Music of the Sahara
Cultural fusion in the Sahara
Descendants of the Bedouins Mâaquil, coming from Yemen in the seventeenth century and the Berbers then inhabiting the Sahara, the Sahrawis inherited this essentially oral culture that characterizes nomadic life. Their language, the hassanya, is the result of this fusion.
The hassanya comes from a linguistic mixture of the Bedouin dialect brought by the Banu Hassan one of the Beni Maâquil tribes, literal Arabic and zenaga, the Mauritanian Berber.
It covers an important geographical area, from the Algerian desert to northern Mali, from the Moroccan Sahara to Mauritania, to Senegal and northern Niger, and is used by a large number of Saharan nomads.
Despite the societal changes brought about by modernism, sedentarization and urban development, Hassan poetry persists. Young people always learn the 40 verses that are personal to them and that they must declaim at weddings or family celebrations.
The “Lagha”, popular poetry, inspires as much men as women, even if in this matriarchal society, women express themselves more in an exclusively feminine and secret poetry, the “Tabraa”, which is narrated only in their alcoves. If they content their daily lives there, the presence and male beauty are widely praised and sung.
The basis of Sahrawi culture, Hassani poetry has its roots as much in the Amazigh and Arabic languages as in the Mauritanian griots. These wandering poets have been roaming the Sahara from ancestral times, from nomadic camp to nomadic camp, to the Saquïa el Hamra and further to the Guelmin camel market.
Hassani poetry is particularly inspired by the daily life of the desert, tribal life often made of rivalries and tensions between clans or families.
The poets equally express their hopes and fears, the relationship between men and women, traditions, the gradual disappearance of nomadic life. Religious faith is also a source of inspiration with hadiths and Koranic verses serving as a basis for poems.
A changing sociocultural environment
Hassani poetry has never fallen into disuse, remaining a cultural need while sedentarization, if it inspires nostalgia for a bygone era, has changed the way of life of these populations with a millennial nomadic past.
Both cultural leaders and Sahrawi poets and musicians are aware of the fragility of this unique oral cultural heritage that should not be folklorized.
A codified musical poetry
Music and poetry have always been intimately linked in the Saharawi oral tradition, allowing a wider understanding and dissemination of poetry. In the 18th century Saddûn Wall N’Dartou associated “qasida”, a classical Arabic poetry comprising at least seven verses with a single rhyme, with a new musical style.
This includes two modes with important symbolic in the poetry they accompany and symptomatic of the cultural mixing already underway at that time.
Symbolic musical colours
“Janba Lbaïda”, the “white” way reveals the Arab origin of poetic compositions, it symbolizes a moment stretching from dawn to midday. Gentle and pleasant sensations, it is considered as a musical entertainment corresponding to the’Ghazal’, a lyrical song of Arab origin.
“Janda Lkahla”, the “black” way represents the African musical contribution. Corresponding to war and honour, it is better adapted to a movement varying from dusk to midnight. This path is supposed to release excitement and a sense of strength.
Another musical mode generally associated with nostalgia and sadness, “Labteït” symbolically covers the middle of the night until dawn. It is often used as a poetic epilogue in love songs and poems. These modes take different emotional colors opening on particular sound universes.
Poetic and musical harmony
Played in a strictly defined order, when the lute player begins his melody, the singer will instantly know which declamatory mode it is and will adapt their singing to musical variations always going from “black” to “white”.
The musical and poetic emotional colours must be in the same shades so that no dissonance intervenes in the interpretation. This type of song, called “Al Haoul” in Hassanya language, often evokes as much the fear felt towards the Saharan immensity as that of the solitude it inspires.
Like the poetry they accompany, the instruments used are also the fruit of a cultural crossbreeding between the Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa.
Two particular places were privileged by the Saharan instrumentalists: the region of Noun and Saquïa el Hamra.
On the banks of the Oued Noun, it was in Souk Amhayrich, the Saturday morning souk of Guelmim, that men and herds coming from Mauritania and Mali by caravan roads converged to exchange their goods after having travelled hundreds of kilometres through the desert.
The crossbreeding provoked is always visible, in particular among the Gangas of Borj Baïrouk, descendants of black slaves who play as well the African drum as the Berber bendir or the flute.
It is also from Noun that the “guedra”, famous Saharawi dance is native. As for Saquïa el Hamra, it has always been a rather mythical place of privileged destination of the “Iggaouen”, the stray griots coming from Mauritania.
Emblematic instrument of the music of the Sahara, the “tbal” is a semi-spherical percussion that can have a diameter of 80 cm. It was used indifferently in these two Saharan parts of Morocco.
The “Tidinite” is a four string lute reserved for men. This instrument, the resonance box of which is designed in a single piece of wood on which is stretched an un-tanned ox skin, is the privileged instrument of the Mauritanian griots and strongly reminds the “guembri” gnaoua.
The tidinite is mainly used in the Saquïa el Hamra like the transverse flute “Nifara” while in the Noun it is the oblique flute Zozaya which is played. The arched harp called Ardine, originally from Mauritania, is totally devoted to women.
Originally from Guelmim, more precisely from the shores of Oued Noun, between the Atlantic and Anti-Atlas, south of Agadir, this traditional dance tinged with Sufism owes its name to the terracotta tambourine that rhythms it, El Gudra.
It is to the regular rhythm of the guedra, struck with small sticks, that a woman performs alone a gestural choreography supposed to transmit positive energies to the spectators.
Veiled and draped, the dancer is kneeling, her eyes closed, her arms and hands decorated with henna begin this intense gesture, called “tadoui” which follows both the throbbing rhythm of the tambourine and the chorus of the men who surround her by beating the measure of their hands.
These collective songs called “hammayet” gradually reach a trance-like state. In complete osmosis with the songs and the tambourine, the dancer goes until exhaustion revealing all her spirituality and sensuality.
Tinged with a redemptive Sufism, the gadra takes its source in religious songs, reinforcing the faith of the actors and spectators by asking God’s blessing.
This art became, almost, mediatic
A social transformation is already underway. For cultural preservation purposes, rhyming and poetry competitions are televised on a regional channel in Laayoune.
This program held its bet, arousing a craze bringing back young Sahrawis cut off from their roots to reconnect with traditional poetry.
On the other hand, held as secret and intimately feminine, the “Tabra”, this poetry of women for women’s assemblies, begins to declaim itself on the airwaves, thus losing this intimacy and this status which was proper to her.
The electric organ takes power on the “Tibinit”, this traditional Sahrawi lute, in the musical and poetic scores.
The stamps are attracting more and more artists, who in the past put their talents at the service of the families to whom they were dedicated by singing their praises, hospitality and honour.
Guedra, like Hassani musical poetry, Anti-Atlas ahwach, and other traditional performances are often performed in large cultural gatherings or moussems.
In the great Moroccan south, some moussems are very famous, Assa, Tan Tan… generally, all the cities which were formerly great “ports” cosmopolitan caravanners having allowed this mixture of cultures.