An insight into what a progressive Mauritania could sound like, whilst still paying homage to the country’s beautiful musical traditions.
Though I’m aware of the dangers of ranking different nations' or regions' music, as each musical style from across the world serves its own unique purpose, and as such Balkan music can neither be inherently better or worse than Latin music per se. Nevertheless, I cannot help but acknowledge that there is a part of the world that plays host to the music I’ve slowly found myself claiming might just be my favourite – the Maghreb. Time after time, I am recommended albums from the region that seem to grow on me on every occasion that I listen to them and by this stage I just feel utterly enamoured by the music culture of what was once known as the Barbary Coast. Albums such as Algerian raï-rock extraordinaire Rachid Taha’s Je suis africain, Libya’s luminary of funk Ahmed Fakroun’s Awedny and Sahrawi superstar Aziza Brahim’s Soutak are all mainstays in the ever-growing list of my most beloved records of all time. When I was first recommended Nour I rather naively saw the album cover which features an image of a side profile of Malouma wearing a Melahfa (women’s clothing typical of Northwest Africa) and immediately assumed that the album would sound much like the aforementioned Soutak due to its similar album artwork. This somewhat ignorant cognitive bias initially left me disappointed as I was comparing two albums that were actually not that alike despite the geographical proximity of the two artists’ respective birthplaces.
“The very fact that she includes blues music, which originates from the rhythms of Black African enslaved people shipped over to America, is almost poetry in itself when one considers her dismay at the fact that her own country has failed to seriously enough address the issues of slavery...”
Whilst both Brahim and Malouma mix the new with the old, they do so using different styles, with Malouma’s music being a great deal bluesier, in a way that is not too dissimilar to Moroccan artist Majid Bekkas’ African Gnaoua Blues. Malouma’s music has always been rather revolutionary in both its lyrics but also its style. This might come as a surprise when one considers that the nation’s culture has been fused together by Arab, Berber, and Black African people groups and yet, once upon a time, the notion of bringing about a mixture of these groups’ musical styles into one was quite literally unheard of. It is believed that Malouma was the first from her nation to create music using both the tidinit (a four stringed boat-shaped lute that is traditional to Mauritania) alongside blues guitar music, which she was exposed to by her father. Coming from an immensely musical family, with her grandfather being a renowned tidinit player, Malouma clearly garnered an understanding of the beauty of both traditional musical styles from a young age, and began to learn the ardin, a type of Mauritanian kora used by female griots.
Perhaps on some subconscious level Malouma’s penchant for fusion comes from her political ideology that is built primarily on the notion of equality. Although Malouma could have had an easy life enjoying being part of the Arab-Mauritanian ruling class, which to this day still sees dominance over the vast Afro-Mauritanian communities in brutal forms including slavery, she instead became somewhat of a pariah by using her music to speak out about such injustices. The very fact that she includes blues music, which originates from the rhythms of Black African enslaved people shipped over to America, is almost poetry in itself when one considers her dismay at the fact that her own country has failed to seriously enough address the issues of slavery. Though listening to the album it is important to not be too clouded by the respect and admiration one might have for the artist as an individual, it is fair to say that Malouma is a brave individual to use her music as a platform to speak out on issues, such as women’s rights, that might upset the status quo in such a conservative country.
Malouma suffered the consequences of making protest music deemed inimical by those in charge, with significant action being taken to censor her, as she was banned from TV and radio for a decade. Yet, her persistence was worthwhile, as in the same year as Nour was released, she was elected to office in the country’s first democratic elections. However, the sad reality is that Malouma’s time as a senator did not last long as after the coup d’état the following year, she was not only deposed but also arrested, and had thousands of her recordings seized. This makes the proliferation of her work online, even reaching me in Portugal where I first heard it, one that is both commendable and important as Malouma is not fighting for no reason. When she may struggle to rely on her compatriots to change things in her homeland, for various understandable reasons, if her music is heard outside of the country it falls upon the international communities to gain awareness of the injustices of many aspects of Mauritanian governance, and to put pressure upon them to make meaningful change.
The genius of this album is that Malouma is not just holding out an olive branch to her Afro-Mauritanian cousins to let them know she feels their pain, but she uses a range of musical styles that those in the West are more familiar with. By striking a balance between ear-catching melodies native to the Maghreb and infusing them with genres more popular in the Western world, this is certainly an album that, if nothing else, captures the attention of its listeners. The opening song Khayala is a great introduction to the overall tone of the album, with its call-and-response vocals and great electric guitar riffs that rock without ever being an overly in-your-face. There are a series of traditional blues-rock fusion numbers like this such as Nedine and Gamly, though ironically I would argue that I was somewhat more impressed when Malouma stepped out of her wheelhouse.
There are some really lovely softer tracks such as Yemma, Nnew, and Habib in which Malouma’s mellow voice greats almost a lullaby-esque quality. However, for me her vocals really shine when she sings more passionately, as deep down Malouma is clearly a rock star, which is apparent through her fearless approach to fighting the establishment. One just has to hear the energy on Lemra to get a sense of this. I love how she sounds on Chtib and she is innately soulful on the title track, Nour, which I just adore. Though I can’t pretend that this is my favourite album musically from the region, I do nevertheless enjoy most of it. If you just want a taste of the album to get a sense of Malouma’s artistic ambition then check out Casablanca. This reggae-fusion track was the one I was most taken aback by, partially for its inventiveness but also for its quality. Overall, though enjoyment of Malouma’s music would, I imagine, go up tenfold were I to understand the lyrics, I would say that it is still a good listen nonetheless, giving outsiders a flavour of what the griot’s vision of Mauritania might sound like.