Cheikh ould Abba, the nostalgic voice of the Taganit.

Despite the increased international profile of Beydane or Hassani music, with the attention generated by artists like Noura mint Seymali or Groupe Doueh over the last ten years, the deep cultural riches of this musical universe remain largely uknown beyond the shores of the Sahara.  There are several likely reasons for this.  First, the music of the beydane is what musicologists would classify art music, a sophisticated musical system that demands active listening and whose deepest subtleties (and truths) only unveil themselves to the initiated ear.  Second, there is virtually no corpus of commercially produced recordings that can be mined for reissues, which seem to be the primary points of entry into African musics for international audiences these last ten years (think Ethiopia, Benin, Guinea, Sudan, Somalia, Angola, Kenya, Ghana, Cape Verde).

As a result the international discography of beydane music can be divided into two groups, field recordings of 'traditional' music produced by mostly French record labels (a colonial legacy) and 'cross-over' releases meant to appeal to non-Mauritanian audiences.  I find the majority of the field recordings sterile and dry, lacking the intensity of the recordings of these same artists that are shared amongst music lovers in Mauritania.  Charles Duvelle, for example, recorded two of the greatest artists of the 1960s, Ahmedou ould Meidah and Sid Ahmed Bekaye ould Awa.  These Ocora (Prophet) releases are important historical documents but they don't have the force of the recordings both artists made for Radio Mauritania.  Most of the 'cross-over' releases are producer-driven experiments striving to create a new genre of hassani music that can 'break' into the international market.  This group of recordings starts with Dimi mint Abba's Moorish Music from Mauritania on World Circuit and includes the releases by Malouma mint Meidah, the Groupe Doueh recordings (there are some important differences between the beydane music of Mauritania and Southern Morocco), and Noura mint Seymali's releases on Glitterbeat.  [For what it is worth, my personal favorite release of field recordings is The Sounds of the West Sahara, Mauritania featuring the 1978 recordings made by Deben Bhattacharya, reissued on Arc Music.  And my favorite cross-over recording is Arbina, Noura mint Seymali's 2016 release; in my opinion the most fully realized album by a Mauritanian artist.] 

Absent from this internationally available discography are the dozens of artists who have transcended their patron-griot relationships and become musical icons throughout the beydane Sahara (a cultural-universe that includes the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, the Saharan provinces of Morocco, and the hassaniya-speaking populations of Mali and Algeria).  Foremost among these artists is Cheikh ould Abba, a master of the melancholic poetry of the beydane.

Cheikh ould Abba was born to Elva ould Abba and Garmi mint Zemal in 1935, in a nomadic encampment near the town of Rachid, in the Taganit province, located in the center of the country.  He grew up in a musical household, following in the footsteps of his older brother Sidaty ould Abba (Dimi mint Abba's father and the first 'star' of Radio Mauritania).  Cheikh was initiated into music by his parents and siblings.  In a 2003 interview, Sidaty told me about the deep impact their mother's singing had on him and his siblings.  Cheikh did not go to the colonial 'French school'.  He was educated into the art and calling of the iggawen, the griot.

His brother Sidaty moved to Nouakchott in 1972 and Cheikh soon followed.  They settled in adjacent houses in the Medina Abattoir neighborhood; a neighborhood that most long-term residents of Nouakchott refer to as 'Medina Sidaty'.  Soon after his arrival in Nouakchott, Cheikh started to record for the National Radio, where he was the first artist to record with the guitar.  Cheikh had a voice that was made for a microphone, he didn't have the explosive power, or range, of Sidaty or Ahmedou ould Meidah, but he had an a emotional intensity.  His voice was deeply moving.  He particularly influenced the music of Seddoum and Khalifa ould Eide, the two singers who, along with Dimi mint Abba, would dominate the beydane musical landscape during the 1980s and 1990s.

In Nouakchott, Cheikh surrounded himself with friends and patrons from the Taganit region.  He and his younger brother Seddoum (also a great artist) married two sisters, Cheikh married Biha Elezza mint Hemed Vall and Seddoum married Mint Didi mint Hemed Vall.  Cheikh and Biha Elezza had four daughters.  (Their daughter Moulla married Khalifa ould Eida and their daughter Sektou mint Khalifa today performs with Garmi mint Abba, Dimi's sister, and the youngest daughter of Sidaty ould Abba, Cheikh's oldest brother).  Cheikh became ill in the mid-1980s and passed away in 1985.  He recorded dozens of reels for Mauritanian national radio, but requested that they no longer be broadcast after his death.  Today dozens of his recordings, including both radio recordings and cassettes recorded for patrons, are treasured by lovers of Beydane music.

This post features a compilation of songs that Cheikh recorded for the national radio, most probably in the late 1970s.  They feature Cheikh solo, accompanying himself on the tidinitt or on the guitar.  This is melancholic, nostalgic music for late-night intimate listening.  I can remember returning home in the early hours of the morning and finding my neighbor's night watchman sitting under the stars on a raffia mat, stoking the coals under his teapot and listening to a cassette of Cheikh ould Abba. This music will forever be, for me, the sound of 3am on a moonless and starry night in Arafate, Nouakchott.

Download Cheikh ould Abba - Radio recordings

I particularly love the sixth track that features a poem by Dah ould Sid Elemine el Ahmed, a poet from Rachid who now lives in Kiffa.  Cheikh sings:

The breeze has carried away my cherished love
Her departure has me tied up, isolated from all other women
The breeze has determined my fate, 
Breeze, carry me away, take me where you will,
Carry me to my cherished love
I have become an aimless wanderer driven crazy 
by love and nostalgia  

Idoumha mint Cheikh ould Abba is the only one of Cheikh and Biha Elizza's four daughters who currently performs.  I have also included with this recording a beautiful duo that she recorded last year in Luanda, Angola (there is a large community of Mauritanian traders in Angola) with Sidi ould Seymali ould Hemed Vall (Nora mint Seymali's younger brother).  

Very special thanks to Bamba ould Talebna, a devotee of the art of Cheikh ould Abba, for his help!  All of the insights are his, all of the errors are mine.