Tag Archives: mauritania

da art of storytellin

The hodou, the traditional Pulaar guitar, is often used to tell a story. And perhaps one of the best known modern storytellers in Mauritania was musician Saïdou Ba:

Saïdou Ba – Sayglare

“Born in 1939 in Daou (in the commune of Maghama) to a circle of artists attached to the old traditional Pulaar families Yalalbe and Déniankobé, Saïdou Ba bathed since his childhood in this world of music. His father Hamady Coulo, was already a guitarist of talent and renown, and Saïdou inherited that exceptional connection that develops between the guitarist and his instrument, the mysterious relationship that makes virtuosos.

Very early fatherless, young Saïdou was sent to Wodobérè (in the commune of Matam, Senegal) where, in the shadow of guardian Madam Oumou Dia, he studied with the best traditional instrumentalists of the time. It was here that he met the celebrity Oumar Gaoulo and at age 15, in 1954, became a leading figure in the group of artists and singers known in Dakar at the time as “Lêle Groups”.

But it was 1957 which marked a turning point in the career of the already famous young musician. Radio Saint Louis (which was simultaneously broadcast in Senegal and Mauritania) launched a competition for recruitment of traditional artists, and the young Saïdou was quickly selected. That was the birth of the famous trio, Djibril Kane, San Amadou, and Saïdou Ba, who in the following years would entertain on the radio to joy of listeners.

When transferred to Radio Mauritania in Nouakchott, Saïdou Ba returned to his country and became host of the program. For his keen intelligence and his love of music, he was selected for a course of modern music in Guinea. Along with those who would compose the National Orchestra, he continued in courses in Conakry until 1969. He returned to Nouakchott, a member of the National Orchestra, specialized in backup guitar.”

Tracklist:

Side A:

1. SAYGLARÉ: A tribute to Gueladio – Hambodurion, one of the most illustrious horsemen of the Macina Fulani who was bound for strange and glorious destiny in Segou because of his Bambara and Fulani father. His name still conjures dreams to those who remember the epics tales.

2: MALISSADIO: The waters of the rivers have their mysteries. The master of the water has his world, a murky world of streaks of light, millions of fins, and the phosphorescence of millions of pairs of eyes. The Master of the waters took away the beautiful and young Mali deep in a world where death is not death but transfiguration. And Saïdou, his friend, wrote this song to mourn his loss.

3. NÉEMA: Sometimes cruel laws of nature have their logic, an obscure logic. Fortune changes place, the weak become strong and the strong live only on memory and nostalgia of the past, and songs like Neema stand on their own, and their music remains in the night like a question for the incomprehensible.

Side B:

1. N’DIAROU: N’Diarou, a praise to Oumarel Sawa-Dondi, an homage to life began on the shores of Senegal, to Gamadji, and finished on the banks of the Niger in the distance Macina. And all the Hal-Pullar who feel these notes vibrate to the glory of the sword, the most prestigious ever at the service of Islam.

2. DOMBA: The shoemaker may be a skilled craftsmen and make beautiful shoes. But what a cobbler can boast of making the best pair of shoes in time for a chorus? This was the success of the young Sylla, and in return, his sister composed this song, and the song became immortal.

3. NAKARY

(text translated from french, from: Musique de la République Islamique de Mauritanie. Commentée et interprétée à la guitare Africaine “hodou” par Saidou Ba. Sonafric. SAF 50010, 1977)

download album rip here – mediafire

Saphire D’Or

Ahmed Vall operates a small record store in Nouakchott, Mauritania. It’s called the “Saphire D’Or”, but there’s no sign, and the name isn’t displayed anywhere — save the records themselves, a faded stamp amidst the mold eaten, dusty stacks. A pair of double metal doors exit the blinding, exhaust choked streets of the capital, the taxis and foot traffic, the blaring horns, for the cavernous dark shop. Records line the walls, faded jackets, a collectors treasure – ancient Senegalese Salsa bands from Dakar, ephemeral Malan Kora, fuzzy guitar Mauritanian 7″s. This is old music, but in the Saphire D’Or, the grooves speak not of rarity or obscurity, but of nostalgia and youth.

After the first few hours of sunlight have awakened the city, Ahmed spends the day in his store accompanied by a regular crew of friends. Like the records, these friends who pass by throughout the day, sitting at the plush chairs and drinking tea or lounging on a couch behind the counter have been together since childhood. Ahmed was born in Nema, far in the East, when it took six days travel to the capital. But he eventually settled in Nouakchott, like most who fled the drought and hardships of the countryside, opening his record store in 1979. Not content with simply selling records, Ahmed was also one of the first DJs. With a steady supply of music from Mali and Senegal, Ahmed animated the dances and soirees of the young city at places like the Maison de Jeune, Hotel Palmeri, and Hotel Chinguetti.

The town has grown since 1979. The store (music vendors are known as “standards” here) sits in Medina Trois, once the edge of a town that has since engulfed it. And no one buys records anymore. Like most record stores in West Africa, they are not even for sale. Since the advent of cassette recording Ahmed has made his living making dubs of records or selling mixtapes. Those seeking, for example, a Star Band record can come to the shop, find a record, and place an order. Later that day, for a meager 500 Ougiya (or roughly 3 dollars), a cassette will be waiting.

But recently, even the cassette market is waning. Ahmed has bought a computer and a few portable hard drives. More customers are arriving with memory cards in hand. And the most enthusiastic clients, the taxi drivers, running into the store with battered vehicles idling out front, have almost unilaterally switched from cassettes to USB FM transmitters — small portable hard drives that power into cigarette lighters and broadcast on a short range FM signal. Ahmed is well prepared, and recently purchased turntables that have USB ports and can record directly to digital.

On a recent journey, I asked Ahmed to make me a custom mix tape. We shuffled through piles of old Zaire 45s, Nigerian funk LPs, and Dakar Salsa, picking out some of his favorite tracks. The cover photo was taken at “Mondiale Photo”, one of Nouakchott’s still functioning portrait studios. It’s of Ahmed Vall (with the guitar) and his friends in the Nouakchott of 1979, a time never too distant in the Saphire D’Or.

Tracklist:

Side A
Star Band – Makaki
Amara Touré – N’Niyo
Pierre Akendengue – Nkere
Orchestre Afrisa – Aon Aon
Sam Mangwana – Trinity
Sekou Diabate – Montagne

Side B
Sonny Okosun – Fire in Soweto
Prince Nico – Sweet Mother
Orchestre Les Kamale – Ngali
Ikenga Super Stars – Ikenga in Africa
Orchestre Kiam – Yoyowe
Western Jazz Band – Rosa
Ernesto Djedje – Lola

Saphire D’Or Mixtape – mediafire

inspiration information

Yonta Hande – Njellu

I take a taxi to “Seizieme” — the sixth district. Nouakchott is divided up into neighborhoods, and this is one of the earlier nomenclatures, before things got weird. The new suburbs have names like Basra and Falluja, inspired by the affinity for Arabic satellite TV channels. Seizieme is not far from the capital, but there is more spacing between houses, wider the streets and more sand. More room for the wind to blow in off the sea.

I meet Max next to the “third water post” (everything in the neighborhood is designated by water stations, there’s no central lines). He’s the percussionist of the group, wearing signature knit cap, an embossed photo of a Marabout dangling around his neck. A tall smiling kid, much younger than his height suggests. We walk around the corner and between the clusters of houses where children are playing soccer, kicking a ragged ball between makeshift goals of two hunks of concrete, deftly placed. He leads me to the bands rehearsal space — a squat concrete room. The walls are covered in blackboards, the floor a musty carpet. The walls are likewise covered in variations of Pulaar phrases, haphazardly scrawled in orange and green marker. One of the band members uses this space as a school — for transliteration of Pulaar language, apparently. There are two portable amps, for the guitar and the vocals, and two drums, the large djembe with four metal pieces on the periphery, and a smaller drum played with a hand and stick. The latter is lifted and rests on a partially crushed yellow plastic water bidon, the ubiquitous multi-function tool, to carry water, to sit, apparently as a drum stop.

They launch into the repetition without hesitation. The volume is crushing, maxed out in the typical fashion where each element of the orchestra is attempting to fight for sonic dominance. The crackling, clipped vocals are belted out by the lead vocalist, a young Pulaar kid with dreadlocks and features not unlike the great star Baba Maal. Though his vocal styles don’t stray far from the melodies of the aforementioned predecessor, the energy is pure mbalax, the clatter of the drums bouncing throughout the concrete chamber, until even the echoes are drowned out, washing over every audible frequency. With the blue walls and the flooded sound it feels like the rooms is closed, filled like a tank. It is “river” blues after all, which at it’s heart is never far from Fouta, and at least the memory of seasonal floods.

The group is called Yonta Hande — Pulaar for “New Generation” — and it’s a collective that extends beyond something as simple as music. In their words, “A new project concerned with the new generation for development…” Not just a music group, but also a collective of theater performers and educators.

I leave the compound after recording their repertoire — I’ll burn their music on CD for the group afterwards, getting recordings in a method that is immediately beneficial to both parties. When I walk out the door, I hear the muted amps blasting through the wall and into the street, as does much of the neighborhood. The sound in the dark street is encouraging, if not for the education of the youth and much touted concepts that seem to get lose efficacy in their repetition, but for something more simple and immediate — the promotion of the act of creation. And that as long as that is kept alive and people are doing something, and saying something, the voices will flood out the city and maybe leave a fertile ground for the next crop.

analog praise

context:

The sun has set by 8:00pm, the hour of sundown rarely changing this close to the equator, and the paved streets are bumper to bumper after evening salah — rusty Mercedes and aged Peugots, held together with wire and prayer, fighting along with evasive turns and blasts of the horns. Headlights bounce along the asphalt, illuminating white draas of the young men trudging along the roadside in the early evening promenade, congregating beneath the neon glow of a generic Shwarma/Hamburger fast food joint.

My taxi is piloted by a man who speaks only a few words in French or is not in the mood for conversation. We are far to the south, in one of the new and indistinguishable peripheral neighborhoods of Nouakchott. The radio plays a muddled recording of drumming and praise, accompanied by this liquefied guitar. I ask him about the cassette. “C’est Mohammed. Medeh. Guitar. Rosso.” A cool sandy wind blows in through the open window. “Zein, zein hatta!” I reply, in a poor facsimile of Hassaniya. He looks straight ahead.

We stop at a crossroads, a gas station assembled on a sandy plot alongside a road of deadlocked shuddering vehicles of indeterminable age, salt and sand eaten husks. I pay my fare with a few purple bills of Ougiya, in a similar disheveled state. And a larger pink bill: “Pour le cassette…faut me vende cas.” He pauses, looks at the bill, takes it, and ejects an old worn cassette. Smiling, he bids me goodnight.

Medeh Cassette (Mohammed, Rosso)

Medeh (previously) is a religious praise song for the prophet Mohammed, often performed on Fridays, usually performed by Haratine, almost ubiquitously performed by men, accompanied by drumming and clapping, but sometimes, as here, accompanied by guitar:

download full cassette here (mediafire link)

The first cut is the deepest

I wish I could say that I unearthed this 7″ buried in the stacks of mold eaten records in the backroom of some crumbling record store in Nouakchott. It almost happened like that — and indeed the only surviving copies are at the backroom of some crumbling record store. But it was while searching the internet, albeit in Mauritania, for recordings by a musician and friend, Yaseen Ould Nana, that I came across a purplish tinged clip on Youtube. It was mis-attributed to Yaseen, and the spurious comments over the years provided no insight to the mysterious origins. A short taxi ride to Yaseen’s house revealed what the internet had failed. The clip in question was from the film “Terjit” and was one of the rare recorded performances of L’Orchestre Nationale de Mauritanie. The singer was Hadrami Ould Meidah, the leader of the group, a well known griot from a famous family, and the first musician to attempt a modern Mauritanian sound.

L’Orchestre Nationale was the first modern Mauritanian musical troupe. In 1967, the young president Moktar Ould Daddah sent Hadrami along with 14 other musicians to Guinea Conakry for musical training in what would be the first experiment in modernization — incorporating a brass section and electric guitars — but retaining the Hoddu and finding a particularly important place for the Mauritanian flute, the Neyfara, featured prominently on a number of tracks. Returning to Nouakchott, a town of no more 20,000 in pre-drought Mauritania, the L’Orchestre National was the band of the new country, playing in official capacity for the president in all social events, and providing a soundtrack of post-colonial aspirations.


“La Mone”, Terjit, 1973

After some searching around town, a few recordings surfaced — notably the 45. But the Orchestre National isn’t some forgotten band, and the musicians aren’t either, and the songs still circulate through the collective consciousness, immediately recognizable to anyone over a certain age. But in a story too common the analog recordings never made a jump to digital, shuffled aside into the odd corner, remembered, but misplaced and extremely difficult to find.

The said 7″ was produced in 1973 in Beirut, Lebanon. The recording was taken from a live performance at Nouakchott’s Maison de Jeune. The 500 copies were pressed and brought back to Nouakchott, completely distributed gratis within a week to the musicians and their friends. There was some talk of producing another run, a commercial product — but shortly after, war broke out in Lebanon, and the project was lost.

“La Mone” was written to inaugurate the new currency, the Ouguiya, which was unveiled in 1973. It was a bold move by the country, an independent step apart from the trend of Francophone Africa in their choice of a united currency.

L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie – La Mone

“Kamlat” (“all of them” in Arabic) uses the lyrics from an ancient poem written for one of the Emirs of Mauritania — a “grand warrior” as Hadrami explains — who’s hand had been badly wounded in battle. His doctor advised him that he must amputate but the Emir refused, and the wound worsened to a critical stage where he risked infection and death. The family, the friends, and the doctors had no recourse to persuade him, and went to the Emir’s griot, imploring him to do something. The griot composed a poem, “Kamlat,” a praise to his greatness (and the general consensus of this fact, hence, “all of them”). So content was the Emir that he conceded to his griot’s advice, and his hand was cut off.

L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie – Kamlat

* Reissue now available here at Mississippi Records! (note the spelling: “Hadrami Ould Meidah”)