In the dark, beautifully backlit confines of The Triple Door in Seattle, Noura Mint Seymali was holding court. A smallish woman from Mauritania, she ruled the stage with a fiery intensity that only the most powerful divas can maintain. She plucked her instrument, the ardine (a kind of harp that is somewhat similar to the kamele n’goni of Mali), with exact precision and sang with a voice so powerful it felt like it could pierce your skull. Along with her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, whose psychedelic electric guitar riffs would put any Jimi Hendrix wannabe to shame, the young American drummer Matthew Tinari who’d been helping them book their tour and translating for the audience, and bassist Ousmane Touré who’d known her since she was a child, she tore the roof off this usually serene concert hall. It was an amazing experience, and in fact Seymali has been making big waves in the US since the release of her most recent album, Tzenni, on European label Glitterbeat. Backstage, we hung out a bit and talked about Mauritanian life and culture.
Seymali is the daughter of the famous and respected Mauritanian musician Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall who was responsible for modernizing much of Mauritanian music, for notating the Moorish traditions in sheet music, and for basically being the main ambassador of Mauritanian music to the West. It’s a position that his daughter now holds, and clearly believes in with a huge passion. Seymali learned from her stepmother as well, the beloved national singer Dimi Mint Abba (as well as many other family members).
The music that Noura Mint Seymali plays is rooted in the intensely complex classical music of Moorish North Africa. In Mauritania, there are five modes to the music and traditional artists move in a kind of “melodic orbit” through the modes during a performance. Each mode has multiple under-modes that are referred to as black or white. It’s a kind of coloring to the music that helps bend the mode in a certain direction, either black which lends violent tension, or the white, which lends a softness or elegance. The push and play between these helps transform each mode. “Our music is rich,” Jeiche says to me backstage, and it’s no exaggeration. You’d need a degree in ethnomusicology and years of study to really get at the heart of what is made to seem effortless.
The following is an interview with Noura Mint Seymali and Jeiche Ould Chighaly, conducted backstage at The Triple Door, with help from Matthew Tinari.
How is music transmitted in Mauritania? In families, from father to son, or what’s the process?
Noura Mint Seymali: There are women, griots, the ancient ones. It was these griots who made music in Mauritania, but now there are a lot of people making music who are not griots. Normally, though, in Mauritania, only the griots make this music. It’s made in families, like my own. I’m a griot, as was my father, his father, and twenty-one fathers before that.
Noura: Yes! Jeiche too is from a family of griots.
Is it common for a woman to be a griot?
Noura: Yes, there are female and male griots, especially female in Mauritania.
Jeiche Ould Chighaly: But before the 60s, women who were not griots couldn’t sing, only the griots could sing. Now, people who aren’t griots can sing.
The instrument you’re playing, the ardine, is it for griots only?
Noura: Until now, the ardine was for griots only. For the female griots only; there was another instrument for the men. The tidinit is for the men [Note: Jeiche’s guitar playing is directly based on the tidinit] and the ardine is for the women. It’s an ancient instrument.
Did you learn the ardine from your mother?
Noura: From my grand-mother. My father was a great musician. A professor of music and a composer as well. He wrote a lot of songs in Mauritania and he is very very well known there. He did many things. He wrote down the modes in Mauritanian music…
Matthew Tinari: He was explaining Moorish music, explaining all the instruments, the modes.
Noura: He explained the ardine, the tidinit… He wrote down in his book everything that’s in Mauritanian music.
What age did you start playing music?
Noura: I was nine or ten years old. I sang with my brothers, with my family.
Jeiche: Her brother is a composer and lives now in Spain. He married a Spanish woman. He’s a composer and he had this family band. He was the soloist, there was a brother who was the bass player, and his sister on the drums. It was a family band, but modern.
Noura: After that I went to school for my studies and was playing traditional music with my family. Then I started playing for weddings in traditional groups. Then in 2004 I started modernizing the music I played. We brought in the drums, the bass. That was difficult in Mauritania.
Jeiche: Mauritanians don’t like fusion music. They like the tradition more than any fusions. There are young people who like this, but there are all these older people who always want to be under the tents with the griots.
What’s the wedding music tradition in Mauritania?
Noura and Jeiche: It’s during the holidays of Tabaski (Eid el Adha) and Ramadan… When Ramadan is over there’s a big party. Since everyone’s tired because of Ramada, they want to make music. Plus there’s also the Tabaski holiday as well.
Are you guys busy with these weddings in Mauritania?
Jeiche: Yes, before we came here to the US for our tour, we were at a wedding. Noura was with us and people were just throwing money on us while we were trying to play !
Noura: But I don’t like playing weddings.
Jeiche: She doesn’t like weddings, but I love them. My father didn’t go to music school, he just came from the tradition. He died this year, he was 92 years old, and he was the one that taught my family music.
Matthew: His father had a lot of wisdom in his music.
Jeiche: He was a poet, he knew all about Mauritanian music and modes. Yobua was his name.
Noura, What kind of changes did you make to the tradition?
Noura: I added the bass and drums, I put in modern rhythms, but at the same time paired them with very traditional melodies and songs. Like the last song we played was a very modern rhythm but the song is traditional. The songs remain traditional, but we’ve reworked the rhythms.
Jeiche: The songs speak about the magic of Mauritania. About the prophet, about many things… Marriage, love, food.
Noura, do you write the songs in the group?
Noura: No, there are a lot of people who have written these songs from all over Mauritania.
Matthew: Maybe I’ll just explain a little bit… There’s a repertoire of poetry that all the singers draw on. Each griot takes a bit from here and a bit from there. It’s more like your rendering of poetry that’s in the public domain. It’s like rap or reggae where there’s all these sort of memes or lines out there and you’re drawing on them.
Do people recognize the lyrics? Like, “Oh, that comes from this poem…”
Jeiche: All Mauritanians know poetry, or most do. It’s popular. They know arabic poetry, but for us, we don’t sing arabic poetry, we sing hassani poetry. That’s the language that we speak.
Noura, what was a lesson you learned from your father?
Noura: Lots of things, lots of things… A lot of melodies. He said to sing with your stomach. You musn’t sing with your voice, you must sing with your stomach. If you sing with your stomach, you won’t get tired. Even if your voice gets tired, your chest won’t get tired.
Did you always want to play the ardine?
Noura: For me, the most important thing is to show the ardine. Because this is our tradition…
Jeiche [translating from Noura’s Arabic]: She’d like Mauritanians to know that what she’s doing is to ensure that Mauritania becomes better known. There are plenty of people that know nothing about Mauritania. She’s like a messenger of the music. Many people like this, but there are others that always want to stay in the tradition. Someone just sent her a Facebook message: “Noura, come back for my wedding, I can’t do my wedding unless you’re there!” But she’d rather be doing these kinds of concerts on tour, maybe leaving the weddings to her brothers and sisters.
To me, Mauritanian music kind of sounds like music in the Sahara. Are there ties between these traditions?
[heated discussion in Arabic]
Noura: No, in the Sahara there’s no music or culture of music.
Jeiche: They collect ideas from our music. There are no griot families in Saharan music.
I was thinking of the folks in Tinariwen or other Tuareg artists.
Jeiche: The Saharans or the Tuaregs, they take our music, but then it’s not at the level of our music.
Matthew: Mauritanian music has never really hit the international stage in the same way that Tuareg or other music really has. There’s a feeling that some of those cultures look to Mauritania for inspiration. There are elements of Mauritanian music that has been integrated into those styles over the years. But yet, Mauritanian music has never really broke. That’s a whole other conversation because it’s kind of political.
Jeiche: Our neighbors, they put out our music before we can get it out. You know, people like Abdallah of Tinariwen, when they see us they say, “Bravo, Bravo!” They know that this music comes from us. In the Sahara there are no griots. There are people who have music and if they listen to us for a bit, they take ideas. But it’s something different. There aren’t any of our modes, or the black and white modes.
What do the griots, especially the female griots, do in traditional society? Are they like journalists or politicians?
Jeiche: They don’t get into politics, but they take the stories and history of all the people in Mauritania. They know all these stories. Sometimes, we have these songs. If you love a girl and you can’t tell her that you love her, but it’s something that could be said with poetry. A griot could sing to this girl and tell her about you…
*This post appeared in its original form on the author’s Kithfolk Blog. The interview was originally conducted in French, Arabic, and English.