Seizing the moment while staying true to her heritage


Noura Mint Seymali and her husband/guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly. (Joe Penney)
July 24

Seize the moment. Life is change. Turn, turn, turn.

Those are some of the nuggets of wisdom that Mauritanian singer and musician Noura Mint Seymali wants listeners to take away from “Tzenni,” the title track on her new album. In Hassaniya — a dialect of Arabic spoken in Seymali’s homeland — the word “tzenni” means “to circulate” or “to spin.” The term also denotes a whirling dance that is well known in the environs of Nouakchott, the Mauritanian city where Seymali grew up.

The salient message of the song “Tzenni” is “life is short. Get motivated. Don’t be afraid to deal with ups and downs,” Seymali remarked in a Skype interview from New York City, a stop on the North American tour that will bring her to Artisphere, in Arlington, on Aug. 1.

The tour follows the release of the album “Tzenni” (Glitterbeat), which interprets Moorish griot music through a contemporary global-pop-inflected sensibility. Seymali sings in Hassaniya on the album, which features the sounds of the traditional ardine (a kind of harp) and tidinit (a lute), among other instruments, and which showcases the virtuosity of her husband, guitarist Jeiche Ould Chighaly.

Chighaly was with his wife as she Skyped from a friend’s apartment in Chinatown; earlier in the morning, they had spoken to their four children back in Mauritania. Also in on the interview was Matthew Tinari, the Philadelphia native (now based in Dakar, Senegal) who is Seymali’s producer and drummer. The men translated, and sometimes elaborated on, the remarks of Seymali, who was wearing a voluminous black and red shawl over her head and shoulders and who spoke somewhat laconically in Hassaniya and French.

Seymali hails from a distinguished family of West African griots. Her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, a composer and scholar, is said to have pioneered the use of notation in recording traditional Moorish music. Seymali launched her own career at age 13, becoming a backing vocalist for her stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba, a celebrated musician.

The clan is so well known that, if you refer to Seymali’s name in Mauritania, “it’s like if you say ‘Michael Jackson’ in America,” Chighaly joked.

“It’s true, because Mauritania is very small,” Seymali remarked.

The album capitalizes on the singer’s family credentials, featuring a song composed by her father, and another song that pays poetic homage to her paternal grandmother, who was — you guessed it — also a famous musician.

A package of propulsive, pulsating desert-blues sound, “Tzenni” was conceived as a work that would appeal to global audiences.

“It’s our first international album,” Seymali said.

Appealing and authentic

Not unlike Seymali, Peruvian artists Maria Antonieta Merida and Faustino Flores strive to stay true to a distinctive regional heritage while also keeping sight of modern global realities.

A sculptor who works in ceramics, Merida aims to make work that bears witness — within and beyond her own country — to the experience of Peru’s Andean inhabitants. Flores, a textile artist based in the Andean city of Ayacucho, focuses on preserving and transmitting artisan techniques from the pre-Columbian era; he balances historical awareness with a recognition of the need to meet “the quality standards of the international market,” he said in an e-mail.

Both artists will be participating in the Kaypi Peru Festival, a celebration of Peruvian arts and culture that runs from July 29 to Aug. 3 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Presented by the museum, the Embassy of Peru and the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism of Peru, the extravaganza will feature — among other offerings — music and dance performances, activities for children, an art market and tutorials on how to make a Pisco sour.

Examples of Merida’s and Flores’s art works clustered around the two Peruvians when they chatted with a reporter via Skype the other day. (The split-screen Skype session took place at the Embassy of Peru; two embassy communications pros sat in to translate from English to Spanish and vice versa.) Speaking from Ayacucho, Flores appeared against a background of brilliantly colored pillows with lively patterns. He talked about trying to keep abreast of the latest research on raw materials and regional history, in order to create work that is both appealing and authentic.

Flores isn’t a go-it-alone creative type; he works with Hilos & Colores, an organization whose mission includes helping people in the Ayacucho area earn livelihoods through traditional textile arts. The region was particularly scarred by violence during the Shining Path insurgency that racked Peru in the 1980s and 1990s.

Speaking from Lima, with striking ceramic figures looming behind her, Merida talked about sharing the vision of her father, sculptor Edilberto Merida. Both she and her father are known for creating religious and other sculptures with oversized hands and feet — traits that speak of the toil involved in working land in the Andes.

Merida, who will be conducting a workshop during the Kaypi Peru Festival, refers to the family style as “Andean Expressionism.” Her “ultimate goal,” she said in an e-mail, “is to make people conscious of the spiritual and human side of the Andean Peruvian man.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Noura Mint Seymali Aug. 1 at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Visit www.artisphere.com or call (888) 841-2787.

Kaypi Peru Festival July 29-Aug. 3 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, on the National Mall (Fourth Street & Independence Ave. SW). Visit www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.

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