Tracing the history of an oral desert culture in Mauritania and Western Sahara

Tracing the history of an oral desert culture in Mauritania and Western Sahara

From poems to songs, from proverbs to stories, oral traditions from the Trab el-Bidhân region in north-west Africa have evolved and have been transmitted and developed over the years, nonetheless they have retained their essence as crucial tools to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values, and collective memories of their existence and historical events.

Noura Mint Seymali playing ardine, global FEST 2014 / Ebru Yildiz

In September 2014 the main stage of the Barbican Centre in London was the host of a rare musical combination that, nonetheless, represented a public reunion of sorts of two cultures that have historically always gone hand in hand. This special occasion was the presence onstage – as part of the closing act of the second edition of the Sahara Soul festival – of two Bidhân singers, Noura Mint Seymali (Mauritania) and Aziza Brahim (Western Sahara), from two countries that, despite having shared similar oral traditions during generations, throughout their recent history have experienced different socio-political circumstances that have shaped their music in diverse ways. At that moment in the evening, each singer had previously performed their own set based on their own compositions as well as rewritings of traditional songs, and they had just come together at the very end of the concert for an improvisation over one of Aziza’s songs.
The two women were proudly wearing the melhfa, the colourful traditional Bidhân female cloth that is wrapped around the body covering the head – a symbol both of desert Bedouin life and Muslim culture – and singing in hassâniya, the local Arabic dialect shared by both countries, and the basis for their oral culture. Together with the very specialised tea ceremony and their history of nomadic camel herding, which is shared by Mauritanians and Saharawis alike, these are probably the two most characteristic traits of Bidhân culture. Curiously enough, these two musicians also share part of their personal and professional histories, having both started their singing careers as backing vocals for two of the most famous divas from the region, Dimi Mint Abba in Mauritania and Mariem Hassan in Western Sahara.
Despite both being originally from the Trab el-Bidhân – or the ‘land of the white’, as the region towards the western part of the Sahara desert in northwest Africa is locally known – these two women are representatives of two different, although intertwined, oral traditions. Noura Mint Seymali belongs to a long tradition of hereditary musicians and storytellers – ‘griots’ or iggâwen, as they are known in Mauritania – that have mastered the performance of long sung praise and epic poems in hassâniya – a style known as el-hawl – over the centuries. Her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, was the first musical scholar in Mauritania to attempt to write the musical aspects of this tradition, a musical system based on a modal cycle known as azawaan, while her grandmother was the one who taught her to play the ardin, a traditional nine-string calabash harp played exclusively by Mauritanian women.
Meanwhile, Aziza Brahim’s musical background is more linked to the starry nights and campfires of the traditional desert camps, where the members of the Bidhân nomadic ‘tribes’ (qabîlas) would gather to celebrate different aspects of life with the performance of short call and response verses usually accompanied by women playing the tbal, the regional kettledrum. Sometimes, these occasions also welcomed the performance of medeh, the spiritual music in honour of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). In addition, Aziza’s music has been deeply marked by the long-standing Saharawi struggle for self-determination, which since 1975 has kept half of Western Sahara’s population in refugee camps across the border with Algeria, and the other half living under the Moroccan occupation of their homeland.
One thing, however, that these two musical traditions have in common is the fact that they have both been transmitted orally from generation to generation for centuries, surviving the passage of time, at the same time preserving and changing its most characteristic aspects depending on who was performing them and when, where and how, but always remaining closely associated with the Bidhân lifestyle and ways of existing in the desert. Nowadays, both Noura and Aziza have taken on-board the task

The Western part of the Sahara desert / Violeta Ruano

of becoming the new international Bidhân cultural ambassadors, taking their musical traditions beyond their borders in every possible way. How have these oral traditions survived and changed throughout the centuries, especially in contemporary times, and what has been the role and importance of the musicians and their personal/professional aspirations in this process?

The Trab el-Bidhân: a crossroads of nomadic desert culture

Trab el-Bidhân (literally, ‘the land of the white’) is the local name given to the most western part of the Sahara desert, a region traditionally inhabited by nomadic camel herders from Arab, Berber, and sub-Saharan descents. This territory, currently fragmented into several nations, had its north border towards the wad (dry river) Draa, in present-day southern Morocco, and towards the south it extended to the Senegal river, encompassing present-day Western Sahara, Mauritania, the western corner of Algeria and parts of Mali, as well as bordering to the west with the Atlantic ocean. Despite the clearly racial connotations of the word ‘white’, which is closely associated with their Arab-Berber heritage, the Bidhân population is a crossroads culture born out of centuries of trade (including the trade of slaves from Senegal and other surrounding countries), Arab conquests, battles and alliances. All of this contributed to the creation of a complex social system based on qabîlas – groups self-identified as belonging to the same patrilineal lineage (eg Rgaybat or Tekna), although also including all sorts of strategic alliances – and strong family ties. Over the years, this fluid social organisation provoked the assimilation of the black slaves coming from the south into their mostly Arab-Berber families and their way of life, consequently changing the meaning of the word Bidhân into a cultural/religious/language signifier instead of a racial one. However, despite the fact that slavery was officially abolished in the 1970s-80s, racial tensions can still be observed in the area.
The Bidhân culture is characterised by desert nomadism, pastoralism, the speaking of hassâniya (which is around 70% Arabic and 30% Berber), and a strong sense of belonging and connection to the landscape. This is reflected over and over in their rich oral traditions, through which they documented aspects of their daily life and their nomadic travels, as well as preserved their collective historical moments. Passed on from generation to generation, stories, fables, poems and songs that are shared have been an essential part of this society for centuries, the sharing often taking place around the tea ceremonies. A long and sacred social event, the Bidhân tea ceremony is formed of three rounds—the first tea is bitter as life, the second one is sweet as love, and the third one is soft as death. Being a good tea maker often requires years of experience, as well as witty and often poetic conversation skills.
Before the beginning of the colonial rule in the area at the end of the 19th century, mainly by France and Spain, the majority of the Bidhân lived in nomadic camps known as fargân (sg frig) that they moved throughout the territory, usually following the rain and the green pastures to feed their camel herds, and the trans-Saharan trade routes. Women performed important social roles, such as family educators and managers of their encampments. They had freedom to choose their husbands and enjoyed respect from their families, being integral to cultural and spiritual transmission as in other Bedouin societies such as their fellow Sahara nomads, the Tuareg. Because men were often away with their animals or fighting in the inter-qabîla wars throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Bidhân women were also in charge of hospitality towards guests, another key aspect of their culture. Welcoming guests and the returning warriors, together with weddings and other life-cycle ceremonies, were also important occasions for the performance of poetry and music.

Hereditary musicians and oral historians: the iggâwen

In some areas in the south of Trab el-Bidhân where the land is more productive than in the agrestic north, by the 17th century a few qabîlas had settled and had formed independent emirates that had their own court musicians, the iggâwen. Closely linked to other West African ‘griot’ cultures further south of the Sahara – eg Soninke, Fulbe, Sonrai, Wolof, or Bamana, among others – the iggâwen are hereditary musicians and story-tellers that, through poems, proverbs and songs, narrate and document the lives, events, victories, and travels of their associated qabîla, becoming, in the process, important oral historians and geographers in their own right. They were, however, usually considered at the bottom of the Bidhân society together with the specialised artisans or ma’lemin and just above the slaves, and considerably below the shorfa (warriors and people of knowledge believed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammed) and the znaga (the Berber tributaries). These social categories, although still present in people’s minds, have been fragmented in contemporary Bidhân societies.

Man playing tidinit, SW Algeria 2012 / Violeta Ruano

The traditional instruments the iggâwen normally used to accompany their vocal performances are the tidinit (a four strings plucked lute exclusively played by men), the ardin (a six to twelve strings harp played by women), the tbal (a kettledrum played by both men and women), and occasionally the rattle drum daghumma. These instruments are still used today in musical performance, in some cases accompanied by modern ones such as the guitar and the keyboard. The most characteristic musical practice of the iggâwen is el-hawl, traditionally known as the perfect marriage between music and poetry. Usually featuring long and intricate poems, the musical part of el-hawl follows a specialised system called the azawaan. This consists of a cycle of instrumental pieces – known as bhor ( ‘seas’, sg bhâr) – with an underlying unity of style that combine modal structures drawing from the Arab tradition with rhythmic patterns related to those of West Africa. The main bhor are kar (mostly dedicated to praise, whether religious or not), fâghu (the mode of epic poems), senima (which in some iggâwen families is divided into two separate modes, lakhal and lebiad) and lebteit (usually for nostalgic poems about love and the landscape).
In some cases, the iggâwen families would travel around the Trab el-Bidhân territory, including the most northern region, performing at a great diversity of events in the different nomadic camps they found along the way. In these occasions, the musicians would perform family praise songs in exchange for shelter and goods such as sugar, tea, meat or milk, as well as other traditional repertoires such as the thaydin (epic stories) or the adlal (poems about the landscape), among others. Some of these iggâwen would also accompany and inspire warriors to go into battle, afterwards using their talents to sing the victories and defeats of their patrons.

The tbal drum / Violeta Ruano

Vocal and drum music in the nomadic camps

Nevertheless, in many parts of the Bidhân land it was customary that in the encampments where there were no permanent iggâwen, the nomads would perform music of their own to celebrate special occasions in a style simply known as musiqa tagledia (traditional music) or lashwâr (literally ‘verses’; sg shor), usually accompanied by the tbal drum (occasionally also the neifara cane flute). The lashwâr repertoire consisted of short simple repetitive call-and-response verses about a myriad of topics – joy, sorrow, love, spirituality, praising or mockery of a family, landscape, animals, natural elements such as the rain (crucial for the desert nomads), etc – usually performed at weddings, naming days, for the welcoming of guests, and in the celebration of daily communal production activities known as twiza. These production activities included shepherding, sawing of tents, seeding, harvesting – when the nomads managed to stay in a fixed place long enough to develop agriculture – and, near the coast, fishing. Nowadays, this type of music can still be found in some of the remaining nomadic camps in the area, although it has been gradually disappearing throughout the years.
Nevertheless, this style of music is still widely used in Mauritania, Western Sahara and other Bidhân regions for the performance of the medeh (praise). The medeh consists of religious and spiritual chants in honour of the Prophet Muhammed, usually performed on Thursday or Friday nights and during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The medeh is performed by groups of women – the medahat – that usually sit informally in a semicircle, clapping, singing, dancing and making characteristic ululations (zgarit) and other vocal expressions. In many parts of the Trab el-Bidhân, particularly in Mauritania, the medeh is closely associated with different families of black freed slaves or haratin. They always perform accompanied by the sound of different-sized drums, and start the performances with a praise for Allah, which in most cases is the first statement of the shahada, or ‘the testimony’ by which a person declares their belief in Islam.

Musicians at a wedding in Nouadhibou, Mauritania 2015 / Violeta Ruano

Mauritania: innovation within the tradition

During its colonial rule from the end of the 19th century and until Mauritania’s independence in 1960, the French attempted to build the first modern cities in the country – such as the capital Nouakchott, the fishing harbour of Nouadhibou in the north coast or Zuerat, next to the iron mines in the northern desert region – with the aim of exploiting its natural resources. Nevertheless, when Mauritania won its independence, over 60% of all Mauritanians were still nomads, and Nouakchott was home to only 500 people. Six decades later, less than 5% of Mauritanians remain nomads, and the population of Nouakchott has reached around one million people, most of whom have been fleeing a constant series of droughts that have devastated the inside of the country since the 1960s. This rapid sedentarisation has had dramatic economic and social consequences, and have also deeply affected the form, content and context of Mauritanian music. In Mauritania today, most of the local music scene is still associated with weddings and other social events, that feature a diversity of styles.
Nevertheless, in many of these performance settings it has become desirable for musicians to play louder in order to attract larger audiences and therefore earn greater pay. A consequence has been the use of electrified instruments and sound systems to animate dancing. In addition, non-iggâwen artists may become professional musicians as well, in what is a departure from traditional nomadic social system.
One of the main innovations in the way Mauritanian music has been performed throughout the past decades is that the tidinit has been almost entirely replaced by the electric guitar. Nevertheless, the guitar has somehow become an indigenised instrument in this country (as in many other African countries). Many musicians have resisted the conventional playing techniques of the guitar, such as the use of chords, and have modified their instruments in order to replicate the capabilities of the tidinit, in some cases adding frets (and in others, completely removing them) to enable the articulation of microtonal pitches belonging to the traditional azawaan modes for the performance of hawl-styled music. This was the case of the late guitarist and tidinit player Khalifa Ould Eide, the husband of famous

Dimi Mint Abba / Robin Denselow

Mauritanian singer and ardin player Dimi Mint Abba. Together, this musical and real-life couple – each coming from a long lineage of hereditary musicians – have attempted to modernise the performance of traditional iggâwen music.
Apart from the use of the guitar, another innovation introduced in Mauritanian iggâwen music has been the use of new themes in the lyrics in hassâniya that incorporate some of the more recent socio-political changes. For example, Dimi Mint Abba, probably the most influential Mauritanian musician of the past 50 years, became famous among her people after she won the gold prize at a Tunisian festival dedicated to the Egyptian diva Umm Khalzum in 1977 with her song sout al-fan (‘The voice of the artist’), which depicted the figure of the musician as being more important than the warrior, thus undermining traditional conceptions of the iggâwen as low-class. Dimi, who learnt to sing and play the ardin from an early age from her mother Mounina Mint Eida, continued to explore and expand the unique crossover between Arabic and African influences present in Mauritanian music, bringing it for the first time to an international audience through touring with her husband and their two international albums – the 1990 Moorish Music from Mauritania (World Circuit) and the 1992 Music and Songs from Mauritania (Auvidis Ethnic).
As pointed out in the introduction to this article, this attempt to innovate within the tradition and take Mauritanian music to the international arena is the strategy recently adopted by Noura Mint Seymali, Dimi’s stepdaughter, who also learned to sing and play the ardin directly from listening to and playing with Dimi and Mounina, thus keeping the tradition of the oral cultural transmission very much alive. Noura, however, has gone even further by fusing the music traditionally sung by her family with rock, blues and other Western styles. Even though the stories told in the lyrics – as well as most of the vocalisations – may be similar to the ones performed by other singers in Mauritania, and have allowed these songs to live on and flourish, she has given a new twist to the music. Also in the musical company of her husband, guitarist Jeiche Ould Chinghaly, Noura formed her first band in 2004, releasing two local albums in 2006 and 2010. Since then, they have been touring internationally, as well as performing in local weddings, and in radio shows, festivals, and other events. They have also released two EPs and an international album, Tzenni (2014, Glitterbeat).

A view of one of the five Saharawi refugee camps / Violeta Ruano

Western Sahara: resistance music from exile

The contemporary history of Western Sahara differs widely from that of Mauritania. At the end of the 19th century, the north western part of the Trab el-Bidhân was colonised by Spain, as opposed to all the other colonies in the region that were under French administration. In the 1960s, despite UN calls for the decolonisation of the territory, Spain turned its colony into a province, hoping thereby to take advantage of the newly found phosphate reserves in the north. Following the anticolonial climate of the whole region at the time, in May 1973 a group of local students founded the Polisario Front, a militarised liberation movement for Western Sahara. A year later, Spain started to yield to the local pressure and UN’s demands to organise a referendum on self-determination. However, in the autumn of 1975 the colonial administration signed a secret treaty with Morocco and Mauritania to split up the territory among the two countries, therefore continuing the exploitation of its natural resources while putting aside the issue of independence.

Mariem Hassan singing and playing tbal, Africa Oyé Festival, Liverpool 2011 / Violeta Ruano


The Moroccan-Mauritanian invasion of the territory was harsh on the local population, and forced half of them to go into exile and seek refuge in their neighbouring Algeria, where they established the Saharawi refugee camps and proclaimed the foundation of the SADR (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic), a nation formed in exile under the supervision of the Polisario Front. War broke out between the two invaders and the Saharawi freedom fighters. The hostilities forced Mauritania to retreat and recognise the Saharawi republic in 1979. In 1991, a UN-mediated ceasefire put an end to the armed conflict and planted the hope of a self-determination referendum that would allow the refugees to return home. Nonetheless, 25 years later, this referendum has yet to take place.
Anticolonial spirit, exile, war and refuge have been the main ingredients for the creation and development of a unique Saharawi resistance musical tradition in exile within the overall Bidhân oral culture. It was called el-nidal (struggle), and featured a mixture of azawaan modes broken down into songs (instead of a cycle), short revolutionary verses in hassâniya praising the new republic, its people and its freedom fighters, and the gradual incorporation of Western instruments such as the electric guitar and keyboard and influences such as rock, blues and more recently rap. The biggest exponent of Saharawi nidal music during the war years was the Saharawi national band Shaheed El Uali, named after the founder of the Polisario Front El Uali Mustapha Sayed after he had died in the battlefield in 1976.
One of the most recognisable voices in Shaheed El Uali was the singer Mariem Hassan, who had started singing influenced by her musical family in the Saharawi city of Smara during the Spanish colonial rule, and who had joined a group of musicians who had supported the Polisario in the early years of the revolution. Once in the refugee camps, she became well known for her commitment to dedicate her whole musical career to singing for the revolution. This did not change even when she moved to Spain in the 2000s to work for Spanish world music label Nubenegra, and when she became a famous cultural ambassador of her people and struggle, releasing numerous albums (eg Shouka, 2009, and Al Aaiun Egdat, 2012) and taking the Saharawi plight as far as possible through international touring, while cherishing her Bidhân cultural roots onstage by incorporating traditional dances, vocal techniques and playing the tbal drum in her performances.

Aziza Brahim in concert with her tbal /Photo from Aziza Brahim’s press kit


In a similar way, singer and tbal player Aziza Brahim, who was born in the Saharawi refugee camps at the beginning of exile and who studied for a few years in Cuba before moving to Spain in 2000, has also dedicated her entire musical career to sing for the Saharawi people and their ongoing revolution. Aziza learnt music and poetry orally from her mother – an accomplished traditional and revolutionary singer – and grandmother – Saharawi poetess Lkhadra Mabruk, who documented the Saharawi war through her poems. At home, the young singer was encouraged to play the tbal, learn stories and sing medeh praises and lashwâr verses by listening to them from a very early age. After settling in Spain, Aziza has been continuously developing her musical style, absorbing and combining any influences that have come her way. She has fused her Saharawi nomadic roots with styles as diverse as jazz, rock, Spanish popular music, Afro-Latin rhythms and the blues, and has toured internationally with her band Gulili Mankoo and on her own. She composes her own lyrics and music, adapting the melodies that she imagines to the subjects she wants to highlight, not really interested in retaining the purity of her oral traditions but in developing them. Aziza has already released three albums, Mabruk (2012), dedicated to her grandmother and has incorporated some of her musicalised poems, Soutak (2014), and Abbar El Hamada (2016), all of them dealing with contemporary themes within the Saharawi struggle and, more broadly, within the struggles of all refugees around the world.
From poems to songs, from proverbs to stories, oral traditions from the Trab el-Bidhân region in north-west Africa have evolved and have been transmitted and developed over the years, nonetheless they have retained their essence as crucial tools to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values, and collective memories of their existence and historical events. Nowadays, both Mauritanian and Saharawi musicians and storytellers play a key role in keeping their cultures alive and well, despite the harshness of life in the desert, having adapted to the circumstances of a rapidly globalised world by easily incorporating new musical influences and instruments into their own music, as we have seen through the examples of both Mauritanian Noura Mint Seymali and Saharawi Aziza Brahim. Indeed, the flexibility of oral traditions with respect to written ones has been key for this process, in which, contrary to popular belief, individual cultures are not swept away, but grow stronger, instead, becoming relevant signifiers for their own societies, as well as important and positive presentation cards for the outside world.

From poems to songs, from proverbs to stories, oral traditions from the Trab el-Bidhân region in north-west Africa have evolved and have been transmitted and developed over the years, nonetheless they have retained their essence as crucial tools to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values, and collective memories of their existence and historical events.…

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