Of all the mould-breaking female African singers currently pushing the boundaries of modern music rooted in tradition (and they do seem to mostly be female, don't they?), Mauritania's Malouma is probably the one pushing hardest, as those people who were either enthralled or appalled by the screeching rock guitar and keyboard fills of her previous release, Dunya, will testify.
With Nour, the West African griotte once again blends the traditional Moorish repertoire of her native country with Western instrumentation and arrangements. The key word here is 'blend', because on this album there is less discord between the two elements than there was on its predecessor, with Malouma's rich, guttural vocals, ardin (12-string harp), oud and percussion integrated more naturally with keyboards, acoustic guitar and equally conspicuous but far less voluminous lead guitar work by Pierre Fruchard.
It's the French guitarist who adds delicious rhythmic prompts to the groovy, chattering Nebine, with growing waves of feedback carrying Malouma's imploring vocal to an exultant climax. And if that effect just about manages to avoid outstaying its welcome, the brief wailing wall of sustain on the Tuareg-style Lemra is positively chased out of the room by the return to rousing, percussive call-and-response by the ensemble.
Elsewhere, Gamly is a funky slab of Arabic pop bubbling with guest jazz-fusionist Smadj's restless invention, and Kentawaiyate is a loping blues based on a traditional theme of life in the desert, driven by the spongy pulse of Loy Ehrlich's gumbass (a hybrid of the Moroccan guimbri and conventional bass). Ehrlich also adds soulful resonance to Malouma's lament on the sparse, poetic Nnew. Malouma's voice seems to improve with each recording she makes, and it really comes to the fore on Chtib, a song of unrequited love where the singer's range of emotions moves from a pleading near-sob to a controlled, defiant yowl of protest at life's unfairness. It's the highlight of a consistently rewarding CD brim full of ideas and invention, with just the right amount of experimentation to take some of us out of our world music comfort zones. A highlight of the year so far.