Counterflows 2015: interview with featured artist Noura Mint Seymali

Counterflows Festival 2015 preview: interview with featured artist Noura Mint Seymali

The mauritanian desert-rock singer talks influences, griot traditions and her latest album Tzenni

Glasgow's annual music bacchanal, the global / alternative weekend festival Counterflows, has been zig-zagging geographic boundaries, remapping cultural ones, and revelling in subterranean sonic fun since 2012.

This year's lineup is typically challenging, accessible, inspired and freewheeling. It includes far-flung thrills from Rio De Janeiro improv trio Chinese Cookie Poets, fellow Brazilian experimentalist Negro Leo, Lebanese folk/techno DJ and electronic label owner Rabih Beaini aka Morphosis, Taiwanese art trailblazers Lin Chiwei, Wang Fujui and Dino, Berlin piano diviner Andrea Neumann, and US rock 'n' roll firebrand Neil Michael Hagarty (Royal Trux).

Closer to home, Glasgow-based sonic alchemist Richard Youngs is this year's featured artist – he'll perform across the festival in different contexts, including a new commission, Experiment for Demolished Structures – and tropical-punk duo Sacred Paws bring the indie-pop and noise, as showcased on their excellent new EP, Six Songs (Rock Action).

Of course, that's barely scratching the surface of the UK debuts, rare performances, collaborations, workshops and one-off gigs at this year's Counterflows. An unmissable highlight is Mauritania's Noura Mint Seymali, who released one of last year's most joyous and intoxicating albums in Tzenni, which fused Western grooves and psychedelia with ancient griot traditions, folklore and instruments. Her visionary poems and music – carried by her enthralling voice – echo the Counterflows ethos: they cross centuries, cultures, countries and art forms; they're forward-looking (and sounding, and moving), yet rooted in the past.

Music is all that Seymali has ever known. 'As a griot, music is the lifeblood of our family and culture,’ she says, through interpreter Matthew Tinari, who is also her producer and drummer. 'My grandmother, Mounina, was a great singer and taught me how to play the ardine – a traditional Moorish harp played by griot women. I remember listening to her from a very young age and her music stays with me even now.

'My father, Seymali, offered a more worldly perspective on what it means to be an artist,' she continues. 'He studied Arab classical music, wrote scholarly texts on Moorish music culture and was one of Mauritania’s great composers. His ideas about how our music should evolve and change really influenced me in forming my own style within the pop idiom. He always encouraged me to expand my reach as an artist on the international stage, as well as within the traditional music circuit. And I'm eternally inspired by [late step-mother and Mauritanian superstar] Dimi Mint Abba and Oum Kalthoum,' she adds.

Her exploration of griot traditions in a contemporary global landscape has shaped Seymali's incredible live shows. 'Weddings are where I first learned to perform,' she explains. 'There is a certain immediacy to the music there that I feel informs what we do on stage as a band. Singing at weddings can be very challenging – often there are several voices singing over each other, the sound equipment is harsh, and the Mauritanian public really demands a lot – but there is a natural interplay with the audience. That’s something we try to make happen in a new way on the concert stage.'

Her compositions, too, have their roots in tradition. 'Many of the songs we play are adapted from a traditional context, but they are rendered quite differently,' she says. 'Ideas or riffs might surface at weddings that we then use with the band and vice versa. For example, my husband Jeich [Ould Chighaly, guitar] leads different dances on the tidinit / guitar at weddings, [and] the solos he takes with the band are built out of that vast vocabulary in many ways, but arranged within the form of a pop song. And the drum rhythms played by Tinari are translations of t’beul and gangesh used at weddings.'

But don't be surprised if you also discern reggae, blues and rock'n'roll in Seymali's dizzying songs. 'Jeich loves Jimi Hendrix, Dire Straits and Bob Marley,' she offers. 'Ousmane [Touré, bass] and Tinari listen to lots of funk, jazz, reggae and soul music. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Burning Spear, Flying Lotus – these are all things on the family USB drive on our stereo. [Mostly] I listen to Mauritanian music, but lately I have really loved exploring Indian classical music.'

Seymali's latest album, Tzenni, is aptly titled. 'Tzenni means to spin or to turn in Hassaniya, and it's also a whirling dance,' she explains. 'Tzenni is orbit and change and so many different things. As an album, Tzenni is generally about the passing of time in a constantly changing world. It’s about finding a way forward in a swirl of history, uncertainty, love, and dislocated geography.' It sounds not unlike Counterflows.

Noura Mint Seymali plays Langside Halls, Glasgow, Sun April 5, with support from Sacred Paws. Counterflows, Glasgow, various venues, Thu 2-Sun 5 Apr


A festival of underground, experimental and international music, Counterflows marries the local to the international with artists from around the world collaborating with homegrown talent across Glasgow.

Noura Mint Seymali

Mauritanian desert-rock chanteuse.

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