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Music of Mauritania – By Scot Sier

March 13, 2012

Mauritania is an ancient nomadic culture, with its musical roots influenced by the Moors and Berber people who inhabited the territory of today’s modern Algeria and Morocco. The Berbers lived in North Africa long before the arrival of the Arabs, and their culture dates back to more than 4,000 years. A vast barren desert country, most of its population is located near the cities, where wandering musicians and praise singers perform traditional and modern music forms, defined by the string instruments – the tidnit and ardin, accompanied by the tbal drum. Mauritania’s music is influenced by the West African music of Mali and by Arabic North African music. It plays an important role in preserving tribal heritage, by praising the glory of the tribal chiefs, carrying forth a tradition that exists to the present day.

A Nomadic People

Mauritania’s population is roughly three million people and its name is derived from the dominant ethnic group, the Moors. In general, the country is divided into two main groups, The Haratin, who are descendants of Arab slaves with black African origins from the Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Bidan, whom claim ancestory from north of the Sahara and refer to themselves as white. The Haratin were traditionally slaves under the Bidan noble class, whose strict Moorish hierarchical class system continues to influence its culture and music.

The official language of the country is Hassaniya, a Berber-influenced Arabic dialect that derives its name from the Beni Hassan tribe, along with other tribal languages and French, who originally colonized Mauritania in the beginning of the 20th century. The country is primarily Sunni Muslim, descendents of Bedouin conquerors and Berber refugees from Morocco.

Mauritania is a stratified society, and until late in the 20th century, was governed by a strict hierarchical caste system. This system has been a source of conflict among its peoples, with slavery continuing to this day, mainly affected by the Haratin that are enslaved by the Bidan. Between these two groups, Mauritanian music has assimilated influences from both their northern Arab and Berber neighbors across the Sahara.

Traditional vocal and instrumental songs are an important part of Mauritanian culture. Solo singers are common, and they accompany themselves on tidnit and ardin, or sing with an instrumental ensemble. The vocals are powerful, resonating with the vastness of the desert and the staccato of the Arabic call to prayer. Traditional African musicians express life by taking natural sounds, including spoken language, and incorporating them into their music to tell the story of their people.

Traditional Forms

The Moors’ Influence

The ancient Berber and Moor culture is extraordinarily rich and diverse, with a variety of musical styles. Moorish society, like many Islamic societies, places a high value on poetry and music. At the same time, superstition among the Moors led some of them to fear poets and musicians, to whom they attribute occult and mystical powers. Accordingly, noble families often became the patrons of entertainers; thus, the nobles were able to demonstrate their elite status, while obtaining both entertainment and protection.

Oral Translators

Under Mauritania’s caste system, musicians were known as “Iggawin” and they occupied the lowest rung of society underneath the warrior class, merchants and others. Being a hereditary caste, their skills required elaborate study and were handed down through generations, from father to son and from mother to daughter. Since black Africa’s early history was unwritten, Mauritania’s musicians acted as newscasters and were responsible for translating the story of their peoples through song and music. The traditional music of Mauritania encompasses both the devotional aspect of Islamic life in North Africa, and the rhythmic energy of sub-Saharan “black” Africa. For centuries, Mauritania has functioned as a trading post where various African and Arabic cultures have met. These traditions have been kept alive by small bands of Iggawin musicians who travel from village to village, as they have for centuries, to entertain at weddings, parties, festivals and other social occasions with their songs, tales, and poetry.

Praise Songs

Primarily called by the noble class to perform, the Iggawin would entertain their patrons with praise songs about the great deeds performed by their ancestors. Moorish society is proud of its nomadic past, and music and poetry are distinguishing marks of high culture in Saharan desert society. In Mauritania, the Iggawin have long played a similar role to the griots of West Africa—historians, musicians, and poets who sing about the exploits of warriors and tribal leaders, past and present.

Today, the Iggawin are paid by anyone to perform, where affluent patrons sometimes record the entertainment and are then considered to own the recording. Due to the infusion of television and radio from the Arab world, Mauritanian artists and bands are experimenting extensively with traditional Mauritanian, Western, and Middle Eastern forms of music. The result is a unique blend of musical styles, exclusive to their country.


The Sound of Mauritania—Tidnit and Ardin

Flora, (the types of trees available for instrument construction) and culture influence the dominance of certain categories of instruments in West Africa. There are three types of traditional instruments used by Mauritanian musicians. The men play the tidnit, a small hourglass-shaped, four-stringed lute, while the women play the ardin, a harp-like stringed instrument similar to the Malian kora, usually accompanied by the tbal, a large kettle drum.

The tidnit is a traditional stringed instrument common throughout West Africa. It is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt, and some believe it is the ancestor the American banjo. The wooden body is oval-shaped and covered with the hide of cattle. The strings originally were constructed from horsehair, and today are typically constructed of two or three tightly wound strands of low-gauge nylon fishing line. They are attached to the instrument’s wooden neck by long and narrow leather strips and to its wooden bridge by cotton strings. The instrument is fine-tuned by adjusting these strips. The tidnit has two long strings that are strummed with thumb and forefinger to play the melody, and two short, which are usually of a fixed pitch and provide a droning effect when plucked. The tidnit has three principal tunings, all of which involve tuning the two main strings a perfect fourth apart.

Many tidnit musicians constructed their own instruments for hundreds of years. The unique sound and syncopated playing style of the instrument adds a complexity to the rhythmic structure of Mauritania’s folk music. In recent years, the tidnit is being replaced by guitar, allowing contemporary musicians to innovate and redefine themselves in the midst of rapidly changing cultural shifts.

The ardin, principally played by the women, is made from a large skin gourd, carved in half and covered with a cow skin. It is similar to a kora, the traditional harp of Malian griots, and has a curved wooden pole inserted into the gourd, where anywhere between twelve and fourteen strings are attached with leather thongs. It is plucked with both hands like a harp and can also be used as a rhythm instrument by striking the soundboard. In combination with the tidnit, it creates a free-flowing landscape of polyrhythmic sounds for singers to perform to. This sound provides a vast palate for the passionate vocals performed by Mauritania’s singers.

To accentuate the syncopated rhythm of songs, the tbal drum, and occasionally the daghumma, a long hollowed-out gourd covered in beads, will accompany the Iggawin musicians.

Regional and Ethnic Forms

Ways and Modes

There are clear musical differences between regions and tribes exemplified by the three ways and five modes of Mauritanian music. Musicians in Mauritania are taught orally to play in one of three “ways,” the white way, (al-bayda) associated with the Bidan Moors of North African descent, the black way (al-kahla), associated with the Haratin Moors of Sub-Saharan descent, and the mixed way (i’-gnaydiya). According to the traditional conception, these forms of music relate to the social hierarchy and levels of worthiness to God. They also correlate to mood, in which the black way is considered more masculine, with an emphasis on roots, and the white way more soft and refined.

Rhythm and the key they are played in are critical in distinguishing the ways. Performing a way consists of five modes played in strict order according to traditional Arabic music theory. This sophisticated system derives as far back as the seventeenth century, as practiced by the Moors.

There are five modes, four of which correspond to a period in the life cycle, or to a mood and emotion. The fifth mode, is related to a higher state of consciousness and associated with the life cycle after death.

To further add to its complexity, the system is elaborated by sub-modes that qualify the main mode within the way. Within the traditional ways and modes of Mauritania’s music, women are not bound to the same rules as men and are allowed more freedom in the same piece of music.

Contemporary Currents

Dimi Mint Abba

One of the most famous and successful Mauritanian musicians to have emerged from the Iggawin/ Griot tradition is the female singer and ardin player Dimi Mint Abba. Known as the “Diva of the desert,” Dimi was born in 1958 to musical parents, accompanying them on tbal from an early age and later adopting the ardin. In 1976 she was invited to sing on Mauritanian radio, where she solidified her musical reputation as one of the world’s greatest Muslim singers. Dimi’s songs were influenced by North and West Africa, mixing Arabic scales and improvisation with traditional West African instruments. She died in June 2011, in Morocco, after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Safekeeping and Updating Traditions In the Saharawi Refugee Camps

A crucial part of modern Mauritanian history is the war fought with the Polisario Front of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic. The Saharawi, descendents of Mauritania’s black African, Berber and Arab people, share Mauritania’s command of the ways and modes, but with less rigidity. Forced from their land by an annexation attempt by Morocco, these highly educated bands of people have developed an exiled refugee state in southern Algeria. Awaiting their return to Western Sahara, refugee life has brought about a diverse integration of the rules and instrumentation available to the people.

In Mauritania, where the Iggawin musicians are born into their caste, the Saharawi are a diverse group, playing music from many backgrounds. They play a particular style of music they call “Hawl,” where their expression of lyricism is open to interpretation in a democratic way. As a displaced people, the traditional instruments of Mauritania do not have as much an influence on Saharawi music, and the tidnit is being replaced by acoustic and electric guitar for a more contemporary edge. Modern Saharawi artists such as Aziz Brahim are fusing traditional and contemporary instruments with sub-Saharan African rhythms, to create a unique sound that expresses their years of suffering.

The New Voices of Mauritania

Mauritania remains one of few places in the world where traditional music is better-supported and more profitable than contemporary music. However, there are artists like Noura Mint Seymali who are exploring both traditional and modern forms of musc. She is carving out a style that is locally referred to as “tradi-moderne” music, warming up crowds by playing ardin accompanied by the usual ensemble of tidnit and tbal, followed by a modern rhythm section. Her unique fusions appeal to both traditionalists who want to experience new music forms, as well as younger audiences who want to connect with their Mauritanian roots.

Medeh is another form of Mauritanian music performed only by the Haratin. It is categorized by traditional Sub-Saharan drumming and represents the voice of a marginalized minority. The musical content is strictly religious and can be compared to American Gospel and Haitian Voodoo.

With the introduction of the electric guitar to the Sahara, a new popular style called jakwar was adapted and expanded across the desert. This music is popular among the Tuareg (nomads of the Sahara), and, due to its fairly complex rhythm, very few musicians are skilled at playing it.

Popular music like rap has found its way recently into Mauritania’s culture. Rap music was not a welcome choice in Mauritania’s traditional cultural environment, but it has become popular among the youth who wish to express their desire to transform the traditional caste bound culture and address Mauritania’s cultural development needs.


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