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Noura Mint Seymali: Bringing Mauritania's music to new audiences

By Alison Hird

With her mix of folk, funk rock and electrified desert blues, Noura Mint Seymali has done more than anyone to bring her country's traditional music to new audiences. Her strong voice and mastery of the ardine harp - unique to Mauritania and played only by women - are wonderfully showcased on her latest album Arbina. Her quartet performed on RFI's Musiques du monde programme.

Seymali is a griot or oral poet and comes from a long line of Mauritanian praise singers known as iggawin. Mauritania is a deeply spiritual Muslim country and most of her repertory is sacred.

"Arbina is a name for God, and the [title track] talks about breast cancer," Seymali told RFI. "We ask God to help all women suffering from cancer. My mother died of it."

Other subjects include "love, the Prophet, peace, and lots of women's subjects," she adds.

Noura Mint Seymali and band perform on RFI's Musiques du Monde © RFI/Taguy M'Fah Traoré

Seymali started out working with her stepmother, the great Dimi Mint Abba when she was just thirteen. Her grandmother, Mounina, trained her in instrumental and vocal technique. She went on to master the ardine, a kind of harp with 12 to 14 chords, found only in Mauritania and reserved to women.

She began modernising traditional Moorish music alongside her husband Jeich Ould Chighaly, a master of the lute known as tidinite, and himself a descendent of one the most renowned griots in Mauritania. The couple formed their first fusion band in 2004, playing on the local traditional circuit, often at weddings.

In 2012 the couple began playing as a quartet with bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Mathew Tinari.

The quartet’s first EPs were called Azawan and Azawan II, recorded in 2012 and 2013. "Azawan is [the name for all] the instruments," says Seymali, "ardine, tidinite, guitar and drums."

The liner notes to the Azawan cd, written by Chighaly's older sister Aicha Mint Chighaly, give insight into the five modes that structure Mauritanian music and which have to be followed in a certain order.

Karr illustrates pleasure, joy, religious sentiment, and is associated with childhood; Faghu awakens the blood, pride and anger, prepares you for war and sacrifice, it represents the beginning of virility; Khal and Byad express the more nuanced sentiments of adulthood - such as pride, love and sadness;  and finally leb-tayt is a nostalgic mode, peaceful, associated with old age.

Noura Mint Seymali J. Penney

Seymali’s band has toured extensively in North America and Europe. The latest album Arbina, like Tzenni before it, went to the top of the world music charts in Europe.

While the band has electrified Moorish music, Seymali maintains tradition remains at the heart of what they're doing.

"We’ve kept the tradition because everyone already knows about guitar, drums and bass," she says. "The main thing for us is to show our instrument. Ardine is not as well known as tidinite, it's an instrument for women, and for Mauritanians. You can find the tidinite in Mali and Senegal but the ardine, you’ll only find it here."

In 2015, Seymali was named best female singer in north Africa and while performing at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark the same year, was asked to join Damon Albarn’s Africa Express collective. The band was then tasked with performing alongside the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians.

"It was a sad story," says Chibhaly, "musicians disappeared, some of them died".

Asked how she thinks the band can help, Seymali gives the no nonsense reply "the only thing we have is music". Great music at that.

Upcoming concerts: 05 August, Katowice, Poland - Off fest; 06 August, Floreffe, Belgium - Esperanzah

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