A Spiral Dance: Noura Mint Seymali Interviewed

Richie Troughton speaks to Mauritanian artist Noura Mint Seymali, the creator of one of the Quietus' favourite records of 2014, about new album Tzenni, navigating life in a globalised world and drawing traditional music into a modern context

Historically, the role of griots in Mauritania would have included following warriors into battle and encouraging them while singing of their bravery, acting as entertainers, poets and jokers, as well as social historians. Coming from a musical lineage stretching back more than ten generations of griots, the music on Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali’s Tzenni sets forth simply to rock. And it does so in a full blown sandstorm of hypnotic grooves, melding traditional Mauritanian instruments, like the ardine and tidinite, within an electrified psychedelic rock band, as Noura updates the ancient music with her group featuring husband and guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly, bassist Ousmane Touré and Senegalese drummer/producer Matthew Tinari.

Noura’s musical upbringing was largely inspired by her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, and grandmother Mounina, a popular singer who also taught Noura to play the ardine, a nine-string harp-like instrument. Having studied classical Arab music in Iraq, Seymali devised the first system for Moorish melodic notation and adapted music for the Mauritanian national anthem. He also composed music for his wife Dimi Mint Abba, Noura’s stepmother, herself a national pop star whose breakthrough song ‘Sawt Elfan’ described the social role of an artist as being more important than that of a fighter. As a teenager Noura joined Dimi on tour as a backing singer. One song on the new album, ‘Tikifite,’ is a reworking of a song also sung by Dimi, telling a tale of the herb that can heal the liver and stomach, as a metaphor for a lover wishing to be healed together with his soulmate. In this reworking Noura adds, "Dimi, when you sing for me it heals me".

These links to Noura’s musical upbringing can also be found elsewhere on Tzenni, as on final track ‘Emin Emineïna Chouweynë’, a tribute to Noura’s grandmother. "The practice of aligning music to a given socio-historical and personal moment is an essential charge of the iggawen, or griot, and, we believe, of artists everywhere," explained Tinari in the LP liner notes.

Noura’s contemporary adaptation of Moorish folk music for the 21st century has been developed over the last decade, and the group have released two albums at home, Tarabe (2006) and El Howl (2010) adding popular music influences, while retaining the "azawan" (which in Hassaniya refers to the collective ensemble of traditional instruments; the ardine, tidinite, guitar) at the heart of the sound. The roots of Mauritanian music are upheld through the use of these intricately played traditional instruments, and the group have further developed their sound with collaborations with Northwest African neighbours Tinariwen, Bassekou Kouyaté, and Baaba Maal in recent years.

Throughout Tzenni the playful interplay between the husband and wife duo strikes deep into the subconscious, with Noura’s soulful vocal lines echoed and improvised into new shapes by Jeiche’s ever-inventive, wah-drenched and wild extended guitar licks, in Moorish tunings, their seductive melodies proving to be highly addictive earworms. Noura’s use of free associative lyrics, as on ‘El Mougelmen,’ developed around ever-unwinding cyclical riffs, is just one example of group’s songwriting prowess that feeds into their transcendental and unique sound.

In an email discuss, Noura spoke to the Quietus about her musical influences and the development of the group.

Growing up in Mauritania what was your first exposure to music? And when did you begin singing and playing music?

Noura Mint Seymali: Growing up as iggawen (or griot), music was omnipresent. My father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, and my (paternal) grandmother, Mounina, were my greatest teachers. It was Mounina who taught me how to play the ardine. She was also a breathtaking singer, quite renowned in her time, and listening to her sing as a child was my earliest vocal education, both subliminally and consciously.

My father was more of an intellectual/composer figure, so as I got older it was he who imparted a great deal of cultural knowledge and technique. He was somebody who was always trying to push Moorish music forward, take chances, and stretch the idiom. He was very encouraging of my early interest in "fusion" music and supported the idea that our music should be malleable, exportable, and fluid, rather than a static artefact of times gone by.

By the time I was 13, my father was married to the great Dimi Mint Abba and working with her musically as well, composing several of the songs that she later recorded on for World Circuit in the UK. Dimi took me on as a backing vocalist, and touring with her was really an incredible education. We toured in Europe, and doing so I learned a lot about engaging foreign audiences. We also performed frequently in Mauritania – the music was at such a high level, every concert was a great lesson.

What rock, funk and reggae groups have you been inspired by from outside of Mauritania/Africa, in influencing the sound on Tzenni?

NMS: Rock – The Police, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix. Funk – Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Miles Davis’ The Cellar Door Sessions, all James Brown, the Daptones (especially for modern production of the vintage funk sound). Reggae – Burning Spear, Jacob Miller, I-Roy and Steel Pulse. This is all stuff my band is into. I mostly listen along to what they do when we’re on the road, and in the house there’s a USB drive which has been loaded up with all this stuff.

Your husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly plays guitar on the record. What is his musical background? And what were your musical projects together before forming the current group?

NMS: Jeiche has been a musician his entire life and comes from an important musical family in Mauritania. He grew up mostly in Kaedi, in Southern Mauritania, near the border with Senegal, where the culture is very diverse and you have families living together from all the major ethnic groups – Pulaar, Wolof, Sonike, Moor. Jeiche speaks Pulaar and Wolof and has always collaborated musically with musicians from these different traditions. After his family moved to Nouakchott, his neighborhood (the 5eme) was similarly a melting pot. As young men in the 1990s, he and his brothers would be out playing anywhere and everywhere – they were really a phenomenon!

After we first married, Jeiche and I lived up in Nouadhibou for a while. We started playing together pretty much right away and we would do a ton of weddings and all night parties in Nouahdibou. Sometimes we hosted ‘jam sessions’, as you might call them in the West, at our house. It was all very carefree. We still do play together at weddings, but the focus is shifting more to the band, which has been a long-term dream and aspiration for the both of us.

Can you tell us a bit about the ardine you play, and the additional tidinite added by Jeiche for those unfamiliar with these instruments?

NMS: Ardine is an instrument played only by women griot in Mauritania. It’s a kind of harp with seven or nine strings. The base is made from a calabash and covered with cow skin. People often mistake it for the kora, however it’s played in the opposite direction and has only one plane of strings. The technique is quite different as well.

Tidinite is the Hassaniya name for a lute that is found throughout West Africa. It’s also known as the ‘Ngoni’ in Mandingo culture, ‘Xalam’ in Wolof, and ‘Hoddou’ in Pulaar. It’s played exclusively by men and the tuning, in Moorish music, is based off of the ardine. The two instruments complement each other as the key elements of what’s called the ‘azawan’. Tidinite is the ancestor of the western banjo. The picking technique used to play is mirrored in ‘claw-hammer’ style banjo playing.

Have you adapted them (electrically?) to fit in with the group’s sound?

NMS: Both the ardine and the tidinite have been electrified. My ardine has an acoustic pickup that slides under the bridge on the body of the instrument and plugs into an XLR cable. The tidinite has a built in plug in on the body of the instrument. This is something people have been doing for a long time now, and electric tidinite has a sound that is quite different from acoustic. It’s usually the ardine that’s the hardest to mix, since it has such a unique range. On Tzenni, the operating concept while mixing the ardine was to try to make it ‘glow’. It plays more of an atmospheric role than the tidinite, which traditionally is the lead instrument.

Your style has been described as trad-modern. How important is it to preserve the traditional elements of the music, while presenting them in a modern style?

NMS: Extremely important. The soul of our music is in the tradition, the melodies, and the rhythms. Moorish music is an idiom that can be stretched and seen though infinite prisms, like jazz, but there’s a traditional core that’s the basis for we have to offer the rest of the world as a pop band.

Your previous albums Tarabe (2006) and El Howl (2010) were released in Mauritania. How different were these releases to the new material?

NMS: Extremely different. Tarabe is in fact the stronger of the two. Both recordings were great learning experiences, helping me to find a balance within the fusion context. After El Howl, one of the revelations we had for Azawan (and carried over to Tzenni) was that the Moorish guitar became much more powerful and effective when given greater room to breathe. This is why we stopped using Western-tuned guitar and keyboard; they diminished some of the raw energy of the Moorish melodic lines and constrained Jeiche’s playing. Tinari, our producer/drummer, really fought to change our perspective on this, since at first it meant that some of the fusion repertoire had to be either discarded entirely or significantly reworked, but he really wanted Jeiche to be more up front. At first we were hesitant to focus too exclusively on Moorish tradition, we were interested in playing other types of music with the band that people do not know as much in Mauritania. However, eventually we found a way to make all of our outside influences more subtle while letting the core shine brighter. The task became trying to distill the best moments and songs out of the all the traditional repertoire at our disposal. Ultimately I’m very happy with the new approach as represented on Tzenni – it feels quite natural to sing with the guitar in a more parallel position, and it’s proven exciting for audiences both in Mauritania and internationally.

How did the group come together, with bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Matthew Tinari, and how long have you been playing with this lineup?

NMS: Ousmane has played with me from the very beginning, since 2004. He knew my father and first saw me sing when I was just a teenager. Ousmane is without a doubt the most experienced, steady bass man in Mauritania. He has a wealth of experience working internationally with different artists and is extremely professional. We all jokingly refer to him as ‘the chief’.

We first met Tinari while playing at a festival in Dakar in 2009, Banlieu Rhythme. Tinari is based in Dakar and was performing there with a Senegalese soul singer, Njaaya. We loved his playing and at the time happened to be in need of a drummer, so we invited him to play on our next gig in Senegal and later to come visit in Nouakchott and work on the full repertoire. It turned out to be a great collaboration and as time went on we worked together more and more frequently, at first doing a domestic tour of Mauritania and then some festivals abroad. Tinari was immediately crazy for Moorish music! Every time he came to Nouakchott he would go around with Jeiche and the rest of the family to see music at weddings and study the rhythms. Over time he’s really developed a unique style (on the drum set) different from other drummers in Nouakchott, based directly off the t’beul and gangesh. Later, after we’d already been working together musically for several years, Tinari started managing/producing the band as well. This was around 2012. He produced the first Azawan EP and secured some bookings in Senegal and Mali. The next year we did Azawan II, festivals in Algeria, France, Egypt, and a debut US tour. And this year, Tzenni!

The album was recorded in various locations including New York in the US, Dakar in Senegal and at Nouakchott in Mauritania. How did the opportunities to record in these different locations come about and how did it influence the sounds, in mixing traditional North African griot music with contemporary, rock sounds?

NMS: Recording in Nouakchott and New York is very different. The studio we used in Nouakchott is run by some rapper friends of ours, very informal and very basic, more suited towards hip hop. We essentially just booked studio time and went in and did everything improvised. The advantage of working in Nouakchott is that everyone is close by, people who know the music can give their ear, and you can do things like add backing vocals with a single phone call. The drawback is that material constraints are much greater and there’s a correlated scarcity of technical knowledge, which can compromise the product. For example, all the drum tracks on Azawan had to be redone later in Dakar, because they were not mic-ed properly in Nouakchott.

In Brooklyn we had a much clearer idea of what we were after. The session was recorded at Studio G in Williamsburg with some very talented technicians and a huge palette of analogue and digital equipment. This was exciting for everybody, since we had never recorded in a place like that and they had never seen or recorded our style of music/instruments before. The biggest difference is that all the sounds become much more intentional when you have multiple options on how to record. When you can print to tape or go digital, use multiple vocal mics, put the drums in a ‘chamber’, etc, you end up creating an atmosphere versus having one imposed on you by the place. It’s cool that Tzenni comes out of both orientations.

The Azawan EP sees each mode played in a sequence, progressing from track to track in a "melodic orbit". Do you see this method as enhancing the effect of the music, constantly pushing into new territories? What different effects do the five modes create and how do you choose to use them in different settings?

NMS: Traditionally the five modes are played in an ordered sequence, called bhor. 1-karr, 2-vaghu 3-likhal, 4-libiyal, 5-lebtait. Each is identified with different feelings; innocence, romance, war, virility, acceptance, conclusion. Basically, it’s an energetic cycle that organises music in a ritual context; the music heats up and cools down. Once you leave a mode, you may not return back to it. It’s very rich! However, even in weddings, there are sometimes slight deviations to the modal sequence. But when a Mauritanian hears the fifth mode, lebtait, they will know things are drawing to a close and start to get sleepy. There can be a very engrained visceral effect.

There is actually an origin story for the Moorish modal cycle that involves a griot playing before a king. The griot boasts to the king that with music he can insight war, make peace, inspire love, etc, etc. The king demands that he prove this outlandish claim of power, inviting him to perform in his court the next night. Over the course of the night the griot plays through the different modes in the king’s court, and the people assembled there are overwhelmed with all of these successive emotions, they are worked up into a frenzy, it becomes a crazy party, until eventually everyone is put to sleep. The next morning, the griot returns and asks the disoriented king, who has even forgotten why he invited the griot to perform, what he thought about the night’s events. The king reflects on the bizarre events and then the griot reminds him of his previous claim, verifying how he has demonstrated each power claimed. The king finally stands in awe. He decides to enlist the griot’s great intangible power in his service, thus beginning a relationship of praise and patronage.

In a global context with the band, the modal system is very powerful as a guide, but it’s not always possible to respect all the rules to the exact letter on recordings or on international stages. Azawan was simply a track in each mode as a sort of a concept album – it was an idea our producer had that worked out nicely as a framework for an EP. We’ve even talked about expanding it into a full disc in each mode in the future. For Azawan II, the modal order is generally respected, but not every mode is represented. Tzenni starts in the first mode and ends in the fifth mode, but there’s some deviation in between. The modal system is sort of this framework that’s always there in the ether, to be called upon as needed.

Tzenni includes reworkings of traditional Moorish griot music. What elements of the orginals were important for you to keep?

NMS: We wanted to maximise the guitar and the voice, while adapting the rhythms to bass and drums. The general feel and style changes, but the compositions themselves remain pretty much intact.

Why did you choose the title Tzenni (a term for a whirling dance, but here seems to have added meaning)?

"Tzenni" an elastic word that can mean so many different things; spinning, circular, cyclical movement, but applied broadly. A dance, the orbit of the planets, driving around the city in circles. This feeling of transience is something I think the music embodies. ‘Tzenni’ felt simple and real. We wanted a name in Hassaniya and liked that ‘Tzenni’ is also known as a dance, but it can also apply to life outside of Mauritania. Tzenni implies all the experiences, challenges, hustling and running around that one must go through trying to make it as an artist in a globalised world. We all live these hyper mobile lifestyles now – ‘Tzenni’ tries to capture that on some level. As a word it is concise, funky, and was also the title for one of the stronger tracks we had recorded, so it seemed perfect for the album title. And it’s hopefully not too difficult to pronounce in other languages!

Are there any other artists/singers from Mauritania you would recommend?

NMS: Mohammed Chighaly, Jeiche’s brother, is a charismatic vocalist who is currently one of the most sought after on the wedding circuit in Nouakchott. He has been a major help to the band over the years. The song ‘El Madi’ was revitalised with his help, and we plan to record something with him in the near future – already we collaborate quite frequently for traditional scenarios in Nouakchott. Sidati Ould Sedoum, an older relative of mine, is another who is just phenomenal – he has this aged, grainy, classical-style voice that sounds a lot like Khalifa Ould Eide. We’re planning to record something with him as well. My younger sisters Souktou, Zahra, and Mayassa are all great. Mayassa works with me occasionally as a backing vocalist, and Souktou and Zahra both took the lead at a nationally televised singing competition in Mauritania. They are all out performing and developing so fast, it’s a real pleasure to watch!

Outside of the international festivals and concerts you have been playing, what kind of performances do you do at home? Is the music on the album different from what you may play at, for example, a wedding back home?

NMS: In Mauritania the bulk of my performances are at weddings. Occasionally I’ll sing for private invitations as well – these can be small gatherings of friends in someone’s living room or more formal scenarios like embassy events or corporate receptions. Some of the repertoire is actually the same as what I play with the band – songs like ‘El Madi’ and ‘El Barm’ are ones I do frequently at weddings. However the execution and instrumentation is quite different. In lieu of bass and drums there’s usually t’beul and ‘gangesh’ – this is the name for the rhythm you hear translated to the hi-hat on Tzenni. At a wedding it is usually played on a metal plate instead. Sometimes there’s also a keyboard with automated rhythms. Ardine is sometimes left out at weddings – voice, tidinite/guitar, and t’beul are really the core.

The ongoing conflict in Mali has prevented regular gigs like the Festival In The Desert that you played several times. How have these events affected Mauritania?

NMS: Mali is our neighbour, we have many friends and fellow artists there. It’s true that after 2012 several festivals and concerts were cancelled in Mali, Eastern Mauritania, and even in Nouakchott because of security concerns. Mauritania has received a significant number of refugees since the conflict began. I think as a whole Mauritania, along with other countries in the region, is interested in taking the maximum amount of precaution to prevent a similar situation from spreading here. While the conflict in Mali was initially sparked by domestic territorial disputes, there are certainly wider issues of extremism that cross borders. We are not politically aligned, we musicians and advocates of peace first and foremost. Peace is central to the Islam we practice and part of our culture as Mauritanians. May God protect Mauritania (and the entire world) from war and strife.

As a griot and a storyteller, what messages have you included in the album that you feel are important to get across to the new audience you are reaching?

NMS: Faith, compassion, motivation, patience, love, strength. I want people to listen with their hearts and take from the music whatever piece of specific or abstract truth might relate to them.

Noura Mint Seymali’s album Tzenni is out now via Glitterbeat. She headlines the Sahara Soul concert at the Barbican, London with Aziza Brahim (Western Sahara), Tartit (Mali) and Nabil Baly Othmani (Algeria) on Saturday 27th September. For more information and tickets visit <a href="http://www.barbican.org.uk/music/event-detail.asp?ID=16542" target=’"out">here.

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