Robin Denselow speaks to singer Noura Mint Seymali about how she’s helping Mauritanian music to evolve, and introducing international audiences to its rich tradition
As one of the international celebrities of the Mauritanian music scene, Noura Mint Seymali is used to big occasions. But this is something special. It’s the second performance in a historic and emotional concert tour in which the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians are joined by Damon Albarn and an impressive and unlikely line-up of Western and African musicians. There are 90 musicians on stage at London’s Royal Festival Hall for Albarn’s latest Africa Express project, and the range of music reflects the extraordinary cast on stage. There are Syrian songs from an orchestra and choir whose members are now scattered across the world, thanks to the chaos in their homeland, with some still living in Damascus, but many now refugees far from home. There are songs from Paul Weller and from Albarn, who is backed by the Malian ngoni star Bassekou Kouyaté and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita. And then there’s a rousing solo from Noura, who comes on dressed in red robes and headscarf.
She launches into ‘Richa’, a song from her new album Arbina, and almost at once the audience are clapping and urging her on. She is in powerful, confident voice, but until yesterday morning, when the tour kicked off on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival, she had never performed the song like this before. Normally she is backed by a three-piece band, featuring her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly on guitar, but now she has the Syrian orchestra behind her, with the ney (flute) providing a powerful solo in place of Jeiche’s guitar.
Earlier, talking backstage, she says that the Syrians found the song easy to learn. It was written by her father, the celebrated composer Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall; was performed by her equally celebrated step-mother, the great Dimi Mint Abba (1958-2011), “and it’s a classic,” she says. “A song that everyone in Mauritania knows. It’s about the power of music and the source of inspiration.”
Noura first met the Africa Express team when her band were playing at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark last year and were invited to join Albarn’s collective on stage. At the time she was on tour promoting her first international release Tzenni (reviewed in #102), a gutsy, declamatory set in which she demonstrated her exuberant vocal style, with backing provided by her husband’s stuttering electric guitar work, along with bass, drums and her own playing on the ardine, a type of harp traditionally only played by women.
The album picked up excellent reviews, and deservedly so, but the new set is an even more confident and varied affair. Recorded and mixed in New York by Tony Maimone, Arbina, like Tzenni, was produced by her drummer and manager Matthew Tinari, an American who moved to Senegal from Oberlin College in Ohio nine years ago on a scholarship to study Wolof and French, and now spends much of his time in Mauritania. He also acts as Noura’s translator, explaining “we have been playing together and rehearsing for a long time now, so it’s natural that the music has evolved. Tzenni allowed us to tour a lot, but when we went to the US for the first time in 2013 we had never worked with just a four-person formation like that. We did it simply because of tour costs, and didn’t know if it was going to work or not.” Previously, the band had included backing singers, more percussion and guitars and “sometimes keyboards,” but now new material is being written and arranged for the trimmed-down band.
Their aim, says Noura, was to promote Mauritanian music, “to show the musical tradition we are coming from. It’s such rich music, and the aim is to make it global. And it’s a dynamic form. One can evolve within the tradition.”
A largely desert state on the far west coast of Africa, Mauritania has borders with Mali and Senegal, as well as Western Sahara and Algeria. In the West, at least, these neighbouring countries are far better known for their music traditions than Mauritania, so does she find that frustrating?
“Yes, because Mauritanian music is so rich. It’s a complex music when compared to Touareg music. There’s a lot of depth to the Moorish music tradition that makes it curious that it has never had more attention. It’s such a special thing and I want to show the world this special tradition.”
It’s special, Tinari continues “because melodically, Moorish music has a system of five different modes, so there’s a vast melodic palate from which people are working. In Malian music they only use two of those modes. So the fact that it’s conceived of in this way makes it very different to other music in the region. There are a lot of theoretical rules, as with an Indian raga or a maqam in Arabic music.”
It’s this variety that makes it easy for Noura to work with a range of different musicians. She can collaborate with ease with the Syrian musicians and singers, but as Tinari explains “there are other modes that she can use when singing with Malian artists – she has sung with Oumou Sangaré and many others. But there’s this classical element that I find quite different to Malian griot music.” Mauritanian music includes modes that sound like the blues, along with styles to encourage fighters, or for marriages.
As a drummer, Tinari is fascinated by the different rhythms he plays with the band. “A lot of it is in 6/8, and it’s like a link to the rhythms I have heard in Guinea, Mali and Senegal and those of the Arab world. It touches on both sides. And there are some rhythms that are very particular to Mauritania.” He claps his hands to demonstrate reffet, a rhythm that can be heard on Tzenni on the song ‘Hebebeb (Zrag)’.
So how hard was it to re-work this ancient, complex music for a four-piece electric guitar band that also features Noura’s traditional ardine harp? “It was hard at first, but we got used to it,” says Noura. “The tuning was difficult. My husband Jeiche doesn’t use Western tuning on his guitar. He plays a modified Moorish guitar.” Tinari found that “Noura’s singing and ardine playing go perfectly with the guitar, but our bassist Ousmane Touré plays a Western bass, and has got to fit in with that. Integrating the bass and drums is what is important.”
And as for Noura’s powerful vocal style, she says there was no problem playing with this band. “I’m a traditional singer, and my technique doesn’t change. But every venue is different, and I can sing different things at weddings or festivals.” As an iggawen, or griot, Noura comes from a long and distinguished line of musicians who were guardians of the country’s history and expected to give advice, as well as praise, in their songs. The ancient griot tradition continues on the new album, with the title-track on Arbina. “It’s a name for God,” Noura explains, and though this is partly a religious song, it also examines the concept of sëbeu and the positive actions people can take on their own destinies.
The subject of ‘Arbina’ is one very close to Noura as specifically addresses women’s healthcare: “So it advises women about getting themselves screened for breast cancer or uterine cancer. I have had this idea for some time,” she confides, “because my mother died of breast cancer.”
Elsewhere, the new album is “a patchwork” of both the new and the traditional. So the new songs include ‘Arbina’, the gutsy and upbeat ‘Tia’ and the exuberant ‘Mohammedoun’, which is a praise song devoted to the prophet Muhammad, while ‘Suedi Koum’, which has echoes of desert blues, is traditional and the slower, bluesy and reggae-edged track ‘Ghlana’ is “a mixture of old and new.”
“There’s a repertoire she draws on,” Tinari explains to me, “and she adds things and sews it all together to create this modern sound we are going for. She is creating within the tradition, making it evolve.”
Despite her celebrated musical family and iggawen roots, Noura says it was never inevitable that she would become a singer. “My father was very modern in outlook. I was not forced to become an artist or to sing, but I chose it. My grandmother Mounina was a renowned singer, and when I was young I would sing around the house and my grandfather would say to her ‘this girl has got something.’ So if you come from a family of great musicians, they can talent-scout whether you can sing!”
She started out singing as a backing singer with her celebrated step-mother Dimi Mint Abba, “and travelled with her to four or five different countries when I was 17,” she remembers. “But then I got married and started singing at weddings. And Dimi also stopped touring at a certain point and chose to stay in Mauritania. A lot of people in the West don’t realise that it can be more profitable and economically stable for musicians to stay at home.”
In Mauritania, she explains, there is no club scene and no music bars, unlike neighbouring Mali or Senegal, and the vast majority of live music performances take place at weddings, where artists can be very well rewarded, “though you have to sing for three hours at a time.”
Noura has decided not to concentrate on the lucrative wedding scene, but to take Mauritanian music to an international audience “because it’s more interesting. But I will still do weddings,” she admits, “if there’s a personal connection, or if it’s for friends or family.”
“She will probably sing at my wedding,” adds Tinari. It should be quite the party.