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Mauritanian musician Noura Mint Seymali wants to modernise the sounds she grew up with

She might come from a Mauritanian musical dynasty but her aim is to update her nation's traditional sounds and bring them to the wider world.
The Mauritanian singer and musician Noura Mint Seymali with her husband and bandmate Jeiche Ould Chighaly, backstage at the Barbican Centre in London. Dave Stelfox for The National
The Mauritanian singer and musician Noura Mint Seymali with her husband and bandmate Jeiche Ould Chighaly, backstage at the Barbican Centre in London. Dave Stelfox for The National

“It has always been my dream to bring Moorish music to the rest of the world,” says Noura Mint Seymali, sitting in a quiet backstage area at the Barbican Centre in London. She has just completed a soundcheck for her debut UK performance at this year’s Sahara Soul concert – an annual one-night event dedicated to the music of north-west Africa – and it is clear that the opportunity to play to a new audience fills her with pride and a certain sense of responsibility.

While “African music” is often still used as an easy umbrella term, the reality is that this continent is so vast and diverse that its culture cannot possibly be forced into a simple catch-all taxonomy. Still, it is an undeniable fact that the global profile of musicians from there has risen considerably in recent years. Now artists such as Amadou & Mariam and Tinariwen are no longer consigned to the world music aisle and are instead rightly treated as international rock stars. Most attention, though, is still fixed on the output of a relatively small number of countries, Mali and Senegal chief among them.

Seymali, however, represents the distinct and largely unrecognised traditions of a nation that borders both of these musical powerhouses. “In Mauritania, where I am from, the griots are the people who play the music and tell the stories,” she explains of her upbringing. “I grew up in a griot family, so music was always all around me. I started very young because it is believed that if you sing until you lose your voice as a child, you will have a much greater vocal range when you are older. Because of this, I remember my brother always driving me to sing louder and louder. Not everyone in my family is a musician, but I always wanted to sing and looked up to my father and my grandmother because they were. If you are born into a family like mine and you have the talent, you are definitely pushed to become as good as you can be.”

Seymali’s roots may be in a highly regarded national dynasty, but her family also provided a forward- and outward-looking environment for her to flourish in. She was taught to play the ardine – a nine-string calabash harp that is the sole preserve of women – by her grandmother Mounina. Meanwhile, her father Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall studied classical Arabic music in Iraq, devised the first system of Moorish melodic notation and adapted the Mauritanian national anthem. He also wrote many songs for and in collaboration with Seymali’s stepmother, the famous singer Dimi Mint Abba, with whom Seymali began her career as a backing vocalist.

Accordingly, Seymali is steeped in the history of Moorish music and enthusiastic about its future possibilities. The heart of the form, she explains, is known as the “azawan”. This combination of the ardine and the tidinit (a four-stringed lute played only by men) makes up the foundation of her work today. Family also remains central to her process. A key member of her band, on tidinit and guitar, is her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly.

Talking and answering questions as a couple, their relationship is obviously warm and comfortable. But this relaxed personal connection stands in contrast to the sound they make together. Seymali’s third album Tzenni – released earlier this year on the German label Glitterbeat [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk] – is defined by the rawness and grit of its spiralling pentatonic melodies. Compared to the undulating dunescapes of Mali’s Tamikrest or the sumptuous vocals of the Sahrawi singer Aziza Brahim, Seymali offers a powerful and intensely visceral take on desert blues.

This is, at least in part, a result of her willingness to innovate and collaborate. “I believe music should be like technology,” Seymali says. “It should change and develop as time goes on. Thanks to my father, I grew up around fusions of music as well as traditional ideas. He was committed to moving Moorish music forward and ever since I was very young, it has been in my mind that I should continue in a similar way. Then I met Jeiche and we got married. Luckily, we shared the same dream to modernise and update the music, so that is what we have done.”

The couple started their first fusion group in 2004. Now, in addition to Chighaly, Seymali’s band includes the Senegal-based American drummer and producer Matthew Tinari (who also acts as translator during our conversation) and Ousmane Touré on bass. They came together, Tinari explains, as a result of meeting at a festival in Dakar in 2008. “I was playing drums with another artist and they saw my set and invited me to play with them,” he says. “I visited them in Nouakchott, spent some time there and that was where our relationship began. We experimented with other musicians for a while, but our current line-up really coalesced around 2012.”

The group’s decision to play, record and take their music on tour together was a risky strategy in a number of ways. “In Mauritania, the most important forum for music is weddings,” explains Chighaly. “There are a few cultural spaces where people can perform and some festivals, but there are no bars and no nightclubs. Music is primarily played at ceremonies and celebrations. As a musician, it is possible to have a good life like this. That is why music from Mauritania is not often exported to or heard in other countries.”

“Some people wanted us to continue doing only traditional songs and playing on the wedding circuit,” Seymali says. “It has not been easy to make the music that we are making, but we have always believed in what we are doing and that’s why we have kept on. We have had to do a lot of justifying to our families and to other people, because we could probably make more money playing at marriage ceremonies than we do playing internationally.

“But it is better to earn your reputation little by little than to gain success all at once. Many people in the countries we have visited have been very supportive of us. Now people in Mauritania – particularly the younger ones – are also coming to understand what we are doing.”

Chighaly adds: “Traditionally, a griot turns up at a wedding, does their job and is paid for that, so some people couldn’t see why we wanted to do something much more difficult. To be successful in other countries is hard and you have to think in a very long-term way.”

“Now that people see us playing in London and the US and all over the world, they can understand,” Seymali says with a laugh. “Really, they just want to see results.”

Given the insular nature of the Mauritanian musical scene and the country’s general lack of presence on the global stage, it is not surprising that the couple often find themselves acting as de facto ambassadors for their nation and its culture. Far from viewing this as an additional and unwelcome pressure, both are delighted to have worked their way to such a position.

“I’m jealous of the attention that some other countries receive,” says Seymali. “I’m sure that Mauritanian music is just as rich and valuable as that of any other nation in Africa – even the most famous ones – but not many people know about us. It’s not just music, but commerce, sport, everything. That is a big motivation for me, to let people know where and who we are. This is not something that I find difficult. I love it. There are many, many more talented artists in Mauritania. It is an honour and a privilege to think that what I am doing could help to open the doors for them.”

Dave Stelfox is a journalist and photographer based in London.


Updated: October 9, 2014 04:00 AM