“It is gonna be an amazing performance,” beamed Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who’d booked Noura Mint Seymali for an extremely rare, relatively intimate show last night. Relatively, since the Lincoln Center atrium space is still a pretty big room, although it’s hardly the size of the stadiums the Mauritanian singer headlines at festivals around the world.
As with Amadou & Mariam’s psychedelic show last night at a much more cavernous venue, Seymali and band switched between hypnotic vamps and big anthemic choruses, although Seymali’s vocals were vastly more intense. In that sense, it felt vicarious to be oblivious to the lyrical content and watch her belting, her brows knitted, fingers chastising the crowd or spurring their responses throughout a mix of songs in her native Arabic vernacular that drew equally on Islamic religious imagery, ancient folk narratives and pressing global issues.
Her husband, Strat player Jeiche Ould Chighaly kicked off the night with a shivery series of hammer-on accents over a hypnotically swaying beat, then the blue-robed singer took the stage and fired off a shivery round of sound on her ardine harp. That hardly foreshadowed the powerful, melismatic contralto wail she cut loose with as the band built ambience behind her. Chighaly played slide-style with his fingers over the music’s fat, undulating low end from bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Matthew Tinari.
Seymali pierced the crowd with her relentless stare and her uneasy quavers and trills as Chigaly worked the subtlety of the microtones in between, throughout a slow, ba-bump Mauritanian blues that ended cold. They picked up the pace with a similarly insistent, Saharan-tinged sway, Seymali and Chigaly trading off jaunty riffage: Mauritanian modes are just a hair off the western scale, compared to the biting chromatics of, say, Arabic music, just enough to lend an extra layer of unease. Chigaly turned on his flange for extra warp behind Seymali’s volleys of melismatics as the groove and the volume continued to pick up steam, then shadowed her with some upper-register flash. Reaching deep for a sudden wail, she drew an awestruck response from the crowd.
The number after that came across as slightly microtonal Veracruz folk – who knew? – with another big vocal crescendo and a practically accusatory bridge, Seymali’s vocals and Tinari’s drums pouncing in tandem. She held her notes dramatically as Chighaly slunk and clinked through his wah pedal, the rhythm section taking the pulse up a notch.
They made a singalong out of a funky, catchy Black Angel’s Death Song of sorts, then took a turn into pounding, Velvets-influenced mathrock that they suddenly straightened the kinks out of and went flying into doublespeed, Chighaly coloring it with some wry sirening effects. The show reached peak intensity as the rhythm section shuffled, Seymali running a breathless phrase over and over. They closed with the title track of their album Arbina, a fervently hypnotic, vampingly funky quest for healing.
The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thursday, June 14 at 7:30 PM with Mediterranean folk-pop singer Piers Faccini.