Tag Archives: hassaniya

it takes two – waande kadde & top wzn

waande kadde & top wzn

Starting off this new year with two new releases: Waande Kadde, dreamy acoustic Pulaar music from the villages of Fouta Toro, and Top WZN, synth, drum machines, and electric tidnit from the capital city of Mauritania. While they are immediately sonically different, they bear more similarities than one may suspect. Both are from the extreme West of the Sahel, geographically miles away. Both are improvisational sessions performed and recorded without any preparation. And both involve the meeting of the traditional and the modern, and the emergent new sounds that come from this encounter.

Tidiane Thiam’s and Amadou Binta Konte’s Waande Kadde, was recorded in the village by the same name – a tiny burg on the banks of the winding Senegal River, on the island of Morfil, in the extreme North of Senegal. Amadou Binta Konté is a fisherman, not a griot, but nevertheless plays the hoddu – a variant of the traditional lute found throughout West Africa. In Fouta Toro, the body of the hoddu is carved out of wood and goat or sheep skin is stretched over the resonator. The “strings” are made of braided nylon fishing line, and attached to the neck with small strips of leather. Tidiane Thiam, guitarist of the group Lewlewal de Podor, plays acoustic guitar modeled on the hoddu.

Guitar songs are played in a major scale (in contrast to the pentatonic scale of Northern Mali) in traditional Pulaar and Manding tunings. There is a common technique of playing with octaves and doubling. The contemporary guitar of Tidiane, while embodied in a different instrument, is very much bound to its predecessor, and nowhere is this more apparent than hearing them together. For our recordings in 2014, we traveled to Waande Kadde to sit with the two musicians in person. This is not the first time the two had played together, yet the music was improvisational. While both Amadou and Tidiane use different instruments, they play within the “folkloric” base, a wide repertoire of traditional songs that are shared across Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Niger.

TOP WZN is a far cry from the mellow sounds of Waande Kadde – though geographically, it is only a stones throw into Mauritania (literally the other side of the river). The album (originally released on cassette in 2009) showcases Jeich Ould Badu and Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla, playing a signature genre of instrumental music. Known as اوزان (transliterized as “alwazan” “wezen” or “wzn”), literally translated as “rhythm,” it colloquially refers to a contemporary genre of instrumental music, defined by synthesizers, electric guitars and lutes, and electronic drum patterns. Jeich Ould Badu is from a celebrated family of griots, and learned to play music at a young age. He plays the tidnit, the traditional Hassaniya lute – modified and updated, the goat skin replaced by flattened tin, and hacked together with phaser pedals and built in pre-amps. Ahmedou Ahmed Lewla is one of the most well known keyboard musicians in Mauritania. He plays an Arabic moded synthesizer capable of the quarter tone scales adapted from the fretless strings of classical Moorish traditions.

Popular Mauritanian music is often performed publicly with large troupes of guitarists, tidnits, synthesizers, and multiple rhythm sections. But in the past decade, the influx of small recording studios and a booming cassette industry has led to artist driven productions. WZN has followed suit, and has been transformed into an established genre. The slick studio sound, warbling tidnit, and microtones of the synthesizer are an integral part of today’s musical landscape, blasting from open air music shops and taxi cabs throughout the capital.

Both releases are now available on limited vinyl and digital download.

Combination Mining Hub and Salsa Ball.

In a rather desolate mountain range of the Northern Mauritanian desert is the town of Zouérate. Iron ore was discovered in the 1950’s, and led to a categorical influx of inhabitants to make the mining operations. Mauritanians from the capital, foreign experts from other African countries, and a sizable French community.

In the 1970’s, regional “orchestres”, playing a modern sound were cropping up all through West Africa. And in many countries, like Mali, they benefited from the infrastructures of the capital to launch successful music careers (and recent Western exposure, popularized in the dash of vinyl reissues/afrofunk craze of the past decade). In Mauritania however, historical narrative and political shifts left these short-lived bands to languish in obscurity.

The Zouérate “orchestre” was known as Tiris Zemmour band. Composed of members of the mining operation, the band played gigs at the two local clubs, “La Gazelle” (for the urban Mauritanians) and “Les Aigles” (for the expatriate French). At the time, Mauritania was still over 70 percent nomadic — and they played for the staff of the operations, playing a variety of musics, including the popular sounds working there way north from Senegal.

from left to right: Gambi Dicko on bass guitar, Diallo Amadou Demba on solo guitar, Douah Ould Hameyada vocalist.

This track features Demba, renowned for his ability to sing in a menagerie of languages: Spanish, Pulaar, French, English, Wolof – while Douah sang in Hassaniya. Although Demba didn’t speak Spanish, and like many West African musician purveyors of “salsa”, sounded the songs out phonetically:

Tiris Zemmour Salsa


Douah Ould Hameyada

An instrumental rock jam, probably recorded at “La Gazelle”:

Tiris Zemmour Jam

A crucial part of modern Mauritanian history is the war fought with the Polisario, or the autonomous movement of Western Sahara. The first president of the independent nation, Moktar Ould Daddah, occupied a region known as “Tiris al Gharbiyya”, the Southern portion of today’s Western Sahara. The vacuum of a mineral rich desert left by Spain’s departure had led to geopolitical chess, as Morocco invaded from the North and Algeria funneled money to the Polisario. The war would later be brought all the way into the nations capital, far south, at Nouakchott. But the Northern provinces felt the effects immediately.

Zouérate, a short distance from the disputed territory, was attacked in May of 1977. Two expatriates were killed and another six were taken as hostage (prompting French air strikes and the creation of jakwa!). The remaining French expatriates immediately evacuated the town. But the war would have much more profound effects — eventually bringing about usurpation of the president in a bloodless coup d’etat and the installation of a hardline military dictatorship. The Tiris Zemmour band continued to play until the late 1980’s. But the new government was not interested in the pluralistic Mauritania that this modern sound represented, leaving the orchestras as it were, confined to their outposts in the desert.

(photos courtesy of Zouerate, le site)

find your quiet place

There is something immediately compelling about drumming in the night. Perhaps it’s the stark contrast, the deep thumps resounding through the otherwise hushed darkness. The sound is fueled by the fires of exoticism, the drums hidden by both the darkness and the night, suggesting something ritualistic, sacred, and above all, secret.

The first time I ventured out to find the source of sound it was not without trepidation. The mere act, to follow barely discernible drums and voices, which in the desert can much further than they appear, requires a willful determination. Staggering over dunes and past an oasis and across a sand river, the sound growing in volume, I came to an old area of the town. Stone husks of houses climbed up and sank into the dune. I walked between the alleys and around the strewn rock, slowly buried in the encroaching sand. Rounding a corner I came upon the frame of an old house. Inside, thirty some men and a handful of women, all “black” Moor, had assembled.

medeh chingeutti

The music of medeh lends a simple description. There are men leading the song, pounding on the tbel, a large round drum fashioned from a bowl with an animal skin drawn across it. The drum produces a low resonating bass, almost too low to hear. The other men begin to clap in a succession of mixing handclaps that build off one another to produce a confusing poly-rhythm. This conflux of drums and claps in contrasting rhythms blend together as one listens. Then, there is the singing: one voice leading in a strained cry to his vocal limits, subsequently answered by the chorus of voices chanting in harmonic response. It is participatory, particularly in the circle closest to that of the drummer. To sit here is to clap and sway with the song, to answer and provoke one another to be present and absorbed.

The medeh is a music performed only by the haratine, the former and modern slave caste, in the night and away from the town. The drumming and rhythm are immediately identified as sub-Saharan, and everything in the tradition can be directly traced to the heritage of a captured and marginalized minority. The content of the music is strictly religious, songs for the prophet. Abderramhane Ngaide compares it to American Gospel and Hatian Vodou. While it may be marginalized and referred to as “music for the blacks,” it is nevertheless a firm tradition, sung and performed every Thursday.

In my last Thursday in Nouakchott I waved down a taxi and directed him to the Hisakane. Hisakane means “the quiet place,” in Hassaniya, and incidentally sits at the side of the international airport. The largest, poorest slum is inhabited by a majority of Black Moor. Every night, a jet streaks overhead filling the air with a roar and a blast of wind. So close, but wholly inaccessible.

After a few minutes meandering the twisting sand streets I heard the low thump of a drum. I don’t speak Hassaniya and none of the Moor who assembled spoke French. A young man from Bassikinou knew some Tamashek however, and invited me to sit to the right of the drummer. Sitting and swaying and clapping, the crowd growing behind us, I never knew quite what was happening.

That night the houses were lit like Chinese lanterns, the bare bulbs filtering through the wide cracks between the slats. I looked for Orion to find my direction, but the city lights of Nouakchott glistened off the dust in the wind to turn the black into a hazy glow.

medeh hisakan

Desert’s Guitars

Moudou ould Mattalla is Chinguetti’s most well known musician. Originally from Zourate, on the border with Algeria, he lives in the village and shares his knowledge with whoever is passing through. He released a CD that is sold in France, that was recorded in his home. In his “music room,” the walls are literally covered with pen markings, the different tunings and scales corresponding to each mode of Mauritanian music.

Moudou demonstrating the mode Al-Lebait

Collaborative jam session with a drum machine

Modou playing in soiree

Ambient recordings from a party

Ahmed Imbend is a talented self taught musician. “My first guitar, I made when I was a kid. It had one string. Eventually, I got bored, and added another string. I just kept adding strings.”

Today, he plays an old student sized Spanish guitar. In the typical DIY fashion, one of the strings is made from a bicycle cable, the transducer pickup is from a telephone, and the amplifier is a stereo with it’s leads spliced. He plays with an alternate tuning (E-Ab-Db-E-Ab-Db) that owes a great deal to the tidnit.

Ahmed with homemade “jagwa”

Ahmed “blues”

Ahmed chinguetti song

modified pickup

riff with tapping

Lastly, at an Auberge in the old city across the wadi, a woman’s group is assembled and singing for a group of French tourists.

Traditional Moor song

Unidentified chant

that old hassaniya sound

One of the premiere music venues in a country that otherwise does little to support the arts is the French Cultural Center(CCF). Aristocrats and expats mingle (is there any difference?) in a distinctively non-Mauritanian ambiance. Noura Mint Seymaly plays a set of “modern” Hassaniya music.

Noura Mint Seymaly – modern
Noura Mint Seymaly – traditional

Crosby is a Malian guitarist in Nouakchott, one of the fixtures of well known musicians, a group of the first modern band, notable for his dark sunglasses of which he always is wearing a pair. Along with a few other aging musicians, most every young guitarist learned from him. I ask him here to show me some of the Hassaniya scales.

Crosby