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.
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.