Seckou Keita won the Africa & Middle East category in the Songlines Music Awards 2016. Over the past decade Seckou Keita’s various projects have been written about within our pages. His latest album and tour features just him and the 22 strings of his kora. Jane Cornwell talks to him about his journey so far.
Seckou Keita isn’t an easy man to get hold of. The Nottingham-based drum and kora maestro is in constant demand, and perpetual motion: touring, collaborating, recording. Performing and hosting workshops in schools, art centres and international festivals such as WOMAD, or producing and starring in Do You Speak Djembé?, the interactive percussion spectacle that has taken France by storm. Consulting and participating in Sewa Beats, a company that offers corporate learning through rhythm and music. Working in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the humanitarian organisation Seckou first encountered as a child growing up in civil war-torn Casamance, the area of Senegal south of The Gambia. Doing continuous press interviews for Clychau Dibon, his 2013 album with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, and for his similarly Top of the World, solo album, 22 Strings (reviewed in #109) – which he’ll be touring live throughout the UK in the autumn.
“I haven’t really stopped moving since I left Senegal in 1996,” says Seckou, 37, when, after much trial and error we eventually meet on a Sunday morning in a café at Kings Cross St Pancras, from where he’ll be catching a train to Paris. “This is what I do to maintain the success I have. It can be disorienting, but playing music grounds me. As soon as I grab my instrument I’m there, in the moment.”
The instrument he’s most associated with is the kora, the harp-lute of West Africa, as traditionally played by the griot bards of the Mande culture and brought to Western attention by the Grammy-winning likes of Mali’s Toumani Diabaté. But as his album title attests, Seckou’s kora is different. Where most koras have 21 strings, the southern Senegalese version of the instrument has an extra string that invests its sound with added rhythm and groove. You can hear it in the polyphonic explorations of his latest recording, especially in the elegantly funky closing track, ‘Future Strings in E’, a reworking of his acoustic duet with Finch – she of the ascending chords and 47-string-long glissandi – on Clychau Dibon.
Seckou will later outline the sonic differences between the 21-string and 22-string kora in terms of missing notes and odd and even octaves, in the same patient yet animated way he delivers his workshops, and teaches the students who come to his Nottingham home, with its basement studio (in which he recorded 22 Strings in one take) for kora lessons. Upbeat and chatty in jeans, T-shirt and pork pie hat, his instrument resting in a black case next to him, Seckou is as charismatic offstage as he is when performing – legacy, perhaps, of the precocious child who was nicknamed Seckou Jalin’ding or ‘Seckou the little griot.’
Griots aren’t traditionally called Keita, of course. They have names like Cissokho, Kouyaté and indeed, Diabaté. Keita – à la Salif – is the kingly appellation given to those descended from the emperor Sunjata Keita, who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century; Seckou’s father, a wandering holy man who disappeared from his life soon after he was born, was one such descendent. Those griot surnames – bestowed on those born to sing the praises of kings – are there on his mother’s side; his maternal grandfather, Jali Kemo Cissokho, was one of the most respected griots in all of southern Senegal. His grandmother Bintou ‘Ando’ Konté and extended maternal family are all griots.
“Some of my earliest memories are of music,” says Seckou, who grew up in Lindiane, a suburb of Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance region. “Musicians from all over Ziguinchor would come to my grandfather’s compound to play; the female griots would assemble there to meet with my grandmother, who was one of the best singers in the area.” He adds with a grin, “if she was late getting ready, they would sit there and wait for her. Sometimes we’d end up sharing our breakfasts with these ladies before they went off to sing at naming ceremonies or weddings.”
“Playing music grounds me. As soon as I grab my instrument, I’m in the moment”
Seckou was just five years old when war broke out, a battle for the independence of the Casamance region that continues to this day. This, too, is an early memory. “The sound of the first gun was shocking,” he says. “Then it started repeating, very, very loudly, and my grandfather came running inside the house and after a while asked all my uncles and the big boys to dig a hole so they had a safe place for me and the ladies to hide in. As the day went by, the shooting slowed down but we kept lying on the floor until my grandmother got fed up and decided she wanted to go and smoke her pipe.”
Jali Kemo was a hard taskmaster, determined to shield his male dependents from the temptations associated with being a professional musician. Nonetheless, Seckou was left to teach himself the kora. He watched and learned, soaking up the waterfall of rhythm before picking up the instrument aged seven and then, as a teenager, becoming a fixture of the Ziguinchor music scene. Naturally curious, Seckou also explored the kora repertoire of the neighbouring Wolof, Fulani and Djola traditions, as well as his own Mande songbook. He experimented with tunings.
The drumming came later, this time with lessons from masters. He learned seourouba, djembé, sabar, and the griot form of percussion known as jali dundun. For a long while, even when living in the UK and touring Europe with the likes of Sierra Leonean musician Francis Fuster, and the Afro-Celtic dance band Baka Beyond (whose founders Martin Craddock and Su Hart helped Keita produce his first solo kora album, 2003’s Mali), Seckou didn’t know how to answer questions about his profession. Drummer or kora player? He wasn’t sure. “Now I just say I’m a musician.” He pauses, smiles. “I mean, they both use very different techniques; it’s unusual to find someone who can master the two. If I play the drum I really have to look after my hands,” he says, spreading fingers with shortish nails manicured especially for kora playing. “Drumming for me is about the heartbeat, about connecting with the earth, with joy, with dance. Whereas the kora can make you cry, for all the right reasons.”
And especially when Seckou plays it. Having dazzled crowds as part of his uncle Jali Solo Cissokho’s band at competitions in Dakar, in a collaboration with Cuban and Indian musicians in Oslo, Norway, aged just 17, or during a tour of India with respected violinist Dr L Subramaniam, his horizons opened. By the time he settled in England in 1999 he was on his way to repositioning the kora as an instrument rooted in tradition but progressive and edgy enough for the now.
He taught at WOMAD and at SOAS, founded the family band Jali Junda (Griot Family) and a jazz-influenced quintet and quartet featuring his sister, the singer Binta Susso. He toured the world, and then toured it again and again. In March 2012 he was giving a concert to a UN delegation in Rome when he was asked to travel to Wales, to fill in on rehearsals for a collaborative project with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch; sudden political strife in Mali had prevented Toumani Diabaté, the project’s kora player, from attending.
“My initial impression of the harp wasn’t positive,” he admits. “I thought it was stuffy and conservative. So I was so surprised at the level we reached. Of course the harp is chromatic and has more strings than the kora, and the rhythms are different. The harp is more straight, say, while the kora has more wiggle.”
The phenomenal success of Clychau Dibon – recorded with Toumani’s blessing, and winner of a Songlines Music Award in 2014 – piqued Seckou’s decision to record a quiet, unadorned kora album featuring, well, just kora.
“Mali was called a solo album but it had drums, violin, guitars, even banjo,” says Seckou, whose six-album discography spans collaborations with everyone from flamenco singers to Juldeh Camara, the one-string ritti (fiddle) player from The Gambia. A project with the inspirational Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa is currently in the works.
“Over the years I felt that I’d developed my playing and composition to the point where I could do a kora album that would remind people of the tradition,” Seckou continues. “All this kora playing with wah-wah pedals and stuff has got too much for me nowadays. I might play in a different way if I wasn’t traditionally trained.”
He nods at the case on the ground next to him. “You could probably pick up my kora and play two or three things on that straightaway. But then you would need a bass line, a pattern. I mean, it’s like there’s the motorway,” he says with a smile, “and then there’s the A-road, or the B-road. Good training takes patience.”
The tracks on 22 Strings are mostly originals, nonetheless. But they are originals that have been composed in the traditional way, and are invested with a history and wisdom that stretches back centuries, with stories and emotions. ‘Mikhi Nathan Mu-Toma’ (The Invisible Man) tells of his father, who passed away just after the adult Seckou had discovered his whereabouts (in Bamako, Mali) and was on his way to see him. Instrumental tracks with storytelling titles such as ‘The Path from Gabou’, and three tracks featuring Seckou’s rich, emotive Mandinka vocals.
“In composition, two things are very important: the melody and the voice. If I’m doing an instrumental that’s really hypnotic, sometimes adding a voice is just too much. Other times you feel like a groove can be enhanced with lyrics sung over the top.” Another smile. “I started singing young,” he says. “But there were so many amazing singers in my family that I didn’t want to open my mouth. Like all things, my confidence developed with time.”
We talk of the forthcoming 22 Strings tour, with its accompanying visuals and explanations of the meanings behind the names of the strings: dibon, the second string on the kora’s left-hand side, is named after a bird species that live together all day but at night sleep on separate branches, finding each other the following morning by calling and responding. Téma-julo is the middle string, the magical 22nd string that is missing on all 21-string koras. The kumare-kang string is named after a bird with a loud, clear voice.
“I’ll be bringing the spirit of the album on tour with me,” he says. “I believe that anything made from the heart will go to another heart. I wanted to bring the kora back to its own land, where it belongs. I want everyone who listens to it to think they’ve got more time than they realise in life.” Mindful that he has to catch a train, I set about winding the interview up. Seckou flashes a grin. “No rush, I’m not in any hurry.”
This article originally appeared in Songlines #111. Seckou’s album 22 Strings is out now on Arc Music.