A sonic window into the glory days of postcolonial Mauritania



Until recently music from Mauritania has rarely been more than a curiosity—that is, if people noticed it at all. But with the ascendance of Tinariwen's soulful strain of desert guitar music over the last decade, sounds from the Sahara have become the latest international music craze (relatively speaking). Located on the southwestern edge of the Maghreb, Mauritania has produced some remarkable guitar music, with most players craftily adapting sounds and patterns once made on the traditional tidinitt (an hourglass-shaped lute with four or five strings). In 2011 the local Locust label released an astonishing double CD of guitar music from the nation called Wallahi le Zein!! Wezin, Jakwar and Guitar Boogie From the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, most of which was compiled from bootleg cassettes taped at private celebrations and sold only at gray-area kiosks. The country has never had a legitimate music industry.

In 1959 the country emerged from the yoke of French colonialism and its first president, Moktar Ould Daddah, soon oversaw a process of modernization. When a small seaside village called Nouakchott was chosen as the capital, Daddah was consigned to living in a tent while the presidential palace was constructed. A big part of postcolonial efforts in West Africa included rebuilding and fostering a national culture, which included the formation of state-sponsored musical ensembles. It wasn't until 1967 that Mauritania got around to assembling its own group, yet many of the players chosen lacked formal training. So that same year the musicians traveled to the nearby Guinean capital of Conakry, where they studied under players who had been part of Sekou Toure's Authenticité program, the Guinean leader's successful effort to establish a rich national musical tradition based on Manding roots.

A year later the fledgling group returned home to Mauritania and began performing at national functions. But aside from a lone 7" single pressed in an edition of 500 and given away for free, L'Orchestre National de Mauritanie never made any formal recordings. In 2011 the cool Sahel Sounds label reissued that single in a limited edition, which sold out quickly. Thankfully, those two tracks have resurfaced on a full vinyl-only collection, which includes five additional pieces by the group, all seemingly recorded live. The sound quality is a bit murky, but the music is fascinating. While "Kamlat," the B-side of that original single (check it out below) definitely reflects a familiar Saharan sound—nasal, Arabic singing, clopping percussion, and tightly-coiled guitar patterns—most of the material on the album reveals a strong Guinean influence, which makes plenty of sense considering where these guys studied together. The music sounds closer to a stripped down Bembeya Jazz, with flutes and trumpet, than the guitar-oriented sounds of the great Dimi Mint Abba.

When brutal droughts crippled the nascent economy in the early 70s, with rural refugees flooding the capital in search of work, the country's high-minded efforts to modernize stalled, and by 1975 L'Orchestre National de Mauritanie was largely moribund. The stuff here might not rank as one of the essential recordings of African music—or even Mauritanian music—but it offers a pretty absorbing snapshot of more optimistic days, and the booklet includes some great images and informative liner notes to boot.

Today's playlist:

Israel Martinez, El Hombre que se Sofoca (Sub Rosa)
Vinicius Cantuaria, Samba Carioca (Naïve)
Josef & Erika, Floods (Hoob)
Maria Kannegaard Trio, Breaking the Surface (ACT)
Borden, Ferraro, Godin, Halo & Lopatin, FRKWYS Vol. 7 (Rvng Intl.)

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