Saturday, 11 April 2009

Hip Hop in Nouakchott

From the archives ... a snapshot of hip hop in Mauritania, written in 2005.

Nouakchott, Mauritania, January 2005. Another dusty evening. On our way to a gig we get pulled over. Not that surprising – there were police at this junction permanently, stopping cars for whatever reason they thought fit. It wasn’t the car’s European passengers they were interested in. It was the driver, a young black man. The black community in Mauritania are to a large extent segregated from the Moorish ruling caste; they have few privileges in this nation where slavery was abolished, on paper, in 1981. Our driver, the police said, was contravening the law by acting as a taxi when not licensed to do so; in other words, by giving us a lift. They took away his driving permit and told him to pick it up the next day, with a fine. He returned to the car disgruntled but seemingly unsurprised.

The gig was the weekly hip hop jam, held every Friday evening in the Nouakchott ‘Maison des Jeunes’ or youth club. The door was run by soldiers; they took our ticket money, gave us our tickets and went back to controlling the crowd milling around outside. Inside it was incredibly hot. The building was evidently an old theatre and it still had its raked rows of seats leading down to the stage. The seats were all occupied and the crowd spilled out into the aisles and around the back of the hall. They were mostly young, male and female in equal proportions, and black, although standing next to me was one elderly Moor with a walking stick. At the foot of the stage was a sound system and video clips were projected onto the walls: the American hip hop pantheon, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, Tupac.

The weekly jam provides an opportunity for a variety of musical goings-on. We saw a performance by a band called Walfadriji, who mix Mbalax and traditional Moorish music with their own brand of ‘Afro-Peul’ (the Peul, also known as Fulani, being one of the prominent West African ethnic groups). This was followed by a film interviewing Nouakchott rap crew Diam Min Tekki (who feature on the compilation reviewed below) and a series of performances by young local rappers, each of whom did one piece over a backing track of his choice, to generally thunderous applause. The event ended suddenly on the stroke of midnight, half-way through the last song; perhaps, I thought as I found myself suddenly swamped by a tidal wave of flying limbs, this was something to do with the soldiers.

On the strength of this evening I tracked down a copy of the only (to my knowledge) compilation of Mauritanian hip hop, a cassette put together by Nouakchott’s 994 Crew and entitled ‘L’art de la RIM’ – ‘RIM’ signifying both ‘rhyme’ and ‘Republique Islamique de Mauritanie’. It’s a collaborative work which, the sleeve notes say, aims to show the country’s African neighbours that the Mauritanian hip hop scene is active. Production and arrangement was the responsibility of Tom Select and Selecta Mani2; various rappers contribute vocal performances, which are partly in French and partly in Hassaniya, the local Arabic dialect, with occasional snatches of English. The beats and overall production are stylish: although the percussion sounds and synths are simple and sometimes seem maybe a little dated, they’re nonetheless imaginatively put together, with some well-chosen samples and heavy basslines. There’s a definite reggae flavour in the background of many of the pieces, notably the squelching ‘Diogg Jengou’, in which Senegal’s acclaimed Pee Froiss put in a guest appearance, and ‘Musicam’, which borrows the melody of Sister Nancy’s 1982 dancehall smash ‘Bam Bam’. The debt in this direction is rather more evident than that to traditional local music, although a kora-sounding sample makes an appearance on one occasion. ‘Amergua Guana’, meanwhile, is driven by a sparse but effective combination of accordion and melodica. There’s a softer, more R’n’B feel to pieces like ‘Mbeuguel’ and ‘Si Tu Savais’ but generally the sound is bouncy and gritty. Interspersed with the tunes are a variety of film samples and radio clips and overall the cassette adds up to an interesting and varied mix. Not being a Hassaniya speaker, a fair amount of the lyrical content escapes me, but I can say that the rappers’ flow is universally tight without being rigid.

For Amadou, the young enthusiast who introduced me to Mauritanian hip hop, its appeal is clear: rappers always tell the truth, he says – in contrast to other more established forms of communication. Six months after I left Mauritania a military coup – the fourth such attempted in only a couple of years – toppled the long-standing ruler Maaoya Ould Taya. The junta replacing him stated that their intention was ‘to create the appropriate circumstances for an open and transparent democracy’ and promised to hold elections in two years. I don’t know what effect, if any, this might have on Mauritania’s black community but I do know I’ll be trying to get hold of more Mauritanian hip hop to find out.

Here's a clip of Sene*Rim. Diogg Jengou is featured on the African Hip Hop and Dancehall Minimix.

(There's some more info about this tape here. The promised election did indeed take place, in March 2007.)