On Monday evening I went along to Liverpool’s newest live music venue – the Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room – to see Seckou Keita give another outstanding performance on the kora. I say another because a year ago we saw him, along with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, in what we decided was one of the best concerts we had ever attended.
There was a Welsh flavour to this evening as well, since the support act was Gwyneth Glyn, a Welsh guitar-playing folk singer from Criccieth with a beautiful voice, who mainly sang in her native language, though she introduced her songs in English.
Seckou Keita came into view for me when he and Catrin Finch released the stunning album, Clychau Dibon, that was the focus of their concert in Liverpool last October. If you haven’t yet heard that album, check it out: it’s gorgeous.
The Senegalese kora player (who now lives in England) has spent nearly twenty years performing with fellow West African artists such as Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. He’s made five albums with his Quartet which fuse the traditional forms and instruments of West African music with those of other cultures. The collaboration with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch won several awards, including fRoots best album of the year, and this summer a new solo CD, 22 Strings was released to terrific reviews. This concert was a solo performance with most of the numbers drawn from that album.
Seckou alternated between a traditional single-necked kora and a double-necked version of the instrument which allows tuning in both major and minor keys. Both instruments were made by his cousin, and at one point in the concert Seckou explained that instead of using rings of leather for the tuning, these are tuned by tightening pegs of the kind used for guitars. Because a traditional ‘ring’ version tends to drift out of tune a lot, Seckou joked that tuning becomes part of the performance – an opportunity for the audience to chat and ask each other questions, such as ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘Do you know anywhere better to go?’.
Seckou’s infectious humour and good-natured warmth was an enjoyable element of the concert. Introducing his songs, Keita shared his experiences of growing up in Senegal and memories of his family. While he played, screens on either side of the stage showed family photographs and videos of Senegal street scenes which all added to the atmosphere.
He also shared lots of information about the kora – how one is made from animal skin and a gourd – and how each of the 22 strings has a particular name. At one point he gave an impromptu lesson on how to play the kora: remarkably, the musician uses only two thumbs (as if he were texting), one picking out the bass line, while the other provides the melody). Around that foundation, two fingers improvise. Amazing what beauty can be extracted from a hollowed out, leather-covered pumpkin strung with fishing line!
The songs that Keita played and sang came mainly from his new solo album. On his website he says that he’s always wanted to make a solo album:
The kora plays with all sorts of music nowadays. But I think the time has come. This is an instrument that’s very delicate. It’s got its quietness, which is almost like its hidden force. On this album, I wanted to bring the kora back to its own land, where it really sort of belongs. [I want] everyone who listens to it to think that they’ve got more time than they realised in life.
We learned the meaning of the title. Centuries ago, when the djinns, the spirits of the African bush, gave the first ever kora to the griot Jali Mady it had 22 strings. Then, when Jali Mady died, his fellow griots took one string away in his memory. But in its birthplace in southern Senegal and Guinea Bissau, the 22-stringed kora survives, with the extra string giving the instrument special advantages in terms of tonal reach and groove.
Seckou’s first song was ‘Mandé’, which he explained celebrates the Mandinka people who founded the largest of the ancient West African empires, which at one stage extended across the territory now occupied by eleven West African states. The crystalline arpeggios and rich harmonies of the composition, like much kora music, was both thrilling and soothing.
The next tune was ‘Little Bro’ (‘Ndoke’), one of several that were introduced by Seckou with a family story – in this case, of his little brother who helped him during the period when he was composing the songs for 22 Strings. Seckou was ill and confined to his bed, unable to play the kora. His brother helped out by tuning the instrument and picking out a melody that was in Seckou’s head. Clearly, the tune, when complete, had to be named for him.
‘The Invisible Man’ was a song he wrote after the death of his grandfather, who was role model for Seckou, although when he was a young man, their relationship wasn’t always a smooth one: ‘I was young and wanted to do other things and he was stopping me. But he made me who I am today.’ It was a warm and joyful tribute.
‘If Only I Knew’ was another song inspired by his grandfather, who, Seckou explained, was a great interpreter of dreams. He recalled how his grandfather would say of the two things which are important in life – knowledge and riches – that there is always someone with more. Seckou’s playing, and his vocal, suggested a rich culture steeped in tradition and history.
More songs from 22 Strings followed, including ‘The Path From Gabou’ and ‘Alpha Yaya’, as well as a song with vocals that translated as ‘Get Used to Me’. Keita got the audience singing along to the chorus of ‘Souraressi’, conducting seperate responses from those on the left and right of the room. The finale was the magnificent ‘Future Strings in E’, a variation on ‘Future Strings’ from the Clychau Dibon album, during which Seckou entertained us by musically swatting an imaginary mosquito.
For the encore, Seckou brought with Gwyneth Glyn back on stage, and together they gave us a sublime reading of ‘Bamba’ from the Clychau Dibon album, before finishing with what I think was ‘Tryweryn’, the song about the drowning of the Tryweryn valley to provide water for Liverpool that we heard Catrin Finch sing at St Georges Concert Room last year. This time, Gwyneth Glyn sang in Welsh.
This was a wonderful concert in which Seckou Keita’s kora playing was mesmerising, while at the same time his relaxed and friendly manner created a great rapport with the audience. It made for a tremendous and entertaining concert. The acoustics in the new Music Room are excellent, and praise must also go to the artists’ technical crew who gave us flawless sound flawless enhanced by the lighting and visual projections.
- Seckou Keita: Seckou’s website is full of information about his life and music, and Senegal’s history and culture