2016 is proving to be yet another good year for music from Africa. Releases by new names like Imarhan and Kel Assouf have sat impressively alongside those from more established, acclaimed acts such as Rokia Traoré, Baaba Maal, Bombino and Konono No 1. In between there’s also been albums from quietly growing, developing artists like Aziza Brahim. Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali probably currently belongs to this latter group. Her last album, 2014’s Tzenni, certainly put her on the musical map and her involvement in the Orchestra Of Syrian Musicians project this year raised it a notch higher, yet her profile maybe isn’t quite as high as it should be. That is surely all about to change however with the release of Arbina. It sees her build on the strengths of Tzenni, injecting fresh vitality and a greater level of consistency into the mix of components.
In one sense, certainly lyrically and thematically Arbina remains a traditional album, still immersed in Moorish culture and societal norms. Religion and spirituality still play key roles but are also joined by more grounded, practical and modern concerns. Her band are fully established and seem to be operating at the peak of their powers. As on Tzenni, Seymali’s husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly provides enthralling, distinctive guitar work, still key in setting her apart and lending the sound a contemporary feel. Alongside Ousmane Touré on bass and Matthew Tinari on drums he helps instil a dynamism that isn’t really matched elsewhere in African music. It is a close up, demanding but equally accessible piece of work defined by changes of pace and visceral power.
There are moments where Seymali seems lost in the incandescence that she helps create. Her vocals remain richly expressive, inflecting and stretching out boldly (it’s also possible to draw unexpected parallels with the vocal style of Elizabeth Fraser, both raw and direct, otherworldly yet corporeal not to mention deeply individualistic).
The impassioned title track is strikingly immediate and stark, while Mohammedoun is similarly exclamatory complete with snaking guitar lines. Na Sane keeps the strong momentum going, also introducing some thrilling tempo changes before Suedi Koum imposes itself with its sinewy, impactful vocals. It is also one of man tracks to showcase the sound of the ardine, an African harp.
A melodic thread runs through Richa, showing her ability to resurrect songs, often setting them off in unexpected tangents just when they seem to coming to an end. Ghlana has an unconventionally bluesy sound, brimming with life and while the opening stages of Ghizlane seem to offer the first chance for the listener to really catch their breath it soon follows the rest of the album in picking up the pace, shedding all barriers and restoring musical exhilaration. Arbina raises the benchmark for African music to a new high and hints at an exciting future where hitherto under-represented music can break free and flourish.