A Composer for Every Country: Mauritania

Mauritania: Land of Poets, Land of Sands. The modern-day borders of Mauritania are the product of French colonization in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. At the time, around 90% of the population were nomadic tribes, and while that culture is slowly shrinking, a good chunk of the population remains so today. As far as governance, the country is ostensibly democratic, but Mauritania has suffered a number of coups since the end of colonial French rule, the most recent being in 2008 when General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz orchestrated the arrest of President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

 
The country's reputation, if it is known by anybody outside of Africa at all, is marred by its poor human rights record, and Mauritania remains one of the few countries where slavery, while technically illegal, is still practiced. The culture remains very traditional, with deep religious roots in Islam and the population divided by castes. Natural resources, like iron and petroleum, are mined, but much of the population lives at a subsistence level, fishing or shepherding, and the country remains fairly poor.
 
It's a country easy for Westerners to project onto, I think. Because electricity is scarce outside of the larger cities, and because nomadic people are generally difficult to find, it's rather hard to get to get a ground level perspective through reading. Trying to learn about Mauritanian music is a good example. There's not a whole lot of information about the musical culture beyond the broadest strokes, in large part because Mauritanian music hasn't been codified, and is still an aural tradition. Musicians, called griots (gree-oh) are part of the low caste called the iggawin, and the practice of music is passed down through families. Griots provide music as both entertainment and for ceremonial purposes, like weddings, but also act as messengers and commentators. They are often feared or hated, possibly because they can publicly ridicule people who do not pay for their services (whether those "services" wanted or not, it sounds like).
 
I've got to say, here in America we musicians have tried everything short of begging to earn a living. Maybe we should learn from the griots and start throwing daggers? When all else fails, mock mercilessly until they pay you to go away.
 
Now, where was I? Right. The music of the griots hasn't been codified, so learning about it is rather amorphous. Their music comes in four different "modes," but from what little I've been able to find, they would probably be better described as "melody types." Each mode is associated with a particular mood: kar, associated with joy; fagho, provoking anger and used in war chants; signim, to arouse a "sensitive" feeling (I haven't found a good explanation for what this means... contemplative, maybe?); and beïgi, associated with sorrow or nostalgia. I should note, these are how the modes are described by educated musicians in Mauritania. They may or may not apply to musicians of illiterate cultures, but who's to know? Apparently, nobody has talked to them, so far as I have found.
 
On top of this, there are several styles of playing: Al-bayda, coming from North African moors (the Bidan); Al-kahla, coming from the Sub-Sharan moors (the Haratin); and I'-gniaydiya, which mixes the two. These styles and modes can be mixed and matched to taste, although I am sure the details of what mixing is "acceptable" are nuanced.
 
Because there's not really a music industry in Mauritania, and because arts are generally not a budget priority, there aren't really composers in the way Europe or America would define a composer. Not in the sense of a profession in which a person notates music for an ensemble. Music of the griots is quasi-improvisatory, using a stock of familiar melodies which are riffed upon, altered, or referenced. That said, there are a couple of Mauritanian musicians who achieved some international reputation. My composer for today is one of them, a woman by the name of Dimi Mint Abba (1958-2011).
 
Born as an iggawin to musician parents, her father, Siday Ould Abba, is notable for having composed the Mauritanian national anthem. Her mother, Fire Mounina Mint Eida, played the ardin, a 14-stringed instrument related to the West African kora. Dimi recorded very little music, just two albums, and most of her reputation rested in North Africa. Still, she did make it up to Europe for a few performances. Unfortunately, she died at 52 from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by an accident on tour in Morocco. The song I'm sharing is "Mauritania, My Beloved Country," an ode to a difficult, even inhospitable, and yet strikingly beautiful part of the globe.