The Only Record Store in Mauritania
In the crowded streets of Nouakchott, the country’s only record store is a haven for music and musicians
Walking along the crowded, sun bleached street through the centre of Mauritania’s capital, one could easily miss the tiny record store of Ahmed Vall. Nestled between a camera shop and a restaurant, a pair of double metal doors lead into the cavernous interior. It takes a moment to adjust to the change in the light.
The shop is crammed full of records, lining the walls from floor to ceiling. Dusty stacks are piled on the floors. From ancient Senegalese salsa bands from Dakar to ephemeral Malian kora instrumentals and fuzzy electrified Nigerian rock, it is a collector’s dream. In the centre of the store are some large plush chairs where Ahmed Vall tends to a bubbling teapot. This is the Saphire D’Or, the first and last vinyl record store in Mauritania.
‘I started the shop in 1979,’ Vall explains. ‘Thirty five years ago.’ A short man with cropped grey hair, he seems much younger. Vall was born in Nema, far in the east of the country. ‘At that time, it took six days to travel to the capital,’ he says. Like so many others fleeing the drought and hardships of the countryside, Vall settled in Nouakchott. With a steady supply of music from Mali and Senegal, he built the Saphire D’Or.
‘I picked the name after the most beautiful thing, which is gold, naturally.’ Deejaying at soirées throughout the capital, Vall lists a number of the hotels and nightclubs where the Mauritanian youth partied late into the night: the Chinguetti, the Palmeri, the Maision de Jeune. Most of them no longer exist, torn down, paved over, and replaced.
Over the years, as vinyl faded into obscurity and Nouakchott’s old residents cast out their record collections, Vall was here to absorb them. ‘All the vinyl records that were in Mauritania, I pretty much have them here,’ he laughs. He began to sell dubbed cassettes. Customers could come in, browse the records and make their choice.
Sometimes people would ask about music they remembered, sometimes with nothing more than a fragment or a half remembered verse. Vall would point them in the right direction. Over the years, the Saphire D’Or has become more of a library than a store, or as he likes to call it, his ‘museum’.
Mauritania is a large, mostly desert country, lying just south of Morocco on the West African coast. Boasting a modest population of only four million over a country twice the size of France, the majority live in the capital of Nouakchott. Gaining independence in 1960 on the site of a small fishing village, the city long ago outgrew its origins. Popular history tells that the country’s first president lived in a tent near where the Presidential Palace lies today.
The Saphire D’Or sits in Medina Trois, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Nouakchott. Once on the edge of town, where the desert began, it now lies in the centre of the city that has engulfed it. Surrounded by the chaos of the capital, the Saphire D’Or is also a refuge and social club for Vall and his friends. Passing the long days, amongst the music of their youth, Vall and his friends trade stories and memories.
One of the prizes of Vall’s collection is an extremely rare Mauritanian record – one of only 500 copies, and the only Mauritanian record ever made – a seven inch disc of the National Orchestra of Mauritania. Like most of the records, it’s in miraculous shape (Vall fastidiously cleans them before and after every play).
The National Orchestra of Mauritania was formed in the post-colonial years as the official government band. Incorporating a brass section and electric guitars against a backdrop of traditional instruments and singing in a variety of languages, the music reflected the pluralistic aspirations of the young country. Vall has a few copies squirreled away on the shelves. These too are not for sale.
When Vall and his friends speak about the past, it’s with a nostalgia that’s not without a certain sadness. The Mauritania of their youth was filled with revolutionary dreams and optimistic visions. But in the late 1970s, the country would change drastically. An ongoing war with the Polisario Front and unrelenting droughts ushered in decades of military rule. There were a series of coups d’état and curfews. Subsequent governments had little time for arts and music. The National Orchestra was disbanded and the nightclubs vanished.
Throughout the years, Vall has continued with the Saphire D’Or, adapting to the changing time. In the past few years, Vall has bought a computer and a few portable hard drives to start digitising music. A bulk of his clients are taxi drivers who come into the store with their battered vehicles idling out front. Almost all have switched from cassettes to USB FM transmitters. Vall is well prepared for the change, and his new turntables can record directly to mp3.
‘Nouakchott has changed,’ Vall explains. ‘It was small before but today you can get lost. It’s not the same thing.’ But it’s difficult to see the change, strolling through the very modern capital, amidst the exhaust choked streets and market full of plastic Chinese imports.
In a culture so old, 35 years is not so long ago, and vinyl records are not so sacred stacked up against ancient desert libraries with manuscripts from the 13th century. But it’s an important story nonetheless, one that will keep being told in the music and the stories of old men at the shop of Ahmed Vall. After 35 years, perhaps the name Saphire D’Or is more relevant today than it ever was – a jewel of gold in a city of the future.