Album Review: Noura Mint Seymali – Arbina [Glitterbeat Records, 16th September 2016]

Noura Mint Seymali’s latest release, Arbina (Glitterbeat Records), is probably one of the most unusual and intriguing albums I’ve ever listened to. As someone who unfortunately isn’t very familiar with West African music (let alone that of Noura’s homeland, Mauritania), my first taste of her album initially left me slightly confused, but also incredibly curious and captivated with her imaginative fusion of styles. In fact, the album art cover already says it all, with a picture of the region’s iconic desert landscape playing host to abstract shapes of funky and outlandish colours, suggesting a meeting of different worlds and hinting at the new groundbreaking sounds that emerge.

Coming from a line of 21 generations of griots, and with her father and stepmother being national musical icons, perhaps it’s no surprise that Noura became a musician herself, taking over her father’s role as cultural and musical ambassador to Mauritania. What is surprising though, is how she’s blazed her own path by completely reimagining traditional griot music and taking it to the international stage. Since she embarked on this journey with her husband in 2004, Noura has garnered a strong international reputation for herself, having won numerous accolades and touring around the globe, including performing at the WOMAD and Roskilde Festivals.

Arbina is a revolutionary approach to the griot musical storytelling tradition, with the epic combination of Noura’s devotional griot-inspired vocals and traditional ardin harp, with the quarter-tone funk and psychedelic riffs of husband and guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly. Unlike their previous album, Tzenni (2014), Jeiche leaves his tidinit guitar behind here and replaces it with his modified electric guitar that mimics the tidinit style, which is supported by Ousmane Touré’s grooves on bass and producer Matthew Tinnari on drums.

Although the album’s title translates as “God”, its ten tracks are not so much about one particular religion as they are about the power of devotion and belief. Its title track, for example, is both a call to the divine in seeking mercy and solace “for all people of all faiths”, as well as a powerful plea to women about cancer screening, in light of how Noura’s own mother passed away from breast cancer. ‘Richa’, a classic Mauritanian song written by her father and which she also performed with The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians earlier this year, reflects on the power of music and the arts as “a balsam, a weapon and a guide” – qualities which she somehow manages to include within this one track. Arbina is full of catchy melodies and musical surprises, with Noura meandering seamlessly from virtuosic trilling at one moment, to florid melismatic vocal passages up and down Moorish scales at the next.

At the same time, however, amidst all the funk, rock and psychedelic infusions, Noura often begins and ends most of her pieces with flourishes on the ardin – the Mauritanian harp played by female griots, reminding us not to forget the local musical tradition to which she is rooted to and constantly inspired by.