Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.
I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading