Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every month. Today, he chats with the Mauritanian artist Noura Mint Seymali about how breaking with tradition is giving new life to her music.
The intersection of different peoples and cultures is the best catalyst for great music. The coast of the Gulf of Guinea, from Freetown to Port Harcourt, gave birth to highlife and palm wine music, genres straddling local traditions and international trends. The Malian desert, between Sub-Saharan Africa and the North African Arab world, is the breeding ground for Tuareg music. The triangle that island capitals Kingston, Havana and Port-au-Prince make has given birth to even more incredible music still. All have been the site of significant intersections of peoples and cultures.
So is Mauritania, a desert country in western North Africa that borders Senegal. It makes sense if you look at a map, but I had absolutely no idea about its music. Thankfully last spring I had a fascinating encounter with an American living in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, Matthew Tinari. "Mauritania has this fascinating outsider status to both Francophone West Africa and the Arab world where it belongs to both and to neither at the same time," Matthew told me. "It’s a cultural reality you can actually feel on the street." He introduced me to Noura Mint Seymali, a Mauritanian griot—a West African term for a storytelling musician—with whom he plays the drums and manages. Together with her guitar genius husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly, Noura has already performed across three continents, and is currently promoting her first full-length album release, TZENNI, with a North American tour this month.
What's an artist's routine like in Mauritania? Marriages are the most steady form of work for musicians or griots like me in Mauritania. There are always a lot of marriages; certain months are busier than others. I don’t perform at marriages nearly as much as I used to but they are still a very big part of our culture and lifestyle and something that I know will always be a part of my artistic life. Sometimes around [Mauritania's capital] Nouakchott we do smaller “invitations” or private concerts. These are more informal engagements that might happen in someone’s home with a very small crowd. Much of my time these days is also devoted to taking care of my four children and doing family stuff. If we’re not out performing I like to keep sharp by rehearsing at home with my husband Jeich and my brother Sidi, who is also a singer. Jeich plays frequently with his brothers who are all musicians as well. We’re very lucky; family life and artistic life overlap a lot. Even my two sons, Mohammed (6) and Lamar (2), are already becoming very active musicians!
It seems you took a sharp turn away from the regular routine of griot—how did everything unfold? I’ve performed at marriages and traditional engagements ever since I was a child. Doing so was an invaluable education and it continues to be an important part of who I am as an artist and griot. However, ultimately the wedding circuit in Mauritania is a very limited platform. There is a lot of silly gossip and competition. As a wedding singer you play the same music as everyone else and will be forgotten as soon as you stop. It’s always been my ambition to put Mauritania on the map musically and make a real contribution to the evolution of Moorish music. People simply have no idea about Mauritania—we are not as well known as other African countries like Mali or Senegal, but our music is every bit as rich. This is so unfortunate and I love when I have the opportunity to represent Mauritania on the international stage; it’s an honor and something I take very seriously. Believe it or not, playing with a contemporary band has engendered a lot of domestic criticism from Mauritanians who feel I should just stick to the traditional circuit. They know me as a griot and think what we’re doing with the band is frivolous or that I would be better off sticking to the griot circuit. I’m even getting Facebook solicitations to play weddings at home while we’re out on tour right now as response to news from the road! We have a lot of great support from our community, but there’s also some jealousy and conformist thinking…and it’s quite unusual for a Mauritanian artist to be out on tour for the entire month of Ramadan.
"People simply have no idea about Mauritania—we are not as well known as other African countries like Mali or Senegal, but our music is every bit as rich."
How has working with a contemporary band impacted on your music? Ever since 2004 my band has always benefitted from a mix of musicians from different backgrounds. Everyone brings something unique. Our bassist is Pulaar, our drummer is American; we’ve had Bambara, Soninke, Senegalese and French members. Mauritania is a diverse country and while we obviously draw very heavily on Moorish tradition, we want to make something that is international. Working with a diversity of musicians has enriched my career more than if I was to rest squarely in the Moorish scene.
Where do you see your music fitting within Africa, the Arab world and the West? Our music has only just started to become more internationally accepted. It’s still in a very early stage of debut for global recognition, even though we’ve been working at it for many many years. We have a linguistic and Islamic connection to the Arab world, but in fact our music is quite different from the Arab classical tradition both melodically and rhythmically—it's not necessarily any more familiar to people there than anywhere else. My father studied music in Iraq and this was partly what inspired him to work so hard to valorize Moorish music. We have played in Egypt and Algeria and hope to continue to develop an audience throughout the Arab world which has such a dynamic youth culture.
We are African, and Moorish music has many shared elements with other styles on the continent but remains quite distinct. The tidinit, for example, is an instrument played throughout West Africa, but we play it in a style that’s different from what you hear in Mali, Guinea, or Senegal. The ardine is totally specific to Mauritania. People often group us together with Toureg music, but it’s not actually the same at all. There are internationally known artists from almost every African country—we hope to fill that void for Mauritania.
Our music relates directly to the blues and funk and many Western styles that have roots in Africa. I think for this reason we’ve gotten a pretty great response in the US, Canada, and UK. It resonates. American audiences in particular seem to connect. French interest has been much more inconsistent and lukewarm. As the band continues to evolve I hope we can make it out of being presented always as “world music,” collaborate with more challenging artists, and play at festivals across the creative spectrum in Western markets.
What are the lyrical themes of your album, TZENNI? Songs themes include: love, the prophet Mohammed, sickness, the earth, history. The only subject I don’t really sing about really is politics—I try to remain outside of it.
Weirdest moment on tour? In Chicago, I discovered my veil had a hole in it a few songs into our set. I had to get off stage and go back to the green room, which was in a separate building, to go change it. I don’t think anybody really understood what was going on…
Best moment on stage? Last summer we did a tour in Algeria. At the last show in Alger my husband Jeich became very ill just moments before we were supposed to go on. He was vomiting and we had to take him to the hospital for an injection. The show was delayed a bit, but when we got back to the venue Jeich felt okay and we went on. Everyone played an amazing set that night!