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Africa’s poorest country yields the most stunning musicians

Here’s Mary Finnigan’s daily report from the World Sacred Music Festival at Fez.

Photos (c) Suzie Maeder/Lebrecht Music&Arts. Video (c) Lynn Evans Davidson. Enjoy.

Mauritania has lowest GDP in Africa, despite its huge, largely desert landmass. And it is a fact that the majority of its population live on $1.25 a day. Mauritania may be materially poor, but it has a rich cultural heritage, especially in ethnic and tribal music and most especially in the griot tradition. Until recently griots were exclusively masculine, but within the last few decades women come to the fore as talented exponents. Among them is Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane, who has a voice and a personality that enchants from the moment she walks on stage.

Griots are historians, storytellers, praise singers, poet and musicians. They are the holders of oral tradition, passing on ancestral wisdom from one generation to the next. They are also often seen as social leaders, due to their status as an advisers to royalty and politicians. According to Paul Oliver in his book Savannah Syncopators, “Though the griot, (or in the case of  Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane the griotte) has to know many traditional songs without error, he (or she) must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable”. Although they are popularly known as “praise singers”, griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.

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A capacity audience at the Musee Batha rose to their feet and hollered for an encore as Coubane and her group ended their set. Their good natured enthusiasm was highly infectious — the three girl backing singers in traditiional costume looked like recently fledged baby bluebirds and the male drummer performed a series of spontaneous leaps and contortions which added to the excitement. Overall a stunning performance — visually, musically and inspirationally.

At nightfall at the 3,500 seater festival venue the Bab Al Makina, it was standing room only for latecomers to the performance by the flamenco guitar masetro Paco de Lucia. The theme of this year’s festival is Reflections of Andalusia. Paco and his ensemble were the highlight of this exploration of the cultural interface between Fes and Moorish Andalusia. It was stunning performance and one can see why guitarists across the world honour him — in particular our very own Eric Clapton. Paco is lightning fast, technically as brilliant as it comes and emotionally generous. There was a spectacular flamenco dance routine and some jazz-inspired improvisations from an ensemble that included two male singers and a variety of electronic instruments. Of course there were lots of Spaniards in the audience and of course they vocalised their enthusiasm. You could probably have heard the Oles a kilometer away.

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