Vinyl LP, Cassette
Many countries, even the most impoverished, normally have some means to distribute their homegrown music more widely: a recording industry, local television, or national radio. Not so in Mauritania, an Islamic republic in the northwestern part of Africa. Mauritania’s unique indigenous sound, centered in the nation’s capital of Nouakchott—a coastal city that, unlike the rest of the country, occasionally sees some rain—has been seldom recorded, much less heard in any international capacity. Wallahi Le Zein!, a compilation curated by ethnomusicologist Matthew Lavoie, originally released in 2010 on CD and now reissued by Mississippi Records, is an important document of Mauritanian music, meticulously crafted to paint an accurate picture of the region.
The music of Mauritania, once primarily performed in the context of worship, underwent a rapid transformation following the country’s independence from French colonial rule and subsequent urbanization, becoming more for the people and able to be performed by anyone. The domestic tidinitt (a lute-type instrument) was electrified before eventually being usurped by the more ubiquitous electric guitar so that the music could be amplified in public spaces. Guitars were modified to suit the needs of musicians, with frets added or removed for ease of replicating the tidinitt’s microtonal capabilities. But there was also an embrace of the possibilities of a new instrument. Distortion pedals and phase shifters saw heavy use, resulting in a psychedelic tinge that would distinguish modern Mauritanian music from the old. The music propagated by way of live performance, showing up at political rallies, weddings, and even birthday gatherings.
Lavoie initially tried to get some Mauritanian musicians into the studio to document the local sound. While the resulting recordings accurately portrayed the structure of the style rooted in Azawane—a type of Arabic classical music that operates in one of five sets of distinct scales—he felt that the essence of the music wasn’t coming through. Another approach was necessary. Seeking to give proper context to its nature as communal music, Lavoie networked to find locally sourced recordings: souvenirs from parties, live events, and whatever else he could get his hands on. Throughout the record’s 28 tracks, you hear partygoers singing along and cheering as musicians respond to the crowd, speeding up and slowing down according to the energy they’re receiving. On the opening song “Banjey & Medh,” one song fades into another while idle chatter is picked up in-between. The music is liquid, flowing along the path of least resistance, whenever it needs to go.
Through thoughtful curation and a respect for Mauritania’s history, Wallahi Le Zein! captures the jagged edge of a musical tradition soaked through with heavy distortion, but also something equally important: the spirit of the people for whom the music exists.