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For 52 years, the enchanting music of Saharan Rock band Ahl Nana remained hidden from most ears. Recorded by Boussiphone Studios in Casablanca, Morocco, in 1971, the album “L’Orchestre National Mauritanien” was undistributed and dust-covered until Belgium company Radio Martiko recently rediscovered them and released them on Feb 3. As a result, Ahl Nana escaped the fate of being lost in storage and is reborn into the musical world today. The record not only delivers an aweing harmony of distinctive instruments and voices, but also brings the rich history of Saharan folk music to light.
Ahl Nana is one of the first known Saharan bands to include modern instruments such as the electric guitar. In all of their tracks, the electric guitar communicates with the traditional desert folk instruments, which creates an assonant discourse between the present and past. Occasionally, the guitar subtly follows the twanged notes of the fiddle, enhancing its folkish songs. At other times, the modern instrument makes use of its electricity, and rings out blue or fiery melodies. In this way, “L’Orchestre National Mauritanien” is not an album defined by genre, but one that explores it.
Just as Ahl Nana’s music illustrates a conversation between the past and present, so do its members. The band is a family, where the parents take up the traditional instruments and the children experiment with the contemporary ones. In the album cover, the matriarch, Debya Mint Soueid Bouh, sits in the left center on the floor. As seen in the photo, she is the talented violin player whose strings distinctively mark the band’s sound. The son and vocalist, Yassine Ould Nana, squats in the lower right corner. Decades after first recording the album, Ould Nana continued to produce music in the ’80s and ’90s, pairing uptempo disco songs with classic ’80s video-making techniques.
Upon listening to “L’Orchestre National Mauritanien,” the listener’s first instinct is to stop, and the second is to smile. The most popular song, “Adji Kar Teri Miri,” is at its heart communal, and invites the listener into that community too. It invokes that inborn desire to skip and swing and laugh. There is a sense of life and of home. Throughout the song, the same melody and lyrics reverberate and interact with each other, drawing in and out of intensity like the tide. Clear voices cascade over one another in waves, supporting Ould Nana and sometimes overtaking him. Occasionally, Ould Nana even imitates the resonant strain of the fiddle’s tune, his voice creating an all-captivating tension in the air.
“Adji Kar Teri Miri” is just one of ten songs in the album. While each track maintains the overarching theme of folk, rock, and blues, the individual songs are distinctive in tempo and tone. “Nahnou Sigharou El Ouatane,” for instance, is softer than the others, and highlights the chorus of voices in union with a slow, sweet melody from the electric guitar. “Yer Sabou Yerkoy,” on the other hand, is a light dance between the guitar and fiddle, and the singers withdraw to the background to the song. All of the songs are relatively long, around five to nine minutes, allowing the musicians to enter a circular rhythm, working and reworking the mesmeric melody.
Even though Ahl Nana’s music became available to stream on Apple Music only two weeks ago, the band still deeply contributed to the evolution of Saharan music, and marks a historic turning point in desert blues. Well known artists that followed the path that Ahl Nana began include Ali Farke Touré and Tanariwen. “L’Orchestre National Mauritanien” was revolutionary in its time, and despite all the decades that have passed, the album is just as refreshing now.
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