Heartfelt Senegalese Kora Music plus an Amuse-Bouche of Welsh Song

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Seckou Keita (kora), Gwyneth Glyn (guitar and voice),  Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 14. 5.2015 (LJ).

Seckou Keita, kora player and drummer from Senegal performed with enchanting inventiveness and technical exactitude at Cardiff’s RWCMD. His repertoire is from Casamance in Southern Senegal, and tonight’s concert was a performance of pieces from his latest album 22 Strings. In this solo album, Keita states that the challenge was to “deliver something that came from my heart, to go to other hearts”. In his recital he certainly achieved his aim. Warmly lit with photographic images and music playing during the interval, Cardiff’s Dora Stoutzker Hall created a warm, embracing atmosphere which was more than reciprocated in Keita himself.

For most, the kora was a spectacle in itself. The earliest European reference to the kora features in Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s Travels in Interior Districts of Africa of 1799. Over two hundred years on whilst the kora’s popularity has spread – with pioneers such as Toumani Diabaté and Tasana Camara – its sound and look has retained its original form. Traditionally played by members of the Griot family (to which Seckou Keita belongs), the Kora is part of the oral tradition, associated with storytelling. As Francis Bebey explains in his book African Music, A People’s Art:

“The West African griot is a troubadour, the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel…The griot knows everything that is going on…He is a living archive of the people’s traditions…The virtuoso talents of the griots command universal admiration. This virtuosity is the culmination of long years of study and hard work under the tuition of a teacher who is often a father or uncle.”

It is only fitting that Keita was foregrounded by Welsh language poet and songwriter Gwyneth Glyn. Performing for the first part of the show, Glyn understatedly described herself as the ‘amuse-bouche’ of the evening. Her gentility and gracefulness made for a tender performance. With an earthy tone, Glyn’s session had an air of nostalgia in her homespun stories, touchingly delivered.

The kora is made from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin, and has a long hardwood neck from which twenty-one strings are attached,. This lute-bridge-harp allows the accomplished performer to play kumbengo (ostinato riffs) and birimintingo (improvised runs) simultaneously. Keita’s proficiency and precision made these intricate passages a pleasure to listen to.

Explaining his instrument, Keita said: “There are four basic traditional tunings, which are linked to the different regions in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mali where the kora is played. Each region has its own distinct tuning. 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.”

Keita’s heartfelt and memorable performances seem to be derived from his belief that “everything in music has to be honest, and the deeper meanings of the songs and melodies must be preserved.” He brought his tradition and his heritage to the stage with grace and charisma, retaining authenticity and communicating lucidly to his audience. The music felt personal to both Keita and those at the RWCMD. A helping of Welsh country-folk poetry delivered by Gwyneth Glyn gently encouraged this cultural symbiosis.

Described by Africa News As “the treasure of a Nation” and by The Guardian as “an inspired exponent of the Kora”, Seckou Keita brought this West African instrument to West Europe with naturalness and ease. It was a pleasure to listen to and something I for one would like to become better acquainted with.

If tonight’s audience enjoyed the African-Welsh collaboration, I recommend Keita’s album Clychau Dibon, recorded with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch.  For those who missed this concert, you can catch Seckou Keita on Sunday 17th May in Swansea’s Taliesin Theatre.

Lucy Jeffery.

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