Mohamed ould Hembara, 1958-2023

If you have found your way to this blog you likely share my conviction that the most interesting--not to mention talented--artists aren't always the most renown. The arbitrary enthusiasms of the global marketing machine ignore many great artists. This remains particularly true throughout Africa. Which is how the passing, in September 2023, of one of the Sahara's most talented and popular contemporary artists drew no attention outside of the Mauritanian press.

Mohamed ould Hembara was born in 1958 in Néma, the capital of the Hodh ech Chargui region.  Néma is the end of the road, where the ‘route de l’espoir’ running east from Nouakchott runs into the sand, closer to Bamako than to Nouakchott, and as the pigeon flies, closer to Tombouctou as well.  The region is home to the families most reknown for their mastery of the tidinitt; the Ehel Bowba Jiddou, the Ehel Bacha, the Ehel Dendenni, and the Ehel Ahmed Zeidan.  Mohamed was born into one of these dynasties.   

His father Badi ould Hembara was a talented tidinitt player and his mother, Leila mint Eide, from one of the great musical families of the Tagant region.  Leila passed away when Mohamed was a young child (6 or 7).  Soon after, he started primary school and began to learn the tidinitt, going to classes in the morning and practicing with his father in the afternoons.  Badi, despite his remarrying, to Hamal mint Dendenni (featured on this Ocora release), remained close to Mohamed throughout his formative years.  This relationship, more than any other shaped Mohamed’s personality and musical knowledge.  (In this 2020 interview, the only other person he mentions as having influenced his musical development is his maternal great-uncle Ely ould Eide.)  By his early teens, Mohamed was performing regularly with Badi, accompanying him to weddings and invitations in and around Néma.  He made his national debut in the early 1970s during a celebration, broadcast on the radio, welcoming President Mokhtar ould Daddah to Néma.

By this time, Mohamed had left school to devote himself entirely to music, travelling regularly with his father.  They would leave Néma for weeks, performing in Nouakchott, the administrative capital, in Nouadhibou, a commercial port and the economic capital of Mauritania, and Zouerate, the centre of the country’s iron mining industry.  Mohamed would return from these trips with money and an expanded social network.  And from one such trip, in 1973, with an acoustic guitar, purchased in Nouakchott, after seeing Seddoum and Khalife ould Eide play the instrument.  Mohamed would teach himself the guitar, transposing the tidinitt repertoire to the six strings, and develop his own muscular style, alternating fluid melodic runs with syncopated bass riffs.  

His father Badi ould Hembara passed away in 1982 and soon after Mohamed moved to Nouakchott.  His arrival in the capital city would have a decisive impact on the evolution of bidan music.  The 1980s were a transformative decade for both Nouakchott and bidan music, with the evolution of the capital city impacting both the performance context and the style of bidan music.  

Starting in the mid-1970s, a period of extreme drought destroyed Mauritania’s pastoral economy, destabilizing the fragile ecosystem that supported the livelihoods of most of the population.  Hundreds of thousands of destitute nomadic families abandoned their peripatetic lifestyles to settle in Nouakchott; between 1977 and 1988 the city’s population tripled, growing from 130,000 to 390,000.  These rural migrants created a new urban culture, one shaped by the values of nomadic life and steeped in nostalgia for the endless horizon of the Sahara Desert, its dunes, oases, rock formations, and dreamscape.  This nostalgia suffused the 1980s performances and live-to-cassette recordings of Dimi mint Abba, Seddoum ould Eide, and Khalife ould Eide.  

By the beginning of the 1990s, however, this sentimental longing for the nomadic lifestyle started to fade, with many residents of Nouakchott more interested in celebrating the greater opportunities of sedentary urban life.  Mohamed ould Hembara, with his powerful voice and rhythmic intensity, was one of the artists who developed a new style of bidan music that embodied this celebratory zeitgeist.  This style pulled away from the drifting melodic reveries of Dimi, Seddoum, and Khalife, and emphasized rhythmic development, pushing audiences to dance as much as listen.  This style has remained the most popular performance style of bidan music.  

When I moved to Nouakchott in 2002, Mohamed ould Hembara was one of the most in-demand singers in the country, one of a small group of artists with national reputations that transcended regional affinity or tribal affiliation.  He was also the ‘star’ performer who remained most accessible to all Nouakchott audiences, performing for street weddings in poorer peripheral neighbourhoods as well as for the extravagant banquets of Mauritania’s political and economic elites.  His low international profile is a result of Mohamed's reluctance, despite his many opportunities, to travel abroad.  Although he performed in Mali, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Morocco, Spain, and France, he preferred to return home every night to his Nouakchott neighborhood.  Mohamed remained more interested in sharing an evening of tea and cards with close friends from Néma than in performing for international festival audiences.  Committed to his faith, he would regularly call the faithful to morning prayer at his local mosque and spoke publicly of his ambition to become its imam. 

Despite the rise in popularity of a new generation of artists, Mohamed remained in great demand through the last decade of his life.  In his late fifties, fully established as an icon, Mauritanian media also started to recognize Mohamed’s mastery of the tidinitt and his deep knowledge of its repertoire, regularly featuring his artistry on television and radio programs.  He continued to perform through the spring of 2023. 
When Mohamed ould Hembara’s health deteriorated, in the late summer of 2023, he was brought to Morocco for treatment.  He passed away in Rabat on September 9, 2023.  He left behind four children--two of whom have established themselves as recognized artists, his eldest daughter Selmane and her sister Lemina--a broad network of aggrieved friends and musical collaborators, and two generations of fans.  

These five recordings illustrate the breadth and depth of Mohamed’s talents.  


First, a cassette of solo tidinitt.  As he says in the introduction, ‘an evening of nothing but traditional songs.’  This is the music that his father Badi taught him, the deep musical well from which he drew throughout his career.  Mohamed learned to master all three jamba, or tunings, of the tidinitt repertoire, the beydhakahla, and gnaydiya.  Unfortunately, Mohamed doesn’t announce the date in his introduction.  There are a half-dozen cassettes of Mohamed performing solo on tidinitt that are circulating, this is my favourite of the bunch.  

Download Mohamed ould Hembara - Tidinitt

This next cassette is entitled ‘Mouna’ and was recorded on August 3, 1993, in Dakhla at the invitation of Gouaya mint Nana ould Ahmeida.  It features Mohamed on guitar and Cheikh ould Badou (father of Jeich ould Badou) on electric tidinitt. This performance highlights Mohamed’s powerful voice and kinetic guitar playing.  Cheikh ould Badou’s lays down a few wezin (instrumentals) as well. 

Download Mohamed ould Hembara & Cheikh ould Badou - Mouna

Frustratingly, this next cassette doesn’t include a spoken introduction.  Either Mohamed forgot or the introduction has been cut from the recording.  This recording features Mohamed performing with Kumbane mint Ely Warakane.  He plays guitar and Kumbane the ardin.  This cassette is another example of how good a guitar player Mohamed was.  Over the last fifteen years of his career Mohamed rarely performed on guitar, selecting younger players to accompany him so he could focus on singing. 

Download Mohamed ould Hembara & Kumbane mint Ely Warakane

Mohamed’s voice was trained—the legend is that his father would hit him with a stick while he sang—for the intense demands of t’heydinnepraise songs celebrating the courage of renown emirs and warriors.  In contemporary bidan performances these verses are sung at a key moment during the wedding celebration, as the bride and groom enter the wedding reception.  This is always a moment of musical rapture, often with multiple singers singing as hard as they can.  This performance is the best recording of t’heydinne (often called beyt harb, the home of the warriors) I have.  It features Mohamed and Dimi mint Abba—they were first cousins, born the same year, their mothers were sisters—singing the praises of Henoune ould Bouceif,a legendary early 19th century warrior and emir of the Oulad M’barek tribe--the great warrior tribe of the eastern Hodh regions.  The intention is to establish a moral equivalence between the bridal couple and one of Mauritania’s most revered heroes. This performance also features some of Luleide ould Dendenni’s most feral guitar playing.  

This final recording features a 2018 performance by Mohamed and Ooleya mint Amartichitt, most probably accompanied by Lemrabott ould Engdhley, the best guitar player currently performing in Mauritania.  It is a good direct-from-PA recording, with a well-balanced mix and relatively few technical problems (there are a few faulty guitar-lead splats and wonky microphone dropouts).   

This post would not have been possible without the time, enthusiasm, and generous help of Selmane mint Hembara, Ahmed ould Barka, Bamba ould Talebna, Mohamed Fall ould Oumeir, and Siham mint Banana. 


  1. From Ramadan 2021 in silence to the end of Ramadan 2024 waiting...
    What a great satisfaction to find a post from Matthew, even if it comes with bad news.

    Thank you !

  2. Thank you for the informative post and wonderful music!

  3. Agree with Ngoni. Thank you for this post


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