I first met Ahmed Sidi Bella, way back in 2009, during my first field recordings. At the time, he only had a tidnit and a child’s size nylon string guitar. With trepidation, I put the microphone in the window, as to be so far out of the way as not to disturb him, much to his confusion. When I visit years later, we both have evolved somewhat. He has a number of instruments and an amplifier. And I know how to place a microphone.
Ahmed lives in Chinguetti, an ancient and ruinous caravan town from the 13th century. The village more recently was a stop on the French tourist circuit, with direct flights from Europe – since in decline, with the ever-expanding “Zone Rouge.” His family compound is a huge compound, across the sand river in the old section of town. Language is challenging, and my attempts to a deeper understanding of Mauritanian classical modes is a failure, but we manage a number of recordings. Ahmed plays both the tidnit, the Mauritanian interpretation of the ubiquitous West African guitar, as well as the standard electric guitar, modified for quarter tones. His mother Aicha Imbend joins in with percussion and a chorus of handclaps and vocals from the rest of the family.
I recently put together this compilation entitled “Field Recordings from the Sahel.” It’s what it says on the tin. Since the inception of this blog (way back in 2009), field recording has been at the core. The term gets thrown around a lot. While much the content in our records could be considered so, they are foremost musical recordings that have been captured with a single microphone, in one take, and aim to present the music as it sounded at the occasion.
This compilation is a bit different from the label content. The recordings here are varied: ambient soundscapes of an early morning in Timbouctou, a prayer call in rural Mauritania, late night radio broadcasts of Wolof griots. A lot of what’s here has been featured on this blog over the years – the result of traveling with a sound recorder ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
Moving from blog to “record label,” the Sahel Sounds project has focused primarily on music to transmit information and commercial records to finance the work (my own research and musicial careers of our partners in W. Africa). In addition to the music, I’ve tried to use the records as opportunities to provide a little more context, using them to translate Tamashek poetry,support visual artists in Bamako, or create transcultural genre experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to step outside of the “label” context to create work not bound by the particulars of the vinyl record market.
The compilation is available streaming + with free download from bandcamp. In addition to the compilation, I produced a short book “Folktales from the Sahel,” – a collection of stories, myth, and urban legends, collected on the past decade of travel.
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. 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.
In 2011, I traveled to Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania to record wedding music. Over the course of six months, I went to a variety of weddings: from the luxurious, high end invitations in the chic neighborhoods of Tevragh Zeina, to the ramshackle tent affairs in far flung suburbs with names like Falluja. Through a gracious network of musicians and sound engineers, I crashed weddings across the capital.
Mauritanian music is loud. Musicians wail out microtonal praises, blasted through blown out amplifiers. Modified guitars warble with underwater phasing over impossible sounding scales. Drums are heavy and resounding and accompanied by the clatter of metal plates. The Mauritanian wedding is the premiere venue to hear popular Mauritanian music. This is not music for the bar or nightclub.
While modern instrumentation has swept across the world, in Mauritania modernity has been absorbed by a bigger pre-existing tradition, and music was reshaped. Modern Mauritanian wedding music may have traditional lutes and ancient dances, but it also has electric guitars and phaser pedals. This movement is as much cultural as it is political, intertwined with post colonial changes, equal parts cultural exchange and nationalistic isolationism. In any case, today this music is thriving in Nouakchott — a unique sound that exists nowhere else in the world.
Finally wrapped up an album that has been in production for over three years – which is not saying much, considering that the music had been sitting, locked away for over four decades. I first encountered the L’Orchestre National on Youtube, via a badly degraded pinkish hued clip of a very funky Mauritanian anthem (previously). Luckily I was in Mauritania at the time and was quickly able to learn the source of the “mystery video” and meet with Hadrami and a number of the musicians over the following years.
The National Orchestra of Mauritania (L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie) was formed in the post-colonial years as the official band of the young country. National Orchestras were common throughout West Africa. Probably the Malian Orchestras are the best known, but the practice began in Guinea under president Sekou Touré. A dictator with a questionable record of human rights, Touré nevertheless provided support for the arts, with music groups competing for the title. Mauritania sought to replicate this model, and in 1967 fourteen musicians from various ethnicities were sent to Conakry to learn how to become a National Orchestra.
They returned the next year to Mauritania as the pride of the country. Their songs were often political (“La Mone” for example, praising the new national currency), but sometimes folk inspired (“Seinam Moussa”). However, in every case, they were composed to be both traditional and modern – an ideal that came directly from the government of Mauritania, borne of this desire to create an independent nation that would shake out the shackles of colonialism and invoke the strength of its history. Unfortunately the hopeful government of Daddah did eventually fail, and with it went the National Orchestra.
The search for the recordings of the Orchestra have spanned multiple trips to Mauritania and many years. Young music vendors have no context for the group and older vendors simply grow quite with a nostalgic glint in their eyes. The music is nowhere to be found. While the recordings of the group were never outright banned, they had effectively vanished. The only official release was 500 copies of a 7″ vinyl record of a live performance, pressed in Beirut in 1973. What little remains of the archives of the the radio was salvaged by an engineer working in the station during the 1978 coup d’etat who absconded with the reels as soldiers ambushed the station, under orders to burn everything (the National Radio of Mauritania is one of the first places to be taken over during a coup – it is heavily guarded even today, giving it a certain air of impenetrability). These reels were stored in his home in Cinquième, one of the popular neighborhoods of Nouakchott, subject to intermittent flooding, where they remain today (along with the entire recorded history of the country from 1960 until the coup d’etat).
The selections of the record are all from the Orchestre National featuring Hadrami Ould Meidah between the years of 1968 and 1975. It’s available now on vinyl, in collaboration with Mississippi Records – and CD, of the latter, primarily to get it back to Mauritania where it can breathe again. Incidentally, on the back of the 7″ vinyl record from 1973 is some text in Arabic. Hadrami told me that it says to “look for the upcoming full album of L’Orchestre National de Mauritanie.” I like to think that we’ve finally fulfilled the promise, just a bit later than planned.