Mauritania’s music scene has been most heavily influenced by the Moors—the country’s predominant ethnic group. The name of Mauritania’s professional musical caste is the iggawen, or griots. Typically, these musicians have resided among the lower rungs of the Moorish social ladder, but make up an important social and cultural part of society. Music serves to praise warriors and patrons as well as to spread news from village to village.
Traditional Mauritanian instruments include: an hourglass-shaped lute with four-strings called a tidinit, which is typically played by men; the women’s harp-like, ten- to fourteen-stringed ardin; a tbal, or large kettle drum played by women to warn men in the field in times of danger; and a daghumma rattle made from a hollowed-out gourd.
There are three different ways to play music in the Mauritanian tradition, according to Moorish culture: the white way, the black way, and the mixed or “spotted” way. The white way, or Al-bayda, represents a more delicate and refined sound, and comes from the Moors of North Africa. Al-kahla, or the black way, is generally more masculine and rootsy, and comes from the Moors of the sub-Saharan region. The mixed or “spotted” way, l’-gnaydiya, falls somewhere in between. All music is based on this sophisticated and rather rigid modal system derived from Arab musical theory—though female musicians, while rarer in Mauritania, do not have to conform to the same rules.
While female musicians are rare, two prominent modern Mauritanian musicians happen to be women. Dimi Mint Abba, who passed away last June, was one of the first singers to tour the English-speaking world throughout the mid-1980s. Malouma, a revered social activist who also sits in the Mauritanian senate, is an ardin-playing chanteuse who does not obey Moorish musical structures or social norms and sings in the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic.