Moorish Music from Mauritania

Dimi Mint Abba and Khalifa Ould Eide

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Severe, Stirring, Beguiling: Another Side of Africa

The traditional music of Mauritania exists between worlds. It encompasses both the devotional aspect of Islamic life in North Africa, and the rhythmic energy and group interplay of sub-Saharan "black" Africa. For centuries the desert republic has functioned as a crossroads, a place where various African and Arabic cultures, from Berber to Wolof and Tuareg, have met. That's reflected in the sounds: The indigenous music combines the calm authority of the ancients—some texts are based on centuries-old Islamic poetry—with the urgent cries of modern life. When a singer of Dimi Mint Abba's persuasive power is involved, the contrasts and irreconcilable differences fade into music of fierce, transcendent passion—songs of devotion that need no translation.

Abba and her husband, Khalifa Ould Eide, were both born into the iggawin, or griot, tradition. In Mauritania, griots are a caste apart, regarded simultaneously as truth-telling folksingers, keepers of the poetry and heritage, and wizards in possession of paranormal powers. Abba's family is a particularly influential one: In 1960, after the Islamic African nation won independence from France, her father wrote what became the Mauritanian national anthem. He's also credited with helping to "modernize" traditional music, by replacing the four-stringed instrument known as the tidinit with the six-string guitar.

On this recording, made in London in 1990, Abba's husband provides the accompaniment (on tidinit and/or guitar), and their two daughters add percussion and chanted vocals. Abba sings and handles the percussion instruments traditionally played by women, including the ardin, which is akin to the West African cora or calabash harp. These simple settings provide Abba with a sturdy framework for her vocals, which are largely improvised. Like other Islamic singers, Abba doesn't always stay within a given tonality—when she's really riled up, her adlibs veer into wild quarter-tones and semitones that are manifestations of pure spirit. While everything on this set sparkles, of particular note is "Sawt Elfan" (Art's Plume), which brought Abba the top prize at a 1977 competition in Tunis. Through a series of riveting verses, Abba asserts that artists make more consequential contributions to society than warriors. The fervent, resolute singing she does here pretty much ends that argument.

Genre: World, Mauritania
Released: 1990, World Circuit
Key Tracks: "Waidalal Waidalal," "Yar Allahoo," "Sawt Elfan"
Catalog Choice: Music and Songs of Mauritania
Next Stop: Tinariwen: Amassakoul
After That: Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective: Wátina
Book Pages: 2–3

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