Jeich Ould Chighaly and Noura Mint Seymali
Apologies for falling behind with this initiative so quickly. It has been an extremely busy period, and I was away from home for most of it. I will do my best to keep to weekly time frame down the road.
This is the fifth installment of the Democracy of Sound Project – an initiative begun by The Hum, as an attempt to use music as a means to combat the rise of racism and xenophobia, as well discrimination and bigotry of any kind – be that based on gender, culture, sexual orientation, social and economic position, or any other distinction. The project is a response to the terrifying spike in Right-Wing ideologies which currently cast a cloud across the globe. Much of this – particularity in the cases of the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit result, is a direct consequence of the promotion of fear, with the strategic use of racism and xenophobia, by the political class. This hatred is being sewn. It is the product of lies. It is anti-democratic – a means to divide us, and a vehicle for the worst among us to reach their aims – political authoritarianism, and economic supremacy. The project is an attempt to activate collective steps toward undermining this global rise in bigotry, and to see it for what it is. It is an effort in Direct Democracy – to recognize, offer space to, and promote the voices the Right-Wing seeks to silence or oppress – people of non-European cultural, ethnic, or religious background, heritage, or origin, women, queer people, and anyone else who might find themselves in their cross hairs.
The project is built from a very simple idea. Democracy is founded on mutual respect for the value of each member of a society. At its core, it is the belief that each individual has equal rights, and an equal value of voice and agency, when participating in decisions which effect the whole. Fear and hatred are mechanisms used to suppress the expression of free will or voice within a population – they deny the mutual respect and understanding that is necessary for democracy to function. We live in a global society. Whether apparent or not, we are all connected. The access that one person has to democracy, regardless of where they may be – within our own society or culture, or beyond it, effects the integrity of each respective democratic operation within which we participate. It is an application without borders. Though difficult to observe, the promotion of fear, racism, and xenophobia within one social body, toward the people of another, undermines access to democracy within both.
Because music acknowledges no borders – it travels freely, is a way for people to express themselves and speak to others, and has a long history of undermining racist and xenophobic operations, the Democracy of Sound Project departs from a simple belief in its political potential – in its ability to promote the core values at the heart of democracy – mutual respect and understanding. It is an offering of the wonders of the human spirit during these dark times – an optimistic effort to balm the negativity and anger we all feel. Rather than simply fight, it is an effort to build and rebuild the foundations from which democracy grows.
Every week, for the duration Trump’s presidency, and longer if necessary, I will post at least one piece of music – a video or sound file, made by someone, or a group of people from a culture, background, social position, religion, gender, or sexual orientation other than my own – which is effectively the same as that of the current president of the United States. Through music, I will champion the voices which Trump fears and hates, and wants others to fear and hate in his quest to destroy democracy – a simple attempt to offer access to them, and chip away at his ground. As I struggle to flood the world with song, with voices that deserve to be heard and understood, those equal to each of our own, I hope that each of you will share these posts, and make more of your own. That you will help and join me in this fight – that you make this project your own.
I explored the ideas at the root of the project at length in its first installment. If this is your first encounter with the effort, I hope you will take the time to read it.
Dimi Mint Abba and Party
This week, we turn our eye to one of my favorite musical traditions on the planet – that of Mauritania. Though I have been lucky enough to travel to the northern part of Africa, I have not dipped south enough to experience the country and its sounds first hand. Mauritania, which is officially called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, is a country few people think much about (if they know it exists at all). Because of it’s lack of economic power, and low incidence of Islamic extremism, the media has little reason to pay it much mind. It is located on the western side of North Africa – bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara, Algeria, Mali, and Senegal. 90% of its lands are desert (the Sahara). Culturally it has long been dominated by peoples who descend from nomadic Berber tribes, though its largest ethnic group are the Haratin, who are black and were brought from other parts of Africa as slaves – a practice which tragically still exists in the country today (adding a difficult paradox to this post).
Noura Mint Seymali, Jeich Ould Chighaly, & Seddoum Ehl Eida – House Concert, Timbuktu, Mali, 11 January 2012
The sounds of Mauritania extend from a long cross-cultural tradition of Griot music from North West Africa – elements of which are so old, stemming from so many diverse sources, that they are impossible to trace – the result of discourse among nomadic desert tribes over countless centuries. This music is a hybrid, built from a patchwork of hybrids – threads tracing back to the beginning of time, growing from ancient traditions of storytelling and narrative song. While part of the sprawling canon of Arabic music, it has roots far beyond. It extends predominantly from the Berber (often known as Moorish) culture. It’s musicians occupy the social lowest caste, called iggawin. They are traditionally employed to praise those whom they serve, as part of rites and celebrations, as well as historically holding the role of messengers – spreading news between camps and villages.
Mauritanian Wedding Rites (Maure), featuring Noura Mint Seymali & Jeich Ould Chighaly.
Though the musics of North Africa are among the dearest to my heart – specifically those from Mali, Morocco, Senegal, and Niger, for many years the music of Mauritania largely passed me by – scattered fragments, absorbed into a larger whole. It wasn’t until a few years ago, as I prepared to travel to Morocco, that I learned that one of my oldest and closest friends – Che Chen (of 75 Dollar Bill, etc) would be landing to the south at exactly the same time. We tried to find a way to connect, but failed. When he landed in Casablanca for his layover, I was lost in the Medina of Marrakesh. Che was heading to Mauritania – embarking on the study of the country’s musical structures and traditions, with one of its great masters – Jeich Ould Chighaly. Renowned locally for most of his life, Jeich has recently found wider fame for his collaborations with his wife Noura Mint Seymali. Noura’s music is legendary within Mauritania, and one of its few singers to reach the West. Her two recent albums on Glitterbeat have been met with wide critical acclaim. She is also the daughter of Dimi Mint Abba, arguably the most famous Mauritanian singer of all time, and Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, a composer who notably adapted the country’s national anthem.
Che Chen’s Guitar Being Refretted in Mauritania.
The Griot traditions of Mauritanian music generally center around the voice. Men usually play an adapted guitar (refretted in order to play Arabic modes), the tidinit, or percussion, while women traditionally play the ardin, which is similar to the kora. Structurally it progresses through five primary Arabic modes – karr, fagu (which are associated with masculinity), lakhal, labyad (which correspond to a period of one’s life or an emotion) and lebtyat (which is spiritual and relates to the afterlife), with further sub-modes. Nearly all male musicians conform to this system, while female musicians are not bound to them.
Though Mauritania music threads through all aspects of life, it is most recognizable within community and family events – often sprawling weddings drenched in sound and dance. When Che returned from his travels, he told me tales of the incredible weddings he had attended with Noura and Jeich – filling me with envy. He was kind enough to point me toward dozens of Youtube videos documenting similar events. I spent hours lost in their depths – desperate to grasp a fraction of what he had. I owe much of the content of this post to him.
Mauritanian culture is both ancient and complex. When viewed through The Democracy of Sound Project, it throws up many complex considerations. It is filled with beauty, while in the case of gross social inequity, racism, and the continued practice of slavery, it also carries some of the darkest sides of humanity. As far as I can tell, these evils are largely perpetrated by the ruling class, which across the county’s postcolonial period has generally defaulted toward authoritarianism. Given that most of us would rather not be viewed through the ethical lens of those who govern us, it seems fair to offer the same respect to the people of Mauritania – to view their culture and society at its best. There is no better place to begin with music. These wild, wonderful, ecstatic sounds, are easily some of the most exciting you will ever hear. Within this context, they are an important window into a largely unknown world. They break the membrane between strongly held notions in the West, and the truths of Africa and the Islamic world – offering the humanity of a people, free from whatever burdens might be applied. These weddings and their sounds are joyous celebrations of life – displays of the wonder, bearing the aching truths of how much so many of us have to learn.