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Last September, Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali and her band delivered an impressive set at the Festival in the Desert II touring show at Tropicalia. The ensemble’s sound seemed one-of-a-kind, with its mix of traditional vocals, ’60s psychedelia, ’70s funk, and instrumentation similar to that of other contemporary West African desert groups.
Seymali and her band, led by her guitar-playing husband, are returning to the United States for a short tour that will bring them to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Sunday. In advance of the show, I emailed with Mint Seymali, whose drummer Matthew Tinari translated her answers.
Washington City Paper: How did you learn to sing?
Noura Mint Seymali: My father, “Seymali,” (Seymali Ould Mouhamed Vall) was my greatest teacher and the person to whom I owe most of my musical education. He was a real scholar of music and instrumental in opening up Moorish tradition to new kinds of composition. After his studies in Iraq he brought back a lot of knowledge about music theory and was the first to devise a way to notate Moorish music. My grandmother, Mounina, was also a great singer and influence. It is she who taught me how to play the ardine, an instrument [like a harp] played only by women in Mauritania. As “griot,” our family is blessed with many great musicians and from a young age I was always in the presence of music—-at home, at weddings, and there were always occasions to sing.
As a professional performing artist, singing as a backing vocalist with Dimi Mint Abba (my stepmother), was a very formative experience. Touring with Dimi was my first time on stage in Europe in front of an international audience. Some of my father’s compositions were popularized and recorded by Dimi, songs which are still in my own repertoire today.
WCP: When and how did you husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly learn to play guitar?
NMS: Jeiche also grew up in a “griot” family where music is omnipresent. He learned the guitar and tidinit (a Mauritanian lute aka “ngoni” in Mali or “xalam” in Senegal) with a lot of guidance from one of his brothers, Lamar, but, thanks to God, there are many great musicians in his family. As a teenager he learned the tidinit, a traditional instrument played only by men, from his father and brothers. This instrument is very important to the way he interprets the guitar.
WCP: What singers were you inspired by?
NMS: Dimi Mint Abba, Oum Kalthoum, Cheb Khaled.
WCP: What singers do you like to listen to?
NMS: I enjoy several Mauritanian singers, like Dimi Mint Abba of course, and Arab singers, blues singers like Etta James, and must admit to faithfully following the Arabic version of TV series, The Voice, and Arab Idol.
WCP: Who influenced your husband’s guitar playing?
NMS: Jeiche loves Dire Straits and Jimi Hendrix. There are several great Mauritanian guitar players as well who have influenced his playing.
WCP: Who does he like to listen to? Certain African artists? American funk or soul artists? Which ones?
NMS: All kinds of stuff—-roots and dub reggae, Senegalese mbalax, some Malian artists like Oumou Sangare, blues artists like Magic Sam and Albert King. And we have both been listening to more Indian classical music since collaborating with Jay Gandhi, an Indian classical flute player whom we met at a festival in Senegal.
WCP: Do you still perform at weddings?
NMS: Jeiche performs at weddings quite often. I perform mostly for weddings in the family or for people close to me now, not nearly as much as before. Now I prefer focusing my energy on the current band, but on occasion do continue to perform at weddings with my husband Jeiche and my brother Sidi.
WCP: How did your current band with Matthew Tinari on drums and Ousmane Touré on bass come together?
NMS: Tinari has been working with us for the past several years as our drummer. He lives in Dakar, Senegal, but comes to Nouakchott (in Mauritania) often for concerts and tours. We first heard him at a festival in Senegal, Banlieu Rhythme, where he was performing with a Senegalese soul singer. We loved his drumming and invited him collaborate with us in Mauritania and have been working together ever since. Since about 2012 he has also been managing the band, producing our last album, and booking our first U.S. tour in Sept. 2013.
Ousmane Touré is the premier bassist in Nouakchott. We have known him forever and he started working with the band in our first formation back in 2004. He was on all of my previous albums and has toured with me since the very beginning. Ousmane also performs with many of the other major artists in Mauritania like Malouma and Ousmane Gangué.
WCP: How have the conflicts in Northern Mali impacted your lives?
NMS: Mauritania shares a sizable border with Northern Mali and the peoples overlap somewhat. The Festival in the Desert, organized by Manny Ansar, is an event we have played at three times and has been a steady ally on promotion. We performed at the last edition in 2012 in Timbuktu, at a moment when my career was starting to get re-energized. Everyone was very happy with our performance there and we felt like there was some new momentum developing with plans to return to Mali to collaborate with Bassekou Kouyate and Tinariwen. When the war broke out, soon after the festival, we had to cancel traveling to Bamako as the airport was closed. The band was also booked for the 2013 Festival-au-Desert caravan which planned to have shows in Eastern Mauritania, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Ultimately all the shows were cancelled due to security concerns, in addition to a major concert we had planned at the Institut Français in Nouakchott, which was closed for several months after the French military intervention. Mauritania now has a great number of refugees from Northern Mali.
WCP: Is the music you play at festivals and internationally in nightclubs the same as what you play at home?
NMS: Music in traditional settings is quite different. We have tried to distill its core elements and put them into a pop idiom. The music heard at a wedding, for example, is specifically structured for that event. The songs played and lyrics sung relate to the people involved. It doesn’t work for a festival concert, where those elements would be entirely out of context. We find it more interesting to do something that engages the tradition in a deep way but expands it, rather than working from a “music as artifact” position.
WCP: How unique is your trad-moderne style in Mauritania? Are others also doing similar approaches?
NMS: At present our formation is totally unique in Mauritania. There are other artists like Malouma who have done similar trad-moderne formats, but hers is a bigger band with a different sound. I believe we have started to find a more specific pop voice after almost 10 years working in the trad-moderne format and performing on the international stage.
Noura Mint Seymali and her band perform at 6 p.m. Sunday Jan. 5 at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F. St. NW. Free.