Sept. 25--The Lotus World Music & Arts Festival officially kicks off Wednesday night with its African Showcase, featuring Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba and Noura Mint Seymali.
Seymali offers a blend of Afro-pop that draws from the deep traditional roots of Mauritania. But the music also blends in blues, rap and soul. Seymali and her husband and guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly are from prominent Moorish griot families, which are storied musician-historians from West Africa.
Matthew Tinari joined the band in 2010 as drummer after meeting Seymali and Chighaly.
Tinari had been performing with another artist at a festival in Dakar, Senegal, where Tinari had been living for six years.
"They appreciated my playing and happened to need a drummer at the time, so they invited me to come to Mauritania. This was an opportunity I jumped at, as I had been long enamored by Moorish music via Dimi Mint Abba's recording, who as it turns out was Noura's stepmother and where she started her career as a back-up singer," Tinari said via email.
Seymali became a stand-out singing backup for her stepmother, but the family lineage doesn't stop there. And those ties are strengthened as Seymali finds a way to incorporate traditional music with new genres.
"As griot, Seymali and Chighaly are heir to an extensive repertoire, played and modified in an inexhaustible and ongoing cultural dialectic," Tinari said.
"This often provides the point of departure for the music performed by the band. Within the framework of Moorish griot repertoire, Noura applies lyrical modifications that tie the content to contemporary life -- she is one of the only people doing this in a substantial way, essentially updating the tradition speaks not only to history but to our current era."
The music also ties in poetry and the traditional way it was used in songs.
"Moorish music also involves a poetic tradition by which messages are transmitted via the singer -- somebody writes something or whispers in the ear of the performer and the lyrics are then sung out loud -- so some of the lyrics nod to this tradition and may be the poetry that other people have passed on. One of Jeiche's brothers, Mohammed Chighaly, is a renowned singer in Mauritania and great friend/ally of the group. He has written lyrics for several songs. Also Noura's father, the late Seymali Hemed Vall, was a composer, performer and lyricist of extraordinary renown. He is credited as the first to notate Moorish music and one of the pioneers of 'fusion' music. Noura views her contemporary work as squarely in the tradition of Seymali and indeed the band plays some of Seymali's compositions written for Noura," Tinari said.
Over time, Tinari's role with the band has changed. Although he still drums, he is also the band's manager and producer. Tinari said that after touring with the band for a couple of years, he took on a management role last year since he knew enough people to get the band more touring possibilities. Since he took over, the band has performed in Senegal, Mali, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and France, and finally is embarking on its first U.S. tour this month
Tinari also serves as producer, and said much of the collaboration has happened as he listens to Seymali and Chighaly perform traditional music.
"Once we distilled some songs from that, each musician contributes to the arrangements. I will say that the drumming I do on the drum set is often a translation of rhythms played on the t'beul and metal plate at weddings and such," Tinari said.
Tinari said the band has played around with the number of members, but efforts are made to showcase the core elements of guitar and voice fortified with bass and drums. The group's album "Azawan" tried to take a different approach -- taking into consideration that "Azawan" means "ensemble" in Hassaniya.
"In traditional music, the guitar very aggressively drives the show, often only accompanied by percussion, so 'Azawan' is an attempt to allow that to happen in pop music and make the synergy between Noura and Jeiche much more visible," Tinari said.
As with many Lotus performers, most audience members will come to the show without much knowledge of the performers. Tinari hopes the audience will "get their minds blown" by the music, so the band will come ready to entertain.
"We just try to play the best quality concert we can, and allow the music to speak for itself. Language is sometimes a barrier, but if an audience is receptive to the music, they respond without any prompting," he said.
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