American writers generally have a tough time talking about African music, and it’s easy to see why. For those listeners who lack the time and resources to learn any of the continent’s hundreds of languages, not to mention every subdivision and nuance of music under the sun, our knowledge is restricted to the handful of artists that music writers can feel confident talking about – artists with global ambitions that, in a digital age, likely make some amount of choice to spread their message to a global audience with whatever power of presentation they have.
The term “Afropop” is a catch-all for a lot of popular music styles from across the continent, but chances are high that you’re only think about very specific artists or genres. Highlife. Fela Kuti. Youssou N’Door. Antibalas. Afrobeat (Kuti’s term). These signifiers conjure up images of large bands with elaborate horn and percussion sections, a few electric instruments sitting comfortably alongside traditional African ones, syncopated rhythms and evocative lyrical refrains that blur the line between dance party and socio-political rally.
An artist like Noura Mint Seymali, who makes her Philadelphia debut at The Painted Bride this Saturday, do not fit so neatly into that narrative. The Mauritanian singer/instrumentalist’s music derives from Berber and Moorish tradition, and her acrobatic lyrical refrains might evoke Middle Eastern technique more than African ones.
But Africa is a continent rife with contradiction, just like any other, and Noura Mint Seymali’s music will destroy and rebuild your notions of what Afropop really is. She hails from a long line of musicians, including step-mother and internationally-renowned singer Dimi Mint Abba, engaged in the griot tradition of musical storytelling that spans the entirety of Francophone West Africa.
Like Fela, her music transcends the popular perceptions of her home country as a repressive, ethnically fragmented theocracy. Her live act, which blends traditional Moorish griot instrumentation with rock instrumentation and rhythmic structure that crosses continents, has transfixed audiences throughout her own country and the international festival circuit with equal ecclesiastical power.
Now, as she arrives in Philadelphia on a worldwide tour in support of 2013’s Azawan II, she’ll continue the world-sharing tradition of her griot ancestors, bringing you into a apace where the mix of traditions really doesn’t any genre distinction. Or any other-worldy distinction at all.
Noura Mint Seymali plays at the Painted Bride Arts Center on January 11. Click her for tickets and information.