Tucked down a sandy alleyway in Nouakchott, the desert capital of Mauritania, Mohamed Vall’s record store is not an obvious musical oasis from outside.
However, in its cool interior, the screech of cars in the blazing heat outside recedes; a bygone era opens up. For three decades, Vall has built an eclectic collection of rare music from west African desert nomads and beyond. Row after row of records and tapes line bright pink walls and overflow on to dusty piles in his store, the Saphire d’Or — the Golden Sapphire.
“I have the biggest collection in Mauritania. Any music you want from Africa — I mean the kind of music that puts Africa on the map — I have it?” the 63-year-old said, stirring a bubbling pot of water for mint tea.
Rather than selling the priceless records, Vall transfers songs on to disc and USB sticks for US$0.30 each. A stream of questions (“how are you, how is your health, how is your wife”) greets each newcomer as they are ushered to plump armchairs whose delicate gold embroidery has long since worn away. Tiny glasses of traditional frothy mint tea wash down conversations on music, politics and the deplorable state of Mauritania’s soccer team. Around lunchtime, food is shared from a communal bowl.
Such hospitality is the fabric of Mauritania’s nomadic culture as much as Vall’s store is a cornerstone of musical identity. On the cusp of Arabic-speaking north Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa — once the preserve of slave traders — the vast desert country negotiated a thorny path to independence. Familiar old tunes help melt divisions in a still-segregated society, much as they did in the early, heady days of independence.
“When you are here, it doesn’t matter who you are,” Vall said. “We get youngsters wanting 1940s ballads and old people whose minds are musical museums. We get toubabs [white people] who heard one song decades ago.”
One particularly memorable visitor walked in two years ago, an older, slightly built man.
“He had been looking for this single record for years and was really at his wits’ end,” Vall said. “When I brought it down from the shelf, he just started laughing.”
The man was Hadrmy, star of Mauritania’s National Orchestra in the 1960s. West African orchestras provided a soundtrack to post-colonial aspirations — but recordings were haphazard.
“The song La Mone celebrates Mauritania issuing its own currency for the first time, but the musicians had just visited Guinea for training, so they came back with all these exciting sounds,” Vall said.
Some punters come for the thrill of dusting down original jacket sleeves, others for a chance to buy classic sub-Saharan music. Dozens of fading covers showcase the metamorphosis of Youssou N’Dour from his afro-sporting days onward. Nigerian afrobeat pioneers rub elbows with Guinean pop legends, and musical giants from Mali play ghostly koras alongside Congo’s hip-swaying lingala.
For some customers, connecting the musical dots is the biggest thrill.
“My favorite music here is the old stuff from Cuba,” one visitor, Sidi, said.
“In so much of this music — blues, merengue, Caribbean salsa, even rock — we can recognize ourselves,” he said, pointing to a record by Ali Farka Toure, the grandfather of west African blues, who played alongside US greats such as Ry Cooder.
Another regular, Abdoul Kaba, a teacher, agreed: “The music allows you to travel in your head. When I first came to Mauritania from Guinea, I went round and round looking for zouk [west African funk] music that everybody listens to in Guinea until I ended up here.”