Noura Mint Seymali: A lesson in Mauritania, and its music

Noura Mint Seymali
Noura Mint Seymali

Calling it desert blues doesn’t capture it. Calling it psychedelic rock doesn’t capture it.

Noura Mint Seymali may well be the only Mauritanian musician you’ve heard. That is, if you’ve heard any music from Mauritania. That is, if you’ve heard of Mauritania.

And there we have Noura Mint Seymali’s mission in a nutshell.

Briefly, Mauritania is in West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast into the Sahara, nestled in a historically and culturally rich region, bordered by Mali, Algeria, Senegal and Morocco — all of which have brought forth some of the most vital African music and some of the giants of world music on the global circuit of the last several decades. But Mauritania? Not so much.

“One of her primary goals is to make Mauritania and the music better known throughout the world,” says her American-born manager/producer/drummer Matthew Tinari, as the bus they are riding in crosses the border on the way from Vancouver to Seattle for a gig. The tour will be continuing from their down the coast for a show Saturday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, a potent double bill with opening act Tal National, a young, dynamic band from Saharan nation Niger. “This group does a lot of cultural ambassadorial work in the truest sense of the word, going places no artists from Mauritania have played before.”

Update, Friday 3 p.m.: Tal National have been forced to cancel due to travel problems.

||| Watch: The video for “Tzenni”

But it’s not just a mission. It’s her legacy.

Her step-mother Dimi Mint Abba, with whom Seymali began performing as a teenager, was considered not just the top Mauritanian vocalist, but one of the greatest singers in Africa, tracing her lineage through centuries of griots, the troubadours whose music is key to the region’s culture. No less than Malian great Ali Farka Touré dubbed her the greatest. “Moorish Music from Mauritania,” her 1990 album with Khalifa Ould Eide, master of the African lute the tidinit, was the first studio recording of Moorish music to be released outside of Mauritania and still stands for many as a landmark of West African music. (Abba died in 2011 following an accident.) And Seymali’s father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, was a music scholar who developed the first system for written notation of Moorish melodies.

For newcomers, Seymali’s dazzling 2014 international debut album, “Tzenni,” would be a great place to start — not to mention her concerts, gripping performances that have made her a rising star on the global festival circuit. Just ask anyone who saw her and her band two summers ago at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her music is a swirling modern presentation of ancient Moorish griot sounds, with her forceful, trilling vocals weaving in the interlocking curls of her ardine (a nine-stringed harp reserved specifically for women) and swirling electric guitar lines of her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, along with pulsating bass and drums. It’s also to some extent an attempt to present something that represents a good deal of the country — not an easy task.

Officially the Islamic Republic of Mauritania since gaining independence from France in 1960, it’s in the northern portion of West Africa, running from the Atlantic coast into the western Sahara. The country is nestled into one of the most culturally and historically rich regions of the continent, a crossroads of Arabic Moors (the derivation of its name) as well as Tuareg, Wolof, Berber, Somike and Pulaar people, among others. As such, it’s in the heart of a region that’s produced some of the most dynamic musical traditions in the world, in recent generations producing some of the most beloved, influential giants of what, for lack of a better term, is called world music: Ali Farka Touré, Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Rachid Taha, Tinariwen, the Master Musicians of Jajouka, among many more. None of them from Mauritania.

There is a kind of very purist, almost isolationist attitude that you encounter there. In regards to griot music, a lot of people think it should stay how it is.

“One thing is it’s a very small population, around three million people,” she says. “That’s part of it. And there is a kind of very purist, almost isolationist attitude that you encounter there. In regards to griot music, a lot of people think it should stay how it is.”

Tinari adds, “It’s a very difficult context to work in versus other countries in the region because of some infrastructural issues. There’s not really a music industry as in Senegal or Mali. And you will see singers trying to make it in the Arab pop circuit, which is off the radar for western media. So there’s not a lot of it, and not so visible.”

Noura Mint Seymali

Noura Mint Seymali and her band

And it’s very difficult to represent Mauritania as a whole.

“Mauritania covers a lot of regions and very different ethnic groups,” Tinari says. “Noura’s been on a song promoting integration and tolerance among these groups, where they had a singer from each group singing in each of the national languages. Historically this has been a crossroads of different Saharan and sub-Saharan cultures. That is the fabric of the place, a mixed place. Even within the Moorish community, there are different lineages. She is Moorish, and Jeiche as well. The bassist Ousmane Touré is Pulaar and I am American, from Philadelphia originally. Even within the group we’ve got a mix. Not typical.”

In neighboring countries those differences have led to great strife and conflict, notably Mali which exploded into civil war a few years ago.

“What happened in Mali is very specific to Mali,” Seymali says. “The separatist movement of the Tuareg does not have the same impact in Mauritania. Mauritania has its own political history and is peaceful now.”

The album topped many world music critics’ year-end lists, acclaimed as one of the most dynamic West African arrivals since Tinariwen emerged from the Tuareg culture of adjacent Saharan Mali. And if her music has been mis-cast in some quarters as Saharan blues or desert trance, current favored terms, it may simply be that other reference points can be elusive. Not to mention that while the songs address, poetically, such universals as faith, love and home, they do so largely in an Arabic dialect that most of us don’t understand.

When you say, ‘music from Mauritania,’ that doesn’t mean anything to most people.

“When you say, ‘music from Mauritania,’ that doesn’t mean anything to most people,” Tinari says. “You have to go a step further and relate it to something. Luckily that is not our job. That is not something Noura herself is very concerned with. She knows what the music is and wants to connect internationally. Calling it desert blues doesn’t capture it. Calling it psychedelic rock doesn’t capture it. But both of those are coming from the idea that this is allowing people to have some sort of transportive experience.”

And that is something they’ve taken on in a wide range of contexts and, with a new album in the works for fall release — including a song about breast cancer, an homage to Seymali’s mother who died from the disease — she and her band hope to take it further.

“The worst thing would be to market it as a cultural artifact that can only be heard at museums and such,” Tinari says. “We have a unique position. We can do both. A lot of bands don’t have the options. We played at the World Islamic Economic Forum in November in Kuala Lumpur, and we’ll be at South By Southwest in a couple of weeks. And at Royce Hall now.”