Interview: Noura Mint Seymali

Noura Mint

First published in The Herald on 25 March, 2015

Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana: it doesn’t take a great deal of delving to tap into the musical riches of these countries. Thanks to a sprawling world music industry, with its major labels, trendy champions and touring infrastructures, we know of the desert blues of Bamako; the Afrobeat and global Naija pop hits of Lagos; the high-budget raï of Algiers; the classic swinging highlife of Accra.

But vast Mauritania, an Islamic Republic neighbouring Mali to the east, Algeria to the north and Senegal to the south, is less familiar on world music circuits. With sandstorms blowing in from the Sahara and cultural strains from across the Magreb and West Africa, Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott is where the sounds of Bamako, Dakar and Marrakesh find their trading routes. Mauritania has several indigenous musical styles: Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke and more, all overlapping histories and ethnicities with neighbouring countries. But the dominant ethnic group — the moors who give the country its name — have a classical music tradition that is singular and captivating. With poetic narratives sung in Hassaniya, a beguiling tonal system and unique instruments including the harp-like ardine, this music has been passed down for centuries in the hands and mouths of Mauritania’s musical nobility: the griots.

Noura Mint Seymali and her husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly are two of the country’s foremost griots, both descended from ancient family lines. Seymali’s father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, was a noted musicologist — the first person to notate the traditionally oral Moorish music, charting its various modes and writing about instruments like the tidinit, ardine and t’beul. Noura Mint Seymali’s step-mother was Dimi Mint Abba, a major star on the Nouakchott scene. The young Noura Mint toured as a backing singer in Dimi’s band from the age of 13; now her own albums are global sellers. Last year’s Tzenni is a genre-defying blend of beats, woozy guitar distortion and throaty traditional Moorish song. It’s mesmerising stuff.

Speaking via an interpreter ahead of a rare performance at Glasgow’s Counterflows festival next weekend, Seymali told me about the role that griots still perform in today’s Mauritania and why she is so keen to shake up traditional forms. Her answers were full, thoughtful and poetic; she considers herself a cultural ambassador, and she clearly takes the responsibility seriously.

To hear Noura Mint Seymali perform at all is something of an anomaly: griots traditionally played a functional role in Mauritanian society by accompanying warriors to battle — a far cry from Langside Halls where Seymali and her band appear next Sunday. Like our own bards or balladeers, griots told folk stories or remembered historical events, and although today they mainly perform at weddings or private receptions, their narratives still muse on the past while engaging with current events, gossip and social issues.

“Griots still very much play a functional role in Mauritanian society!” Seymali stresses. “This is not a thing of the past. We keep the social history by consummating relationships between families with our music. It’s true that there is less of a connection to the battlefield as in generations past, but those myths are still with us and sung about. Griots are often invited to play at state functions and represent the country in an official sense, which might be understood as a modern iteration of the statesman role.”

Seymali suggests several reasons why traditional music has remained so viable and appreciated in Mauritania. “Part of it has to do with economics, and the fact that we are an Islamic Republic,” she says. “There are not the same sort of clubs where foreign pop music gets disseminated on the dance floor, as you see in other African capitals.”

That said, Nouakchott does have a vibrant hip-hop culture, much of which originates from the Pulaar community, and Seymali has made several collaborations with Mauritanian rappers over the years. Nouakchott teenagers are today hooked up to the internet and TV like anywhere else, but for live music, Mauritanians still rely on weddings and traditional events.

Spirituality, says Seymali, is everything in her music. “The source, the purpose, the message. For music to truly live it must be endowed with the grace of Allah. We are not a political band, but we do hope that our music brings people closer to God in a universal sense. An artist’s life is one of spiritual surrender. Some of the songs I sing are about the Prophet, others are about love, but all may be understood as spiritual.”

And yet Seymali and her husband Jeiche are no purists. They fuse rock, dance, punk, psych and more with their Moorish heritage, and they tour globally as well as keeping up their traditional functions at home. I ask whether there is a paradox here. “Sure,” she replies. “And there are plenty of people who think Moorish music should be static and have a generally isolationist mentality about Mauritania. They say we’re just making music for the white people or whatever, that I should just stick to marriages. Why travel around with a band when I could make more money at home playing for politicians and at weddings? But there are also so many people in Mauritania who are very proud of us and what we’re doing. They’re proud that we’re showcasing Mauritania internationally. The fact is that we are griot; we know the music and respect our tradition and the music is ours to change and evolve.”

Which brings her naturally to Counterflows, a festival devoted to music pushing all kinds of formal boundaries. Its three previous editions have generated some of Glasgow’s most visceral live music experiences of recent years: Peter Brotzmann’s due with Paal Nilssen-Love in 2013; Matts Gustavson, Maya Dunietz and Joe McPhee in 2014. The descriptors often used here are ‘underground’ or ’experimental’: does Seymali accept these terms?

“Well,” she reasons, “most people have never heard Mauritanian music, so it carries a forcibly other-worldly veneer. Musically we hear a lot of references to psych or free jazz — we’ll be playing at a ‘trance’ music festival in Brooklyn later this year, for example. This might partly have to do with the actual nature of the music: it’s in harmonic modes and rhythms that are extremely rich but slightly unintelligible to the Western ear. It sounds ‘out there’. For us, of course, it’s normal. This is the music we grew up with. But what we’ve been doing with the band is an innovation within the tradition, and in that sense it is very definitely something ‘experimental’.”

Counterflows is at various Glasgow venues, April 2-5

Counterflows 2015: highlights

  • New sounds from Brazil via Rio De Janeiro’s festival Novas Frequencias: don’t miss the bold, sweet guitar distortion and roaming vocals of singer/poet Negro Leo. CCA, April 2
  • Featured artist is the multifarious Glasgow musician Richard Youngs: hear his new work for four voices (CCA, April 3), a family trio called The Flexibles (The 78, April 4) and a solo set (Glad Cafe, April 5)
  • Improvising mavericks Evan Parker and Sten Sandell duet on saxophone and church organ. Glasgow University Chapel, April 4
  • Noura Mint Seymali closes Counterflows. Langside Halls, April 5