Songs of griots

Ensemble El-Moukhadrami

Griots have always held an important place in Mauritanian society, standing as it does at the crossroads of the Arabo-Berber civilizations and Black Africa. In olden times they used to sing epic poems on the exploits of the noble families, and their presence is still vital for the success of any feast. They are valued musicians, improvisers, entertainers and clowns, but men fear the freedom of their speech.


1– Instrumental prelude – 1’31
2Madha/Praise – 5’13
3Beyt biedh/White Chant – 4’19
4‘Aynî yâna/Me, my eyes – 4’23
5Beyt harb/Warrior chants – 3’28
6Beyt harb/Warrior chants – 3’18
7Dezzeyt’m berr/I have beaten the bravest – 5’32
8– Nostalgic off-cadence chant – 1’03
9– Song without a title evoking a painful separation – 2’24
10Râ’i lmeyl !/Look ho it leans – 5’49
11Umsiku dam‘a ‘aynî/I will hold my tears followed by Ahdeib zwayn/How beautiful is the dune – 9’57
12– Lalla mmwî/My honourable mother – 5’22
13El-hawl/The passion of music – 7’08
14Ana wanâ/Me, me – 6’27
15Madha/Praise – 1’59
16Madha/Praise– 4’13

Interpreters and instruments

Bouh Ould Boba Jiddou (singing, lute)
Dah Ould Abba (lute)
Ahmed Ould N’ghdeil (singing, percussions)
Fatma Mint Seyid (singing, harpe)
Tekeiber Mint El Meidah (singing, harpe)


Amongst the traditional musics of Mauritania, the music of the iggawen “griots” fills a privileged position for more than one good reason. First of all, it is a professional music and as such, it is doubly mastered, both in its language and its modes of transmission. In the second place, it is an artistic activity for which society acknowledges an educative value and for which it assumes responsibility.

Indeed, the traditional Mauritanian society is organized like a permanent educational entity where each social group is entrusted, according to a strict hereditary hierarchy, with exemplifying the moral values particular to its rank by its behaviour. This organization finds its conceptual justification through the representation of society as a human body and by applying to the members of the social body the precepts which apply to the limbs of the individual body. In the framework of this conception, the activities of the intelligence (talking, hearing, seeing), are divided into two opposite categories: the serious and the futile. The knowledge and the transmission of the Revealed Truth and of the Sciences of Law belong to the first category. This responsibility is assumed by the scholars (or the marabous). The arts of poetry and music belong to the second category; this is assumed by the griots.

The griot, a person who sets a “bad example”

The griots constitute the social group whose educational role is the most ambiguous and, therefore, the most difficult to assume, because in this corporeal conception of moral education particular to Mauritanian society, they are responsible for an activity emanating from a noble part of the body (the head), but their activity is one that all people, including those concerned, must regard as deceitful and amoral. Their social role is, therefore, paradoxical: it consists of teaching what is considered morally reprovable, by making it felt: that is to say, the purely aesthetic and emotional pleasures. Indeed, the griot assumes the role of showing, for the edification of the social body, the corrupting influence that artistic activity is supposed to exert on individual behaviour. In other words, he has the moral responsibility to show irresponsibility and to assume its reproaches. The griot is an artist and as such he is supposed to exalt the vanities of the human spirit by his activity. It is expected that his art and his behaviour be synonymous with complaisance, flightiness, an inclination towards facility and the love of immediate pleasures, ignorance of the values of honour, discretion, modesty and also synonymous of a carefree attitude. He is therefore socially authorized to give in to the enticements of life on behalf of the whole society, and this is what gives him the capacity to assume his role and bear reprobation, whose legitimacy he is the first to admit. He enjoys these enticements but pays for them by the precarity and the forced dependence on the social groups whose role is to maintain him by “gifts”. This is so because his art, conceived as an activity centred on the exaltation of the pleasures and impulses of the self, is not supposed to be either a labour or have any value. The only value conferred on it resides in its exemplary quality as a seductive, futile and amoral activity.

The Berber background remains

Mauritanian music is originally, just like society, a historic synthesis of several components: a Berber background and Black and Bedouin contributions, all of which are remodelled according to Islamic morals and aesthetics which are expressed by the arabization of culture and an over-evaluation of the Arab element.

Nevertheless, traces of the Berber base are still recognisable in the vocabulary itself which establishes the griots as a social group, that is to say their name iggawen. Indeed, the word iggiw “griot” is a verbal noun of Berber origin. It is derived from the verb awi or iwi “to bring”, “to relate”, “to improvise”. From this verb are derived the nouns tesawet meaning “poetry” in Touareg, as well as tamawayt, the name of a poetic form sung in Tamazight, typical of the Middle Atlas. The word al-mayah also probably originates from there; this is part of the technical vocabulary of Arabo-Andalusian music which has been re-imported by the Berbers in the form of lmayt and used alternatively with tamawayt. It should be noted that the vocabulary distinguishing the griots as a social group continues to be declined in gender and number according to the morphological rules of the Berber language (masculine: iggiw/iggawen; feminine tigiwit/tigawaten) while those who are personally concerned are arabized and claim kinship to Arab identity. The same remark can be made about an important part of the technical vocabulary of the music, beginning with the names of the string instruments: ardin/irdiwen “harp”, the instrument of women; tidinit/tidaniten “lute”, the instrument of men.

The five main modes

The apprenticeship of music goes by way of an imitative instrumental practice, together with reference to modes as a theoretical guide. The mode of Mauritanian music can be defined as a schematised melodic theme defining the limits inside which improvisation can take place. The mode allows control over the learning process, and is one of the methods used by the professional musicians to ensure the stability of the musical language or discourse, its familiarity and its proper development.

We can distinguish five principal modes called: karr, faghu, khal “black”, biedh “white” and bteyet. Each mode contains several sub-modes. During a concert, the modes are always linked to one another in the above manner without any possibility of omission or turning back, the only exception to this rule being the possibility of omitting certain sub-modes. This obligatory linking guarantees a heightening of the atmosphere which will lead the public from exacerbation of their sentiments to their appeasement.

The off-cadence/rhythmical opposition

The rhythm is an anticipated temporal calculation designed to regulate the sound and give mnemonic control over the duration of the movement. It is this calculation which enables the musicians to “say together” and to “move together”. The rhythmic typology of the griots’ professional music uses the criterion of the speed of movement (tempo). Thus each musical piece is categorised either as rhythmical or as off-cadence. The off-cadence/rhythmical opposition covers a solemnity/lightness opposition. This same opposition continues inside the rhythmical category according to the vivacity or slowness of the piece.

In the rhythmical pieces, the term wazn, “balance” or “measure” is used to refer to the instrumental rendition, and the air shawr as well for the voice. In the off-cadence pieces, the voice is referred to by the word mawwal and the instrumental rendition by the word dkhul “entry”.

As a general rule, the off-cadence pieces are used as preludes to the rhythmical pieces. But it can happen that the off-cadence entry develops an autonomous theme, especially in eulogies. It may also happen that the two rhythmical forms are superimposed on each other: while the voice is off-cadence, the instrumental accompaniment is rhythmical. This is what takes place in the faghu mode for the solo martial themes. The two superimposed rhythmic languages blend within the same framework the constraints caused by the instruments “playing together” and the liberty of the soloist to detach himself from them. This is rather like a musical metaphor of battle tactics.

Griot music deals with very varied and more or less clear-cut themes: evocation of pleasures, love, war, songs of praise, satires, complaints, meditations on life, adulatory songs in praise of the Prophet and the heroes of the faith… The praises are not always bestowed on others, quite often the griots sing their own praises. Even in the most profane themes, religious concerns are never very far away. For instance the off-cadence preludes, regardless of their themes, may start and finish by a profession of faith.

Hassan Jouad, ethnomusicologist
translated by Mona Khazindar

  • Reference: 321.004
  • Ean: 794 881 624 522
  • Main artist: Ensemble El-Moukhadrami (مجموعة المخضرمي)
  • Year of recording: 1993
  • Year of publishing: 2000
  • Music style: Moors music
  • Country: Mauritania
  • City of recording: Paris
  • Main language: Arabic
  • Composers: Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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