Blurring Boundaries: Mauritanian Blues & The Music Of A Continent

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Where does Africa begin and where does it end? Geographically, I mean. Oftentimes, when people say "Africa," they mean "Africa south of the Sahara." That may be a useful shorthand in many contexts, but in musical terms, the Sahara desert has been a very permeable border and it makes more sense to talk about Africa tout court. Look no further than the astonishing desert-crossing Senegalese-Egyptian fusions of Youssou N'Dour and Thione Seck.

Africa's limits are called into question by the two records under review here, in different ways. All but one of the tracks on the peripatetic Rough Guide To World Music: Africa & Middle East, despite its title, are from the African continent (the exception is the late Ofra Haza's "Im Nin' Alu," in a different sounding remix from the hit version I remember from the 1980s). Perhaps the compilers mean the two wonderful tracks from Egypt to represent the Middle East, but what about the songs from Algeria or Morocco? And what of the marvelous Mauritanian blues of Malouma?


The music of Mauritania, like a lot of music from the northern reaches of Mali, the Western Sahara and Niger, doesn't quite fit in North Africa nor in sub-Saharan Africa, instead straddling both. Self-described desert blueswoman Malouma blurs the boundaries further with Nour, a new record that suggests that Africa might encompass the small French city of Angoulême. (Angoulême lies in the administrative region of Poitou-Charentes, whose regional president is unlucky presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, who was born in....Dakar, Senegal.) It was at the Festival Musiques Métisses in the aforementioned French city that Malouma encountered sound engineer Philippe Teissier du Cros, who recorded these remarkable tracks there with Malouma's formidable band, but also with a sprinkling of European jazz musicians.

The Franco-Mauritanian cross-fertilization on Nour gives the impression of substituting a cooler, more meditative groove in the studio for what is probably a pretty athletic workout in the bona fide desert setting. The musical mix—desert rhythms with electronic dance beats; brooding one moment, propulsive the next—while not altogether new, is hugely successful. Check out "Lemra," a tribute to Mauritanian women, for a strong dose of all these elements.

The "blueswoman" appellation will invite comparison to Ali Farka Touré. On two numbers here, Malouma creates a blues mélange worthy of the late Malian master. "Nnew" and "Yarab" sketch two versions of the blues, each starting with the plaintive notes of Malouma's ardin, the Mauritanian harp reserved for women, the latter giving way to Pierre Fruchard's deeply bluesy electric rhythm guitar.

Throughout, Malouma's throaty mezzo range brings real weight to themes commensurate with that weight: identity, women, migration, longing, faith.

Various Artists
The Rough Guide To World Music: Africa & Middle East
World Music Network

With this disc, Rough Guide issues a snapshot of the African continent to accompany a new edition of the book of the same name.

Compilations inevitably invite quibbling over choices. Why did the Rough Guide folks choose Etran Finatawa to represent guitar-toting Tourag/Kel Tamashek desert rock, rather than the more celebrated Tinariwen? Or Masanka Sanyaki and the Kasai Allstars instead of the better known and wildly improbable po-mo soukous of Konono No. 1? No matter, the chosen tracks sound great in both instances. If these and other selections stand in ably for a whole genre, others—Rhany's Moroccan salsa or Tony Allen's sui generis Nigerian funk—speak resolutely with the voice of an individual artist. Most important, there are no weak tracks.

How is the value of a compilation like this to be judged? Not by its success at somehow anthologizing the whole of Africa's musical experience, an impossible task. Listeners, in any case, don't build a collection out of collections, a record library wholly of various-artist discs. A disc like this is valuable if it leads the listener down worthwhile paths of exploration. Can all tracks by King Sunny Adé possibly sound as grand as the one included here, the listener asks? (Answer, in this case: Yes, yes they can).

By that standard, the Rough Guide compilation is a winner, offering plenty of good leads to explore individual artists' records. Malouma's disc, too, is a good place to start.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Khayala; Yemma; Nebine; Kentawiyate; Gamly; Nnew; Yarab; Habib; Chtib; Casablanca; Lemra; Nour.

Personnel: Malouma: vocals, ardin, compositions; Arafat Ould Meïdah: keyboards, backing vocals; Aly Ndao: guitar, backing vocals; Athié Mohamed Ekhtou: backing vocals; Medina Athié: backing vocals; Lamine Kane: drums; Ousmane Touré: bass; Ibrahima Fall: percussion; Marieme Gueye: backing vocals (9,12); Zghalina Mint Cheikhna: backing vocals (9,12); Bojan Z: Fender Rhodes, xénophone; Eric Legnini: piano; Pierre Fruchard: guitar; Emile Biayenda: percussion; Laurent Robin: drums; Smadj: programming, oud; Guillaume Humery: clarinet, keyboards; Loy Ehrlich: Gumbass.

The Rough Guide To World Music: Africa & Middle East

Personnel and Tracks: Gigi: Enoralehu; Tweak & Tony Allen: Leroy; Kékélé: Otage Ya Botingo; Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck: Lam Tooro; King Sunny Adé: Synchro Series - Synchro System; Mory Kanté: Mama; Oliver Mtukudzi: Neria; Amr Diab: Amarain; Masanka Sankayi And Kasai Allstars Featuring Mutumilayi (Congotronics): Wa Muluendu; Ofra Haza: Im Nin' Alu; Mahmoud Fadl With Salwa Abou Greisha: We Daret El Ayam; Rhany: Un Mot De Toi; Etran Finatawa: Surbajo; Mariem Hassan: Magat Milkitna Dulaa; Malik: Aiwa.


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