Don’t Touch this Instrument | Aesthetics & Uses of the Hassaniya Music

كتابةمعازف - يونيو/حزيران 10, 2018

Original article by Haikel Hazgui | 07/07/2016
Translated by Farah Zahra

It is a shame for men to play the ardin, a type of harp played in Mauritania. Likewise, it is unacceptable for women to play the tidinit (also known as the xalam), a traditional type of lute. In other words, women can only play the ardin, while men the tidinit. The two instruments are widely played in Mauritania where the Hassaniya music is practiced. That form of music is called Hassaniya after the long-time political rulers, the Arab tribes of Beni Hassan, of north-west Africa where they settled since the fifteenth century. The Arab tribes of Beni Hassan could only spread their influence over the region after defeating the Almoravid dynasty in Morocco.

The tidinit is made of an oval-shaped wooden body and a long neck with four strings. Its soundbox is covered with cowhide. The origin of the name tidinit is believed to be Sanhaji, a Berber dialect. Men who play the tinidit are called, in Al-Hassaniya dialect,  Ikawun. The instrument is played by women in other parts of north-west Africa except for Mauritania. Women, on the other hand, have monopoly over the ardin whose drum-like soundbox is made of calabash covered with cowhide. The thirteen strings made of horsehair are fixed to the instrument’s wooden drum and to the side of a long wooden neck. Unlike other neighboring countries, in Mauritania women are the ones who play the ardin. The puffy soundbox of the ardin reminds us of a women’s beauty standard in Mauritania where women are expected to eat excessively in order to gain weight so that they can get ready for marriage. Women are even sent to fitness boot camps where they are fed. Ardins are even kind of personified by their decoration with henna designs and other dyes.

The gendering of these two instruments in Mauritania reflects the distinctiveness of the country vis-à-vis its entourage. Mauritanian cultural fabric is made up of an amalgam of sub-cultures: the Berber Sanhaja, the Arab tribes of Beni Hassan, and the Andalusian Arabs. The rich musical heritage of Mauritania is also expressed through the many names it is referred to. Many musical concepts and instruments have two names: in Sanhaja dialect and the Hassaniya dialect. Traditional music of Mauritania is often called “Beydanes music”. It refers to the Beydanes region stretching from Darʻa valley to the Senegal river, home of Sanhaja, Arab and Andalusian populations.

It is also called tidinit music after its main instruments, the tidinit that plays all the maqam refers to the musical modes in Arabic music of that music. Others call it azwan, a compound Sanhaja term meaning ‘poetry-speech’. The most common name is the Hassaniya music. Many scholars, such as Muhammad Wuld Ahzana, prefers the name tidinit as it relates to the central instrument of the musical culture. According to Ahnaza, tidinit is “the most musically sophisticated instrument in terms of its ability to play all the modes and the major twenty-four pitches of the music.” From the article 'Al-musiqa al-Hassaniya he Hassaniya, Musiqa al-tidinit: malamih al-bunya wa-al-dalalah al-wadhifiyyah' (Mauritanian Music-The tidinit Music: its Structures & Function), issue 21, Majallat al-thaqafa al-sha'biyah. The video below shows a musical performance of the tidinit and the ardin in a traditional setting.

In addition to these two instruments, there are a few percussion instruments that accompany the ardin and the tidinit, such as the tabla, the widespread drum in Africa and of Zang origins. The function of the tabla drum is largely social as it is used to announce war and to warn against dangers. Unlike the ardin (video below) and the tidinit, the table drum is played by both men and women. For some, it is also the most important instrument in Mauritanian music given its vital social role.

In his book Sahra’ al-‘arab al-Kubra (Arabs’ Great Desert), scholar Muhammad Saʻid al-Qashat describes the tabla drum as being: “the pride of the tribe, sign of its power, the tent of the tribe’s leader is the tent of tabla. The drum is the war banner for the tribe whose drum is taken away is considered defeated. It is humiliated, disgraced. There is a special strumming of the tabla in wartime and another in peace. One strumming pattern when caravans arrive and one as they leave. Tabla drums are played by one drummer, a close companion of the tribe’s leader who is also called the griot’ In West Africa, a griot acts as the repository of the oral tradition.. In celebration ceremonies, the wife of the vocalist is the one who plays the tabla. Tabla drums are made of camel hide attached to a wooden frame by a rope.

Despite the central social and musical roles of the tabla, it is not the only percussion instrument used in Mauritania. The kadra for instance accompanies dance. It is a round-shaped pottery vase covered with cowhide. Small tree branches are used for stroking. The word kadra is derived from Arabic and is called after the women’s dance also known as kadra (video below). The dance form is still widespread among Bedouins as it invites communal participation in singing and dance and expresses the rich poetic and musical heritage born in the desert. There are also other instruments, namely the nifara and the qasiba, a type of   flute widely used by Bedouins. Bedouin shepherds play a special flute instrument called zuzaya that could emit range of sounds similar to those of camels and horses.

The Hassaniya Music as a Family Tradition

The Hassaniya music is largely practiced as family tradition and it is transmitted from father to son and mother to daughter within one family. Therefore, one can say that the Hassaniya music is more of a family heritage than anything else. It takes different forms and fulfills different functions following each family genealogy and kinship. Some families for instance are specialized in the praise of prophet Muhammad, some excel in playing the tidinit and the ardin, while other families are good at poetry singing. In other words, understanding the Hassaniya musical tradition means following the lineage and traditions of Mauritanian families—namely following the Al-Midah family prophetic praise, the Inkizi family vocal legacy and the Al-Biban family instrumental virtuosity.

Take for example Sedom wuld Injerto (d. 1812) who is considered the pioneer of the Hassaniya poetry. He was born and raised in east Mauritania and lived for almost a hundred years in the period between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. He was both a poet and a tidinit player. He also introduced new pitches to the traditional music. Sedom wuld Injerto belongs to Beydanes tribes The Arabo-Berber population in Mauritania and it is believed that his family has carried his poetic and music legacy until this day.

The Abba Family

The Abba family whose lineage goes back to Sedom wuld Injerto is one of the most important musical families in Mauritania. Among the most famous family musicians is Dimi Mint Abba whose father has composed the Mauritanian national anthem. Her mother is Maninah Mint Aydah who is the daughter of another musical family. It is Dimi’s mother who taught her how to play the tabla and the ardin. Dimi also studied with Aisha Mint Al-Baban and Fatima Mint ‘Aw as she was starting her musical career with her husband who was also a vocalist and composer of his most celebrated song Rishat Al-fann (The roots of Art) that earned her the golden medal at the Um Kulthum Musical festival in Tunisia in 1977. The couple’s kids were also musically talented. As for Dimi, she remained the star in her family. She and Sedom wuld Ayda (from the Sedom Ayda musical family) formed an exceptional duo. They sang poetry in standard Arabic and in Hassaniya dialect.

In the video below, we can see the traditional musical setting: the man (the father) plays the tidinit, the women (Dimi and her mother) play the ardin, while Fairuz accompanied by her husband, plays the tabla. Dimi sings the poem Araka ‘asiyya al-dam‘i A classical Arabic poem by Abu Firas al-Hamadani (d. 968). We can also notice the presence of an electric guitar that has been introduced to Mauritanian music a few decades ago.

Dimi collaborated with the Syrian compose Farid Hasan while he was serving as a psychology professor in Mauritania. Speaking of her, the Syrian composer said: “Dimi was superbly smart. She was also open to Arabic music. She had memorized many Um Kulthum songs that she performed with great talent.” That testimony is the result of a long and valuable collaboration between the two of them.  The song Kerseek ya aghlana (video below) is just one fruit of their work together. The lyrics of the song included Syrian terms that were well received among Mauritanian audiences. Dimi also shows an exceptional ability to modulate between Arabic maqams and vocal ranges.

Al-Meidah Family

Al-Meidah family is descendent of the Manu tribe in southern Mauritania. It was given the nickname Al-Meidah (lit. the one who praises) because it is famous for its praise of prophet Muhammad. Al-Meidah family has greatly contributed to the Hassaniya musical tradition. Among its famous vocalists are Al-Mukhtar wuld Al-Meidah, Malouma Mint El Meidah and Ahmad wuld Al-Meidah.

Al-Mukhtar wuld Al-Meidah (in video below) is son of two musical families: his father is Muhammad wuld Ali wuld Aʻmur wuld Manu nicknamed Al-Meidah, and his mother is the ardin player Maninah Mint al-Biban. Al-Mukhtar is most famous for his praise of the prophet chants and he is known for being a talented tidanet player, a skill he learned from his maternal uncles. Given that the Hassaniya music is passed from one generation to another within families, Al-Mukhtar was successful in transmitting the tradition to his daughter Malouma Mint Al-Meidah whose mother is also a member of another musical family, Al-Biban family.  Malouma dropped out of school when she was a child only to focus on learning the musical tradition, the art of maqam, and the ardin instrument.

Malouma’s debut was with her sisters who attempted to modernize the Hassaniya music by introducing new melodies and lyrics, such is the song Habibi Habbytu in 1988 (I’m in love with my lover, video below). She was nicknamed “the singer of the poor” and was later elected to the Senate of Mauritania in 2007. Malouma’s aunt, Al-Mahjubah mint Ahmad wuld Al-Meidah (video below) was also known for her musical innovation. For instance, she was open to the Levantine musical tradition as she collaborated with the Syrian composer Farid Hasan whose compositions for Dimi Mint Abba have influenced and contributed to the Hassaniya music.

The Inkzi Family

The Inkzi family is from Southern Mauritania. The musicians of the Inkzi family, namely Muhammad Abd Al-Rahman wuld Inkzi and his wife Aisha Mint Muhammad Ali (video below), are known for their exceptional vocal talent and style that includes scat singing similar to that of the Blues.

The origins of the Inkzis’ scat singing is not an imitation of the Blues. Scat singing as a vocal style is African in origin, as famous Malian vocalist Ali Farka Touré shows. In other words, that vocal style is the raw material of that land. Along these lines, Touré had once expressed his relationship with the Blues: “journalists always ask me the same questions. They want to know everything about the Blues. I tell them the word “Blues” doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t know what that is. All I know is my African [musical] tradition.”

Al-Diba and Mint Al-Nana Family

Al-Nana family resides in Mauritania’s eastern basin. The family’s fame caught fire upon the release of the song Iqbil Al-Dahmis Binti that the family ensemble performed in Libya in the seventies and was broadcasted on the Libyan TV (video below). The ensemble was compromised of the late  instrumentalist Al-Dbayya mint Asweed-buh, her daughters, the main vocalist Huriyya mint Al-Nana and her siblings including her brother who was playing the guitar that had been newly introduced to the Hassaniya music. The song was composed by Al-Dbayya who was appears to be playing the rabab behind her daughters.

Huriyya playing the electric guitar was a shock at the time. It was regarded as an audacious act by a woman who is expected to play the ardin or the tabla. The introduction of the electric guitar was one the contributions of Al-Nana family to the Hassaniya music. The family of musicians continuously challenged the traditional form of the Hassaniya musical styles and instruments. By that, they also challenged the traditional griots, social leaders acting as the repository of the West African oral traditions. The family contribution reached its peak when the moved to the capital Nouakchott that was witnessing a political turmoil and cultural change. The family’s innovative musical project was also subject to harsh criticism.

The Vocal Range of the Hassaniya Music

Mauritanian musical culture is divided across social class lines; meaning each social class is specialized in a form or style of singing and instruments. In the Beydanes society for instance, instrument makers are artisans who are less socially esteemed than the class of musicians and singers, known as Ikawn. As for Bedouins communities, they assign the task of dance to the lower working class.

Dividing musical labor according to social class is also evident through the prophetic praise genre that is performed by the Harratins, oasis-dwellers in the western desert. Harratins differ from the Ikwan class who had confronted with religious clerics and scholars over the appropriate ways of performing prophetic praise.

The prophetic praise genre is the fusion of two traditions: the Arab-Islamic culture and Mauritania’s Zanj folkloric heritage. Besides traditional Islamic themes such as eulogizing the prophet’s character and celebrating political and religious victories, Mauritanian prophetic praise is also full of references to liberation from slavery and slaves’ right to earn their living. These two interlocking themes bring to mind the character of Bilal al-Habashi (580-640 AD), the black slave who was freed after accepting Islam and was chosen to be the first muezzin in Islam by prophet Muhammad himself. Bilal was known for his beautiful voice and his mastery of tanbur, a long-necked string instrument, so much so that he was nicknamed “the father of tanburs”. As mentioned by the Yemeni scholar Nizar Muhammad Abdu Ghanim who investigated the close connection between the tradition of tarab (classical Arabic music genre) and the Zanjs. The statement appears in his article in the journal Al-Saqafa Al-Sha‘biyyah.

It is hard to know exactly when prophetic praise has become popular in Mauritania. The scholar Muhammad Amin wuld Ibrahim argues that the genre was first practiced by non-Arab populations residing in now-Mauritanian and Mali given the presence of non-Arab words in the prophetic praise lyrics, such as the work asaki referring to the reign of the Asakiya, the rulers of the Songhai Empire that dominated the western Sahel in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries. Muhammad Amin also adds that “prophetic praise was performed by former slaves to whom it was orally transmitted by the educated class. That mode of teaching was very effective in passing down prophetic teachings and the pillars of Islamic faith”.

The rivalry between the Harratins class and the Ikwan was based on the former group’s mastery and performance of the prophetic praise within the religious scholars and clerics circles who were at odds with the Ikwan. During the the Almoravid dynasty, the Beber Muslim dynasty centered in Morocco in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, musical instruments were destroyed and singing banned. The Libyan scholar Muhammad Saʻid al-Qashat (in his book Arabs’ Great Desert, p. 242) narrates that Bedouin musicians did not give up on music. They rather invented a new instrument to accompany their prophetic praise, an instrument they called Al-din (lit. religion). To avoid any confrontation with the ruling class, they also called singing al-hawl, referring to the hereafter.  These tricks show that Bedouins are profoundly attached to singing, music, and to their nightly musical gatherings under the tent where they sing, recite poetry, narrate epics and dance.

Linguistic Structure of the Hassaniya Music

The Hassaniya musical modes are characterized by color-tied names reflecting the region specific rich cultural and ethnic heritage. In his article Al-Musiqa Al-Muritaniyyah (Mauritanian Music) published on the website of the Ministry of traditional culture and artisana, Al-Salik wuld Muhammad Mustafa observes that “the aspect of Mauritanian music tied to natural-skin colors is not a coincidence. It is rather the product of a lucid culture based on the honesty and sincerity with oneself, with other and with nature.” In his statement, the author refers to the social historian Al-Mukhtar wuld Hamid’s words: “behind each sub-musical repertoire, there are different mode and melodies. Each mode has three styles (turuq)”.

The color-based characteristic of the Hussaniya maqam or azhura (mode in the Hussaniya dialect) is expressed through three styles:

Al-baydha tariqa—the white style: referring to white Arabs and their style;
Al-kahla style—the black style: referring to blacks and their style;
Al-kunaydi style: refers to the mix between black and white in the Hussaniya dialect.

Each style has five modes each corresponding to a folk poetry meter, namely kar, fagho, al-kihal, al-biyadh, al-libtit among others. Kar and al-biyadh for example are used with the Hassaniya and standard Arabic poetic meters of al-kamil and al-wafir. As for the fagho mode, it is mainly used for excitement during wartime and wedding ceremonies, and it accompanies one Hassaniya poetic meter. Al-kihal is used to express nostalgia and yearning and it accompanies one Hassaniya poetic meter and all standard Arabic poetic meters. Finally, al-libtit is associated with sorrow and complex shades of feelings and it is used with two Hassaniya poetic meters and all standard Arabic poetry meters.

The relationship between poetic meters and musical modes demonstrates the organic connection between the Hassaniya music and the Hassaniya poetry. Furthermore, we must bring to attention that ‘poetry’ in the Hassaniya dialect is called laghn. The word for poet ‘l-mghani’ is derived from the same root letter of laghn. The linguistic underpinnings of the Hassaniya music share significant characteristics with its Arabic musical culture of the Arabian peninsula where music is heavily influenced by the rich heritage of poetry, its meters, and its themes. Finally, we must note that the language-based character of Arabic music is not unprecedented for some musical cultures express that characteristic—unlike Western classical music for example that is largely tonal in nature.

The geographic composition of Mauritania whose territories are ninety percent desert is another factor contributing to the affinity between the Hassaniya music and Arabi music. The scholar Al-dud Muhammad Muhammaduna contends that the desert calls for desert-inspired rhythms. Take for example, “the camel rhythm, the horse rhythm, the rhythm of tent pegs when setting up a tent”. In Arabic language, poetic meters are also directly inspired from the natural environment in which they emerge.

Historically speaking, the parallels between the Hussaniya poetry and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry are remarkable. When settling in Mauritania and by the Senegal river banks, the Arab Hassaniya tribes brought along with them their Bedouin culture, their love for camels, their mastery of poetry and of martial arts. After all the greatest Hassaniya poet, Sedom wuld Injertu, was celebrated as the father of Hassaniya poetry. Sedom mastered the various Hassaniya poetic meters and enriched the Hassaniya music with musical modes of Al-biyad and Al-kehal as he also introduced advancements to the traditional tidinit. Moreover, Sedom reconciled poetic meters with musical modes played on the tidinit.

The continuity of the Hassaniya musical tradition can still be heard. Listening to the Hassaniya music brings to mind sceneries of a desert landscape interrupted by sounds of the griot and the poet Imru’ al-Qays al-Kindi 6th century pre-Islamic Arabic poet reciting eloquent poems following the sanajik rhythm. Listening to the Hassaniya music carries us to a vast, dry, distant land.

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