“Gedaref, Eastern Sudan 1978: Home-made guitar and bass, tea-chest speakers and goatskins on the drumkit – with Hendrix and Santana as their idols, Mohammed Abbas and his two brothers taught themselves, hundreds of miles from the nearest musical equipment shop. Youngest bro’ is 13, and drums like a pro! I strapped on the headphones and recorded them on the fly in the nice acoustics of their mudwalled room. The master tape was stolen – this is a copy from a fake TDK cassette.”
Sudan’s conflict and dissolution/resolution a common story in post colonial Africa, but perhaps even more so when considering the Sahel/Sahara and the drastic cultural differences that lie between North and Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a story that repeats itself across the band of the Sahel — in the Mauritania-Senegal conflict of 1989, the perpetual Tuareg rebellions, the tenuous state of Chad…though these recordings are mostly from the North around Khartoum. For the new Southern Sudan, I’m apt to turn to youtube and let rapper Queen Zee explain:
Mohamed Siyed sports a signature draa and a pair of black rimmed glasses. An iggiw, a member of one of the many music families in Mauritania, Mohamed plays the wedding circuit with his family, originally from Ayoun Atrous in the Hodh, the eastern stretch of the habitable Mauritanian desert bordering with Mali.
He also has a group, “Iliwane” (“colors” in Hassaniya), that plays what is colloquially referred to as “modern Mauritanian music” — at it’s best, a genre departure into new territory, unbound by the strict rules of Mauritania classical tradition, at its worst, deeply influenced by a French world music scene that doesn’t hesitate to use the word “fusion”. Siyed thankfully falls into the former category.
The cyber cafe is a fixture in the past years as the internet boom has sounded across W. Africa. Memory cards, USB sticks, and cellphones — the portable data kits to carry the digital identity — demand spurious tweaking. The cyber is not just a port for internet connectivity, but a space to manage and exchange data. All that maintenance and swapping collects digital ephemera like orbiting space junk, spread across the Windows XP desktop in folders more than not labeled “Noveau dossier.” The cyber computers become nodes on the W. African digital data network, a local chain of hard drives and memory sticks where traffic is not metaphoric, but represents real physical movement (on the day a boat of tourists docks into town, is it any surprise that snapshots of the town are added to the desktop clutter?). I imagine the impossible, data mining “dates of creation” and id3 tags to analyze alluring mysteries like the proliferation of Akon across the Senegal-Mauritania border, the effect of Saint Louis fishing trade on Marabout chanting mp3 transmission, and why everyone loves Zouk.
Informed minds tell me the cyber cafe business has reached its peak. In the past year, the cafes have begun to decrease in number, a mass migration to home internet provided by the blinking light of the USB internet key — and in a few years, the secreted archives of the cyber cafes and their disconnected network of transmission will be absorbed into the greater internet. But enough speculation:
Podor, Senegal’s cyber cafe, selections from computer number 6:
Blinding headlights streak by, headed South towards the river, towards Senegal. A cold wind blows. I’m waiting amongst the broken down husks of cars, intermittently illuminated to reveal oil stained sand, discarded pieces of automobiles, and plastic refuse dancing in the dark. My phone buzzes, a figure across the highway waves.
It’s Friday night, the second evening of the Mauritanian weekend, and a popular night for weddings. I’ve been invited to the edge of the town by Nouh, one of Nouakchott’s “animators”, the equivalent of the wedding dj/soundboy of the wedding scene. He leads me through a maze of darkened sand streets, an un-electrified suburb, before we come upon the bright lights and the rumbling of a generator. A white canvas tent has been assembled. Like most things here, the outside is drab and unassuming, but the interior is lavish — the psychedelic underside of the tent fabric, a patchwork of Chinese and African motifs, the intricate oriental carpets, and the women themselves, draped in the mellafa’s of vibrant pastels and shimmering aquamarines.
Nouh is one of the most popular animators for Haratine weddings. In the multi-ethnic, non-pluralistic society of modern Nouakchott, segregation by language and identity is visible, particularly in in the differences of musical form. But if there is a commonality across the modern Nouakchott, it is the role of popular performance is still tied to the celebratory festivities — most often, the baptism or the wedding. “Traditional” in mode, this is where the real earning potential lies.
“I quit school when I was 15 — I’ve been doing this ever since. I’m always busy,” Nouh explains. He’s wearing a pristine new Dolce Gabana shirt (of dubious origin) and newly pressed jeans. We sit before the Behringer mixing table. He plugs in a USB key to the DVD player, playing a selection of pre-wedding music. Wires have been cut and spliced together, jacks bricolaged together in typical ingenuity. “I’ve got three amps — the mixing table, the amp, and the pre-amps on the speakers. Have you ever seen anything like this?” he laughs. A camera man arrives in a beige suit with an antique VHS video camera with mounted light, the cable spooled and attached to his belt. The musicians stagger in, young men in large white draas, a troupe of percussionists and two tidnit players, a flurry of singers.
After the obligatory sound checks, the mic checks, the tidnit fine tuning, the music begins. Two tbals, the massive semispherical drums found across the desert, are thumped on with outstretched hands while a metal plate is battered with sandals to creates a snare. The microphones clutched close, the vocals are clipped into robotic peaks. The distortion is something almost inseparable from the sound. It’s said the first electrification of wedding music came with the ancient, Jheich Ould Abba, the first person to electrify the tidnit. Even though electrical amps have been here since the late 70s, they play like it’s a competition, forcing the maximum amplitude out of tidnit, drums, and voice. The explosion of sound, the exaggeration and barrage of the senses, the peaking of the voices and the pounding of the drums throws the dancers into a flurry, and women clap forcefully to be heard over the roar.
The festivities come to an end when a police officer arrives, as per standard, at midnight. But tonight there is no bribe to be paid, and after 15 minutes the musicians pack up their instruments and distribute the money, and we break down the sound…