On paper, the only extant recordings of the Orchestre National De Mauritanie might not sound like the most fascinating proposition. Essentially a utilitarian endeavor, a group of fourteen musicians assembled in 1967 by Moktar Ould Daddah, president of then-nascent Mauritania, as entertainment for foreign dignitaries, the orchestra could at first seem an assertion of nationalist impulses and shallow national chauvinism in support of a country still trying to retain tentative footing in the world.
Orchestre National De Mauritanie – Orchestre National De Mauritanie (Sahelsounds/Mississippi Records)
On paper, the only extant recordings of the Orchestre National De Mauritanie might not sound like the most fascinating proposition. Essentially a utilitarian endeavor, a group of fourteen musicians assembled in 1967 by Moktar Ould Daddah, president of then-nascent Mauritania, as entertainment for foreign dignitaries, the orchestra could at first seem an assertion of nationalist impulses and shallow national chauvinism in support of a country still trying to retain tentative footing in the world. And while this isn’t a hundred percent incorrect, further examination of the actual music reveals some fascinating content, work possessed of a syncretic approach that reflects the group’s roots in post-colonial construction of culture.
Listening to the majority of these recordings, one wonders exactly what sort of society Mauritania’s leaders had in mind if this group was to be one of their eminent cultural emissaries. This question arises not because of any lack of quality, but because the confluence of elements at work can seem so thoroughly strange that it can be difficult to conceive of a government that would actually put it forth as their aesthetic representation. The idea itself, that of modernizing traditional musical forms, was not at all unprecedented in the world at the time, with cultural institutions in countries from Turkey to Cuba at least briefly subsidizing those who would utilize electric guitars and keyboards to emphasize their respective nation’s place in the modern world. But the orchestra’s engagement in a strange, often pensive assembly of sound, one that often incorporates elements of the Latin music popular in West Africa at the time alongside light doses of the sort of psychedelic elements not uncommon in the region’s countercultural music (but surprising to find in something institutionally sanctioned), elicits few direct parallels between their work and anybody else’s.
In the group’s compositions, tangles of guitar and polyrhythmic percussion interweave into lithe beds, all providing a base for vocals, flute, and brass. But despite the preponderance of instruments, there is an impression of space. Each member appears to be operating under some pretense of minimalism, letting each component part engage in a dance with the others, rarely overstepping boundaries in their intricate sonic choreography. Much of the material is characterized by minor-key melodic components unfurling underneath lead vocalist Hadrami Ould Meidah’s recasting of Mauritanian traditional poetry, lending the songs a slow-burn, almost mournful quality that seems an odd choice of tone for work intended to celebrate a nation’s cultural rebirth (though wildly inexact hypothetical comparisons, it would be like an alternate reality England which, upon its founding in the 1960s, would choose “Paint It Black” as a cornerstone of a revered cultural institution, or if the United States didn’t gain independence until the same era and upon doing so immediately hired Curtis Mayfield as a cultural ambassador).
Some moments, however – namely “La Femme Mauritanienne” (“The Mauritanian Woman”) and “Mauritanie Mon Pays, Que J’Aime” (“Mauritania My Country, That I Love”) – seem a more conventional reflection of the group’s intent, as a vessel into which newly-established normative cultural practices and concepts can be filtered. Perhaps incidentally, perhaps not, these are the weakest songs present, musically at least. It might be due to the stiffness of the performances themselves, their more upbeat qualities, or the more blatantly didactic conceptual elements, but these songs act as a reminder of what these sort of culture-building exercises can do wrong. On the other hand, they also act as a strange contrast to the rest of the recordings, emphasizing how challenging the rest of the material tended to be. It’s interesting to note that these two songs are the only material on the album that utilize French and, while it was not at all unusual for former colonies to retain linguistic elements of their colonizers, that this orchestra employed the language for the album’s two most musically constricted, lyrically jingoistic moments. What is to be made of this isn’t entirely clear.
However, given the group’s largely unconventional approach to concocting a distinctly contemporary Mauritanian aesthetic, it’s little surprise that they didn’t last past the 1975 military coup that overthrew Daddah and attempted to countermand his experiments with modernity. Their attempts to construct a singular aesthetic could be seen as a microcosmic reflection of Africa’s post-colonial nation-building, a diverse mix of ideas from both within and without that survived, for a time at least, as much on enthusiasm as on a ramshackle cohesion. Though the group’s music is more than just the product of a time and a place, when it works (which it does, more often than not) it manages to evoke the universal desire to create, whether that’s a song or a nation. But even when viewed without metaphorical framing, theirs was a compelling body of work, one that attempted a celebratory stance, but often produced an end result that was as haunting as the darkest lament.