Rock and roll is alive and well in Mauritania, where Noura Mint Seymali has been belting out psychedelic Moorish griot tunes with her band since 2004. That’s not a long time, since Seymali has been involved in the family business of making music since starting to compose for her stepmother at the age of 13. Arbina is the group’s second widely released full-length album, a much rawer take on Maghreb pop with a stripped-down sound and a focus on the sheer power of Seymali’s roar.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact emotions that Noura Mint Seymali evokes. Opening track “Arbina” sounds like as ominous as it does inviting, giving the distinct impression that to sway along with it is to be pulled into something inescapable. “Na Sane” tempers euphoria with a sense of longing. On “Suedi Koum”, Seymali hits peak volume against gentle melodies. As simple as the instrumentation is, there are layers upon layers of feeling that come together to create each track on Arbina.
This is almost a cyberpunk version of Seymali’s usual sweeping grooves, stripped down to killer voice and exposed wiring. Those dangerous sparks give Arbina a thrilling edge and let both Seymali’s master harpistry and her emotive vocals shine through each arrangement with a wild power and something sharper than plaintive desert blues or fuzzy psych rock. No holds are barred, no punches are pulled, and Seymali and her band pounce on every note and beat to drive each moment forward with exceptional gravity. “Ghlana” is the heaviest track, thundering and twanging along with a vengeance.
At times, at least without the advantage of being able to understand the lyrics, Arbina can get repetitive, all songs in a very similar style. The sound itself, though, is novel enough to avoid growing stale quickly, and the entire album creates a unique soundscape very different from most music available and advertised to the international public. There are always pieces of each song that stand out, even when brief; “Soub Hanak” starts and ends with what sounds like a ball python slithering across a bass guitar, thick and winding and incredibly satisfying. In the middle, it follows the same formula as most other songs: power voice and clanging strings. It’s a formidable pattern, but a pattern nonetheless.
With all that said and formulas falling where they may, it’s refreshing to hear Noura Mint Seymali try something new and be so successful. Her skills need no further proving, but here, she plays with truly different sounds, buoyed by her own well-honed knowledge of her instrument and her craft. Sonically, Arbina is borderline intimidating in its strength and execution, and that’s to the band’s collective credit. Noura Mint Seymali is a mastermind, and Arbina a successful plan for musical domination.