Mauritania & Western Sahara
the ways of the moors
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania is where West Africa and the Maghreb meet-a huge, sparsely populated, country – stretching between Morocco and Senegal. Contrary to stereotypical descriptions that portray this chunk of the Western Sahara as being ‘the same as it was centuries ago’, Mauritania, has undergone profound demographic, social,political, and musical transformations over the last forty years. Most of the country is desert and a series of droughts (which started in the 1970s) dramatically changed virtually all aspects of Mauritanian society. In 1950 about seventy percent of the population were nomads, in 2005 only seven percent of the population remains so. Today over ninety percent of the population lives in or around cities,and the population of Nouakchott, the capital, has mushroomed form around 20,000 in the 1960s to more than a half-million today. Despite their recent urbanization Mauritanians have remained deeply attached to their rural roots and to their cultures, as Matthew Lavoie explains
lthough Mauritania’s population is small it is not ethnically or culturally homogenous. Mauritania’s name comesfrom its dominant ethnic group, the Moors (Maures in French), who can be divided into ‘white’ Bidans (who claim ancestry from north of the Sahara) and ‘black’ Haratins whose physical ancestry lies in sub-Saharan Africa; both groups speak Hassaniya (an Arabic dialect), and more or less share the same culture. It is the nomadic traditions and culture of the Moors that give present day Mauritania muchof its unique character. The Haratins were historically the vassals of the Bidans, though social status in Mauritania is considerably more than a question of skin colour. The Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof (collectively referred to as the ‘Afro-Mauritanians) are all distinct ethnic groups- with their own language, culture and musics- who for centuries have lived and farmed the fertile f loodplains ofthe Senegal River valley (on both sides of the Mauritania/Senegal border). Despite considerable cultural differences between the Moors and
the Afro-Mauritanians, all of Mauritania’s ethnic groups have similar hierarchical social systems, and all Mauritanians are Muslims. All Mauritanian music (the Afro-Mauritanian and the Moorish) can be roughly divided into ‘folk’ music and ‘classical’ music;the first category consists of lullabies, work songs, game songs, courting songs, and religious praise ‘songs’, and the second the musics of the griots. In virtually all of the hierarchical and highly stratified social systems of the West African Sahara and Sahel, specialized musical knowledge is the exclusive domain of the griots; musical professionals who inherit their musical knowledge andskills. Griots not only inherit these specialized skills but also, and more importantly, the exclusive right to make a living from these skills. The dominant ethnic group in the country, the music of the Moors is generally considered the most uniquely ‘Mauritanian’. And, in musical fact, the ‘classical’ music of the Moorish griots is the most representative of Mauritania’s diverse musical heritage; itis a unique synthesis of the north-Afri-
can Berber, nomadic Tuareg, and sub-Saharan Wolof, Pulaar, Soninke and Bambara musical cultures found in Mauritania. The griots of the Moors are called Iggawen. Traditionally the iggawen were attached to the ‘tents’ of Bidan warrior chiefs. The three principal Bidan warrior emirates (or tribal confederations) were located in the Hodh (easternMauritania), in central Mauritania (Taganit), and in the south-west Mauritania (Trarza/Brakna), and the majority of the iggawen come from these regions. In the pre-colonial era the iggawen would follow Bidan warriors on raids, extolling their bravery and encouraging them during battles. At other times the iggawen would, and still do, entertain their patrons with praise songs about the great deeds of their...
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