MAURITANIA: Arbina - Noura Mint Seymali
Adapting the music of West Africa's griots for the modern day can be a challenge, but Noura Mint Seymali proves herself worthy
Like many artists we cover, Mauritanian griot Noura Mint Seymali comes from a line of well-respected musicians. In fact, for those of you in the know, the clue comes in the previous sentence. The griot is a caste found across West Africa, whose job is to be a repository of stories, oral history, poetry, and music, of course. Seymali’s father composed the Mauritanian national anthem, and her stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba was Mauritania’s most renowned singer of her day. Seymali got her start learning from the family, singing back-up at her stepmother’s concerts, and even now she performs live and on her studio releases with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chigaly, who plays guitar. Though she comes from musical stock, Seymali has been keen to separate herself from the more traditional sounds that often come from griots. While there is much of West Africa and Mauritania in her music, and the wellspring of tunes and melodies native to the region form the backbone of the album, Seymali and Chigaly have created a sound that is reminiscent of Tuareg rock, Arabic traditional, and the blues, and yet remains all their own. Perhaps it is precisely because of her rich musical credentials that she has sought to create her own brand and identity, perhaps not. What is for sure is that the music she makes is challenging, intense, and often fascinating to listen to.
“There is a lot to like here from the fiery vocals to the unconventional instrumentation.”
The main selling point of this album is Seymali’s voice. She has a powerful and intense voice that can evoke much emotion and passion almost to the point of discomfort, but at its best it can be deeply involving. Arbina, the title track, is a very good example of this, where the sheer power of her voice is reminiscent of flamenco singers. This may seem like an odd comparison, and a more immediate one would be to singers like Oum Kalthoum which is also apt, but considering flamenco’s roots in Andalusia which was formerly Moorish, the connection may not be so strange. The entire song is sung in this passionate tone, and when combined with the sparse instrumentation, it leaves the listener with a sense of unease and unsettledness. And yet, it is still a song I enjoy, even if I would not put it on when I want to relax. The other main feature of the album that stands out is Chigaly’s guitar, which has a rather unique tone, and he plays it in fashion that places it somewhere between a band like Tinariwen and a psychedelic band like Jefferson Airplane or The Doors, the song Na Sane being a particularly good example of this. The unique sound of her voice and his almost synth sounding guitar, when combined with the baseline of traditional melodies is certainly a heady and fascinating mix.
Arbina manages to be an interesting album, even if it does not quite engage me as emotionally as it should, though often Seymali’s voice does evoke sensations through sheer willpower alone. The album is very focussed and coherent, and it flows well as a piece, which is impressive considering how jarring the contrast is between her crisp, clear, and sharp voice with the gruff and rough guitar, but I also do not find myself drawn back to particular songs or moments, aside from perhaps Mohammedoun, which is the closest the album gets to pop (which is to say, not particularly close, but it’s more hook-based than other songs). It may be because of Seymali’s intense vocals, which I do consider to be the stand-out feature of the album, that I don’t find myself returning to it. In a live setting I can imagine it being intoxicating and hypnotic, but on a record, if I am listening actively, I can feel overloaded. That said, I hope this does not put you off from taking a chance on the album, as there is a lot to like here from the fiery vocals to the unconventional instrumentation. It is certainly an album that grabs you by the scruff of your neck with its in-your-face style, and that brashness means one thing – for better or for worse, once you listen to it, you’ll never forget it.