Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah was born in the 1960s in Mederdra (Traiza), into a family of griots (singers who work as oral historians). Her life seemed all mapped out. The daughter of Moktar Ould Meidah, a prominent traditional musician as well as a highly skilled poet, she is also the granddaughter of Mohamed Yahya Ould Boubane, another virtuoso of words and the tidinit (a small traditional guitar used by griots).
She grew up in Charatt (a small town near Mederdra), where her parents taught her the basics of traditional harp (ardin) playing. She started to sing at a very young age, and performed for the first time at the age of 12, an age when tradition requires that the daughters of important families be already prepared for a ‘responsible’ life (marriage and self-sufficiency).
Malouma started to draw from the traditional repertoire that her parents, especially her father, had enriched. At the age of fifteen, she was already an accomplished griot, not only accompanying her parents but performing whole concerts on her own. At the same period, along with her father, she started to listen to songs by Um Kulthum, Adbel Hlim Hafez, Fairouz, Nasri Cherns, Dine, Sabah etc. And as she grew up she also discovered another musical style that was not far from the music she mastered: blues.
She wrote short songs that were quite popular with young girls. But the weight of tradition pushed her into the fetters of marriage and conformism.
It took until the late eighties for her to appear on stage again in Mauritania. With a new repertoire, she brought about a true musical revolution among singers. Such pieces as “Habibi habeytou”, “cyam ezzaman tijri”, “awdhu billah”… disrupted the established order. Malouma was aiming to impose a style that drew from the purest tradition and modernized it.
The research she undertook was centered on a successful blending of traditional and modern music, the latter providing its instruments and its approach, the first its rich repertoire. Malouma thus became a singer-songwriter, introducing a unity of theme in her songs (oughniya) and not refraining from addressing subjects that were more or less taboo-such as love, conjugal life or inequalities.
In her commitment to encourage justice and equality in Mauritania, she involved herself in activist songs to stir people into action, singing for the AIDS campaigns, for the vaccination of children, for the elimination of illiteracy and for the promotion of women, among other issues.
While her music soon became popular among the youth (girls and boys), it was rejected at first by the dominating class (a few intellectual groups, griots opinion- and decision-makers. She was introducing too many things at once: the evolution of both customs and culture, even questioning the traditional social order and giving artists an importance they had not had before.
In all these years denouncing inequalities, oppression and injustice, she has become ‘the singer of the people’ (mutribatou echa’b). For all her commitment, she has not forgotten her prime goal, her musical research, to open Mauritanians to the outside world and to make foreigners discover the treasures of her country’s national heritage. “Rasm”, “jraad”, “tchaa’i”, “gnoni”, “nouka”… and many more “achwaar” (traditional pieces) are reinterpreted and reinvented.
Malouma has gone even further, trying to harmonize traditional pentatonic Mauritanian music with other folk music forms, notably blues. She has met a group of young Mauritanian musicians, the Sahel Hawl Blues, and they have soon tied bonds. Driven by the same concern-to be both rooted in traditional music and open to modern western music-the band, made up of ten young musicians, has integrated all the components of modern-day Mauritania: rich inspirational sources and multiple cultures (Moorish, Fulani, Toucouleur, Soninke, Wolof, Haratin).
Malouma is a national pride and role model, and she has many followers.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.