Noura Mint Seymali and Jeich Ould Chighaly are wife and husband, but their most resplendent marriage is between Seymali’s voice and Chighaly’s guitar.
Hailing from two of the most exalted griot families in the west African country of Mauritania, Seymali and Chighaly braid their music in tradition and modernity.
“I’d like to make it known to the world,” Seymali said. “Many people have absolutely no idea about Mauritania or our music.”
“Eguetmar,” a song about homesickness, begins in a beehive of notes between Seymali’s nine-string harp, known as an ardine, and Chighaly’s four-string, hourglass-shaped tidinit.
Suddenly, the music stretches forward, and Seymali’s voice surges with emotion, sounding like a galvanized blend of blues shout and Muslim prayer. Chighaly echoes her phrasing in response, switching over to a modified electric guitar in which some frets have been sawed off and added higher up on the neck in order to achieve the quarter-tones distinctive to the Moorish modes common in the Mauritanian style.
As they course together in call-and-response, backed by bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Matthew Tinari, the effect is like a jam band playing gospel, at once mesmerizing and danceable.
Currently on their second tour of the United States, which includes their first-ever stop in Minneapolis at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday, Seymali declared (over the course of two long e-mail exchanges with the group, translated from Hassaniya Arabic by drummer Tinari) that she wants to “change the face of Mauritanian music” while exposing it to the rest of the world.
She is uniquely qualified for that endeavor.
The two most renowned female vocalists in Mauritania before her were her paternal grandmother, Mounina, and her stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba. Her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, was the first to create a system of Moorish melodic notation and composed the Mauritanian national anthem.
Seymali remembers hearing Mounina sing around the house when she was a child, and was trained on the ardine by her sister, who herself learned from Mounina. Seymali toured Europe as a teenage backup singer for Dimi Mint Abba. And it was her father who encouraged her to pursue what Seymali describes as “fusion music,” stretching what might become hidebound structures within the Mauritanian sound and engaging other cultures in a manner that would enable her to be both an ambassador and change agent for her native music.
“Growing up in a griot family is not unlike growing up in any kind of family business — your professional and family lives are intertwined,” she said. “It is not an obligation but an opportunity. You have profound support to pursue music.”
A griot jam
Seymali met Chigaly at an “invitation,” a jam session among griot families at a private residence. Although they were from different tribes, there was no social pressure against them pursuing a relationship. For a year or two, they didn’t play together, remaining within their respective families of musicians at weddings and other traditional events that form the foundation of musical performance in Mauritania.
When they did begin playing in public together, the similarity of their styles was deepened by the minor differences — Chigaly’s family gravitating in a more rhythmic and hip-hop-oriented direction; Seymali’s more regal and classical.
Bassist Touré is a friend of Seymali’s father and has played with her for a dozen years. The group met Tinari at a festival in Dakar, Senegal, where he resides, and he is the manager and producer of the band’s last two albums as well as playing drums and percussion.
No rules music
Seymali’s album “Tzenni” was released in 2014, and was an ambitious leap forward in its blend of traditional rhythms, “desert blues” akin to bands such as Tinariwen from Mali, and elements of swirling, psychedelic rock. The apt title is a word that describes both swirling dance and the hustle and bustle of a changing world. The album includes a song composed by Seymali’s father, another that she used to sing with Dimi Mint Abba, and yet another that mourns the death of Mounina.
“I have the freedom to interpret the repertoire however I see fit when playing with my band — there are no hard rules in fusion music,” Seymali said. “However, for traditional songs I like to keep the melodic lines recognizable while altering the vocal rhythms and inflections.”
At the Cedar, the group will play many songs from “Tzenni,” as well as new, unreleased material that reflects the daily life of residing in the urban but relatively “open space” of Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. There is also a new song related to the death of Seymali’s mother from breast cancer.
It is music that is both unique and universal, light and buoyant yet emotionally resonant.
Asked what takes precedence as they concoct a song from tradition and modernity, weaving together Seymali’s sinuous, beseeching vocals with Chighaly’s pungent guitar lines and the funky beats from the rhythm section, Chighaly answered, “Making music is like making food. Each ingredient plays a special role.”
Britt Robson is a Twin Cities-based writer.