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 (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:
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.
“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.
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…
Hamadt Ka is one of Nouakchott’s crop of modern singer/songwriters. He lives in Basra, between the town and the sea. The sand streets are quiet and the houses are staggered. Many of the residents are Pulaar and Wolof, having left the cramped transient quarters of Cinquieme to build in a place “where the wind blows” — it is cooler here, and the breeze tumbles down the wide streets with the taste of salt.
The lyrics are in Pulaar, but stark categorization is a bit presumptuous — the “Pulaar Folk” genre built on specific modes — when there are a wider array of styles and influences than Fouta Toro…
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.
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.