The Unique Sounds of a Mauritanian Wedding
Our series Field Recordings debuts with a piece by Che Chen
I recorded a wedding just outside of Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. I traveled there briefly in the spring of 2013, compelled to go after hearing the compilation, Wallahi le Zein: Wezin, Jakwar and Guitar Boogie from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. I spent my days getting a crash course in the Moorish modal system and at night would often accompany my teacher, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, or his wife, the phenomenal singer, Noura Mint Seymali, to their gigs, which were always weddings. On this occasion, Jeiche was playing as part of a pickup band assembled by le grande chanteur, Mohamed Ould Hembara. I was taking guitar lessons from Jeiche, but that night he played tidinit — a fretless, banjo-like instrument known by many names in the region (ngoni in Mali and Niger, xalam in Senegal, and so forth).
Of all the weddings I went to in Mauritania, this one had the most intense music. Here, I know, the audio quality is sort of insane and blown-out sounding, but that’s actually what it sounded like in person. The distortion you hear on the vocals is from the PA overdriving the speakers, not my recorder clipping the signal. They had a huge sound system with a chain of speakers arranged in a loose circle around the wedding tent, with everything pushed into the red.
The piece starts with a typical free exposition of the mode before the rhythm drops. That’s Hembara singing, one of the elder statesmen of the Nouakchott scene and an incredibly charismatic performer. He’s the one in the photo above with the veiled dancer. Woman don’t typically cover their faces in Mauritania, but showing their hair is strictly taboo. They wear headscarves made out of sheer fabric that they are constantly adjusting as they move, but when the dancing becomes particularly vigorous they’ll often just throw their meleffa over their whole head so as not to fuss with it and focus on the more serious business of getting down. There’s some incredible tidinit and guitar playing, too, courtesy of Jeiche and a fantastic left-handed guitarist whose name I wish I knew.
Che Chen is a musician living in Brooklyn and Stonybrook, NY, where he works at a cancer diagnostics company. He plays guitar in 75 Dollar Bill, whose second album,WOOD/METAL/PLASTIC/PATTERN/RHYTHM/ROCK, was released on Thin Wrist Recordings earlier this summer.