Seckou Keita
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Seckou Keita

Nottingham, England, United Kingdom | INDIE

Nottingham, England, United Kingdom | INDIE
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The Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita is dashing round the country on his last-ever tour with his current band. Keita has acquired the tag the “Jimi Hendrix of the kora”; here, he was closer to its Jimmy Page, switching from a traditional instrument tuned with loops of goat leather to a machine-head version to a twin-necked progressive rock-style chimera.

The kora, a 22-stringed West African harp, is a fragile, rarefied, courtly instrument, so diplomatic that unamplified it is hard to hear across a room. In a band setting, it can struggle to make itself heard. Weaving round and occasionally overwhelming Keita were the violin of Samy Bishai, an Egyptian, the double bass and bass guitar of the Italian Davide Mantovani, and the singing of Binta Susso, a Gambian griot. Surahata Susso, another Gambian, provided drums and percussion in lurching rhythms that occasionally dropped away to highlight Keita’s playing.

Styles ranged from a wild violin jig on the opening “Tounga” via effervescent hi-life on “Barako” to a reggae interlude on the closing “Miniyimba”. Keita had tuned one neck of the twin-neck kora to an Arabic scale for “Manding-Arab”, and Bishai played swooping string glissandi around him while Mantovani fluttered his fingers against the strings of the double bass for a moody rumble.

Long years in England have honed Keita’s stage patter. He introduced the interval by promising (emptily, as it turned out) that it would last 20 minutes: “not African time. Swiss time”, and closed with a magisterial declaration: “Seckou Keita representin’.”

In the second half, the music lived up to the confidence. With “Dary”, a traditional kora melody, Keita played solo, into a silent hush. Here he was more rhythmically supple, frenetic runs interspersed with quiet, lyrical passages, finally knocking out an accompanying beat on fingerposts and resonator.

Then the band rejoined him. Binta Susso sang “Wati Dima”, a new song, with astringent, nasal phrases with a melancholic drop. “Sakiliba” provided a Casamance-styled closing, over which Susso sang the praises of each band member in turn before all the musicians took to their drums, sweeping the audience up on to their feet. - Financial Times


If Seckou Keita still lived in the Casamance area of southern Senegal, I suspect he would be hailed as a major star. As it is, he's based in the UK, where African musicians can easily be overlooked in favour of visiting

foreigners. So here's a reminder that he shouldn't be taken for granted. His band is now a quintet, thanks to the arrival of his sister, Binta Suso, on vocals, and their new album mixes African roots with unexpected influences and experimentation. Keita is a fine singer and kora player, able to switch from the rhythmic, gently rousing styles of Casamance to lyrical, drifting songs or passages that edge towards acoustic jazz. He's joined by a virtuoso Egyptian violinist, Samy Bishai, who matches the kora work with anything from furious improvised flurries to Arabic and

western influences, and by a Gambian percussionist and an Italian bass player. They constantly switch styles, from the gently rhythmic Bimo to the drifting, traditional Souaressi, the hand drum and bass work-out on Dingba Don, or the final, thoughtful lament, Missing You, and the result is a subtle and intriguing set. - Guardian


The Senegalese kora player unsettles Western perceptions of Africa

Clutching her walking stick, 80 year-old Audrey Federa from Worthing scuttles to the front of the small Italianate-style church in Brighton, and starts girating energetically. An electric set by virtuoso Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita is approaching its end and Keita has invited the capacity audience to dance. Most of them do. "I don't know what came over me" said Audrey catching her breath after the show. "The music just lifted me to my feet and I felt I had to dance."

Nearing the end of one-month UK tour Keita, performing with his quintet, admits that this show, performed as part of Brighton's fifth annual Sacred Music Festival, was different from all others. "We have never done this set before and the response was fantastic. There was something very intimate about playing in a church rather than in a club or a big auditorium."

The kora is a traditional 21-stringed instrument made from a calabash and played throughout West Africa. It is played with two thumbs and two fingers and sounds like a cross between a Celtic harp, a zither and Spanish guitar. In Keita's hands, the versatility of the kora is exposed and it sometimes sounds as if there are several instruments playing at once. This is especially the case when he plays his 42-stinged double-necked kora.

The musicians in the quintet are an international bunch, and with a violin, a double-bass, percussion and Binta Suso's soaring vocals they blend jazz, classical, Flamenco, Latin and Arabic music with more traditional West African sounds. "There are connections between, say, Cuban and Indian sounds and the repertoire of the kora that can be explored without losing the distinct flavours of the different traditions and styles" explains Keita.

The highlight of the evening, however, comes when Keita is left alone on stage with his kora. Starting slowly, and building in speed and rhythmic complexity, Keita weaves melodies and rhythms, demonstrating breathtaking finger-work and musicianship. Not for nothing is he known as "the Hendrix of the Kora". The audience was enraptured. "You feel each note and each vibration tingling in your body" enthused Atiya Gourlay from Hove as she queued to buy a CD after the show. "It is almost like you are being played inside."

His songs, touching on universal themes of love and life, are part of a long Griot tradition of imparting advice through music. "The Griot are traditionally counsellors. My grandfather was a master kora-player and people travelled from far-and-wide for his guidance. He was the one who taught me the kora." Although Keita insists that he is not at all political, one of his songs, "Touga", is about the effect of climate change on people living off the land. Another song, "Fondingke", is a positive song which challenges Western perceptions of Africa as a land of of pestilence, poverty and war.

Early in his set, Keita pauses to talk about the history and the importance of the kora in West African culture. "The cow-gut used for the traditional kora is also used as fishing-line. In fact in Senegal we joke that if a kora player doesn't make it as a musician he can always become a fisherman."

With a talent as prodigious as his, it is not likely that Keita will be turning to angling any time soon. - New Statesman


After the usual shenanigans with the door at the Jazz Café I was finally able to get to see Seckou Keita’s latest incarnation in its natural setting – live.
The album – ‘The Silimbo Passage’ – that the crew were launching has already had a 5 star review and I was desperately keen to see what this could become in a live setting.

Featuring a combination of Jazz, Senegalese Kora, Blues and classical it is remarkable but played live the quintet took on a new sheen and watching the interplay between the different strands I could see just how much an ensemble piece it really is. Take away any of the musicians and the music really would lose an integral element – a large part of the magic is in the indefinable charismatic connection between Seckou and Samy Bishai, the Egyptian born violinist, then look at the telepathic link between Davide Mantovani’s bass playing and the percussion of Surahata Susso. The bridge between the yin and the yang of the quintet is Binta Susso whose vocals give a focal point to the music and who adds percussion or simply a visual focus at times.

The music crosses so many borders that it cannot be classified as anything specific. It is highly sophisticated, there is a percussive heart to much of the music but the string sounds take it towards Eastern Europe or the bazaars and souks of the Middle East but then the voices take it firmly into Senegalese Griot. This is truly World Music – not MOBO or any of the other acronyms used to describe African originated music – this is music for the world and it strikes directly at the soul of the listener, not just the ass.

Needless to say, the Kora playing by Seckou Seita is incredible, almost a Clapton of the Kora, and he is the perfect front man with the rest of the band all taking their cues from him but it is as a band that this works. However, I cannot remember the last time that I saw a band applauding their leader for an audacious piece of improvisation and actually mean it – at times Keita even amazed his own band which makes him the Hendrix of the Kora rather than the Clapton.

If you have a chance to see them live you might be in for the most exhilarating display of musical colour and texture you are likely to find this year. - Music News


Discography

Mali (2003 on ARC Music Prod)
Afro Mandinka Soul (2006 on ARC Music Prod)
The Silimbo Passage (2008 on World Artventures)
Distance (due Sept 2012 on Astar Artes)

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Bio

Seckou Keita is one of the leaders of the newest generation of African musicians. He was born in Ziguinchor, Senegal, in 1978, into a griot family. Seckou learned the kora at an early age with his grandfather and uncles but also developed a remarkable flair for drumming and percussion. He received training in the Mandinka tradition at home and became immersed in the Wolof culture outside of it, later using both influences to develop his own unique musical style.

Seckou started to perform at the age of seven, with his uncle Solo Cissokho, and by twelve had his own band. In 1996 Seckou was selected to perform as a percussionist by Riskonserten Norway in a youth project. This led to appearances at Forde Festival and the beginning of his international music career, a tour of India followed in this collaboration with Cuban, Indian and Scandinavian musicians. In 1998 Seckou moved to the UK and became a member of Bath based global fusion pioneers Baka Beyond performing across Europe. He also entered the djembe workshop circuits where he developed a unique and inspiring teaching style.

Seckou recorded his debut album Baiyo, meaning Orphan, which was released in summer 2000 and went on to impress audiences throughout Europe as a solo kora artist, earning a nomination from BBC Radio 3 listeners for a World Music Award in 2011 and support slots to luminaries Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. Seckou formed the Seckou Keita Quartet in 2004 (expanding later to a Quintet) to wide acclaim and continued to tour worldwide, performing more than 400 concerts in 30 countries. Two albums from this lineup were released as Seckou explored new musical dimensions, Afro-Mandinka Soul in 2006 and The Slimbo Passage in 2008.

In 2010 Seckou began a partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross supporting the ICRC’s work to protect and assist victims of war. He choose the ICRC because he had come into contact with the humanitarian organization when he was a child in the Casamance (a region that has been affected by armed violence over the last decades).

In 2011 Seckou joined the Astar Artes family, together they set to work on a new musical chapter resulting in the album, Distance, for release in 2012 and a brand new band. This project represents a return to Seckou's roots and the original mandinka and wolof traditions that inspired him as a youngster combined with a fresh and innovative initiative.

Whilst touring the world, Seckou has always carried on his educational work, running regular drumming & kora workshops in schools, arts & community centres, festivals and also in Senegal.