Though it's bordered by Mali and Senegal, two countries long renowned for their rich musical traditions, Mauritania has remained little known to Western ears. That's beginning to change in large part due to the music of Noura Mint Seymali, a powerful and distinctive singer from the capital city of Nouakchott who hails from a long line of griots stretching back more than 20 generations.
Seymali accompanies herself on the ardin, a traditional nine-string harp played only by women, while her sound is invigorated by her husband, Jeiche Ould Chighaly, playing electric guitar. Their music is a thrilling blend of American rock and blues influences with West African traditions that Seymali says via email, "continues the legacy of griot music, but hopefully updates it for our era."
Seymali and her band will perform Sunday at West Philly's Calvary Center as part of Crossroads Music's 15th season. As Crossroads director Daniel Flaumenhaft points out, the American music that feeds into Seymali's sound can trace its own roots back in large part to West African traditions. "It's very much a circle of influences in both directions," he says, "that breaks down the idea that you can simply separate what's modern from what's traditional, what's here from what's there, or what's us from what's them."
That idea is central to the mission of Crossroads Music, which brings artists with roots in cultures around the world to play in Philadelphia. This season alone, Crossroads has already presented an evening of globe-spanning guitarists and a program of Garifuna music from Honduras, and in coming weeks has scheduled concerts of American folk music, Argentinean tango, Latin American protest songs, South Indian fusion, and Haitian music.
Such diversity in programming is crucial for Flaumenhaft, who often works with organizations in the city dedicated to more specific traditions, such as Indian music presenter Sruti and the Sangeet Society or Irish music promoters the Philadelphia Ceili Group. By bringing audiences from those various constituencies to one central location, he says, he hopes to promote more wide-ranging curiosity.
"Bringing people together is a really big part of what we do. I enjoy watching people who come for concerts of one particular kind of music gradually start coming to more and more different things, learning and expanding."
Mauritania is a culture that most audiences in Philadelphia will find unfamiliar, though Seymali's captivating music makes her an ideal ambassador. "Mauritania is our home and a place that is diverse and rich in culture," Seymali says. "We hope [audiences] can at least come away from the show with an appreciation of something new and a positive representation of our culture even if they don't understand every word. Music is the universal language."
The show will be a homecoming for one member of Seymali's band.
Drummer Matthew Tinari, who also manages Seymali and has produced her last two albums, grew up in Huntingdon Valley and spent two years in West Philly before settling in Dakar, Senegal, where he's lived for the last decade. He originally made the move through a scholarship to study the Wolof language though he admits, "That was just a pretext to go check out music, to be totally honest."
Spending years not only working with musicians in Senegal and Mauritania but living with them has given Tinari a perspective that he never could have gained staying in the States or even making occasional visits to Africa. "Music is way more integrated into everyday life there," he explains. "It's changed me in so many ways.
"It allows you to really connect with the people because they're in your life in a more permanent way."
That's an attitude that relates back to what Crossroads Music does, which Flaumenhaft says takes on additional weight and resonance in our politically tumultuous moment.
"This isn't just music," he says. "It's music that comes out of people's lives. We live in an open society that recognizes cultural differences in our city, in the country, and in the world, and that's something that needs to be defended. We can't do this if artists can't get into the country, and we can't do it in any meaningful way if the artists are playing only to who's left after deportations and fear of public difference have suppressed the diversity that exists here."