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world music

The modern sound of Mauritania

(Joe Penney)

In the sequence of events that has finally brought the Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali and her band to perform in the United States, a corporate gig in 2012 for the staff of courier firm DHL at a hotel in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, stands out.

That’s when Noura, a singer raised in an eminent Mauritanian musical family, and her husband and partner Jeiche Ould Chighaly had an idea: Instead of just showing up together, with their traditional stringed instruments or Jeiche’s guitar, why not bring their friend and houseguest, American musician Matthew Tinari, and his drum kit?

They rounded out the group with bassist Ousmane Touré, and in this four-person format — the first time in this combination for Noura’s group, which draws on a fluid mix of musicians and Western and traditional instruments depending on performance setting — they heard in themselves something they knew was worth developing.

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“That was a turning point,” says Tinari, who is based in Dakar, Senegal, and has worked with Noura and Jeiche for several years after meeting them when all were playing at the same festival. “Something happened. It was like, suddenly Jeiche was uncovered. I could really hear what he was doing.”

The fresh balance of charismatic, deep-voiced singer Noura and her ardine, a 9-string harp that only women play, and Jeiche’s guitar, with aggressive, rock-inspired arrangements of traditional songs built around an ancient modal system that defines Mauritanian music, opened fresh horizons for the group.

In short order, they recorded an EP in Nouakchott that Tinari mixed in Dakar; the recording scored their first US tour, last year; during the trip they recorded another EP, in Brooklyn; and they return this summer with a full-length album, “Tzenni,” that collates the two recordings and comes out in June.

They play outdoors at the Museum of Fine Arts on July 30.

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Mauritania receives little attention on the world music market. With just over 3 million inhabitants, the land where the Sahara Desert edges right up to the Atlantic Ocean is relatively isolated, best known to political analysts for its history of coups and complex relations between the light-skinned “Moorish” ruling class and the sub-Saharan ethnic groups of the south, and to economists for its production of iron ore and fisheries.

But the country has a rich history woven into the trans-Saharan trade and the flux of medieval empires, French colonial rule, and independence since 1960. Its music is kin to Arabic music, with a modal system that governs song sequence and development, and to music of Senegal and Mali, with musicians from the griot caste, responsible for praise-singing and recounting history, and in which knowledge passes down through families.

Noura grew up in one such family, the daughter of Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, an important cultural figure who, among other things, pioneered Moorish musical notation.

“My father was a griot, an artist, a professor of music and a very recognized composer, and his own mother was a great diva,” Noura says on the phone from Nouakchott. And her stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba, was a celebrated singer who made frequent appearances overseas before her untimely death in 2011. “I did a lot of things with her, a lot of concerts as her backup singer,” Noura says – beginning from age 13, which gave her early exposure to performance, travel, and virtuosity.

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“Her family and entourage encouraged her a great deal,” says Jeiche, taking the phone after Noura’s French peters out. The two have been married many years; they have long played traditional gigs, Noura on her ardine and Jeiche on its male counterpart, the tidinitt, or on guitar. They formed their first modern, or fusion-oriented, band in 2004.

“We play a lot of weddings, and we also have people come to our house, drink tea, and hear us play for two or three hours,” Jeiche says. “There’s always some kind of atmosphere. People still like traditional music the best, and the young people are more interested in hip-hop. But the modern approach is growing.”

“Tzenni” epitomizes the new direction with its “rock-band feel,” as Tinari puts it, the Western bass and drums building musculature beneath Jeiche’s vivid, circular guitar motifs and Noura’s voice, which is at once gruff and ecstatic. In concert, many songs begin with the two leaders developing the theme before the beat drops.

The songs themselves are message-driven, says Jeiche. “Some speak to the youth, some give advice for living, or for illness, or against war; some praise the Prophet.”

In various lineups, Noura and her band have played multiple festivals and events across Europe and from Egypt to the Festival in the Desert in Mali. But they hope “Tzenni” will open new horizons, both for their own careers and with the aim to share Mauritanian culture.

“We’re happy for the chance to tour, and also so that our country can become known a bit in the world,” says Jeiche. “Mauritania may be far, but music brings us closer.”

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MORE: The Summer Arts Preview section.


Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.