This album has a new take on a very ancient tradition. The kora and the griot culture presides over this musical meeting in the masterful hands of Seckou Keita from Senegal, but it’s teased and challenged by other instruments and musical traditions, represented by the Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai, Italian double bassist Davide Mantovani and Gambian percussionist Surahata Susso.
Keita comes from the family of Mali’s founding father Sundiata Keita and the blood line of the Mandinka empire of the 13th Century — a time when West Africa was an international powerhouse with a rich religious and cultural life and a flourishing arts world
The empire is still talked about with reverence and pride eight centuries later and the stories from then have been treasured and passed down from one generation to another. The expectations for Seckou Keita would not have included music-making, but he was blessed to have an impressive maternal line too and his life took a different turn. He was brought up by his mother’s family — the Cissokhos — one of the leading griot familes in Senegal and so he followed in that family’s tradition of music, formally trained in music from as young as three years old, playing the kora, and making his own instruments by the age of eight.
Perhaps because of his pedigree and training, Keita isn’t afraid to experiment in his arrangements, rhythm, improvisation and bringing instruments and their musicians not associated with the treasured kora and griot tradition into the mix. He explains: “They [the rest of the quartet] may all be from different places and traditions, but our instruments all speak the same language.”
The kora has always been played in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali and each region has its own distinct tuning. Keita explains his distinctive approach: “My own approach has been to put all these tunings together in the same instrument, so while still rooted in tradition, the sound is quite different to what people are used to hearing, and the range of material I can perform is greatly extended”.
The kora is traditionally tuned by tightening rings of leather and animal skin and Keita uses both this and tuning pegs commonly used for guitars — a more updated version you might say. “It’s important because I’m using the traditional techniques, but in a new way. With the new tunings, I’m able to take songs from all the main traditions. The songs might sound quite different, going into in minor keys and so on, but they can all be fitted into the tunings of my own kora”.
The confidence in what West Africa’s past and traditions can offer a group of four musicians from all over the world, and its audience, makes this album an exciting listen.
Two favourite tracks are ‘Tounga’ with lyrics and haunting vocals by guest artist Binta Susso. Her story and voice are introduced by the fluttering of kora strings and percussion and then coupled with the mournful violin, sliding between a quintessential West Africa and a more folk-influenced sound.
And ‘Djula Djekere’ is Keita’s own interpretation of a traditional song dedicated to Djula Djekere a rich and proud businessman and trader. The story goes that he was willing to mark the end of Ramandan by giving away one hundred different animals. But to satisfy his pride, he went a step further and announced he wanted to also sacrifice one hundred men. This song was offered to him by a griot as a way of stopping Djekere carrying out his mad plans.
Unusually for a kora player, Keita also sings and his is a rich, woody voice. This interpretation has the kora weaving its way through the vocals, percussion, double bass and violin in a playful and unconventional way. Again, the elements of West Africa, North Africa and Europe create a new and compelling sound.
Afro-Mandinka Soul: The Seckou Keita Quartet will be released on 21st August ’06 by Arc Music www.arcmusic.co.uk
OCTOBER 2006 UK TOUR: ‘JOURNEY IN THE UK’
- 6/10 The Castle, Wellingborough www.thecastle.org.uk
- 7/10 The Anvil, Basingstolke www.theanvil.org.uk
- 11/10 Drill Hall, Lincoln www.lincolndrillhall.com
- 12/10 The Zodiac, Oxford www.the-zodiac.co.uk
- 13/10/2006 Invention Studios, Bath www.invention.tv
- 14/10 Dean Arts Forest, Glos
- 19/10 Komedia, Brighton www.komedia.co.uk
- 20/10 Dartington Hall, Totnes www.dartingtonhall.org.uk
- 21/10 Club 2 k Penzance TBC
- 24/10 Norwich Arts Centre www.norwichartscentre.co.uk
- 25/10 Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester www.phoenix.org.uk
- 26/10 Spitz, London www.spitz.co.uk
- 27/10 South Hill Park, Bracknell www.southhillpark.com
FEBRUARY 2007: RURAL TOURING VENTURES – dates and venues to be confirmed soon
More info: www.seckoukeita.com