Posts Tagged ‘seckou keita’

New album from Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita out now

Posted on February 24th, 2017 in News, Recent posts by .


Photo by Alicia Carrera

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita release Transparent Water

February 24 marks the arrival of a much-anticipated collaboration between seven-time Grammy-nominated pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa and Senegalese kora master and Songlines award-winner, Seckou Keita. Their new album Transparent Water grew from a chance musical encounter in London in 2012, as Omar made an impromptu addition to a date shared by Seckou and drummer Marque Gilmore. As a result of busy touring and recording schedules, a year later Omar and Seckou finally entered the Fattoria Musica studio in Osnabrück, Germany to lay down the core tracks.

A veritable array of other musical contributions also features on the album. Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble member and sheng master Wu Tong recorded sheng and bawu in Beijing, and Omar also enlisted the creative voice of Paris-based koto artist Mieko Miyazaki. Native Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles brings the polyrhythmic spirit of the African diaspora to the project.

Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita will tour France in March 2017, followed by a tour of the UK in November, dates of which will be announced in early 2017. 

Order the new album today.

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Mali: discover the music

Posted on November 3rd, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Today, Mali remains a wellspring of extraordinary music and culture. Here is our essential guide to Malian music, including revealing articles about leading musicians, from Ali Farka Touré to Songhoy Blues and Toumani Diabaté, and videos of exciting live performances. But we begin with an overview of the key artists and albums…



After much deliberation, we are proud to present the top 25 albums to come from Mali, reminding us that there is an endless amount to celebrate in its music.

Read the article: ‘Top 25 Mali albums’



Songhoy Blues won the Newcomer category in the Songlines Music Awards 2016. Hailed last year as ‘Mali’s Next Big Thing’, the young band have continued to ride on a much-deserved wave of success.

Read the article: ‘Songhoy Blues: Songhai Stars’ 



Recorded shortly before his death in 2006, Ali Farka Touré’s Savane took him to new heights of critical acclaim. “Absolutely perfect – a truly great piece of work,” was the judgement of Ry Cooder and it’s impossible to find a single voice raised in disagreement.

Read the article: ‘Ali Farka Touré: a beginner’s guide’



The South African guitarist Derek Gripper is intent on bringing new audiences to Mali’s kora repertoire. Simon Broughton talks to him, on his first visit to the country to meet the instrument’s most famous player.

Read the article: ‘Derek Gripper: kora quest’



Is it possible for any article about Amadou & Mariam not to include the words ‘blind married couple’ in the opening sentence? There, I’ve just gone and done it again. It is an odd kind of badging when we’re talking about musical communication that, after all, engages our ears rather than our eyes. As Mariam puts it, “People know we are blind, but it is our work that counts”.

Read the article: ‘Amadou & Mariam: a beginner’s guide’



The young Touareg band are striking out from under Tinariwen’s shadow and doing their own thing. Andy Morgan reports…

Read the article: ‘Introducing… Imarhan’



Nigel Williamson speaks to the Malian singer about her career, which has been dedicated to offering African women a voice and correcting gender inequalities.

Read the article: ‘Oumou Sangaré: a beginner’s guide’



The kora has become almost synonymous with the music of Mali. Nigel Williamson examines the career of its chief exponent Toumani Diabaté

Read the article: ‘Toumani Diabaté: a beginner’s guide’

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Seckou Keita: A man in motion

Posted on May 13th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .

Seckou Keita

Seckou Keita (photo by Andy Morgan)

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.

Click here to discover all the winners in this year’s Songlines Music Awards

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.

Seckou Keita

The Keitas are descended from the 13th-century Malian emperor, Sunjata Keita. Seckou holds a photo of his grandparents (Bintou Ando Konté and Jali Kemo Cissokho)

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.

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Songlines Music Awards 2016: The Winners

Posted on May 4th, 2016 in Features, News, Recent posts by .

Songlines Music Awards 2016


We’re delighted to announce the winners of the eighth Songlines Music Awards which aim to put a much-deserved spotlight on some incredibly talented artists from around the world.

This year we’ve shaken up our awards, so as well as our usual Best Artist and Best Group awards – as voted by Songlines readers – we have five new geographical awards based on our reviews sections, as well as the World Pioneer and Newcomer Awards chosen by our editorial team.

Join us on October 3 at the Barbican in London for this year’s Songlines Music Awards Winners’ Concert, featuring performances by Mariza, Debashish Bhattacharya and others still to be announced. Tickets go on general sale at 10am on Friday (For more details visit or call 020 7638 8891

Hear editor-in-chief Simon Broughton introducing and playing music from all of this year’s winners, on the Songlines podcast, available as a free download on iTunes.

 Words by Nigel Williamson

Best Artist
(Mundo on Parlophone)

Songlines Music Awards Mariza

Back after a five-year recording hiatus, Mariza returned in 2015 with an album that was not so much a reinvention as a bold expansion of her role as fado’s foremost global ambassador. Adding sparkling pop ballads and subtle washes of electronica to her traditional roots, Mundo was an unalloyed triumph, her artistry hitting dynamic new heights and her voice expressing every emotional nuance, whether singing a gentle and intimate lullaby for her young son or melodramatically letting rip on the high notes with the force of an operatic diva.

Sympathetically helmed by the Spanish world music producer Javier Limón – whose previous credits include Buika and Anoushka Shankar – it’s an album that she describes as “the most personal I’ve ever made” and an invitation into her most private world. “I didn’t want any effects on my voice,” she told Songlines. “I wanted people to feel I was singing just next to their ear, like I’m right beside them, each listener as my solo audience.” Now in her early 40s, she emerges not only as the finest fado singer of her generation, but one of the world’s most charismatic artists, bridging traditional and popular forms in transcendental style.


Best Group
Africa Express (Terry Rileyʼs In C Mali on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Terry Riley Africa Express

The notion of unleashing a group of West African musicians playing traditional instruments on the music of the American composer Terry Riley was an audacious piece of lateral thinking and arguably the most satisfying project yet to emerge under the banner of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. Dispensing with the conceptual score and allowing the Malian musicians to interpret German conductor André de Ridder’s violin notations as they saw fit, the results were revelatory as centuries of African trance ritual add a warm looseness to Riley’s minimalist 60s composition. Albarn, Brian Eno and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs represent the Western contingent but it’s the African cohort on kalimba, balafon, kamelengoni and kora who provide the magic and fill the work with light and space as flutes, strings and chiming guitars join the African percussion as the ensemble reach the most thrilling of climaxes.

Although it sounds like no other version of Riley’s work, it remains true to its spirit as shifting polyrhythms and tonal and timbral changes create a sense of constant evolution, even though the same base note repeats insistently throughout the performance. Riley himself was delighted with the result, enthusing that it sounded as if his composition was “taking flight with the soul of Africa.”


Songhoy Blues (Music in Exile on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Songhoy Blues

We have the armed jihadists who banned music when they took control of northern Mali in 2012 to thank for the existence of Songhoy Blues. Guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – realised it wasn’t going to be a safe or pleasant thing to hang around Timbuktu, and like thousands of other refugees, he grabbed a bag and his guitar and boarded the first bus to Bamako. There he formed Songhoy Blues with fellow exiles Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, subsequently joined by drummer Nathanael Dembélé.

Their first recording with American guitarist-producer Nick Zinner was trailed on the Africa Express compilation Maison des Jeunes, to which they contributed the standout track. Music in Exile, their full-length debut – again produced by Zinner, with assistance from their French manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, fully lives up to their promise as the new, rocking sound of Mali, dramatically propelling traditional African desert blues into a 21st-century urban setting. It earned them the front cover of Songlines, but the dynamic rock’n’roll heft of the recording also crossed over to receive rave reviews in rock mags such as NME, Uncut and Mojo.


Africa & Middle East
Seckou Keita (22 Strings on ARC Music)

Songlines Music Awards Seckou Keita

Having won the Cross-Cultural Collaboration award in the 2014 Songlines Music Awards for his album with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, the Senegalese-born but UK-based kora player Seckou Keita picks up another richly deserved award for 22 Strings, a mostly instrumental set of exquisite solo kora playing, full of meditative grace, sublime poise and consummate elegance and which combines traditional tunes with his own compositions. Born into a griot family in Casamance in southern Senegal in 1978 but now living in England, he started playing the kora when he was seven and after backing various other acts including Baka Beyond, he released his debut solo album in 2000.

After his current solo kora album, his next project will find him returning to the collaborative path on an album of duets with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. “Everything in music has to be honest, and the deeper meanings of the songs and melodies must be preserved,” he says. “This is why it’s important that collaborations should be right for the music. There are connections between, say, Cuban and Indian and Welsh sounds and the repertoire of the kora. They can be explored without losing the distinct flavours of the different traditions and styles.”


Lila Downs (Balas y Chocolate on Sony Music)

Songlines Music Awards Lila Downs

Born in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the daughter of a Mixtec Indian mother and an American university professor, Lila Downs grew up with a multicultural vision drawn from both sides of the Rio Grande. Her nine studio albums over the course of a 22-year career have defied categorisation, weaving traditional Mexican and native Mesoamerican music with blues, jazz, cumbia, rock and finding her singing in Spanish, English and various native tongues.

Inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, her current release Balas y Chocolate is a sizzling, gutsy, joy-giving dance album, as martial beats, rousing choruses, mariachi moods and agit-pop raps lend a festive brio. Her expressive, multi-octave voice arcs impressively from airborne falsetto to sultry contralto as she sings about subjects ranging the erosion of civil rights to political corruption, while the title-track is dedicated to migrant children. “I’m an artist and not a politician,” she says. “But music offers us the ability at desperate moments to feel the emotion that we haven’t been able to express.” Superlative sax, accordion and brass accompaniment provides a robust soundbed with stirring cameos from guest vocalists Colombian superstar Juanes and Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel as additional bonuses. Lila Downs features on the cover of the new issue (June, #118).


Asia & South Pacific
Debashish Bhattacharya (Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn on Riverboat Records)

Songlines Music Awards Debashish

The pioneering Indian slide guitarist has been playing for more than half a century; his father gave him a Hawaiian lap steel guitar at the age of three. By the age of 15 he had designed his own Hindustani version of the slide guitar, which he called the chaturangui. He’s since created the 14-string gandharvi and the anand, a four-string lap steel ukulele, to forge what he calls “the Trinity of Guitars” and with which he has created a new instrumental language for traditional Indian music.

His 2009 album Calcutta Chronicles earned a Grammy nomination and he’s recorded collaborative discs with the late Bob Brozman and with John McLaughlin. On Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn he traces a musical journey from dawn to dusk. As emotionally compelling as it is technically impressive, his creative virtuosity makes it easy to forget that he’s playing a guitar rather than a more traditional Indian stringed instrument. “The music I play is universal, rooted deep in thousands of years of tradition,” he says. “It has the essence of peace, harmony and bliss. But it’s essentially modern, engulfing the mood of reggae, hip-hop, rock, jazz and blues. That’s what my music is all about.”


Sam Lee (The Fade in Time on Nest Collective Records)

Songlines Music Awards Sam Lee

Born in North London to Jewish parents, after studying at Chelsea art college and working as a burlesque dancer, Lee discovered the arcane but resonant heritage of the UK and Ireland’s Gypsy culture and then ‘went native,’ spending several years collecting and learning songs and ballads from Traveller and Gypsy communities all over the UK and Ireland. He also picked up the lilting vocal style of Gypsy song and the fruits of his research were heard on his 2012 debut album Ground of its Own, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize.

On The Fade in Time he gives the stories and melodies he collected an ambitious and imaginatively modern platform, backed by a band that comprises violin, cello, piano, percussion and Japanese koto (zither), and adding everything from Bollywood beats and Polynesian textures to the reek and smoke of our own island’s living traditions. “There’s a difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,” he says. “I decided I’d throw flames on what tradition is left out there. I’m a tree-climber and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.”


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal (Musique de Nuit on No Format!)

Songlines Music Awards Ballake Sissoko Vincent Segal

Malian kora maestro Sissoko and the French cellist Segal were first heard playing together on 2009’s exquisite Chamber Music. Their second album of stringed magic, Musique de Nuit, sparkles with an even greater lustre, drawing organically on the twin heritages of West African oral tradition and European conservatoire classicism, spiced by the innate musical curiosity and openness of two musicians who appear to respond almost telepathically to each other. That’s hardly surprising as between the two discs they toured the world, playing more than 200 concerts as a duo and refining and developing their collaboration in countless hours spent jamming, experimenting and improvising. “We wanted to go further with the second record,” Sissoko told Songlines. “The magic of the first album lay in the meeting itself and our coming together. We didn’t know how it was going to go. This record has come out of our shared experience since then, although it’s also very improvisational and natural.” Mostly recorded under the stars on Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, the setting lends an exotic ambience to an album of subtle arrangements and inventive improvisational interplay that feels as fresh as it is timeless.


World Pioneer Award
Chris Blackwell

Songlines Music Awards Chris Blackwell

Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for having discovered and signed Jethro Tull, Free, Roxy Music, Grace Jones and U2 among numerous other rock legends. But his citation also described him as ‘the person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music’ and it is for his incalculable contribution to promoting Jamaican and African artists for which he is honoured here. He launched Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 and was soon exporting early ska recordings to the UK, topping the charts in 1964 with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, arguably the first ‘world music’ crossover hit.

His signing of Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973 was a seminal moment and he then went on to introduce Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé to an international audience. After selling Island he established the Mango and Palm Pictures imprints with a stellar roster that included Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo. Blackwell’s 80th birthday next year is certain to prompt a host of industry tributes that will inevitably concentrate on his rock’n’roll triumphs –hence our decision to recognise separately his immense contribution to world music by making him the inaugural recipient of the Songlines World Pioneer Award.


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