Traditional music in Mauritania is built around social lines. In their caste system, musicians fell toward the bottom, but they often sang of great warriors and those in the ruling classes. Music was also used as a way of spreading information and news. Although Mauritania is made of many ethnic groups, traditional music tends to be in the style of the largest group, the Berbers (or Moors, which is based on the same root as the ancient kingdom of Mauretania and modern-day Morocco).
There are three main categories that traditional music is written in. There’s the al-bayda, or the white way (fine and dainty, elegant, based on northern African styles); the al-kayla, or the black way (masculine, based on sub-Saharan African styles); or the l’gnaydiya, or the mixed way. There are also modes and submodes based on the Arabic modes that their music also utilizes, introduced by the Arabs when they moved into the area. Most of the musicians are men, although there are a few women musicians. Women musicians do not utilize the same modes as the men do.
While the instruments used in much of Mauritanian music are similar to either African or Arab music, a few of the instruments that are commonly heard in Mauritanian music include a type of kettle drum called the tbal, a rattle called daghumma, a type of kora that women utilize called the ardin, and four-stringed lute called the tidinit.
In Mauritania these days, anyone with money can pay a musician to perform. And if they like what they hear, they can pay to record them. But unlike in much of the world where the musician owns the rights to their own music, whoever pays the musician to record their music owns the rights to the recording.
Mauritanians enjoy games and dance. One type of common game that is commonly played is called anigur. Essentially, two people play fight with sticks as in a pretend sword fight. Others who watch this game clap along. A type of flute known as the nifara is important to Mauritanian culture, and it’s instrumental in dance. Many dancers dance to this instrument, and they like to use their skills to match the melody lines.
And I looked high and low, but it seems that although most of the musicians in Mauritania are men, the two most world-famous musicians are women. Probably the most well-known musician is Dimi Mint Abba. Both of her parents were musicians, so it makes sense that she would go into music as well. The music I listened to was based on stringed instruments, probably the ardin and/or the tidinit, with the vocals on top. It tended to be driven by quick rhythms.
Another well-known musician is Malouma. She was a social activist and politician. Her music has more of a slight Western appeal but still maintaining its roots in Berber and Arab music. Accompanied by flutes, various percussion instruments and stringed instruments, the vocals are all women. At times, it almost sounded like deep Delta blues, but perhaps it’s these roots that emerged itself in the blues. I listened to the album Noir, and I really liked what I heard.
Another musician I came across is Ooleya Mint Amartichitt. She utilizes the ardin and tidinit quite a bit, and she has a broad range in her vocals. From what I listened to, her vocal styles are characterized by singing in the upper portion of her range. It almost sounds like she’s singing from her chest, but that’s probably from a Western music point-of-view; I would be interested in learning how they teach these singing techniques.
Up next: the food