‘The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times’, instruments which ‘can seem out of place in this cacophonous world’, writes Andy Morgan in the sleeve-notes to Clychau Dibon, the album that took the folk-roots world by storm last year.  In the magnificent surroundings of the Concert Room in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall the gorgeous music created by these two musicians from superficially-different cultures enthralled a rapt audience as they braided together notes and songs from each of their traditions to reveal unexpected commonalities between the mountains and coasts of Wales and the shores of Senegal.

An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps
An Egyptian tomb painting of musicians with harps

Around 5,000 years ago a hunter sat idly twanging the string of his bow and the idea of the harp was born. Egyptian tomb paintings show musicians playing various size and style harps. and remains of early harp-like instruments have been excavated at the site of the Sumerian city of Ur (the Golden Lyre of Ur) and in Babylonia. From Egypt, the harp migrated along trade routes across north Africa and, in the form of the West African kora – an instrument with 21 strings made from the tough gourd of the calabash – gave rise to a rich musical tradition perpetuated to this day by descendants of the griots of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea and Mali – the equivalents of the Welsh bards.

The harp occupies a central place in the rich cultures of both West Africa and Wales and both nations share a bardic tradition of oral history expressed through music, song and verse.The frame harp first appeared in medieval western Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries; in Wales there has an unbroken tradition of of harp playing for nine centuries. Like the West African griots, Welsh bards, accompanying themselves on the harp, sang, recited poems and narrated stories that have transmitted the legends of Wales down the generations. The Robert ap Huw manuscript from the late 16th century is the oldest written collection of harp music in the world.

A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510
A wooden carving of a Welsh harpist from around 1510

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had been brought together by Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, in 2012 in a project designed to braid music of the kora with that of the Welsh harp – vibrant threads envisaged as a multicoloured tapestry.  To begin with, the plan was for a recording on which Catrin would partner Toumani Diabate, the world’s greatest exponent of the kora. But circumstances intervened and at short notice Seckou was drafted in for the project. (You can read more about the origins of the project in Andy Morgan‘s feature for fRoots magazine in June 2013). The album, Clychau Dibon, was released in 2013 and by the end of the year had won the album of the year award from fRoots magazine.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo: Josh-Pulman)

The duo’s concert in Liverpool on Wednesday evening  was, we agreed afterwards, one of the best we had ever attended.  Catrin and Seckou came out onto a stage on which two koras and two Welsh harps (one concert size, one smaller electro harp) stood waiting.  The lights dimmed, and the two musicians began to develop the blissful melodies heard on their album.  The way it works in each of the pieces they have developed together is that one partner takes the lead with a tune from their native tradition, while the other fills and improvises around the edges; then, almost imperceptibly, the other musician begins to develop a theme from their own culture.  By the end of the piece the melodies are so entwined that it’s almost impossible to distinguish where on ends and the other begins, or who is playing which theme.

‘Les Bras De Mer’ (live at Theatr Mwldan, March 2013):

Writing about ‘Les Bras De Mer’ in the CD sleeve notes, Andy Morgan explains how the pair braid Welsh and West African themes to create their music:

The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.

When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)
Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo Elizabeth Jaxon)

Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in Ziguinchor, a town on the banks of the great Casamance River. He’s a descendant of one of the great West African griot families: his mother was the daughter of a griot whose lineage stretched back centuries, while his father was a Keita, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. Catrin Finch, meanwhile, was born in Aberystwyth, of English and German parents, and grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay.

By the time Catrin and Seckou joined forces, both were recognised as among the finest players of their chosen instrument. Andy Morgan again:

Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.

Both players draw upon their ancient traditions. One song from Clychau Dibon performed at the Concert Room was ‘Bamba’, a tune dedicated by Seckou to Amadou Bamba, the early 20th century mystic and Sufi religious leader from Senegal who led a pacifist struggle against French colonialism: a man who devoted his life to the welfare of others, whose deeds have been praised in numerous tales, poems – and songs by West African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Orchestra Baobab.

‘Bamba’ played at Cardiff WOMEX in 2013:

Another example of how Catrin and Seckou build bridges between Welsh melodies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the traditional music of Senegal, Gambia and Mali of roughly from the same period came with their performance of ‘Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko’.  This was a collaboration that began when Finch dug out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’ from Robert Ap Huw’s 16th century manuscripts of transcripts for harp. Keita listened and responded with a tune he named after the Manding king Nialing Sonko (famous for collecting too much tax from his people, as Seckou explained at the concert) because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Finally, Seckou added to the mix an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, ‘Kelefa Koungben’.  More history there, too:  Kelefa was another Manding leader from the time when the kora itself was born.  What’s remarkable, on CD and in live performance, is how seamless was the fit between a courtly tune from medieval Wales and the elegant dignity of a kora melody from a bygone age.

One of the most thrilling moments in this enthralling concert was the duo’s performance of the most inventive piece on their CD, ‘Future Strings’. This began in the region of European classical music as Finch explored the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz, but soon spiralled off into something almost avant-garde as Finch ran her nail down a bass string and performed a 47-string-long glissandi before knocking out rhythms on the frame of her harp as if it were a conga drum. These gymnastics were then echoed by Keita, performing all kinds of tricks on his strings beating the gourd of the kora. At one point in the piece, Finch was plucking both harps simultaneously.

Here’s an official video of Catrin and Seckou performing ‘Future Strings’ live:

Though most of the pieces performed by Finch and Keita at the concert were from the Clychau Dibon CD, they did introduce several new tunes, including two which – unlike those on the CD – included vocalisations. Introducing ‘Tryweryn’, Finch insisted that – as a Liverpool audience – we should not take it personally.  For this was a piece inspired by the construction, in 1965, of a reservoir (we’ve passed it many times, on the from Bala to Trawsfynydd) which flooded the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool. The residents of Capel Celyn, one of the last monoglot Welsh-speaking villages were forcibly removed from homes and land owned by families there for centuries.  It was the end of bitter nine-year long struggle to save the village after  a private bill sponsored by Liverpool City Council was passed by Parliament despite bitter opposition by 35 out of 36 Welsh MPs .

Protest in Liverpool attempting to stop the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Protest in Liverpool against the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley, 1965

Catrin spoke of how Tryweryn ushered in a period of bitter conflict in Wales during which the reservoir dam was bombed by Welsh nationalists. Bessie Braddock, a Labour MP for Liverpool at the time, dismissed the plight of Capel Celyn as something that would, ‘make some disturbance of the inhabitants inevitable…but that is progress.’ The remnants of that time can still be seen as you drive through Wales, she said, in fading Welsh Nationalist slogans.

Cofiwch Dryweryn' 'Remember Tryweryn' Welsh nationalist graffiti on roadside wall near Llanrhystud Ceredigion

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ -‘Remember Tryweryn’ – Welsh nationalist slogan on a roadside wall near Llanrhystud, Ceredigion

Welsh anger over the drowning of Capel Celyn arose again in 2005 when Liverpool City Council issued an apology for its actions: ‘We realise the hurt of 40 years ago when the Tryweryn Valley was transformed into a reservoir. For our insensitivity we apologise and hope the historic and sound relationship between Liverpool and Wales can be completely restored.

Capel Celyn
Capel Celyn before the flood … and today

Capel Celyn reservoir

This new piece was superb, and represented a quite extraordinary performance by Catrin Finch who at one point simultaneously played both electro harp and the concert harp whilst vocalising memories of the lost homes and flooded valley while Keita added a wordless, soulful vocal.

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita pla ‘Tryweryn’ at WOMAD 2014

For their encore the duo returned to perform another new number with vocalisations, preceded by a short tutorial about their two instruments.  It left you with the realisation that both are incredibly complex instruments – the concert harp, for instance, as well as having 47 strings, has seven pedals (compared to the two on a piano) which each modulate an octave’s strings in three different ways.

This was an enthralling concert in which Finch and Keita successfully created a blend of two different, yet similar, musical cultures to create a joyous experience. ‘Some people spend a lot of money on illegal substances in order to attain the kind of mood this music evokes’, commented fRoots magazine when reviewing the CD.  Couldn’t put it better!

Afterwards long lines queued for the CD.  I bought one, having enjoyed the album up to that point from a download.  But here was something that made  downloads irrelevant: the CD comes packaged inside a with beautiful hard cover, 32 page full colour booklet, with photos and a knowledgeable introduction by writer and journalist Andy Morgan.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2014

This is a full concert lasting one hour – but note that the performance does not begin until the 15 minute point:

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6 thoughts on “Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

  1. Thanks for the head up Gerry.Sounds amazing. I’m afraid this cultural treat has passed me by until now.Re the flooding of Capel Celyn. As a Scouser now living about 12 miles as the crow flies from the the drowned village, I did an article about it which doesn’t pull its punches about the shameful way The Braddocks and the rest of the political mafia in Liverpool and Westminster ran roughshod over this tiny rural community.

    http://footlesscrow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/drowning-season.html

  2. Ah, so you were there that night as well! I normally read your blog posts as they’re published, but October was a busy time for me so I’ve only just come to this now, while searching for that song to inspire a friend’s musical project about Capel Celyn. ‘Tryweryn’ was such a powerful moment in a breathtaking set. Thanks also for the link to your blog post, John! I shall have a read of that later on. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a Welsh tune you might not have come across, which was at the centre of political resistance to the flooding of Capel Celyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iD1F9vcXAh4 It was the first record released on Welsh music label SAIN. The lyrics are fantastic, I’ll be happy to pop back and offer a translation if needed!

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