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Abba, Dimi Mint Benaissi (1958–) - PERSONAL HISTORY, INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS, BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS, PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:, THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE, LEGACY, CONTEMPORARIES

festival music iggawin mauritania

Dimi Mint Benaissi Abba (also known as Dimi Mint Abba) is the most influential and well-known Mauritanian musician of her generation. Extremely popular in her home country, she is one of the few Mauritanian musicians to receive international recognition through her recordings and performances in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For the last several decades, she also has served as the foremost cultural ambassador for her country. As a griotte, Abba is continuing the tradition of griots (males) and griottes (females) who have served for centuries as oral historians, soothsayers, poets, praise singers, and entertainers in Mauritania and other bordering countries—Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau).

PERSONAL HISTORY

Abba was born in Tidjikdja, Mauritania in 1958 into an iggawin (musician caste) family. Her parents were both prominent Mauritanian musicians. Her father, Sidaty Ould Abba, was a prominent singer and composer, and her mother, Feu Mounina Mint Eida, was an expert musician who played the ardin (a fourteen-string harp similar to the West African kora traditionally played only by females) and percussion. Abba began singing at an early age and began study of the ardin and tabl (kettledrum) with her mother at ten. She also learned to play the tidnit, a small four-string lute traditionally played only by males (similar to the West African ngoni). During adolescence, she began to excel as a vocalist and a performer on the ardin. At eighteen, she won a national radio competition in 1976 that led to her representing Mauritania at the internationally-prominent festival d’Oum Kulthum in Tunisia. She won a Gold Medal at the festival for her performance of the song “Sawt al-Fan” that asserted that musicians are more important to a society than fighters. The appearance exposed her to an international audience and led to increased popularity both at home and abroad, particularly in the Arab world. During the next decade, she performed concerts and at festivals throughout the Middle East and North Africa, including the Festival of Arabic Youth in Iraq (1977), the Festival of Timgad in Algeria (1978), and the Festival of Agadir in Morocco (1986).

In 1989 Abba toured Europe offering the first exposure of many Western audiences to Mauritanian music. In 1990, she released the album Moorish Music from Mauritania on the World Circuit label. The recording of the album, reportedly recommended to the label by Malian superstar Ali Farke Touré, was the first studio recording of the griot/griotte tradition; all previous recordings had been live recordings. The album featured Abba on vocals and ardin and her husband, Khalifa Ould Eide—a prominent Mauritanian griot —on vocals, tidnit, and electric guitar. Abba and Eide were accompanied by a tabl player and a female chorus, which included their daughter Veirouz Mint Seymali. In 1992, Abba released a second album on the French Avudis Ethnic label, Musique & chants de Mauritanie/Music and Songs of Mauritania . The success of the European tour and the positive critical response to the two albums led to a tour of the United States in 1993.

Abba then took a break from her busy performing schedule to have another daughter. However, she continued doing performances in Mauritania and appeared at a number of festivals in Africa, winning gold medals for best voice at the African-Arab Exhibitions in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1996 and in Dakar, Senegal in 1999. During this period, she also performed frequently in the neighboring country of Morocco where she frequently appeared on television, played with the Moroccan Royal Orchestra, and gave a royal performance for King HASSAN II .

In the late 1990s, she returned to a more active international touring schedule. In 2000 and 2002, she was a featured performer at the enormously popular Essaouira Festival of Gnawa Music. She also performed at the international Festival of Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco in 2002. In 2004, Abba was a featured performer at the festival International des Musiques in Nouakchott, Mauritania. In 2006, she performed at the Festival in the Desert in Mali. An album is scheduled for release on the World Circuit label in 2008.

INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

Abba’s music is a modernization of the griot/griotte tradition that was reserved for members of the iggawin : a low caste that served the warrior caste as praise singers, oral historians, and poets. Reflecting the history and ethnic composition of Mauritania, the iggawin musical tradition blended Arabic, Berber, and Sudanic influences. A strict set of musical rules that saw little change between the late eighteenth century and the mid twentieth century governed the music of the griots/griottes . Musical performances followed a specified progression of modal structures that led the performance through three modal “ways”: black ( lakhal ) to spotted ( zzraag —mixed black and white elements) to white ( labyad ). The most important musical instruments used by the iggawin were the tidnit and the ardin. Oral transmission from parents to children maintained the iggawin musical tradition, and Abba learned her skills as a griotte from her mother.

BIOGRAPHICAL HIGHLIGHTS

Name: Dimi Mint Benaissi Abba; also Dimi Mint Abba

Birth: 1958 in Tidjikdja, Mauritania

Family: Husband, Khalifa Ould Eide; two daughters

Nationality: Mauritanian

PERSONAL CHRONOLOGY:

  • 1976: Wins a radio contest in Mauritania entitling her to represent the country at the Festival d’Oum Kuhlthum in Tunisia; awarded a Gold Medal at the Festival d’Oum Kuhlthum
  • 1977: Performs at the Festival of Arabic Youth (Iraq)
  • 1978: Performs at the Festival of Timgad (Algeria)
  • 1986: Performs at the Festival of Agadir (Morocco)
  • 1989: First European tour
  • 1990: Release of the recording Moorish Music from Mauritania
  • 1992: Release of the recording Musique & chants de Mauritanie
  • 1993: Tour of the United States
  • 1996: Awarded a Gold Medal for voice at the African-Arab Exhibition (Johannesburg, South Africa)
  • 1999: Awarded a Gold medal for voice at the African-Arab Exhibition (Dakar, Senegal)
  • 2000: Featured performer at the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira (Morocco)
  • 2002: Featured performer at the Gnawa Festival of Essaouira (Morocco); performed at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fes (Morocco)
  • 2003: Performed at the Festival in the Desert (Mali)
  • 2004: Featured performer at the Festival International des Musiques in the Nouakchott, Mauritania

After independence from France in 1960, the role of the iggawin began to change with the growth of a more urbanized population, particularly in the capital city Nouakchott and the development of the country’s mass media. Pre-independence, griots and griottes performing for members of the nobility (warrior caste) and the musical tradition were little known among the general public. Initial exposure on the radio—Radio Nouakchott founded in 1961—at government-sponsored concerts, and later exposure on television, helped introduce a wider audience to the music. Increasingly perceived as entertainers and creative artists, griots/griottes began to lose their traditional dependence upon the patronage of the higher warrior caste and became highly desired performers for weddings, social events, and state ceremonies. During the 1970s, the music of the iggawin also began to become known in other African countries through festival performances by griots and griottes .

Changes in the role and status of the griots/griottes led to changes in musical style and performances of iggawin music by musicians not born into the iggawin caste. During the 1970s, when Abba began her career, traditional melodies were “modernized” and some musicians created larger ensembles that occasionally included saxophones, electric guitars, synthesizers, and drum machines. Abba’s husband, Khalifa Ould Eide, was an influential figure in popularizing the use of the electric guitar as a replacement for the tidnit. Other musicians, including the prominent griot Seymali Ould Hemed Wall, substituted the Arabic ud (oud ; lute) for the tidnit, helping to create greater popularity for the music in the Middle East. Some iggawin have maintained the strict rules of traditional practice. Abba has taken a middle road between those who seek to “modernize” the practice and those calling for a strict adherence to traditional rules. Her ensemble is larger than the traditional ensemble, including a vocal chorus and her husband playing an electric guitar. On occasion, she has also performed with additional instruments including keyboards and saxophones. However, she has not significantly altered the rhythmic and melodic elements of iggawin music to create modern “pop” music. Her performances often follow the traditional progression of melodic modes from black through spotted to white.

THE WORLD’S PERSPECTIVE

Abba has been the most significant figure in creating an awareness of Mauritanian music outside of Mauritania. Prior to the effort of the government to present Mauritanian music at festivals throughout Africa and the Middle East beginning in the mid-1970s, there was little knowledge of the iggawin musical tradition outside of Mauritania. Abba, who earned awards and accolades at a number of international festivals early in her career, was a significant figure in these efforts. During the 1990s, she became the best-known Mauritanian musician in the world and was influential in introducing Mauritanian music to new audiences in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

LEGACY

Abba is the most influential Mauritanian musician of the last half-century. She was instrumental in introducing audiences outside her country to Mauritanian music, particularly the music of the iggawin tradition. During the last three decades, she has also been a significant figure in the debate in Mauritania about the future role of the griot/griotte and the direction of the iggawin musical tradition. Through her popularity at home and abroad and her frequent role as cultural ambassador for her country, she exerts a significant influence on the direction of the griot/griotte tradition.

CONTEMPORARIES

There are numerous prominent griots and griottes in Mauritania today, but relatively few are known outside of the country. Among the most well known is Abba’s husband and performing partner Khalifa Ould Eide. Aicha Mint Chighaly, another prominent griotte who, like Abba, performs a mix of traditional and modernized styles, became internationally known after the release of a recording in 1998. A number of griots and griottes have been particularly active in efforts to “renew” the iggawin tradition that began in the mid-1970s. Malouma Mint el Meydah has sought to seek interest in the tradition through her performances abroad, most notably at the 1988 Carthage Festival in Tunisia. Some traditionalists have opposed these efforts for renewal, including Sidaty Oul Abba, who advocates a strict maintenance of the musical rules of the iggawin tradition. Seymali Ould Hemed Wall, son of renowned griot Mennina Mint Aliyen, was an early leader of this effort but later was instrumental in developing a musical style featuring a more prominent incorporation of Arab musical influences.

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