Henhouse Prowlers have agreed to share occasional reports from the band’s African adventure, touring with the American Voices program on behalf of the US Department of State. Here’s their third dispatch, from banjo player Ben Wright.
Chances are you’ve never heard of or thought much about Mauritania. We honestly hadn’t either when we heard that it was going to be the third country on this incredible tour. That mentality allowed it to sweep us off our feet and resonate deeply with the whole band.
Like Congo and Liberia, we arrived in the middle of the night. It wasn’t until morning that we saw how beautiful and different Nouakchott was from the tropical capitals we’d just left. We woke to Muslim calls to prayer echoing across a city of sand and desert architecture, and men heeding that call in flowing blue robes.
The first event scheduled for us was a jam session with local musicians, set up on the roof of a music school. A PA and instruments were set up and local musicians were encouraged to join us on stage. The whole event ended up being a welcoming and collaborative introduction to the vast diversity of people and music in Mauritania. By the end of the evening, we had played with about 15 groups ranging from familiar Afro-Cuban beats to extremely unfamiliar (and enthralling) Middle Eastern styles. You can imagine that we so often had to set aside our bluegrass instincts to collaborate with these warm and talented musicians.
The following day we had lunch with several prominent musicians in the community. Through our trusty translators we talked about musical influences and understandings. Naturally, it evolved into multiple jam sessions. You can read about it here from a Mauritanian newspaper. Just be sure to use Google Translate if you don’t speak French.
That evening we played a large outdoor concert venue with two of the local musicians we were getting to know fairly well at that point. Cheikh Ould Lebiad is a fabulous guitar player and singer, and Ousmane Gangue is a man of vocal prowess you seldom see. The bond we formed with these men was palpable as we played several of their songs and even had them improvise over Nine Pound Hammer. The audience loved it almost as much as we did.
We were in and out of the US Embassy the entirety of the next day, and performed in a nice courtyard that evening for foreign diplomats and special guests. The event was a de facto farewell party for the US Ambassador, a sweet and seasoned veteran of the foreign service just weeks from retirement. We really let loose and it seemed like the Japanese Ambassador and his wife were our biggest fans.
We were lucky enough to go into a local studio with Cheikh and lay down a couple songs the following day. Afterward, we headed to two different schools and did educational workshops with students of all ages. In both cases, they were engaged, asked us great questions, and after we were done came up and tried our instruments.
The next day we got up early, hopped into a caravan of five 4×4’s and headed into the desert. It was surreal seeing sand dunes, camels, and feeling the extreme heat, all while knowing that it was snowing back in the Midwest.
We entered the town of Boghe and were invited to the Mayors house for dinner, eating with our hands on the floor. People take hospitality seriously here, and we felt so welcome that it’s hard to convey it properly. That night we played for about 500 people outdoors in their brand new bus station. The stars shone brightly above us and we made new friends, again.
It’s hard to encapsulate our experiences in these incredible places in a short blog, but we’re trying. One country left (Niger!) and it’s still clear we’re on the trip of a lifetime. It’s important that we give a shout out to the kind people of Mauritania and the US Embassies in all of these countries for taking such good care of us. This couldn’t be going any better.