Mauritainian singer/bandleader Noura Mint Seymali’s show at Central Park Summerstage Saturday evening started about an hour late: it appeared that an opening act had cancelled. Singing mostly in Arabic in a powerful, shiveringly ornamented alto voice that revealed a strong Egyptian classical music influence, she also displayed nimble chops on the ardine harp, kicking off a handful of songs with brief introductions that went from pensively spiky to lickety-split in seconds flat.
Her husband and lead guitarist, Jeiche Ould Chighaly ran his black-and-white Strat through a flange that added an eerily oscillating, watery tone to his phrases, sometimes letting them linger, sometimes tremolo-picking, building relentlessly intense volleys of notes in the same vein as Vieux Farka Toure. And while there was a definite Malian influence in this band’s music, the rhythms were far more complicated, constantly changing shape. Drummer Matthew Tinari managed to keep a solid four-on-the-floor thump going all the while: dancing West African phrases mingled within a hard-hitting arena-rock drive, bassist Ousmane Touré sticking mostly to simple, looping riffs.
Some of the songs vamped along until a catchy turnaround into the chorus. Another began briskly and then hit a swaying, loping, halfspeed desert rock groove. Others shifted back and forth between a funky pulse and trickier meters. Tinari kicked off one of them with a droll “whoomp whoomp whoomp” thud that might have been a parody of cold, mechanical EDM beats. And Chighaly’s precise, scurrying lines took on a more jagged quality as the show went on, culminating on the next-to-last song with some slashing, offcenter chord-chopping straight out of the Velvet Underground playbook circa White Light, White Heat. See, Africans listen to that stuff too!
Another song, by Seymali’s dad Seymali Ould Mouhamed Vall – a legend in Mauritainia – offered a vivid glimpse of how phrasing originally devised for the kora or the oud can be transposed to the guitar, as Chighaly bent his notes to approximate those instruments’ microtones rather than changing his tuning. It was one of many fascinating glimpses this band offered into a style of music too infrequently heard here. Seymali and band are at Joe’s Pub on July 29, guessing at around 9 (the club hasn’t announced the concert yet).
Apropos of the venue, some of the problems that plagued it recently seem to have disappeared. One of the back bleachers is now open to the public again, there didn’t seem to be as much of the arena fenced off as there had been last year, and there wasn’t an army of officious ushers trying to disperse the crowd from the shadows behind the soundboard where they’d gathered to escape the blazing sun. We can be grateful for small favors.