Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Art of the Mauritanian Griots On Display at Fes Festival

Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane - Mauritania
The art of the Mauritanian griots

One day, the great Sufi master Lal Shahbaz Qalander was wandering in the desert with his companion, Baha ud-Din. It was winter and the night was cold, so they wanted to make a fire.  Baha ud-Din suggested to Lal Shahbaz that he should change himself into a falcon and go to fetch the fire of hell. So he flew away, but returned empty-handed. ‘There is no fire in hell', he said. 'Those who go there take their own fire and their own suffering from this world.’

The art of the Mauritanian griots is full of classical wisdom. An expression of Ghassanid culture, it is an extraordinary point of convergence between the Arabo-Berber world and the West African world. Like all traditional poetry, it is the fruit of revelation.

'... He was an unknown musician, under the Ulad Mbarak, who worked as a groom. Falling asleep under a tree, he dreamt that the Prophet Mohammed came to him and spat into his mouth. When he awoke, his throat was swollen and only singing could remedy it. From that moment, he had within him an infinite source of music and poetry which flowed abundantly without any effort on his part'. - Musique, Honneur et Plaisir au Sahara - Michel Guignard

In the poetry of the desert, water and trees become metaphors for a vision of paradise, the oasis is the desert incarnation of the bustân, the hidden garden that is a symbol of Arabo-Andalusian civilisation.

Mauritania remains the link between north Africa and black Africa. In 11th century Morocco, the Almoravid empire came to power and took Islam to new lands in the south.

Popular poetry is sung in hassaniyya, the local Arabic dialect, while classical poems such as the old qasîdas, a kind of epic poem, are sung in classical Arabic.

For some, the word that best describes the griot is iggiw, which would originally have been from the Wolof gêwel; for others, it's the Arabic îqa, meaning rhythm. But the most likely source is of Berber origin: iggiw (from awi and iwi) meaning to carry, to report or to improvise.

The Concert

There was a sense of joy about this performance from the moment that Mint Ely Warakane, her three backing singers and two male musicians walked onto the stage. The four women sat along a low banquette, positioning their mikes and the males, a drummer and a tidinit (Sudanese lute) player sat stage right.

The women were all thoroughly swathed in plasticky looking glazed fabric – Mint Ely Warakane in brown, the others in blue – and looked like they’d remain bone dry should this sunny afternoon turn foul. As the backing singers cuffs slipped back with vigorous clapping some serious bling such as crystal bracelets and thick gold rope was revealed.

As soon as the performance began, the audience forgot stoushes over seating and shared the mood set by Mint Ely Warakane’s gorgeous grin. Picking up her ardin (Moorish harp) patterned with geometric lines stained onto the large calabash, her hands gestured out toward the crowd in rhythmic clicking and twirling motions. The movements made were as intricate and precise as the henna art that adorned her hands.

"a illaha il Allah" Mint Ely Warakane's voice boomed, this proclamation of her Islamic faith ringing out across the crowd. Griots, otherwise known as storytellers, bards or lyrical diplomats, often begin their performance by praising God, before launching into a lyrical poem celebrating the prophet Muhammad. The chorus, consisting of her daughter Lemate mint Soukabe, and niece Yaghouta Ahmedou El-Meydah along with a fellow ardin player then joined in, enthusiastically responding to Mint Ely Warakane's powerful, slightly husky tone.

During the second piece, her hands rose in the air, and Mint Ely Warakane invited attendees to clap along with the music; a wonderfully involved moment that would continue throughout the afternoon. It was also during these moments that her natural gift of engagement, of meaningful connection and story-telling was highly evident.

Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane hails from long line of griots from Trarza in southwest Mauritania, and while she is not as well-known as other griots, all who experience her story-telling, instrumental skills and ability to connect with her crowd leave in an almost enlightened state. Her non-verbal gestures at once translate the Hassaniya (Arabic dialect of Mauritania) and Classical Arabic she recites, and break down barriers between those on stage and those in the crowd. Attendees at this afternoon's event were enveloped by her presence, and through this Mint Ely Warakane took the crowd on a musical journey of tradition, passion, religion and history.

She sang with a powerful earthy voice, gesturing with her hennaed hands, long nails lacquered, and only giving herself a pause from time to time to tune her instrument. All the women were absolute belters, singing from deep within. This as the roots of gospel or even a prototype of Diana Ross and the Supremes was an idea hard to shake.

Both Mint Ely Warakane and her tidinit player have a command over their instruments akin to that of a professional tennis player and their racquet --the ardin and tidinit appear an extension of the Self; no space or barrier exists between instrument and artist. The almost careless precision exhibited by the two was -at times- unbelievable; Mint Ely Warakane's fingers would absentmindedly flick over the 15 strings as if shoo-ing away a fly, yet produce a colorful melody which perfectly accompanied her lyrical conversation and powerful vocal assertions.

Anyone who thought a drummer needed a massive kit and a mane of rock God hair to put on a show should have seen Mint Ely Warakane's percussionist. Between producing a deep thud on the taut animal skin he could probably feel in his chest, he’d stand, twirl and be back on the ground by the next beat to do it again. Flailing an arm behind him was the cue for Warakane to bring her ardin within striking distance, expanding his drum kit to two -  but his act tenfold.

Frenzied clapping had some even elderly audience members propelling themselves off their seats. So the standing ovation and calls for encores was no surprise, it was a given.

This afternoon's griot concert took attendees on a narrative journey using lyrics, instruments and non-verbal communication, and imparted a small slice of Mauritanian culture and lyrical tradition. It was an enlightening, joyful, wonderful experience, enriched by the sparkling smile of Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane.

Fes Festival program
Fes Festival Medina Map
Fes Festival Food! 
Fes Festival Site

Text: Stephanie Clifford-Smith and Natasha Christov, additional material, Sandy McCutcheon
Photographs: Suzanna Clarke, Sandy McCutcheon

The View from Fez is an official Fes Festival Media Partner

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