Noura Mint Seymali is breaking ground. Heir to a Mauritanian Griot lineage stretching back for untold generations, Noura is blasting forward on the ancient spaceship of pentatonic desert blues and carving out a personality on her way as vanguard Diva of the Sahel.
As the daughter of the late Seymali Ould Mouhamed Val, a revered scholar-musician credited as the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania, Noura possesses the sort of aural precision that is the glue of traditions across time. She is a tradition bearer. In her teenage years she was groomed as a choriste with Dimi Mint Abba (her step-mother), one of the first and only Mauritanian artists to be “discovered” in the West. But despite all this traditional cred and the fast-and-easy money that traditional weddings represent – where the musicians are literally showered in bills of Ouguiya (“Make it rain” origins?) – Noura has distanced herself from the usual griot venues in favor of a modern orchestre and the international festival circuit.
At Mali’s famous Festival au Desert, Spain’s Pirineos and Noches de Ramadan, and with dates in Maroc, Cote d’Ivoire, Congo-Brazzaville, Algeria, and Sénégal, Noura has made her debut on the international stage, attracting attention for her vocal agility, depth and range. Her particular brand of so-called Afropop is one that reflects the context of métissage from which it originates – the cultural geography of Mauritania being where Arab and Black Africa coalesce – effortlessly linking tonal and rhythmic modalities from opposite sides of the Sahara and setting it to a back beat.
Mauritania’s unusual position between these macro-cultural networks finds its most obvious manifestation in digital age domestic life via ubiquitous satellite TV, where avid consumption of programming ranging from Turkish soaps and Saudi news to the latest music videos of Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Lebanon is an across-class feature of homes (broadband is still largely relegated to cyber cafés). A mother of three and a product of this more eclectic generation, Noura is unafraid to compose melancholy Moorish reggae or sing traditional over techno beats. Its really just a matter of what catches her interest.
Being a Diva is not easy. Noura keeps a higher professional profile than many Mauritanian women. Her husband, a similarly non-conventional griot, is in fact the guitarist/tidinit player in her backing band. Although her career interests have brought the occasional social pressure, ultimately most would like to see Noura globalize Mauritanian music in a way similar to that which has happened for neighboring nations like Mali and Senegal. Interestingly, Mauritania remains one of few places in the world where traditional music is still better supported and more profitable than pop music. In carving out her style with what is locally referred to as “tradi-moderne” music, Noura has by no means left tradition behind; she begins each concert playing ardine (a harp played by women), accompanied by the usual ensemble of tidinit (lute) and teubeul (drum) to set the tone before being joined on stage by a modern rhythm section.
2010 sees the release of El Howl, Noura Mint Seymali’s second album. She speaks on topics like love, the role of women, and the Prophet Mohammed. Followed-up with a domestic tour and concert recently in Agadir, Morocco at Festival Timitar, the album is in it’s second stage of remix. Listen below to two tracks off the first album, Tarabe, and stay tuned for El Howl’s re-release:
Live in Atar on the El Howl tour:
– M. Tinari