Musique Maure
Blues from the Desert

Musiciens mauritaniens
Photo : Mike Herting

Needs the history of pop music to be rewritten? One of its yet undiscovered sources is the music of Mauritania. The Goethe-Institut Senegal supported jazz pianist Mike Herting’s project to capture the musical heritage of Mauritania. His study entitled “Blues from the Desert” declares Musique Maure as the origin of blues and jazz.

Mike Herting first listened to music from Mauritania on a cassette tape in the 1980s. Although he understood neither the lyrics nor the music, the jazz pianist was immediately fascinated. All he knew about Mauritania was that seen from Germany, it lay somewhere in the desert beyond Morocco. Then, in 2008, the bandleader and arranger played at a festival in the south of Morocco, where some Mauritanian groups also performed. Once again, he was overwhelmed by the primeval force of this Musique Maure. It had a taste of wildness.

The beginning of a musical friendship

In early 2012, Herting was invited by the Goethe-Institut charged in Senegal and travelled to Mauritania for the first time on a residency fellowship to the capital city of Nouakchott. There, he met with Aly Ndao, the guitarist and manager of the singer and senator Malouma bint Meidah. He was invited to her house, her band was there and, after dinner, played for him and later with him. It was the beginning of a musical friendship as well as an extremely demanding undertaking: recording and transcribing the theory of Musique Maure using Western notation. Until then, the music had been handed down only orally and was at risk of falling into oblivion.

In the following years, Herting travelled to Nouakchott again and again. The Goethe-Institut Senegal supported his plans to capture the musical heritage of Mauritania. In the online publication “Blues from the Desert,” Herting explains the modes and main styles of Mauritian music as well as the special features of the instruments. The tidinit, for example, a four-string, lute- or guitar-like fretless instrument, is played exclusively by men. The ardine, on the other hand, a harp-like instrument with fourteen or more strings, is reserved for women.

Origin of today’s pop music

Through discussions with musicians and listening sessions lasting for days at a time, Herting discovered that Musique Maure is based on a sophisticated musical theory with a variety of scales and a microtonality of sixths, which was previously unknown. Its powerful vocals, rough and melismatic, is unique and yet akin to the blues, the true predecessor of all American and thus Western pop music. Direct references can also be made to jazz. So, it is quite possible that the history of pop music has to be rewritten. One of its yet undiscovered sources is Musique Maure.