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Last Updated: Monday, 30 April 2007, 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK
Mauritania's fiery singing senator
By Rose Skelton
BBC News, Nouakchott

Dressed in the colourful muslin veil that brightens up the harsh sandy streets of Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, Malouma holds her traditional ardin, or harp, in one hand as she speaks rapid-fire Arabic into a mobile phone held in the other.

Malouma with her harp
Only Mauritanian women play the ardin, or harp

When she hangs up the phone, clearly annoyed, she explains that she has to go to a political meeting.

Despite being given only 10 minutes' notice, she says that if she does not turn up they will all agree that electing a woman, and a singer, to the senate was not a good idea.

And she is determined not to give them that chance.

Fierce criticism is something that Malouma, one of the country's most famous musicians and also one of its 56 senators, has had to fight against all her life.

Although she is now an important part of Mauritania's political make-up, for years she has suffered oppression from the ruling powers for her outspoken and often critical music.

"I was born part of the artist cast, known as griots," she says, when she eventually returns from her meeting.

"I noticed that there was a lot of injustice against us, so for a long time I have been defending these marginalised casts, and those who are seen as lesser people in society."


This fiery singer was born among the sand dunes of southern Mauritania and learnt traditional Moorish music from her father.

She started her professional musical career at the age of 16 when she wrote Habibi Habeytou, or I love to love my love, a song criticising the trend amongst men of marrying "younger and more charming" wives and turning the current wife out on the street.

I want to cry when I think about the future of Mauritanian music

This song, which brought her instant recognition, also broke one of the staunchly traditional and Muslim country's taboos and she was violently attacked.

"That song brought me many problems," she says, a hint of sadness in her voice.

"Until the point where I couldn't go out alone. People threw stones at me."

Moving to the capital with her family to launch her musical career, Malouma remembers once more being an outsider, this time because of the kind of music she liked to listen to.

"My father was an intellectual who listened to music from all the world. I remember when I came to Nouakchott with African, Western and Arabic music cassettes, people found it weird, and would ask me where on earth I found this strange music."

Despite having a love of all kinds of music, her heart lies with the ardin, the 10- to 14-stringed instrument that is the mainstay of Moorish music.

Played only by women, it hails from the nomadic Moors of the country and is passed on down family lines.


But Malouma, whose new album Nour is released in the UK next month, says that the Moorish music of her childhood is in danger of dying out as Malian and Moroccan music takes a hold among the younger generation.

"I am part of the last generation who was educated in this traditional music," she says.

I waged my fight as an artist, using music, and today I feel that I must continue my combat

"I want to cry when I think about the future of Mauritanian music. Because I am sure, and certain, that traditional Mauritanian music is going to disappear soon."

Although today Malouma has a well-established international career, her career at home has been fraught with troubles.

With a military government seizing power and ruling through the 1980s and 1990s, she reserved many of her songs for reminding people of the faults of the authorities.

When the opposition was advocating uniting divided Moorish and black Mauritanians, Malouma supported this with her music.

"I have a political repertoire," she says proudly, "summing up everything that's going on with regards to politicians.

"I have always highlighted their faults and I have never let people forget that there are some big things that were done by the government who don't care about the people. I was really a bother to them," she says, smiling.


But this criticism brought her serious problems. Her music was banished from state media and she found it virtually impossible to perform anywhere except for foreign concert venues or opposition campaign rallies.

She was hidden away from journalists and refused a permanent address.

Ahmed Ould Daddah
Malouma has always backed opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah

But Mauritania is at the very beginning of a new political era.

With presidential elections held in March and a return to civilian power after more than two decades of military rule, Malouma is at last being given a platform to speak.

Her long-time ally opposition leader Ahmed Ould Daddah, who came second in the presidential elections, has named her as a senator for his party.

She says this gives her a new way of trying to realise her plans for her country, such as ethnic reconciliation and improving women's rights.

"I waged my fight as an artist, using music, and today I feel that I must continue my combat. But it's going to be an official fight; now I have a stronger position with the authorities, this is a chance for me to have a stronger position in the fight."

Habibi Habeytou
Malouma's song about divorce

Country profile: Mauritania
20 Apr 07 |  Country profiles

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