The music of Mauritania, Part One.

Posted January 23rd, 2008 at 12:12 am (UTC-4)

The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is where West Africa and the Maghreb meet- a huge, sparsely populated, country-stretching between Morocco and Senegal, Mali and the Atlantic ocean. The country’s name comes from its dominant ethnic group, the Moors (Maures in French), and it is their nomadic traditions and culture that give Mauritania its unique character. The Moors, or Beydane (as they call themselves), are very proud of their music. One of the country’s great music aficionados used to tell me, “music is the only thing we have ever taken the time to develop”.

Nouakchott, the capital city, is home to the majority of the country’s most talented musicians. Moorish music can be roughly divided into ‘folk’ music and ‘classical’ music; the first category consists of lullabies, work songs, game songs, courting songs, shepherd songs, and religious praise ‘songs’, and the second the music of the Iggawen, or griots. Mauritania has no music industry; there are no nightclubs or record labels, there are no publications devoted to music, Moorish musicians rarely give public ‘concerts’, and the first professional studio in the country opened in 2003. The iggawen, much as they did a century ago, perform primarily at weddings and private recitals. And although (like Wolof, Manding, Pulaar, and Soninke griots) they often sing praise songs, they are above all appreciated for the aesthetic refinement of their poetic and musical skills.

I am obsessed with Mauritanian music and am always trying to introduce curious listeners to its addictive charms. It is not, however, a welcoming music. Like the country, the music of the Moors can seem very austere and dry. It does not meet you halfway, like the Congolese Rumba or Ghanaian Highlife, but instead demands that you take the time to adjust your ears to its modal subtleties and rhythmic pulse.

One of the easiest points of entry is Jakwar, a style of music that was created in 1976 by Jheich ould Abba, a blind musician from Atar, in Northern Mauritania. Named after the fast French fighter jets that often flew over northern Mauritania during the Saharan war, Jakwar is dance music. Jheich amplified his tidinit (the traditional lute) and brought the rhythmic drive of folk music to classical Moorish melodies. This next track (like virtually all recordings available in Mauritania) is a cassette-dub of a private recording that was sponsored by one of Jheich’s patrons. The quality leaves much to be desired but his music comes through. Stick with it.

  • [audio:] Jheich ould Abba

Today, Jheich’s musical legacy is kept alive by his son Idoumou ould Jheich ould Abba. He is the only one of his Jheich’s five sons to have learned the tidinit, and is today one of Nouakchott’s most solicited musicians.

It is very difficult to capture the power of Jakwar on tape. This music requires the active participation of the public. At a typical wedding, as soon as Idoumou starts to play, the women in the crowd start clapping interlocking cross-rhythms, and the louder they clap, the harder Idoumou plays. As the groove picks up steam the largely female crowd-which is arranged in an oval around an open dance space, with Idoumou at one end of the oval-starts to sway, and then rock, hard. One at a time individual dancers will jump into the oval, cover their faces with their veils, and undulate their shoulders to the beat. This next track is a recording I made, in April of 2003, of Idoumou playing the ‘Guera’ rhythm from Atar. The recording does not capture the ‘surge’ of a wedding but gives you a good idea of Idoumou’s flanged-out tidinit.

The next big change in Mauritanian music came when iggawen started playing Jakwar on the electric guitar. Hammadi ould Nana was the first to take the leap.

Inspired by Jakwar’s rhythmic drive, Hammadi realized that the sonic qualities of the electric guitar (sustain, controlled distortion) made it the ideal instrument for Jakwar music. In July of 2000 I invited Hammadi to perform for a few friends. I made this recording on a Sony Professional Walkman using the cheap microphone I had at the time. The sound is not great but this track has got a nice live feel.

  • [audio:] Hammadi ould Nana

Jakwar’s ecstatic repetition is what first got me hooked on the music of the Moors. But the more I listened and learned about ‘classical’ Moorish music the more I became addicted to the microtonal intricacies of slower styles; in particular to what I suppose you could call ‘salon’ music. This is a style of classical music that reached its pinnacle with the 1980s recordings of Dimi mint Abba, and which have nothing to do with her internationally released recordings.

These next two recordings feature the singers Nora mint Seymali ould Hamed Vall and Sidi ould Seymali ould Hamed Vall. They were both trained by their father Seymali ould Hamed Vall, who was the first Moorish musician to formally study music; he spent several years in Iraq studying at a music conservatory in Baghdad. Both Nora and Sidi were also, at different times, part of Dimi mint Abba’s group; their father Seymali was Dimi’s first husband.

First up is Nora accompanied by her husband Jheich ould Chighaly.

This is a recording I made in their living room after midnight on March 28, 2003 as a sandstorm punished Nouakchott. This is a song that they perform frequently at weddings. This recording gives you a great idea of Jheich’s slippery guitar playing and Nora’s warm voice (the heat of the sandstorm was making her voice crack). Look closely at Jheich’s guitar in the picture above…check out his customized microtonal fretboard.

Nora’s younger brother Sidi is one of my favorite singer’s in Nouakchott. Although he still pretty young (25 years old) Sidi is getting invited to perform at more and more weddings. In this next track he takes his time with ‘Lebteyt’, my favorite of the five modes that are the building blocks of Moorish classical music. This was recorded just before sunset at the house I was renting on the outskirts of Nouakchott. Sidi accompanies himself on guitar. (In fact, the recording is almost ruined by a loose contact in Sidi’s guitar; you’ll hear the clicking. I love his vocal performance so much though, that I decided to post the song in spite of the offending noise.)

The final track I’ve got for you brings together everything I love about Moorish music and Mauritania. This recording features two young sisters, Hudho mint Abba (16 years old) and Guine mint Abba (14 years old), accompanied by their mother Mukhtara mint Nana on Ardin, an eleven string harp, and their cousin Idoumou ould Jheich ould Abba on Tidinit. This recording was made in a small blue-walled room at 11 pm. You can hear one of our friends preparing and pouring mint tea if you listen carefully!!!

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed the music!!

If you would like more detailed information about Mauritanian music in general and the history behind this music in particular, send me an email, and I’ll happily send you a more detailed article I’ve written on the music of Mauritania.

30 responses to “The music of Mauritania, Part One.”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Insanely great! Thank you.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Though nascent in length, this blog is wizened in amazing songs and information… Thanks a lot for taking the time to help make those out there with an affinity for African music have a deeper, more complex affinity. Amazing stuff. Cheers.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Magnificent stuff… Maybe this is good occasion to plug the equally fantastic NemNema Nema Mint Choueikh CD on Popular African Music…

  4. Anonymous says:

    After all those years I still tend to stutter when speaking in public 🙂 That should be ‘Nema’ in my previous comment of course … Thanks Matthew for sending the article!

  5. Anonymous says:

    I absolutely cannot stop listening to the Hammadi ould Nana track. What could one do to hear more? Thanks.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thanks all for the feedback… i’m glad your enjoying the music. There is a LOT more where these tracks came from. Tom, we have got a great recording of Nema that was given to us by Radio Mauritania back in the 1970s. Pol Sapene, there are some great pieces from the same Hammadi performance but, perhaps more
    interestingly, we’ve got hundreds of recordings of great Mauritanian guitar playing. I have to go through and find the best quality recordings. I will definitely be posting some more Mauritanian music in the future.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Matthew —

    Really great stuff! Not to get too greedy, but is there any way you could post any of this stuff for download? That Hammadi track is wicked…

  8. Anonymous says:

    This Hammadi Ould Nana track is mind-blowing. Thanks for sharing these–Mauritania’s music is very hard to come by in any form (as you say, there’s no music industry to speak of), and it’s good to hear such creative stuff.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Well… given the enthusiastic collective response to the Hammadi track I will have to put together a post featuring Mauritania’s guitar players.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Love these Moorish jams. You should approach a label like Sublime Frequencies and get some of these tracks released, preferably on vinyl! More Moorish music please.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hello Beetlejuice, I have been trying for the last several years to compile my favorite passages from all of the Mauritanian recordings we have. I am not done yet, there is so much great music, it is hard to choose. I will definitely, in the future, be posting a series of my favorite Mauritanian guitar tracks. I am hoping to return to Mauritania soon…there is a young guitar player who has built his own seven string guitar and plays some wicked guitar. I am hoping to track him down.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Great! The dramatics in Mauritanian, and specially Moorish, music and singing has often an entrancing effect on me; even when I’m not really listening! For those interested, the BBC has whole gigs on line of maauritanian artists like Malouma, Dimi Mint Abba etc. For example:

  13. Anonymous says:

    Great thank you very much. please post more.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Beetlejuice: I wouldn’t mind hearing these tracks on vinyl either, but Sublime Frequencies? Look what they did with Group Inerane. Press 1000 or so LPs, sell them for 25 bucks, and than pound their chest for the fact they will never ever re-release it. That’s ridiculous. Sublime Frenquencies deals in hipster exotica and semi-bootlegs basically and hardly any of their releases are essential. If anyone has mp3s of the Group Inerane recordings I’d say throw them on the net – it’s unlikely that the artists ever got paid anyway and their music deserves to be heard. Anyway, I just picked up an electric Mauritanian CD in the Musique du Monde series on Budda called ‘Mauritanie: Guitar des Sables/Guitar of the Sands’ which I would recommend (although I don’t know what Matthew thinks of it). The guitarist’s name is Moudou Ould Mattalla and the CD is available for cheap in a couple of eBay stores right now…

  15. Anonymous says:

    Hello Tom, I have mixed feelings about the Moudou ould Matalla CD. I am always happy to see Mauritanian music released internationally, and I commend Buda for being the first label to release Jakwar music on CD! I think, however, that the CD is a little flat. First, I don’t think ould Matalla is a great guitar player, and there are plenty of GREAT guitar players in Mauritania. There is no kick to his playing. That said, the lack of ‘ambiance’ may not be completely his fault. As i mentioned about the Idoumou ould Jheich track above, the main difficulty in recording Jakwar is that the audience is a crucial part of the musical event. The audience provides a lot of the rhythmic tension and excitement of this music, weaving interlocking patterns that the soloist can ride over. I can remember being at a small wedding in Nouakchott, surrounded by about a dozen women, all standing and clapping enthusiastically, and I counted six different cross-rhythms that they were providing. As the music builds the women will also start to ululate and shout encouragement to the guitar player, his t’bal player, and the dancers. This audience participation is essential to good Jakwar music. It is very difficult to capture this musical interplay in a recording. I tried and failed several times. I have lots of cassettes of audience recordings of great Jakwar. The sound quality is pretty uniformly dreadful but you can get a sense of the musical power of the event. I will definitely be posting the best of these in the future.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Nah, ould Matalla isn’t exactly Hammadi ould Nana but in anticipation of the award-winning Jakwar box set you’re putting together (hint, hint 😉 ) it’ll have to do. I like the crickets on that CD too.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Beautifull sounds and fine information, I feel very lucky to have stumbled on your blog. I am looking for music played and sung bij “Malouma”. Malouma Mint Mokar Mund Meida who has made several CD’s but I am curious if there are older recordings of her and her family. The pictures of the immense archive make me dream of a job for a lifetime!
    Hope to hear and read more from you

  18. Anonymous says:

    Hello, and thanks for the feedback. I was going through my recordings and I have many different recordings of the extended Meida family, but not many of Malouma singing with her father or cousins. I have seen Malouma perform at probably a dozen weddings in Mauritania, and although she knows and understands the modal repertoire, that is the core of Mauritanian music, she does not perform it. When she is invited to perform at weddings she is usually accompanied by her brother Arafate on keyboards, and they perform her pop songs. My impression is that her voice is not strong enough to sing the traditional repertoire, and that she wisely created a repertoire of pop/new music that allows her to highlight the strengths of her voice.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed reading your nice article about Moorsh Music.
    Could you give more details about as to what the difference is between the so-called “black” (kahla) and “white”(beydha) ways (jamba)?
    Looking forward to knowing you better

  20. Anonymous says:

    Great article. I share with you the need to get to the heart of true Mauritanian music. As far as what it is available on CD it is true that it is hard to find something really authentic. Nevertheless I was happy to stumble across a very good album of west-saharian music, strongly similar to mauritanian, which I highly recommend: “Medej : Cantos Antiguos Saharawis”

  21. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for this music! Sidi ould Seymali oud Hamed Vall is absolutely phenomenal! Do you by any chance know the structure of the mode ‘Lebteyt’ that he is using here? I’d love to hear more of this style of guitar playing. Cheers

  22. Anonymous says:

    Hello Denis,
    Sidi ould Seymali is quickly becoming one of the most popular male singers in Mauritania. I will always cherish the memory of this recording session with Sidi. It was just the two of us sitting on the carpet in the house I rented, he played for an hour and ended just as the sun set. I have been slowly pulling together a feature on the great ould Eide brothers who are the masters of this slower, more detailed, style of playing. I hope to have it up in the next few months (there are dozens of long cassettes to get through).

  23. Anonymous says:

    Hello! this music is absolutely beautiful. I’ve been doing research on Mauritania music for a class I am taking at the University of Waterloo – “African music and peace”. I’m very curious about the musical history and movements of mauritania, but am having trouble finding many, if any, thorough sources. Could you direct me to some? Or I read above, you have a few articles yourself? I would be very interested in parusing those, if possible? Thank you for sharing these wonders!

  24. Anonymous says:

    Hi Matthew,
    I loved your article and was happy to find a vibrant music scene in Mauritania.
    On June 15th I’m heading off to the Peace Corps and will be stationed somewhere in Mauritania. I’m taking a Flash disc based recorder some condensor microphones and plan to see what I can find. My background is in Music Administration, Artist Development and Music Education. I’d love to hear from you about suggestions and if you have that other longer article available I’d love to read it.

    All the best,

    P.S. Feel free to email me at brad @

  25. Anonymous says:

    Hi Matthew,
    just to let you know that u did a great job on collecting these
    chunks of Mauritanian music. However, for the sake of all people
    who are interesed in Moorish music, I do suggest that you periodic
    ally add more so the large number of World Citizens can have their
    cup and enjoy a variety of Moor music though that will be a time
    consuming hard work. Oncemore, thanks for the Blog.


  26. […] of America and Africa Music Treasures unveils the beauty of the music and archives the uncovered for […]

  27. Diane Putnam says:

    Hello, Matthew! I am asking for permission to use some of your information, two photos and three recordings for a post in the Google Earth Community. I’m a moderator there, and have a special interest in African music. Your info will make a great contribution to the Arts and Literature forum. There is no commercial use, the fora are educational only.

    Thanks, Diane Putnam
    GEC moderator



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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