Here's a little challenge for you. Gather together all your copies of fRoots from the past three or four years, stand in the middle of the living room and throw them all in the air (go on, it'll be fun!). I'll lay you decent odds that at least one of the issues will land open on a page that contains an advert, feature or review of a project that benefits from the input of British-based Senegalese kora player, percussionist and producer Seckou Keita. It might be the griot's work with world music fusionists Baka Beyond, or the spin-off from that group, Eté. Or maybe his appearance on folk-blues minstrel Mark Flanagan's Chosen Few album, or duets with jazz bassist Kevin Willoughby. Then there’s his work with West African big-band Jalikunda, his tours with legendary folk pickers Martin Simpson and Tony McManus, and his appearance on the recent album by Swedish violinist Ellika Frissell and Keita’s uncle, Solo Cissokho.
Add his own solo work and a smattering of other guest appearances and support slots, and you have a man with twenty-two strings to his kora but many more strings to his creative bow.
For his latest venture, Keita has teamed his kora up with double bass, violin and assorted tools of African percussion, and ventured further into the territory that explores the symbiosis between West African and Western folk and classical instrumentation.
With each instrument adroitly filling its own space around the central pairing of Keita’s understatedly smooth vocals and versatile kora playing, the Seckou Keita Quartet make some interesting and arresting musical connections in an appealing blend rooted in Keita's Mandinka past.
Part of the appeal is the lack of an obvious label for the sound. Whether it’s seductive Manding-swing, earthy West African blues, jazz inflected mid-tempo grooves or a soulful mix of all three, there’s enough spark and originality to avoid the dreaded "coffee-table production values" that might have afflicted a…well, a fusion such as this. I guess that's a dirty word for some, but musical collaboration is all of a piece for a man from the Casamance region of southern Senegal where cross-fertilisation is a way of life. The impact of the colonial tug of war between France and Portugal and the infusion of influences from neighbouring countries, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mali has led to a natural tendency towards cultural assimilation, of which Keita’s work is the living embodiment.
The quartet’s new album - Afro-Mandinka Soul - is subtitled Tama-Silo, which is Mandinka for Journey, and it marks out the voyage - physical, musical and personal - that this prolific and talented musician has taken up to now. An appropriate time then, to spend an afternoon sharing a gallon or two of camomile tea with this affable and enthusiastic young man getting the low-down on that journey so far, where he feels he is right now, and where he might be headed next.
"I was born in Ziguinchor, which is the largest town in Casamance. My dad’s family comes from Mali, although he was born in Guinea, and my mum is a Cissokho. I never saw my dad, because I was just three months old when he left the family home. My mum married another griot, and she went to live in Gambia when I was young, so my grandparents brought me up. I learnt everything that I know in music through my mum's side, the griot side. I first picked up the kora when I was about four years old. My grandfather, whose name was Jali Kémo Cissokho, would teach me as I sat on his lap. But it was not proper learning; he just had me play boring tunes. He’d say ‘play the third note on the right-hand side’, and I'd go bing-bing, bing-bing with my right thumb, over and over."
Keita jerks his head from side to side to underline the monotony of the task as he imitates the exercise, and continues,
"When I got confident, he’d say ‘right, let's try the left thumb’ - bing-bung bing-bung bing-bung – with my two thumbs making a steady rhythm, like walking. We did that for a while, then we introduced two other fingers, but it was still not really together, although that was enough of a challenge at that age! When I was seven, I started to learn properly - how to tune, how to play and eventually how to make your own instrument. First they give you a piece of wood to look after. Then a piece of skin, and what they are doing is getting you to learn the make-up of the instrument and the environment, without forcing you to do it.
We’d watch our grandfather making a kora, and eventually you'd see him start doing something and you’d say, ‘let me do that, grand-dad, I can do it’, so you have been learning without realising it. Then, after a new kora is born, you go and sit down and play it, and it's meant to be played a lot before anyone else hears it. So you start your learning curve. You are part of the kora, and it becomes part of you."
The young Seckou was also encouraged to learn percussion, because as he explains, "in the griot stories there is singing, but also kora, balafon and djembé. And the elders look at what you are good at, and teach you that. So I was pushed into doing all three – the vocals, percussion and kora."
This was music as lifeblood, rather than hobby or the whims of pushy parents - habitual, hereditary and scholarly, with skills and stories passed down through the generations, and a strict timetable and philosophy to be observed.
"In the morning you'd have kora full-on from five in the morning, before going to school at eight o'clock. Then I’d come back in the afternoon and I would practice kora again. Saturdays and Sundays I'd have Koranic school."
This begs the question, did he ever get fed up with playing or learning the kora?
"I did eventually, when I reached my teens. I took up kit drum and was very curious about Western music at the time; jazz, reggae and rock ‘n’ roll. My grandfather did not like that. At one point I said to myself 'OK, I know the kora, I know the djembé. I've got to get out, I want to learn more things’. Then people started to ask me to play around the local towns, in a modern band, on drums. I would be picked up from school and work in tourist areas at the weekend. I'd go away Saturday and Sunday. I was doing it for the love of it. I wasn't getting paid. But one day, after a performance I was told to take this money to my grandfather as payment, and when I gave it to him he said ‘I told you not to go out’, and there was a big fight between him and me. But I understood later that he was just trying to stop me meeting bad people, and getting into drugs and things like that. But I never even smoked!"
Seckou was at a youthful crossroads; a talented, inquisitive young man, highly proficient at the instruments to which he was born, potentially rebelling against his elders and living the high life in a modern band. "My grandfather was very tough, and very set in his ways. I thought he hated me, but of course I was very stubborn as well. I had learnt the traditions, I had been to school, but I felt there was something lacking in my education. I wanted to learn more about life."
Is that what N’fa, the opening track on the new CD, is about?
"Partly - it's a message to the present generation but it’s also based on those experiences. Sometimes my grandfather was very old-fashioned, and in the song I'm saying that parents should realise the difference in the younger generation when they give advice."
N’fa is a robustly delivered (but not angry) song, with something of the spirit of defiance that the teenage Keita possessed evident in his creative improvisation. It's one of only two tracks on the album to feature guitar and electric bass, which gives it an extra youthful bite. The song is reprised later as a quartet piece, and although it still kicks up sparks, the vigour deployed on the earlier version is mollified slightly by the mature, soothing strokes of violin and soft throb of double bass.
Back to the younger Seckou, then, and his fortunes changed course when he was eighteen, as he explains:
"I was involved in a group in Ziguinchor and we competed in a competition at the University of Dakar, with other young people from the ten regions of Senegal. We also did a gig in the Theatre Daniel Sorano in Dakar, and as a result of that one of the directors asked if I could stay with his group to play kora and djembé. I could have stayed, doing the traditional stuff and causing trouble at home by playing with the modern band! But my uncle Solo had been the first in the family to break out of Senegal, and I had been saying to him that I was so curious to learn other music; I wanted to know what was happening on the other side of the sea, musically. He said ‘you know the kora very well already. The only thing you can learn is to read and write music, but before that I have something for you. There's this company in Norway, and they have a festival that I am playing at. You and Sadio (Keita’s uncle) can come and play with me’. So I chose to go to Norway."
So in 1996, Seckou and Sadio joined Solo Cissokho to play at the Forde Festival.
"When I got there I was still into Western music, all the funky beat, wah-wah guitars, rock 'n' roll that I’d been listening to in Senegal. But in Europe, I started getting closer to kids that were born into Cuban music, Norwegian folk and Indian music. We were all roughly the same age - eighteen, nineteen, twenty. That music opened my mind, and I give thanks to my uncle for giving me this opportunity. It changed my life."
Whilst Keita was in Norway, he came under the direction of renowned South Indian violin virtuoso, Doctor L Subramaniam, and joined other musicians on a short tour of India.
"We played in Madras, Bangalore and New Delhi. It was fantastic, I loved it, and the music was really interesting. We worked with people who played sitar, violin, tabla and mridangam drum. The food was great, spicy like in Senegal. But it was a crazy place for me. Having seen a bit of Africa and Europe you’re used to a mix of people. But in India, I was thinking, ‘OK I'm not seeing any Africans or Europeans’. As a child I watched Bollywood films and I thought it was going to be like that. I thought if I fell in love with somebody, I would have to sing to in her language to impress her!"
Seckou played percussion on this tour, with his uncle playing the kora. How did it feel being part of an orchestra?
"It was quite difficult at first. There would be about twenty people on stage, and everyone sat there with their sheet music, and I was thinking 'I would like to read that', because I still hadn’t learnt to read music at this time. Even now I prefer not to. I know from my own instrument what the keys are from a Western point of view. I learnt that from working with other musicians. But I still don't like reading or writing music, I much prefer learning by ear. Anyway, the other musicians would start, and while they were playing I would pick it up by ear from my uncle’s kora playing, and then I’d catch up."
That was in 1997, and after a brief stint back in Norway touring the country, Keita found himself invited to do some teaching in England.
"A friend of mine who had studied drums with me in Senegal was now teaching in the UK, and he introduced me to a company that works with schools, called the DaDa Drum and Dance Company. They asked me to do some teaching. That's really where I started to learn English."
So, it appears that as he was already fluent in his mother’s tongue, Mandinka, Wolof (the national language of Senegal), Jola (a language of the Casamance region) and French, I’m interviewing Seckou in his fifth (and my only) language. A humbling thought, and I daren’t ask whether he picked up any Norwegian or Hindu on his travels…
"I did struggle to make myself understood at first." Well, that makes me feel a bit better. "But the kids, all they want to do is play music, so that’s the only language we needed."
Seckou also spent some time playing kora and djembé with the Peter Badejo Arts contemporary dance troupe in London, and as a teacher and a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He continues:
"That was the first time I ever did a kora exam, which was very interesting. I found myself developing on kora, and helping others. The people who taught me had the traditional knowledge but a more formal way of playing, so I was able to break down what I had learnt previously."
Meanwhile, on a visit home, Seckou had met Baka Beyond’s Martin Cradick.
"I met Martin and other members of the band in 1998 when they were over in Africa for research, and jammed with them a bit. When I came to England, Martin contacted me and I started to play djembé with them. Then they needed a kit drum player for a while, so I did something for them for about six months. I still play percussion with them when I get the chance."
Keita's approach to music is an ideal complement to the spirited and diverse Baka collective, and he was an integral part of the critically acclaimed East to West album. His first solo album (Mali) was also co-produced with Cradick and featured occasional subtle sonic enhancement from members of the band. The sparse, moving songs on that début release were a contrast to the parallel project in which he was involved at that time. Jalikunda was an electrified family ensemble whose shows were something of a precursor to those we’ve seen from Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra this year.
"Solo came up with the idea of a family group. We tried to capture the feeling of when we get together. My family is so talented; they sit in a circle, one person playing kora, with all the people singing, the voices going round the room. We tried to repeat that, only louder, on stage - an electric session, but rooted in tradition. My only regret is that my grandfather never got to play with us before he died earlier this year. Jalikunda happened around the same time as the Symmetric Orchestra started, but neither of us followed each other, it's just a natural course for us to take, to modernise the sound and try to get people dancing. I have a great respect for Toumani, he’s the best. He has family roots in Gambia like me, and we have a similar style, where we groove and improvise on the kora simultaneously. We have jammed together at the Hogon bar in Bamako (where Diabaté holds a weekly session) and he really likes the album we made.
Seckou produced that album, entitled Jaliande. What made him take up production?
"Partly from pushing myself into it, and partly because of others. I like to get beyond what I know and what I’ve learnt, so I pushed myself into arranging, to see what it was all about. When I was rehearsing with Jalikunda, I would start suggesting things, and I would be asked for ideas, how things should sound or be arranged. After recording or rehearsing, I’d want to be off, but the engineers and producers would ask me to stay and help. So I thought maybe they are right, maybe I have something I can offer. So I started to demo stuff, arrangements and things, and it went from there."
You may have caught the Jalikunda troupe at some point because they were a ubiquitous summer festival presence in 2002, from WOMAD to Glastonbury and beyond. It was an exhilarating show, with nine band members producing a driving, rocking Mandé sound. After a while, though, Keita was ready for a break, as he explains,
"For those concerts we had up to twelve people on stage, and it was very hard work. Sound checks took ages, with seven koras to tune, and after a while I just wanted a break, to do something simpler. So I toured with Martin Simpson and Tony MacManus. It was all strings, nice and easy, quick sound check, back to the hotel for a rest, back to do the gig, everything very mellow. Those guys are great musicians, and it was fun to observe the jokes between English and Scottish people as well! I love folk music. I’ve enjoyed playing with English, Scottish and Welsh folk musicians. I'd like to play real Irish music."
For now, though, there’s the Seckou Keita Quartet, with which he has produced his most complete work so far. There's just one traditional song on the new album, the rest being original Keita compositions that manage to sound like modern arrangements of established tunes.
"The tunes are all a part of me, possibly things I’ve learnt when young, but also influenced by the musicians I’m working with. The words to most of the songs are based completely on my own experiences. I can't really explain how I write a song. I just compose it, live with it a bit, leave it for a while, come back, shake it, and keep the best parts."
The highlight of the CD is the beautifully sung Keita-Lu, which sees the quartet in perfect tension. Keita has a smooth and understated vocal style, which works as an affecting counterpoint to yearning violin notes and fluttering peals of kora, with the rhythm section driving the song up a couple of gears to an absorbing up tempo climax. The lyrics themselves are part of the album’s recurring themes of travel or leaving the family home.
"It's inspired by an old Mandinka story about a servant of the Prophet Mohammed who made a seven-year pilgrimage to Mecca, and by the time he returned he'd been forgotten. I left home when I was young, and I would not like to be forgotten or to forget my own upbringing."
The song is dedicated to the first griot in Seckou's family, Surahata, which is also the name of Seckou's twenty-year-old brother, from his mother's second marriage, who shares percussion responsibilities on the CD.
"He plays calabash and bongos, and he's great kora player as well. He's following me like I followed my elders. He understands where I'm going, and he's always asking questions about how I wrote this song, or what I did with to achieve this sound. So I've got him in to learn from me."
Surahata maintains the rhythmic pulse in conjunction with Italian double bassist Davide Mantovani. How did Seckou meet him?
"We were introduced by a mutual friend after a gig of mine at WOMAD. He loved it so much that he was almost in tears. We got together, and he came to Senegal and spent time with my family, learning kora and playing electric bass. We spent many hours playing songs with many different Mandinka rhythms. I asked him to play with Jalikunda on electric bass. Then when I decided to form the quartet, and I found out he could play double bass, that was it, he was in!"
The album is leant an evocative, earthy tone on three of tracks by the rasping tone of Juldeh Camara's riti.
"Juldeh's amazing, he's from Gambia and plays with Ifang Bundi. I like his style; it's not just traditional, he seems to play like a Western violin at times. I don't know how he does it because the riti is just a single horsehair played with a bow. It's amazing what he can get out of diatonic instrument like that."
Camara plays on Tounga, which features yet another family member, Keita’s half-sister Binta Susso, whose gorgeous bluesy vocal adds real soul to an atmospheric song. Seckou:
"Every winter, I go back to Senegal - to teach, to trace my history on my dad’s side, and to visit my family. While I was recording the album I’d take my laptop, Mbox (recording system), speakers and microphone, just so that I could get a bit of the atmosphere of home. That’s where most of that song was recorded. It’s about adventure and the difficult choices we make in life, in particular being away from family."
Camara had to drop out of the quartet at short notice last year, and when he left Seckou decided to audition for a violinist to replace him.
"I auditioned four violin players, all brilliant musicians. Samy Bishai was the fourth, and I immediately liked his Arabic quarter tone style. Samy’s very talented, he can play classical and jazz, but when I asked him if he could get close to the sound of the riti, he just moved the strings a bit, and it was perfect. But, of course, he’s from Egypt and the Peule people of West Africa originally migrated from Egypt, so there is that link. Samy helped me find the pentatonic style in the kora, which is not normally there. All the musicians in the quartet work really well, I can lay down an idea, and they’ll pick it up straight away, which inspires me. Ever since we did the album, it’s been getting better and better, and we just don't want to lose that."
I wonder if the idea to use a violin came from Seckou's uncle Solo's partnership with Ellika Frissell?
"Not really, I was already using the riti when Ellka and Solo started. The whole family loves the violin and what it does to the kora - the kora is the emotional part, mostly short notes. The violin has long notes, and its tone seems to fit perfectly between the voice and the sound of the kora."
It's clear that Seckou Keita is a restlessly inventive soul, and this applies as much to his instrument as anything else. Not content with introducing experimental tunings in his songs, on the recent tour to support the new album the second half of the set has opened with Keita playing a beautiful lament, Suware Si, on the world's first ever double-headed kora. Necessity appears to be the mother of this particular invention, as Keita explains:
"My normal kora has twenty-two strings, and I play all four main tunings (siliba, tilijih, tilibo and tomora), as well as some new ones I tried myself. Traditionally in Africa, tuning the kora is part of the performance because the concerts take hours and you don’t have to hurry. But when I came to Europe, that time was gone. You've got an hour and a half per gig, so you've got to make it happen more quickly. So, I have two koras on-stage, one for each pair of tunings. Back in Casamance, I was speaking with my cousin Ali who is a kora maker, and we worked on this double-headed kora, one for each pair of tunings. So it has forty-four strings on two necks, with three handles. It’s fine to play sitting down, but I don't know about standing with it. I'll have to work that out, because I like to move a lot on stage, but I don't know if my back is strong enough!"
A permanently seated Keita would certainly be to the detriment of the quartet's live performance, for it's an agreeably dynamic and mobile set that I witness a few weeks later in the Anvil, Basingstoke. There's an infectious camaraderie between the musicians, the playing tight but also at a pleasingly embryonic stage where songs are being pushed and pulled in interesting new directions.
Afö is a warm jazzy groove on the album, but in concert it's sharper, driven along by Susso and Mantovani's intuitive rhythm section, with Keita teasing out a sparkling array of improvised melodies on his kora.
The traditional dance tune Dorigiba, from Keita's first album, is leant a dramatic conversational air, and violinist Bishai introduces some thrilling spiky reels on a new song, Barako. Seckou wears a permanent smile throughout the performance, feeding off the other musicians' energy and dexterity, and the challenge of their virtuosity has brought a maturity and depth to an already soulful vocal style.
By the end of the evening, the audience is singing (or in my case, murmuring) along in Mandinka and shaking what booty they might possess to the swinging encore Sabu Ngima, which is dedicated to Seckou's late grandfather and guiding influence. It's a moving end to an uplifting evening, and one which can be witnessed again by some in February when the quartet embarks on a rural tour of villages and community centres, where audiences at places like the Dean Hole Community Centre in Caunton and Powick Parish Hall will be able to share the warm and inclusive performances close-up, as Seckou explains:
"We did it last year on a smaller scale, playing in areas where people can’t get to larger concert halls. There are three things I love when playing live – the excitement before going on stage with the band; connecting with people during the concert; then talking to the audience about what I do, like a workshop. I prefer playing with small audiences when people can ask questions about my culture and we can talk about that, rather than them just see the gig, maybe buy a CD, and then they’re off."
Can he see this happening in Ziguinchor and surrounding areas? Would traditional folk bands from the UK and Ireland be received with interest in Casamance?
"It's possible – the Senegalese are open to any music, they love any music with a tradition. In fact, I hope to take the quartet over to Senegal next year. We're going to surprise people with some new tunings to traditional songs and some challenging new music."
Looks like Seckou Keita's musical journey will continue on its twisting, restless path for some time to come.