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WolofMuskari – Finnish music education in the Wolof language

by Marjo Smolander

Music playschool, or “muskari” in Finnish, is an iconic element of the Finnish music education system, and the most popular pastime for children under school age in Finland. Technically, it is goal-oriented music-based early childhood education that provides developmental support by means of music. But does this Finnish concept translate into other cultures? Oh yes! This article tells the story of WolofMuskari, a music playschool that merges Finnish music education with the all-encompassing music-making typical of West African cultures.

I watch at the gate of a daycare centre in Bamako as the children heartily sing children’s songs in French – bearing in mind that French is not their native language. My own children are among them, the youngest at age 2 not yet fluent in any language but nevertheless adept at singing the songs learned at daycare.

If I had to pinpoint a moment in time for the genesis of WolofMuskari, it might be that moment in spring 2015. It was then that I realised tangibly just how easily children can learn a foreign language through songs and games. Songs are an effortless and convenient way for children to learn sounds and words in a foreign language with an immediate connection to their environment. 

That prompted the thought: if children in Mali can learn French by singing, could this not be transposed to language learning in Finland? 


The birth of WolofMuskari 

The thought of a Wolof-language music playschool became reality in the tiny common room of a block of flats in Helsinki in autumn 2015. I started a music playschool group in the Wolof language, drawing on my background as a musician and a music educator. The purpose of this group was to keep up the Wolof language skills of Finnish-Senegalese children. The principal motivation in this came from my own children, whose father’s native language is Wolof. Finnish mothers whom I already knew from the Senegalese community in Finland brought their children to the group. 

Before starting the music playschool group, I had visited Senegal-born Nabou Sarr to talk about the idea and about children’s songs in Wolof. It emerged that many of the traditional Wolof children’s songs would probably be too complicated rhythmically and verbally for small children who do not speak Wolof well or at all. With her assistance, I translated simple, familiar Finnish children’s songs into Wolof. 

Finding a native Wolof speaker to lead the group proved to be a daunting task. This was hardly surprising, as the very concept of a music playschool was unfamiliar to Senegalese musicians. The young age of the children and the fact that they had little knowledge of Senegalese culture also prompted reservations among potential teachers. 

This is a case study in how difficult it can be to migrate concepts from one language to another. Using traditional Wolof material required a certain amount of tinkering. I ended up leading the music playschool myself for the first season, although my Wolof is barely adequate. 

All these hardships notwithstanding, WolofMuskari had been born and was not going away. All it needed was a bit of tweaking.

The purpose of this group was to keep up the Wolof language skills of Finnish-Senegalese children.


The importance of published material  

In 2016, Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye joined the music playschool team. Her input proved valuable: she had studied Senegalese dances, and she spoke Wolof. She also had children whose father was from Senegal.  

We entered into collaboration with Familia, an expert organisation for bicultural families, and we were able to find a venue through them. Halsti-Ndiaye introduced dances to the accompaniment of traditional rhythms. 

The songs we used in WolofMuskari were new ones, either purpose-written for the group or children’s songs translated into Wolof that you could not hear anywhere else. Parents began to request printed versions of the music playschool songs so that they could sing them at home. This raised an important point: there was very little printed material in Wolof for children, and it was difficult to obtain.  

Halsti-Ndiaye and myself began to dream of creating a children’s book and CD in Wolof. Our personal experiences prompted the need to offer children and families support in sustaining their other native language and cultural identity. In March 2019, we published Sunuy Xale [Our children], a storybook and album, with a concert to mark the launch. The book project sparked the Sunuy Xale concept, featuring a children’s music band with the same name.


Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye, Souleymane Diop and Marjo Smolander at the release event of Sunuy Xale. Photo: Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye / Marjo Smolander


A meeting place for two cultures  

It has been gratifying to see what an important social role WolofMuskari has acquired. Over the years, it has evolved into a meeting place for Finnish-Senegalese children and their parents. It is a natural meeting place for getting to know children with a similar cultural background.  

“It has been important for my children to spend time with other children with the same cultural background,” says Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye. “It has reinforced their conception of their cultural identity. The contacts made at the music playschool have become important relationships for them.”  

The cultural identity aspect is notable. The music playschool group offers Finnish-Senegalese families a common activity where no one needs to feel like an outsider. It also casts the children’s other, more distant native culture in a positive light, and that culture becomes their ‘own thing’.  

“I believe that WolofMuskari has strengthened the affinity that my children have with the Wolof language and its cultural environment,” says Halsti-Ndiaye.  

The role of the music playschool group as a place for meetings and peer support is also highlighted by Ousseynou Ba, chair of the Senegal-Finland Friends association: “The Senegalese living in Finland are widely aware of the music playschool and consider it important. I also highlight its work at our meetings in my capacity as chair.”

Social interaction in one’s native language in early childhood fosters the development of language skills and cultural identity in multilingual children. Elina Helmanen, chair of Familia, stresses that activities such as WolofMuskari support the right of children to be acquainted with the cultures and languages of their parents. She notes that multicultural children do not necessarily have opportunities to visit the home country of their other parent frequently, if at all. 

“WolofMuskari and Suny Xale create and foster opportunities for speakers of a minority language to learn that language and to become familiar with the culture. Actions like this are vital for children to be able to identify with all languages in their family and to feel that both their parents’ cultures are their own.

We wish to show children that their culture is just as valuable as anyone else’s, even if it does not have a continuous presence in their everyday lives.

Children’s music in Wolof?  

Finnish music playschools naturally sing Finnish children’s songs. By contrast, the genre of children’s music simply does not exist in Senegal. Thus, we needed to think of an original approach.  

When the album Sunuy Xale was being recorded in Senegal in 2017, we had the chance to brainstorm about what Senegalese children’s music could be like. Our arrangements were calibrated towards a fusion of the Finnish children’s music tradition and Senegalese music. We wanted to delve into traditional Wolof music and to create song arrangements suitable for the music playschool context. The artistic producers for the album apart from myself were percussionist Yerim Gueye and keyboard player Mamour Kassé

The music playschool group expanded and evolved over the years, and a format had to be found for children raised in Finland and musicians raised in Senegal to interact in ways that felt natural for each of them. Currently, the music playschool group has a pair of leaders in each session – one native Wolof speaker and one native Finnish speaker. One of the former, percussionist Ibrahima Mbaye, reports enjoying working with a partner, as the two can play off each other to learn new ways of working and new songs. 

With a duo in charge, both cultures and languages have an equal presence in the group, which is conducive to a safe atmosphere. Not all children have necessarily had any exposure at all to the Wolof language or to their other parent’s culture before attending the music playschool. There have also been Gambian children in the group over the years, as Wolof is also spoken in Gambia.

The children are immersed in Senegalese culture at various events, with their own performances at Lasten Etnosoi (an ethnic music festival for children) and the World Village Festival. When the Sunuy Xale band has a gig, the kids are often invited to perform along with them. 

“My child was so excited about performing with the music playschool group and wanted to perform at the daycare centre too,” says Halsti-Ndiaye with a smile. 

Ibrahima Mbaye reports that he often hears appreciative and inquisitive feedback from his Senegalese friends about his work with the music playschool. He would like to see a wider programme of activities for Finnish-Senegalese children beyond the music playschool, particularly events for the whole family.

Songs and stories of our own

The pedagogy of the music playschool is a combination of Finnish early childhood education music pedagogy and Senegalese all-encompassing music-making. Music, songs, dances, rhythms, plays and movements are considered components of a single entity in Senegalese culture, and there is no desire to separate them. 

Throughout its existence, the music playschool group has collaborated closely with the Senegal-Finland Friends association and with Senegalese musicians. While it is largely the Finnish parents who bring their children to WolofMuskari, Senegalese-born parents are increasingly building a personal relationship with the group. Perhaps a music playschool session, being a time-limited activity, is an alien concept for someone in whose life music and dance are omnipresent. Indeed, we might observe that in Finland music-making and music education have become detached from everyday life.

From a concert that celebrated the release of Sunuy Xale. Photo: Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye / Marjo Smolander


Today, WolofMuskari is only one facet of the broader Sunuy Xale concept, which includes publication of books, music and videos besides a variety of workshops and concerts. Events are held in both Finland and Senegal, and the group has benefited from the addition of Turku-based Souleymane Diop, who is well versed in the official written Wolof language and in the storytelling tradition.

“Sunuy Xale aims to produce material that can be used in Senegal itself as is and by Senegalese expatriate families,” says Halsti-Ndiaye. 

The Sunuy Xale book has been sold worldwide, and the idea is that the children who now are users of Sunuy Xale material will eventually become authors of such material themselves. We wish to show children that their culture is just as valuable as anyone else’s, even if it does not have a continuous presence in their everyday lives. Children have found it wonderful to identify with a character in the book. This is a rare achievement for Finnish children’s books, which typically only feature white characters.

At the moment, we are working our next publication, which will again include stories, songs and rich illustrations with which kids can identify. We are collaborating with Oceanium, an environmental organisation in Senegal, to write about environmental matters from the perspective of a Senegalese child. 

We hope that WolofMuskari will live long and prosper. The outlook is promising, as some alumni are already growing up to become potential new leaders of the group. The oldest of the first batch of our music playschool kids is now in upper secondary school. 

The ultimate goal of WolofMuskari and Sunuy Xale is education at large, according to Halsti-Ndiaye. 

“We want to provide children with spaces and experiences with which they can identify: to see images of children who look like them and to hear songs and stories of their own lives. We want the children to feel that they are part of the Sunuy Xale material.”

The writer is the founder of WolofMuskari, a musician and music educator.

Featured photo: Children attending the WolofMuskari gave an interactive concert in 2019 at the Etnosoi World Music Festival. Photo: Marjo Smolander / Karoliina Halsti-Ndiaye

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi