Noura Mint Seymali Credit: Jacob Crawfurd

Mauritania doesn’t have the global pop footprint of its neighbor Senegal; its local musical culture is dominated by traditional forms played at weddings and other ceremonial venues. Noura Mint Seymali is determined to change that. The griot and singer has deep roots in Moorish and Mauritanian musical traditions: she grew up singing backup for her stepmother, legendary vocalist Dimi Mint Abba. But Seymali is also an heir to modernization: her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, pioneered a system of notation for Moorish music. With her band, she looks to the future and the past for inspiration. Seymali delivers ululating vocals and plays the ardin (a Moorish harp reserved for women griots) while backed by Western instruments, including drum kit, bass, and guitar. The resulting psychedelic desert fusion is as exhilarating as that of other famous Sahel bands such as Tinariwen (with whom Seymali has recorded). The group’s secret weapon is Seymali’s husband, Jeich Ould Chighaly, who plays an electric guitar modified to play quarter tones; it sounds like a sitar with warped strings. You can hear his idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable style at the beginning of the title track of Seymali’s 2014 album, Tzenni (Glitterbeat), before the band kicks into a rolling, sweaty Western groove. Seymali sings with perfect, unpredictable control, stretching out and lifting out the notes before allowing them to settle back into her throat. Mauritania can’t contain that voice, and neither can the rest of the world.   v