Noura Mint Seymali has put out arguably the best psych blues album of 2014. Imagine a modernized, transcendent combination of Umm Kalthum and Captain Beefheart. It's hard not to occasionally think that if her band was NYC-based making limited tape runs, they’d be huge.
Noura Mint Seymali, along with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose guitar lines conjure up both Hendrix and Richard Thompson hails from Mauritania (it’s west of Mali and north of Senegal), where they are part of a long line of griot. Griot (or iggawin) is the term for the musician, songwriter, storyteller, and messenger caste in many West African countries. Basically most of the killer music one hears from the region, be it Tinariwen or Youssou N’Dour, are at least tangentially connected to the tradition. Noura’s mother was Mauritania’s singer of her time and Noura’s father wrote the national anthem. There are no music schools in Mauritania so it’s very much a family affair. Essentially, Noura Mint Seymali’s cred is unfuckwithable.
Her new record, TZENNI, was partially recorded and partially remixed from earlier recordings at Brooklyn’s Studio G (and engineered by studio owner and former Pere Ubu, Tony Maimone). After years of melding traditional Moorish music with a variety of pop sounds, Noura Mint Seymali has stripped down both the sound and the band. Funk bass (played on an upside down righty by Ousmane Toure’) and drums, psych guitar, and Noura’s incomparable voice; if the themes and initial songs are timeless, the sound is utterly contemporary.
The Moorish tradition of music is, for lack of a better term, open source. All the griots draw from the same generationally deep well and it’s up to the individual artist to mold or maintain as they see fit. Mint Seymali and Chighaly, while certainly staying true to their roots; opt for a more fusion friendly approach. When I asked them if there was any blowback to their more modern sound they said (through the translations and asides of drummer, producer, and manger, Matthew Tinari), “They’ve been doing “fusion” music – if you want to call it that since 2004, so they’ve been hustling with this for a long time. Most people are really proud of them, and think it’s awesome that people know Mauritania because of them. Then there’s other people that are like, 'You are Griot, you shouldn’t do Griot music, keep it here.' Not every musician in Mauritania aspires to this, at all. So that’s something very special. Noura’s father was into fusion music, and it’s something, that idea of globalizing Moorish music is an idea she grew up with and in her own right, regardless of who her father is, she has fought for that in a way no one else has and it’s remarkable.”
Like many West African guitarists, Jeiche Ould Chighaly is heavily influenced by Dire Straits guitarist, Mark Knopfler. He explained to me that it was part of the earliest strains of globalization, but pre-internet, so whatever music filtered down from the west was what was listened to and, much more than that “Dire Straits are just a favorite.” Jeiche’s guitar is altered (there’s a separate caste of craftsman in Mauritania who do guitar work apparently) to Moorish tunings so that he can better follow Noura’s vocal patterns and scales. “Take a look at this guitar! These frets have been cut off and re-pasted. You are getting a quartertone. You’re taking a normal space of a fret–it’s done in Mauritanian music and it’s been happening for years. The guitar is modified–you can’t play it on a normal guitar though it looks like a normal guitar. You take it to a carpenter/iron worker guy. That’s another caste–the ironworkers. He takes a saw to the fret board, he makes a slit and adds it in.” The sound that then comes from the guitar gets across both the sound of the traditional male instrument, the tidinit (Noura plays the female associated ardin), and the wirier psych sound of Western rock guitar.
In Moorish tradition, Tinari explains, “There’s traditional songs that she (Noura) does – and you can sort of “commission” poetry. There’s a whole repertoire of lyrics that Griots are drawing on. She might ask a family member to write something. In a traditional wedding music performance, if you’re in the audience, you can walk up to the singer and whisper poetry in their ear and the singer will just spit it out to the music. You could be trying to impress a girl in the room, and be like, “Your hair is like the Milky Way,” you just make up some shit, and you just whisper into their ear.” But most of the songs on TZENNI are love songs or prayers that while again drawn from tradition, are given their own arrangement by Noura. “If you translated the lyrics literally, a lot of times it seems very odd because it’s in the third-person. Like the song “Hebebeb (Zrag)”– it gets kind of meta, it’s somebody telling someone else “sing this for this person.” In the voice of the person saying that, and he’s talking to a woman, who knows another woman, and telling her to sing for her these words in the morning, sing for her these words in the night. His love interest is the woman from afar, and the song is him talking to the intermediary.”
Because of the turmoil in the region, especially the Northern uprising in Mali, and Mauritania’s own extremely complicated class and racial history, as much as I wanted to focus on the music, I had to ask Noura and her husband about politics and how it affects the band. Noura’s answer, of course, should be considered through the limitations of an American translator, “Noura doesn’t like politics. There are other singers that sing a lot about it. There’s a general worldview of peaceful Islam, and it’s the absolute truth – it’s what they believe in. It’s certainly informed by current events, but at the same time, they were going to sing about it anyway.” And about how they deal with the very real cultural divisions within Mauritania itself, “Yeah, that’s very real, but the Pulaar and Wolof, which are two sub-ethnic groups, really love Noura’s music. It’s just open-minded spiritual music. They’re not like other Griots that are segregated. Our bassist is Pulaar. I’m obviously not Moorish. Jeiche is from a city in the south by Senegal–so it was a very mixed environment. They are just cool, and they don’t give a fuck.”
Noura Mint Seymali combines the deeply spiritual with deep music theory with the cosmopolitan sophistication of a troubadour who’s as comfortable playing a working class wedding as an aristocratic soirée. But the savoire faire shouldn’t be mistaken for slickness; the sounds on TZENNI are earthy and profound, groovy in the entirely not embarrassing sense of the word, and truly out there. I’d put them up against any blog noise-psych guitar wankery of the day. And I don’t mean to put down any of your favorites; they’re doubtlessly great…but if you’re missing out on Noura Mint Seymali then you’re missing out on a universe.
TZENNI is out now on Glitterbeat. Noura Mint Seymali is playing Joe’s Pub on July 29th. There are tickets still available because influential tastemakers such as myself have been lax and awful about promoting this wonderful band. Don’t, as the kids say, sleep.
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