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A Rare Chance to See Fearless, Intense African Rock Trailblazer Noura Mint Seymali

The second track on Noura Mnt Seymali’s latest album Arbina – streaming at Bandcamp – is a psychedelic Islamic gospel song. It’s an incredible piece of music. Seymali’s husband and lead guitarist Jeiche Ould Chigaly plays warpedly blues-infused lines through a wah pedal in an offcenter scale that’s somewhere between American rock and an uneasy Middle Eastern mode, Seymali supplying elegant rhythm on her ardine, a kora-like, smallscale harp. The scion of a famed Mauritanian musical family. Seymali is a fearlessly feminist trailblazer from a part of the world where that kind of stance can earn you a death sentence, family ties or not.

Now imagine if a reality tv bully and failed casino owner tried banning Muslims from entering the US in order to placate his political party’s Christian supremacist lunatic fringe. If that happened, we’d never get to see Seymali and her wildly psychedelic band, who are playing the album release show at Littlefield on March 2 at 7 PM. $20 advance tix are available, and considering the political climate, this may be your last chance to see her here for the next four years. The World Music Institute get credit for booking this show as part of their ongoing desert blues series. 

The material on the rest of the album is just as strong as that second cut. The title track opens it, part swaying funk, part Malian-style desert rock jam, Chigaly’s alternately punchy and slinky microtonal lines over a tight groove from bassist Ousmane Toure and drummer Matthew Tinari. Seymali’s indomitable mezzo-soprano voice channels a guarded triumph, at one point opaquely encouraging the women around her to “get a injection” in the event they get sick. Baby steps today, giant steps tomorrow.

The third track might be the most high-voltage lullaby ever recorded, rippling with intertwining ardine and guitar. Suedi Koum is slower and more resolute, a rather tender shout-out from one musician to another, Seymali reassuring the star who’s left the stage that she’s got his back no matter what dangers might be lurking in the crowd.

A cover of a defiantly triumphant anti-imperialist hit by Seymali’s father,  Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, shifts back and forth between a catchy singalong chorus and shapeshifting desert rock. Ghiana is as hypnotic as it it anthemic: Chigaly’s dulcimer-like lines bring to mind Richard Thompson in extreme folk-rock mode. Seymali shifts toward more wary ambience with Ghizlane, an understatedly desperate escape anthem.

Ya Demb is a spiky, undulating electric update of a funny, traditional Moorish wedding song, a sort of emperor-has-no-clothes scenario. After a misterioso improv intro, Soub Hanak – the most straight-up rock number on the album – speaks starkly to the solace of music amid the ravages of war. The final cut, Tia, a prayer, slinks along Tinariwen style amid Chigaly’s alternately staccato and resonant guitar multitracks.

A shout to No Grave Like the Sea’s Tony Maimone, whose masterful mastering job captured the growliest lows of Toure’s downtuned bass without throwing the rest of the mix off wack.

Noura Mint Seymali Brings a Rare African Sound to New York

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.