Interview: Noura Mint Seymali @ Womad (July, 2015)

Rhythm Passport was delighted to be offered an interview with Mauritanian singer and ardin player Noura Mint Seymali after her set – warmly received despite the pouring rain. Her stepmother was the wonderfully charismatic singer Dimi Mint Abba, and Noura is certainly following in her footsteps, acting as Mauritania’s musical ambassador.

We talked with her, the band’s guitarist Jeiche Ouid Chigaly and her producer and drummer Matthew Tinari at the back of the main stage this afternoon They told us a little about the Moorish musical tradition and their latest album Tzenni (meaning whirling dance), and we began by asking Noura about her instrument, the ardin.

The ardin is an instrument that only women play. Men never play this instrument. There’s a vocal repertoire that goes with it, and it’s used to accompany the songs. In a traditional setting you would be playing sitting down, so then you can sing with it, but in this situation on a stage like this I like to get up and move around, so I don’t always play it. Sometimes we travel with a backing vocalist who’s a sister of Jeich’s so I put the ardin down occasionally to concentrate on the singing. There’s also a solo repertoire for the ardin.

Noura gave us some insight into the songs she sang today.

Some of the songs are traditional wedding songs, but our set is a mixture of traditional songs that are in the public domain, some composed by my father, and some arranged by Jeich and myself. Today there were love songs and religious songs. One was about someone in prison singing to his love on the outside, but he can’t be with her because he’s locked up.

We asked Jeiche in what kind of settings their music would be played in Mauritania.

The griot families play at weddings. They are licensed to play for ritual occasions like baptisms, but marriages are the most common. Most of the artists are on the marriage circuit. The music is well supported on the traditional circuit. A musician can make a pretty decent living just doing this.

Instruments in the lineup today, as well as the ardin and electric guitar, were fabulous bass guitar from Ousmane Touré and Matthew’s dum kit. We wondered what people back home in Mauritania think of that. Noura responded:

There are some purists who think the music should stay how it is. I have always wanted to modernise the music.

Jeich told us more about the music scene in their home country.

The population of Mauritania is small – only around three million people. There are no music schools in Mauritania, so the music is passed down by families. There are many, many musicians there. It’s a rich culture with lots of singers, but most of the music stays domestic. Within the griot families there are a lot of people who are still interested in the music and want to keep it alive. That said, people are listening to all kinds of music. But the tradition stays vibrant, at least in Moorish culture – I’m not sure about the Pulaar communities. Traditional music is thought of as an obligatory part of Mauritanian life.

The group’s latest album was recorded partly in New York. We asked Matthew about the making of the album.

Five of the ten tracks were recorded in Mauritania. I re-recorded the drum parts on those five in Dakar, Senégal, and it was with these five songs that we got interest from the label Glitterbeat. We decided to do another recording session and it worked out that we could record the rest while we were on tour in the States. I don’t think it would have been such strong album if we had done it in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. There are some limitations in the studios there. There are recording studios, but it’s a much different scenario than recording in Brooklyn, which is where we did it.

Finally we asked how the group feels about touring outside Mauritania. Matthew responded:

Both Noura and Jeich have a large degree of credibility, and they’re very well respected in Mauritania so it’s natural for this band to be doing that work – it’s not like some random person from Mauritania suddenly becoming a star. To tour outside Mauritania, like Noura’s doing, takes a lot of organisation and sacrifice. Any artist that’s touring internationally knows they can’t expect to be instantly famous. It demands a creative vision that takes commitment, and that goes for musicians from any country.

Noura adds:

We’re in a pretty unique situation in that there are not really any other bands outside the country touring, so we ended up in the role of cultural ambassadors. Some people are really encouraging saying, “Noura we love what you’re doing for your country – we’re behind you”.

And we are certainly behind Noura. With her wonderful tradition and musical talent she will certainly go far.

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