This week's new tunes are brought to us by music critic Steve Hochman and Associate Editor of Latin for Billboard Music, Justino Aguila.
Hochman brings us Noura Mint Seymali, an artist from the country of Mauritania in North Africa which usually gets lost on the world music stage between heavy hitters like Mali, Algeria and Senegal.
But the music, rooted in the Moorish and Berber cultures, is as tied to the desert just as strongly as the sounds of the region’s Tuareg nomads that have gone worldwide in recent years. With the right artist and the right album, and the right timing, this music could take its place on the world stage. Noura Mint Seymali may be that artist, and her new Tzenni could well be that album. And the timing? Well, we’ll see.
She’s certainly got heritage on her side. Her father Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall was a composer and invented the first system of notation for Moorish melodies, a giant in Mauritanian music, as was her step-mother, singer Dimi Mint Abba, both teaming to bring new sounds and approaches to Moorish traditions with forceful vocals and stinging electric guitar. Noura Mint Seymali started out as a background singer for her step-mother as a teen. In time she became a star in Mauritania in her own right, but with this album she steps up in a way that could appeal well beyond her country’s borders.
The press material calls this an album about “shape-shifting, [with] faith and stability found through instability,” about finding permanence through change, all captured in the ancient spinning dance from which the album takes its title. The song “Tzenni” is a perfect representation of that, the frantic pace of the asawan — the instrumental combination of the traditional ardine harp and here the electric guitar played by husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly — and Seymali’s trill-filled, just-shy-of-shrill vocals, put over solid, even funky rhythms. But it’s the singing, the forthright attitude embodied, that is the real stable foundation here.
On the song “Tikifite,” a song often sung by and associated with her step-mother about a healing herb, the ardine and voice combination takes a lilting tone, the rhythm section playing almost like a pop ensemble, yet firmly planted in her homeland and cultural traditions.
Noura Mint Seymali will be performing July 24 in the Skirball Cultural Center's Summer Sunset Concert series.
Hochman's second pick, The Felice Brothers, draw from a much different musical tradition of Americana.
This is the fifth album from a real band of brothers — one left a couple of years ago, but Ian and James Felice remain at the core — hailing from that rock ’n’ roll hotbed, the Catskills. Of course, that’s not far from Woodstock, where the Band famously crafted some of the most influential sounds in what we now call Americana. And at times the insightful, incisive story-songs and earthy, kind-of-rickety flywheel energy reminds of the Band, as rendered by musicians who were raised on Bruce Springsteen and, oh, the Replacements. Over the course of the group’s career, that’s evolved into something distinctive and substantial, as you can hear in the new song “Meadow of a Dream.”
In concert it all almost comes apart. Just almost, which gives it a manic magic. That’s trickier to pull off in the studio, but they get it enough, as in the boisterously building choruses of the song “Lion” and the fury of “Katie Cruel,” both musically and otherwise referencing the Anglo-Celtic folk music that is the root of American mountain folk. There are also more contemplative sides, songs redolent of drafty barns and gravel roads, of whisky and late-night jam sessions. Oh, and doubt and darkness — all captured in both caustic and clever wordplay, scattergun shots of references, from Henry David Thoreau to Harry Potter, in the boisterous “Woman Next Door” alone.
But here with the exuberant “Cherry Licorice” they show off some well-honed pop skills. It’s a great sweet-tooth summer song, but with the flaring accordion and fiddle giving a little Pogues shamble to the sing-along hooks.
Justino Aguila highlights some new music from a rising young Mexican regional star, Noel Torres, who has also been known to sing narco-corridos, songs that specifically explore drug-trafficking themes. However, in recent years Torres’ music has included more of a focus on romantic ballads, which are proving to be popular on the Billboard charts.
Noel Torres is part of the new generation of norteño singer/songwriters who keeps gaining momentum for his music in the U.S. and beyond.
His shows are usually full to capacity and his compositions are popular within norteño music, a genre that often uses percussive brass sections, drums, the bajo sexto and the accordion.
Aguila's second pick comes from Los Angeles-based Latin alternative artist Ceci Bastida, who started out singing in Tijuana, Mexico in the ska-punk band Tijuana No! where she wrote and produced songs with artists such as Manu Chao. Later she joined Julieta Venegas’ band in 2000—where she sang back-up vocals and played keyboards before going solo.
Her new album, recorded while pregnant, explores the realities of the world as she carried her baby and wondered what the future was going to be like for the child she was going to have.
The album includes compositions about life from a variety of viewpoints and includes a duet with Bastida’s longtime friend/singer/songwriter Julieta Venegas. That song, “Ven,” was inspired by her daughter Yamila.