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Innovation Across Generations

Moorish griot royalty stops by the RFF in the form of Noura Mint Seymali.

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How do you know your highly musical family is a pretty big deal? How about when your grandmother is pictured playing an instrument on your nation’s currency?

Noura Mint Seymali hails from a family of Moorish griots — a caste within Mauritanian society that’s associated with storytelling and song — but not just any family. Many would call hers the first family of its musical tradition. Her father, Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, developed a first-of-its-kind system for Moorish musical notation. He also composed for her stepmother, Dimi Mint Abba, a Mauritanian superstar who earned the title of “Diva of the Desert.” And yes, Seymali's grandmother, Mounina, was once pictured on the 1,000 ouguiya note issued by the Central Bank of Mauritania.

Certainly a tough act to follow. But Seymali took the weight of her ancestry in stride. “I would just say it’s probably like any other occupation when you figure out, ‘This is what the family business is,’” she says. While growing up in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital and largest city, she learned to sing alongside family members and lent her voice to wedding celebrations, eventually studying the ardin, a kora-like instrument reserved for griot women, under the guidance of her note-worthy grandmother. Despite embracing her place in such an accomplished lineage, she says she “always dreamed of doing something new with Mauritanian music.”

Given the far-out sound of the ensemble she plays with now, it’s safe to say she’s hit her mark. At the Richmond Folk Festival, she’ll be playing alongside famed Mauritanian bassist Ousmane Touré, Philadelphian-born drummer Matthew Tinari, and husband and guitarist Jeich Ould Chighaly. Jeich is an innovator in his own right who wields an electric guitar with extra frets that allow for quarter tones, bridging the gap between the instrument familiar to rock fans and the more traditional tidnit version from the couple’s home country.

Seymali and Chighaly initially played the wedding circuit, which is a vital source of gigs for Mauritania’s musicians. The couple committed their early sonic experimentation to tape with a pair of locally released late-2000s albums before hitting an even higher gear via the two psychedelic-tinged, mid-2010s albums recorded with the current lineup: 2014’s “Tzenni” and 2016’s “Arbina.” They’re charting a thrilling pathway into the new, though in Seymali’s mind, it's more culmination than departure. “It’s all in there,” she says. “Everything I learned how to do from early on is what I’m using now to make the music that I’m making currently."

Nevertheless, as anyone looking to innovate does, this lineup has faced its share of resistance. “There’s a lot of people who have a very traditionalist way of thinking towards the music that we do,” Seymali notes. “People saying, ‘Why are you trying to do this kind of band that you’re doing? Don’t mess with the stuff.’” Seymali hasn’t slowed down, in part because her mission is bigger than music.

“For every one of those people,” she says, “there are also many people who are very proud of what we’re doing, and are encouraging us, and saying, ‘Noura this is amazing. You’re putting Mauritania on the map. We’re behind you.’”

Mauritania isn’t known as a major player in the global music community, despite desert blues contemporaries like Niger’s Mdou Moctar and Mali’s Tinariwen (with whom Seymali has collaborated) breaking through in the Western market. Performances like the upcoming one at the Richmond Folk Festival present the ideal opportunity to change that. “There’s very few artists coming from Mauritania,” she says. “People don’t know much about the country or the culture or the music, so that’s goal number one — just familiarization and exposure.”

The folk festival atmosphere also aligns with the family-friendly performances she’s used to giving back home. “It’s more similar to how things are in Mauritanian culture,” she says. “It’s not just for 21 and up. So that’s an aspect that we enjoy a lot, and it’s closer to the way that music and society intersect where we’re coming from.” Drummer Matthew Tinari, who also serves as Seymali’s manager and translator, even has family coming in from surrounding areas to see the band perform in Richmond.

If you’re in attendance as well, don’t be surprised if the biggest smile you see all day comes as the last notes of Seymali’s set ring out. She says her favorite part of touring is “that after-concert feeling of ‘OK, we got through to the audience. They took something away from this.’” Perhaps that’s the most meaningful breakthrough of all.

Noura Mint Seymali will perform each day of the Richmond Folk Festival. She performs on Friday, Oct. 7 on the Altria Stage from 9 to 10 p.m. She performs on Saturday, Oct. 8 in the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. and on the Carmax Stage from 8:15 to 9:15 p.m. She performs on Sunday, Oct. 9 in the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion from 3:45 to 4:45 p.m. Admission is free. For set times, visit richmondfolkfestival.org/schedule.

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