Desert-rock is a genre that has steadily grown over the last decade, trailblazers like Tinariwen and Tamikrest being joined by an expanding group of artists and bands keen to add to its rich mix of traditional sounds and modern aesthetic.
Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali is arguably one of the most distinctive and original voices to emerge in recent years. 2014’s Tzenni introduced her to western audiences and the release of Arbina sees her consolidate her position.
Recorded and mixed this year in NYC by Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu, The Mekons, Bob Mould) and produced by Matthew Tinari, who also contributes percussion to the album, it is an electrifying, confident statement that concisely summarises her musical career to date. We caught up with Noura to find out more about the album, her background, Mauritania and her plans for the future…
How did you approach writing/recording Arbina? Were there any differences to what you did previously on Tzenni?
The compositional process did not undergo any really radical shifts, but as a band we have certainly grown more efficient in workshopping new songs and finding what arrangements work. I had a little bit clearer notion starting out of how things should sound with the full band this time around after so much time performing and touring in support of Tzenni.
It is a really consistent album – was it written soon after Tzenni was released?
It was written incrementally starting in Summer / Fall 2015. However the root of some of the songs have been with me for life, “Richa” for example.
How did you find working with Tony Maimone?
Tony was a joy to work with. A very skilled technician and someone with whom we’ve built a great creative rapport.
Lyrically, what would you say are the main themes of the album?
Faith. Healing. Devotion and surrender to God. Being proactive.
You have a fairly settled band now. Have your ways of working/the roles of the members changed over time?
I think each member has evolved and grown stronger in their role. Jeich continues to ignite the crowd. Ousmane grounded the music even deeper on this album with bass work. And Tinari has advanced not only as a drummer, but also as the group’s producer and manager.
Tzenni was your first international release and received a lot of acclaim. How did that differ to your earlier albums? Were you surprised by the reaction?
We just wanted to make the best album possible. Beyond that, you can never know what happens. I’m very happy that Tzenni helped put both the band and Mauritania on the map.
Has singing/music always been part of your life? What are your earliest musical memories?
Yes, singing has always been an intimate part of my life. I remember hearing my grandmother sing as a child, feeling her voice wrap around me. There was always music in the house, and I remember seeing my father and siblings perform from the very start of childhood.
You have a rich musical family background – did you always feel this would play a big role in your life? How did your parents influence you?
My family was of course a huge influence on me and the source of my musical education. In a griot family it is quite normal to study with one’s family. My father was very encouraging of my choice to pursue fusion music and his support encouraged me from the very beginning.
You play an instrument called the ardine. Can you tell us a little about this and the significance of the instrument for women?
The ardine is an instrument specific to Mauritania, it’s not found in Mali or Senegal or anywhere else. It has always been played by women griot, to accompany song. This is our traditional culture.
Your music seems to incorporate a broader stylistic range than many other musicians from Africa. Is this something you actively work towards? Are there any musicians you’re particularly influenced by or admire?
I just try to develop my voice and my music’s sound as best as possible. We’re not consciously trying to incorporate a lots of different styles, but perhaps it seeps in naturally. I admire many musicians; Dimi Mint Abba is one of my most major inspirations.
Are you a big/regular listener of music in general? Is there anything you’re enjoying in particular at the moment?
At the moment I’m taking some time off to clear my head. Sometimes it’s helpful to take a break from listening so that you don’t become too “saturated”.
Are there any other musicians from Mauritania that we should be aware of?
Dimi Mint Abba.
Mauritania is a country many in the West will be less familiar with. How would you describe it to those people?
Mauritania is a beautiful country with a diverse and welcoming population and a rich culture. I would encourage people to come and discover it for themselves.
Has it been affected by events over recent years in neighbouring countries like Mali/Libya?
Mauritania is connected to its neighbours in the region and our hope is for enduring peace and security throughout the Sahel.
There is a creeping westernisation surfacing in some parts of the world previously untouched by it. Are there any signs of this in Mauritania?
It’s hard to tell in 2016 what counts as ‘westernisation’. Mauritania is a modern place with its own culture. Its cultural integrity does not rely on ideas of purism vis-à-vis the West.
You recently toured with the Damon Albarn and the Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians. How was that as an experience? How did you get involved? Were you able to rehearse much?
It was a fantastic experience and I really enjoyed the exchange that happened among all the artists! We rehearsed for one week in Amsterdam before the tour and there we were able to get together an orchestral arrangement of Richa. I first collaborated with Africa Express / Damon Albarn in 2015, at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, where we were already booked to play as a band. Africa Express invited us to take part in their group performance and based on the success of that collaboration I was invited back the next year for the tour with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians.
The show in London was full of hope/compassion, especially given a lot of the negative political events that happened around that time. Did you sense/feel that yourself while touring? Are these concepts you actively try to incorporate into your own music?
Faith, hope, and compassion are elements I try to always keep present in my music.
Your live shows are particularly striking – do you enjoy making these direct connections with audiences? Are there any places in particular where your music has been particularly positively received?
Thank you. Live shows are what we know best. I love being in front of the audience and building off of their energy. Every audience is different and it’s a thrill to connect via music in so many different places. We’ve had the good fortune to experience a positive reception in many different places all over the world; Africa, Europe, North America.
Recent years have seen a growing number of female African artists gain wider exposure in the west. I’m thinking of Aziza Brahim, Rokia Traoré, Fatoumata Diawara. Do you feel part of a ‘group’ in this sense or feel any personal connection with musicians like these?
I support women artists from all over the world in the achievement of their own unique artistic vision. Each artist is unique.
Arbina comes out in September. What are your plans for the rest of 2016?
Touring in Europe in Fall 2016, then the Middle East and North America in early 2017.
Noura Mint Seymali’s album Arbina is out now through Glitterbeat. Check here for more information and tour dates.