The first time I met Yacine Ould Nana was in a crumbling mansion in the posh neighborhood of Nouakchott. I was sitting on the floor recording the rambling songs of his brother when he marched in. “39th and Lexington,” he said, to my confusion, and then launched into his recollections of New York.
It was hard to see, in the flickering candlelight (the electricity had been cut), but the Nana family were once pop icons – a musical clan, sort of like the Partridges. Unlike the other musical groups in the old world, caste controlled society, the Nanas were loudly independent of tradition. They claimed to be outsiders, ancestors of Timbouctou Tuareg (the mother played the Imzad) and they regularly left the country, living in Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States. Out of this family musical group Yacine went on to have the most successful solo career. Through the 80s and 90s, Yacine was a star, with disco inspired tracks including the smash hit, “Timbouctou Number 1.”
By the time I met Yacine, the family had become somewhat marginalized and estranged from social circles. Yacine was remembered for once being the superstar of Mauritanian pop, but no longer performed and was often dismayed. Until we’d talk about New York. I think he would have agreed that Nouakchott was too small for him. When night fell, and the cold desert wind swept over the quiet streets, Yacine was still dreaming of something bigger.
Yacine Ould Nana passed away in June.