Ehel Mbaba Dramé, griots du Tichitt-Macina

 My obsession with Mauritania and her musics started in the mid 1990s.  One of the first recordings I found was the 1978 LP of Cheikh Bacar Dramé.  This set of songs confused me.  The music was labelled folklore Bambara et Hassanya.  How was it possible to be both?  I didn't understand the relationship between the two.  My confusion was rooted in my ignorance of Saharan history.  Twenty years later, I am happy to be able to outline the evolution of this strand of Saharan music. 

The cultural universe of the Ehel Mbaba Dramé is rooted in the medieval Ghana Empire, the first Saharan empire to dominate the trans-Saharan trade in gold and salt.  The Empire of Ghana, with its capital at Kumbi Saleh, stretched across present-day southeastern Mauritania and western Mali.  The empire tied together the commercial centers of Ouadane, Tichit, and Oualata.  Azer, the lingua franca of  Ghana, embodied the dominant cultural matrix of the empire.  The language was a derivative of Soninké, integrating Berber vocabulary and expressions.  Azer is no longer spoken in the region.  The cultural matrix of the Ghana Empire, however, survives musically, most prominently in the repertoire of the Ehel Mbaba Dramé, in its integration of Soninké, Bambara, and, increasingly, Hassaniya (bīdān and haratine) melodies and styles. 

The story of the Ehel Mbaba Dramé starts with the patriarch Mbaba Dramé.  He left Nioro du Sahel and settled in Néma, a colonial trading post and administrative center in eastern Mauritania, 80 kms southwest of ancient Oualata.  Mbaba Dramé most likely arrived in Néma in the 1920s.  Soon after he settled, he married a woman from Néma.  Their first son, Mohammed, was born--again, most likely-in the late 1930s.  In the early 1940s, young Mohammed was sent by his father to Nioro du Sahel to live with Seyni Lassana, his paternal uncle; a griot who was close to Cheikh Ahmadou Hamahallah, one of francophone West Africa's most important Sufi leaders.  

Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé spent his formative years in Nioro studying the tidinit with his uncle, and playing in the shadow of Cheikh Hamahallah's zawiya with the cheikh's sonMouhamedou ould Cheikh Hamahallah, today known as Cheikh Bouyé Haidara (perhaps the most influential religious leader in contemporary Mali).  By the time Mauritania won her independence from France in 1960, Mohammed ould Mbaba was back in Néma and had wed a griotte from western Burkina Faso.  (They met through the intermediary of a mutual friend in the Cote D'Ivoire--there are strong ties between the Hamahallah communities in Nioro and in the Cote D'Ivoire.)  In 1968, the couple were blessed with their first son, Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé.   

In Néma, Mohammed started to teach his younger brother Bacar Cheikh Dramé to play the classic repertoire of Bambara and Fulani epics on the tidinit.  In the late 1970s, the brothers started to perform Jakwar,  the popular Mauritanian style of dance melodies, accompanied with percussion.  (Mauritanian audiences started calling the Ehel Baba Dramé dance songs Tegeré, from the Bambara verb to clap.)  Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé passed away in 2002.  

This cassette, recorded in May 1985, features Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé performing Bakari Dian, one of the classic epics from Ségou.  The poem tells the story of Bakary Sidiki Dangara Koné, a warrior in the service of Dah Monzon, the 19th century king who pushed the boundaries of the Bambara Empire.  Mohammed recites the epic in Hassaniya

Download Mohammed ould Mbaba Drame, Bakari Dian. 1985.    

Bacar Cheikh Dramé made his living as a long-haul truck driver, crisscrossing Mauritania with his rifle and tidinit at his side.  He was close to Messaoud ould Boulkheir, one of Néma's most celebrated sons and the first Mauritanian haratine to become minister.  Family legend has it that Bacar Cheikh's performance of Boara would bring Messaoud to tears.  Bacar Cheikh Dramé recorded a selection of songs for the national radio in 1978, perhaps thanks to the intercession of Messaoud.  These are the tracks the Sonodisc label released on LP.  Bacar Cheikh Dramé died in 1985, in Nouakchott.  

 Bacar Cheikh Dramé, 1978

Bacar Cheikh Dramé recorded this cassette in June 1982.  The fidelity isn't always the greatest, there are some dropouts, but the performances, in my opinion, are more interesting than those on the LP.  

Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé came to Nouakchott in 1985--to attend his uncle Bacar Cheikh's funeral--and settled in the capital city.  Baba had started to learn the tidinit with his father but, once in Nouakchott, quickly looked for a teacher outside the family.  He apprenticed with Cheikh ould Badou--father of Jeich ould Badou--learning the bīdān modal system.  (This system includes five modes Karr, Vaghu, Lekhal, Lebyadh, Lebteyt.  The repertoire of Mohammed and Bacar Cheikh ould Mbaba Dramé featured mostly melodies in Lekhal.)

Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé

With his expanded repertoire, Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé built a reputation as a dynamic and charismatic performer.  This success led to performance opportunities in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco.  Baba also successfully cultivated a network of powerful patrons, including two leaders who were close to his father and uncle, Messaoud ould Boulkheir and Cherif Bouyé Haidara.  

  Messaoud ould Boulkheir & Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé

Across the Sahel, recording performances on cassette boomboxes has been replaced by recording on cell phones.  Here are three pieces Baba recently recorded on his phone.  In the first selection, he encourages Mauritanians to celebrate their national identity, above and beyond their ethnic origins.  The second piece offers praise for Cheikh Bouyé Haidara and the final selection encourages Mauritanians to follow government guidelines to stop the spread of the Covid 19 coronavirus. 

This final cassette features an artist from the Dramé line of griots who stayed in Nioro, known as the Ehel Boujouda.  Tijani Dramé is a cousin of the Ehel Mbaba Dramé of Néma.  Interestingly, in this cassette his recitation is also in Hassaniya.  (The final selection at the end of the B side is particularly intense.) 

I hope you appreciate these four wonderful recordings of West African epic recitation.  All of these cassettes feature the strong, deep-throated, tidinit melodies typical of the Ehel Mbaba Dramé, patient storytelling, and intense vocal passages.  

This post is largely based on interviews with Baba ould Mohammed ould Mbaba Dramé.  These interviews would not have been possible without the enthusiasm, help, and support, of Siham mint Babana.  Many thanks to both of them.  



  1. That B Side of the first one, going into throat singing is outta this world, thanks very much

  2. I'm blown away to be listening to a griot epic being recited in Arabic! I've never heard of that before. Was that practice particular to Mohamed Ould Mbaba Dramé, or did others do this as well? (Or continue to do it?) Thanks as always for the great sounds and information!

    1. Hi Tim, This is the only recording of an epic in Hassania that I have heard. I think this recording is an outlier. For example, I don't think that Mohammed ould Mbaba's son recites epics in hassania. Thanks for your feedback.

  3. Very interested in the mysteries of this story, I have been looking for more information about the Dramé for a long time.

    It is very interesting to know about these families that originally come from a line of Great Marabouts established mainly among the Soninké (I remember some sources that speak of their arrival in Africa from Yemen), of Arab origin, but currently the Dramé are also griot families, in areas of Soninké, Kassonké, or Bambara fully integrated in their linguistic and social environment.

    It is very surprising to hear Mohammed Mbaba Dramé reciting Bakari Dian, although the melody is actually that of Dah Monzon's song, the song about the King of Segou, not the song in honor of his general.
    If we approach two of the old versions in the album " Le Mali des Steppes et des Savanes - Les Mandingues", we can read in the summary of the story, by Da Monzon a phrase about Segou wine, it is really very surprising that a follower of the Tidjanía, adopt the repertoire of the tradition of the Bamana people, called the non-believers, an animistic culture that almost disappeared due to the action of the OumarTall, a disciple of the Tidjanía.

    Truly the more I learn, the less I understand.

  4. It seems that this story ties in perfectly with this trip to Nioro.


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