Introducing… Noura Mint Seymali

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #102 (August/September 2014) p23. Download a pdf here.

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Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to the Mauritanian griot singer about the future of Moorish music (Photo: Joe Penney)

Noura Mint Seymali was destined for a life of music. Born into a griot family and the daughter of Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, who was instrumental in opening up Mauritanian music to the world, it was in her blood. “Music is the lifeblood of my culture and family, it’s something truly inseparable from my life. I always dreamed of being able to expand Moorish music in new directions as [my father] did.”

Having begun her musical career at the age of 13 singing for her step-mother, Dimi Mint Abba, Seymali has gone on to do just as she hoped, introducing Mauritanian Moorish music to the 21st century.  But Seymali’s life could have easily taken another route. While there are many respected women griots, not everyone in Mauritania takes kindly to female musicians. “It can be extremely difficult for women who come from griot families to marry outside the caste. Often they have to stop performing entirely. This is because the choice ultimately rests with the husband. Even if the husband has no particular issue himself, he is likely to receive a lot of pressure from his extended family to keep his wife ‘in check.’ People may say it’s haram, sinful. Mostly it’s just jealousy dressed up as righteousness.”

Thankfully, Seymali married another griot, guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly, in 1996 and they have been playing together ever since. Seymali sings and plays the ardine (a harp played exclusively by women) while Chighaly plays guitar and tidinit (an ngoni-like lute), and together they have been exploring the possibilities of modern Moorish music. Seymali sees her experimentation as a way of better understanding the source music. She clearly has a profound respect for it: “it is beautiful, sacred, complex, competitive, and often insular. Our music chronicles our history, consummates social bonds, and transmits messages.”

On her first international release, Tzenni, Seymali and her husband are joined by Ousmane Touré on bass and Matthew Tinari on drums. “It is the crystallisation of a new approach to the music,” she reflects. “It’s a more raw and focused sound than any of my previous recordings.” Seymali’s impressive voice shines over Chighaly’s psychedelic guitar and tidinit – but at the same time it is ingeniously rooted in something much deeper, older. “Some of the repertoire we draw on can be hundreds of years old. Griots have been ‘updating’ forever, but it becomes newly relevant if played in a state of true conviction, bent around a new time and place,” she explains. “This means not being afraid to change or feeling like you have to follow every new thing.”

The album’s title means to spin or circulate in Hassaniya and the music twists and twirls in trance-like repetition, without ever seeming to settle. “We live in a very unstable moment – things are changing so fast now. Tzenni reflects that. But it’s also about the power of faith, serenity, and joy in the face of all these things that are beyond our control.”

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