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Jazz | Unheard music: Mauritanian guitar on a Chicago label
Mauritania's most famous and important musician, singer Dimi Mint Abba, died June 4 at age 52, but you probably didn't see an obituary. Even if you know where Mauritania is—in northwest Africa, between Morocco and Senegal—you probaby haven't heard any of its music. If you're a fan of so-called desert-rock bands like Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa, and Terakaft, though, you've heard something similar. The sound of Mauritanian griots, who are known as iggawen, is a hybrid of Berber, Tuareg, and sub-Saharan styles.
On Tue 6/21 Latitude Records, an imprint of Chicago's Locust Music, will release the double CD Wallahi le Zein!! Wezin, Jakwar and Guitar Boogie From the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Compiled by Matthew Lavoie, who runs the fantastic blog African Music Treasures for the Voice of America, the set is to my knowledge the first Mauritanian music commercially released in the States. As Lavoie explains in his in-depth liner notes, the country lacks a music industry, and what little Mauritanian music has already come out is on European labels. Most performances are at private events—parties, weddings, birthdays, baptisms—and whoever hires the musicians can record the music. These bootleg-quality live recordings often make their way to "standards," ramshackle stalls that duplicate tapes and sell them cheap; over the years Lavoie has bought more than 700 such cassettes in the capital city of Nouakchott, and it's from that collection that he's chosen the 28 searing guitar-driven cuts here.
Traditionally the main instrument of the country's two dominant ethnic groups, the Beydane and Haratine, was the tidinitt, an hourglass-shaped lute with four or five strings, but in the mid-70s the electric guitar took over. Most of the guitarists on Wallahi le Zein!!, each accompanied by a hand percussionist and sometimes a singer chanting poetry, play with truly nasty tones, and their music is heavily improvised, guided only by a set of five strictly ordered modes. The individual tracks all stay in one of these modes, but Lavoie has sequenced them according to the proper order the modes would follow in an evening-long performance. Terse, bluesy runs, vicious stabs, and tightly coiled solos cut through even the worst fidelity with a biting, brittle attack. If only all field recordings were this exciting. —Peter Margasak