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.
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.
Just across from the twin towers of the Saudi Mosque, there is a market colloquially known as “hot point” or “cheb cheb” (Wolof for “thief”). On the streetside, young men huddle in groups, selling old battered cellphones from each hand, Nokia chargers trailing from pockets. Old men crouch in the shade of the market, stacks of rubber banded plastic cards with punch out SIM cards with the corresponding numbers scrawled in black felt marker. The stalls facing the mosque are decorated with the hand painted signs ubiquitous in the pictorial language of the West African marketplace — roughly drawn cellphones and calligraphic text hanging over the heads of Maurish shop owners standing before ceiling high collections of all things cellular. The streetside is crawling with activity, ambiance and confusion.
The market itself is a labyrinthine of stalls, glass display cases filled with “fake” Nokia/Samsung cellphones, sporting two or three SIM cards, cameras, mp3 players, and speakers. Deeper into the market, past the fancier shops, the stalls are simpler. In concrete boxes plastered with glossy hip hop posters and homemade montages, young men lounge behind computers, blasting music from pairs of speakers directed outwards, in an arms race of sonic amplitude. This is Nouakchott’s mp3 market.
This is no amateur operation. Every computer trails a variety inputs: USB multipliers, memory card receivers, and microSD adapters. A virus scan is initiated on each new connection. Each PC is running some version of a copy utility to facilitate the process. The price is a standard 40 ougiya per song, about $0.14; like every market, discounts are available for bulk purchases. The music on the computers is dictated by the owners. Hassaniya music is most often carried by young Maurs, Senegalese Mbalax and folk by Pulaar and Wolof kids. While I’m searching for Hausa film music, I’m directed to the sole Hausa man in the market, a vendor from Niamey. I sit with the vendors, scrolling through the songs on VLC, selecting with a nod or a pass, the files copied to a folder, tallied, and transferred to my USB.
No one in the market can tell me when the mp3 market began or where it will go. For the moment, it seems to be thriving, filling the youth’s cellphone and the taxi driver’s USB FM transmitter, a physical version of iTunes. In the free-for-all of digital exchange, the market has taken a demand and created a supply, accepting a meager payment for services rendered — not for the music, which everyone agrees, is a valueless item. After all, it’s so easy to copy, such a futile act to battle against.*
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.