Senegal. His lively musical childhood was cut short by conflict and, as the son of a shaman, he was expected to follow his father’s profession. As a teenager, he moved to Gambia, finding safety and the freedom to seek out his artistic dreams.
“In the town, everything was happy – drumming, dancing. [But] you never know [the] future. In Casamance, with the conflict we had growing, we started seeing guns, started to see armies, started to see rubble…It was basically like chaos. The music was gone…I saw all the drumming and dancing and all that disappear…I lost my dad when I was 11, so my mom was a single mother. It was tough…we were travelling, moving…I moved to Gambia because my mom was trying to make sure I’m protected”. “My dad was a healer, you know like a shaman…[He] converted to Islam so he became like an Imam figure and a spiritual man…In my family, I was expected to follow my dad’s footsteps. I knew if I wanted to do art in Senegal, it would have been difficult, because my mum would not have supported it…So I had to go to Gambia so I can live on my own and have the freedom to express what I want to be”.
In Gambia, Sens started building a professional career in the arts, performing with a successful group, Kanilai Ballet Group, as a dancer. It was here that he also became immersed in reggae music and culture, finding an affinity between its messages of peace and unity and his own desires to use art as a tool for healing.
“In Gambia, I started to take it serious…I made it like a career…I joined this group, it was African ballet – which is drumming, dancing, acting, singing. They had like 20 male and female dancers with drummers and kora players. We performed in hotels and local events in the day and, in the night time, we go perform”.
“In my generation, reggae was something very important. When I went to Gambia, I learn to understand English words. In Gambia, reggae was something people really understand the message of unity, coming together. It was reggae that inspire me to be different, to try to be positive, to promote ‘one love’, things like that. So I would go to reggae nights…I became a dancer who started to carry dreadlocks…When I went back to Senegal, reggae and salsa started having more interest. People, even if they didn’t understand the words, they understand the message”.
Sens eventually returned to Casamance, preaching positivity through performance. He performed with two groups, Casa de Mansa and Tamala. The latter was organised by a dancer based in London and, with this group, Sens toured nationally.
“‘Mansa’ means ‘King’ in Mandinka so ‘Casa de Mansa’ means ‘the King’s home’ and it’s also a reference [to] Casamance. We [had] a long conflict…Casa de Mansa was about being positive”.
“In the group Tamala, I was very involved – I was there as a dancer but I played a lot of roles…The meaning of Tamala is ‘traveller’ in Mandinka…[because] all of us are travellers – we play this village, we play that village, we play abroad, we are all travelling, you know?”.
In 2005, Sens moved to Manchester. As a United fan, it was football that had put the city on the map for him but, after his arrival, it was the reggae scene and the cultural diversity that made a real impression. He faced a number of challenges after relocating, encountering language barriers and difficulties securing fair payment for his artistic work. Nevertheless, over time, Sens has managed to build a strong profile and a network of collaborators in the city.
“I had no idea [what to expect from Manchester]! I heard about Manchester through football, because I knew Manchester United…I came through marriage, my children’s mum. We were married but now, we’re not together anymore…I did all the kind of factory job kind of stuff, but I wanted to have something where I can express myself, where I can use this knowledge I have from performing. So I start to do dancing and teaching people dance and drumming classes and I go to schools and do charity work”.
“It was challenging because my English, at the time, was not very good, so I had to take time to go to school…and I didn’t know a lot of legal stuff…I was looking at [collaboration] as trust, as friends…I feel like some of my time was wasted because I didn’t get credit [when] I deserved it. I had to move from that to trying to build something [myself]…I built a network of people…So, at the same time, it’s all part of the story and there were people who give me chances and they work with me fair and they appreciate what I do and they show credit. When one door close, another door open!”.
Since then, Sens has managed to lead his own workshops and projects and gained recognition as an artist in Manchester for his performances at local venues, community events and music festivals. Sens highlights that a major influence in his UK career has been his involvement with the WOMAD international music festival. He has helped to lead its annual Children’s parade since 2005 and has regularly performed as a dancer and facilitated workshops at the festival. WOMAD has also given Sens the chance to meet some of his musical idols, including Jimmy Cliff, Baaba Maal, Ziggy Marley and Youssou N’Dour, and, by camping with other UK-based musicians from across Africa and beyond, the festival has helped to expand Sens’ musical network and raise his profile across the UK.
“WOMAD is like a family. It’s like a network. I got a lot of good friends at WOMAD. A good friend Gary Newland works at WOMAD and he organises a festival called Drum Camp. He support[ed] us over the years, getting us into WOMAD, [doing] different kind[s] of work. At WOMAD, you meet different people…WOMAD basically give us a world of music in our hands! You meet musicians from India, China, Japan, UK, France, all over Africa…Through WOMAD, I see big reggae stars and had chance to meet them, to talk to them…The community is something very unique of WOMAD…WOMADers have this kind of friendship – we all go every year with our partners or families. You create a sense of family”.
The Meanings of Sens’ Performance
Sens states that his performances offer a ‘mix’ of traditional and contemporary influences and that he hopes to keep traditional arts alive and relevant for today. He believes that tradition can serve as the ‘foundation’ or ‘roots’ for contemporary performances, bringing ‘understanding’ and serving community over commerce. In a way, Sens’ music follows the same path as Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, as he not only combines traditional and contemporary elements from the years in his homeland but also draws on a wide array of influences from his experiences of travelling in and across different places and cultures.
“We believe our traditional music can be for the benefit of mankind…It can make people dance, it can teach people, it can bring people together, it can share culture…Music is about people, it’s about when people appreciate and when people share”. “Music is a platform and [musicians] are ambassadors. Fela [Kuti], who was the founder of afrobeat…he created an African sound people all over the world can relate to…If we want to give something to the world, we have to connect the sounds”.
The main social purpose of Sens’ music and dance has been to communicate messages of peace and unity. He views music, and particularly acts of musical collaboration, as intrinsically political and, in a sense, he has followed in his father’s footsteps in hoping that his artistic performances can help to heal people and mend social divisions.
“In Gambia, I realised I can use music to help bring people together in unity…I can also use it to tell my story…By doing this, I can also follow my dad…We can create a movement of drumming, dancing and singing for peace”. “The African beat is always going to have impact…You need something groovy that will make people want to listen, dance, scream! And, once you have the groove, you can give the message, you can challenge the bad things in society”.
Raising social consciousness remains vital to his music today: in 2019, Sens performed at an Extinction Rebellion Festival in Manchester city centre; and, in 2020, he recorded ‘A song to World Leaders 2020!’, calling on world leaders to find compassion and to support the most needy in society in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This year we are going through this pandemic and we are having ‘Black Lives Matter’…There’s a lot of things going on in the world with bad leadership, borders closed…I have been able to travel around different cities around the world…and you can see a lot of injustice before your eyes. My message is for the world leaders to think of people’s benefit…It’s [about] one people, one family, around the world…We have to come together positively for unity now. The leaders are clever people and they have got families, so they can care and they can support. They don’t have to leave us on our own. We are the voters so they need to listen to our ideas and they need to care”.
Beyond political education, Sens’ work has also involved educating young people and he now hosts classes and workshops on West African traditional arts and cultures in schools in Manchester and around the UK. He reflects that this can broaden children’s cultural worldviews and also help to foster inclusion and belonging in schools, particularly for children who struggle with developmental disabilities.
“Music is a kind of unique language we all have…When I was teaching in Africa, I already see how much impact the music can have…It’s all about hearing each other’s stories…It’s not every day they meet somebody like me in their school! I think it’s a way they can learn things they can’t in the media or TV – it’s something more close because I was actually there in person, so that brings a kind of connection…Through music, children learn and they are happy!”.
“All the children in all different schools, they can feel the music. In one school, there was this child [with autism], he never come to take part in these workshops – he has to have a lot of support. But, through the drumming and the singing and the music, he just came and join[ed] in. This helps us to understand the connection we have to sound, to rhythm. We can all make them. When the children get that unity and joy, you just have to be like ‘Wow!’ because you realise music can do this”.
Musical Diversity in Manchester
Sens indicates that Manchester has an important position in UK music history, as a place where creativity has long been celebrated. He suggests that this legacy continues today in the form of its musical diversity, and he claims that it is incredibly ‘vibrant’ for its size because of its longstanding cultural diversity. He points out that this diversity enables people from all different places and cultures to come together, share music and enjoy experiences of unity.
“In Manchester, you meet people from different ways of life through music…It brings the people together. In the perfect situation, you see everyone together in that sense of unity”.
Sens performs an important function as an artistic practitioner and cultural ambassador in Manchester. He has been especially involved in events celebrating African and Afro-Caribbean cultures, performing many times at the annual Manchester Carnival in Moss Side, and his workshops in schools have been praised for encouraging children with a family connection to places in Africa to celebrate their cultural heritage with confidence.
“Carnival is very good because, when you are a local person and you are doing something local, the people seeing you don’t just know you from performing – they’ve seen you working with their children, they’ve seen you out walking around with your partner…It’s making relevant what you have around. The musicians come from around and friends come from around and we all meet there and enjoy…So it’s always a pleasure and a privilege to perform for people where I live around. The atmosphere is good and I always give them my best…It’s Manchester, it’s a local thing!”.
“The kids you meet who have parents maybe from Nigeria or Cameroon, their parents say ‘That [workshop] was good!’ because their son or daughter is learning something from Africa…I always say to the kids that Africa is huge – it’s many different countries, different tribes, different types of music. But we are one world so we all have sound…You can see the impact – it [brings] equality. They tell [the class] that their parents are actually from this area and it gives [them] confidence. Music can bring that understanding [in] the community”.
However, Sens laments that cuts to arts funding and rising division are putting the city’s delicate social harmony and vibrant musical diversity at risk. He stresses that these threats are not coming from the ‘people’, they are being imposed by the ‘leaders’, but he warns that this can lead to a ‘mad’ society and, at worst, separation and conflict. He hopes that, once the pandemic is over, the government and local councils will restore investment in music, festivals, and other contexts for communities to come together and celebrate their diversity. He believes that, against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter and greater awareness of racial inequality, this could create opportunities to celebrate difference and the musical cultures within the city more than ever before and could have the potential to make Manchester a pioneer of social change.
“We’re all going through a difficult time now…A lot of places are closed right now. There is no place to express our music. This make[s] more stress, make[s] more anxiety, make[s] more problems. People are not connecting, they’re not moving, we all stay at home. So, this is a tough time…But, as they say, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s music and we’ve gotta believe in it…I do believe music can help bring the light…so maybe after the pandemic there will be more in that direction…more venues and festivals…more spaces in a safe condition…The musicians are here already, there is a lot of talent, a lot of quality…we just need more opportunities”.
“Manchester’s history is already diverse a long time…there’s a lot of people who are open…I think people are positive about [diversity]…In Manchester, the people will always give you a chance…This year, people are talking even more about diversity, about Black Lives Matter…there is a unity in the city. Manchester can make a difference because I think we can all have a platform…I think we’ve got a big chance with Manchester, with all this diversity around us…I hope my music can be part of…all of us coming together in Manchester”.
‘It's Time For Africa’ (see video)
In this video, Sens Sagna and the Kajamor Family Band are performing ‘It’s Time for Africa’ at Moovin Festival in Stockport.
“‘Kajamor’ means a kind of unity, togetherness. It’s about my dream to see Casamance, where I was born in Senegal, having peace. I’ve always believed in ‘Kajamor’. Music for me is like a creation but it’s also about creating a bond of family with one another. The guitarist, bass player, drummer, dancer is all one family, you know? Music can bring anyone together in one family. The idea of the band is it can bring people together around music”.
“[Moovin Festival] was great because it’s always great when you’re performing in Manchester and you see people in the crowd and you know them and they know you. We get on stage and people start dancing and we got support…It just bring that perfect atmosphere of ‘Let’s have a good time!’”
Sens Sagna’s musical story continues – so stay tuned for more and thanks for listening!
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Sens Sagna: spreading peace and unity through music and dance
Ibrahima ‘Sens’ Sagna
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