I first heard the modern griot and kora player Seckou Keita when he performed with the UK band Baka Beyond. The second time I heard Seckou perform was on an album with his international quartet on the album Silimbo Passage. So when Arc Music sent me a press release for Seckou's solo album, 22 Strings, I requested an e-mail interview with the Senegalese musician.
And since that release of his CD last May, Seckou has experienced limelight and acclaim.
Whole Music Experience: Similar to many traditional musicians (from musical dynasties), you received intense musical and religious training as a child, rebelled as a young adult, and now you have returned to your musical tradition, in this case, that of a griot. Do you feel like you have traveled full circle? And how have your other musical experiences with Celtic musicians, your quartet, and other genres shaped who you are as a musician today?
Seckou Keita: My link to the century-spanning chain of griot transmission is on my Mother site Fatou Bintou Cissokho. It’s known as father to son but more of generation to generations, (as I’ve seen my grandfather training others that are not his own kids but coming from other griot communities /family) So therefore, it’s as much for me to come back to the source to inspire the next generation, but still exploring the new music.
Yes my experience with other musical journey played an important part of who I’m as a musician today and probably inspired me to what some people will call coming back to full circle.
WME: Your name seemed familiar to me when Arc Music sent me the press release for 22 Strings and then when I read your biography, I noticed that you were in the band Baka Beyond and I had also reviewed your CD, The Silimbo Passage for my blog. In some ways the work with Baka Beyond (getting the word out about the Baka musicians and their plight) has similarities to the griot tradition in that as musicians you report a situation or news to the public, but in this case, an international audience. What has been your role musical and otherwise with Baka Beyond? Are you still performing and recording with the band?
SK: I was one of the drummers in Baka Beyond and I contributed on some compositions on the album East to West, both kora ,djembe and drum kit. When I released my 3rd album Silimbo Passage with my Quintet (SKQ) with 400 concerts around the world, time didn’t allow me to work with Baka Beyond.
WME: You mention in the press notes that the kora originally had 22 strings, but after the death of the creator of the kora, Jali Mady Wuleng, musicians honored the griot by subtracting a string thus ending up with a 21 string harp. When did the 22nd string return? And is this acknowledged by griot from Senegal, Mali, and other West African countries with the griot tradition? Oddly 21-strings would be considered sacred by some spiritual folks who follow sacred geometry, but 22 strings also has powerful significance, plus it sounds wonderful.
SK: first of all the Origin of the kora is from Gabou. Gabou was an empire which consisted of three places before colonization - Guinné Bissau, Casamance (the southern part of Senegal) and the Gambia. The Honored strings to Jaly Mady Wuleng have been done after his passing but some griots have kept the 22 strings aside, and places you can found it is the Casamance and a bit in the Gambia too. I personally found 22 strings more adapted on the modern musical world for example ( the main key on the kora always have 4 octave and that leave you 6 notes with 3 octave each ) …But in the case of the 21 strings lets say your kora is tuned in G that’s 4 octave on G, and there’s 6 notes to cover with 3 octave you will end up having only 2 octave on the C. Hope this makes sense.
WME: The peaceful resonance of the kora is mentioned also in the press notes, and before I placed your recording into my computer to listen to it for the first time, I was feeling irritated and angry. By the time I had listened to the CD, I felt calm and even peaceful. Kora also appears on some new age recordings and I often think recordings featuring solo kora would make lullaby music for children. Was the kora originally created to bring peace to a community or kingdom?
SK: Well said WME. Let’s put it this way and instrument that use to help Hero’s big kings that go out and cause troubles and wars .The kora was one the instrument that they will listen to and help them to deal with they emotion in a peaceful way, and I believe it has got a better place now in the 21 century where now things are a bit out of control.
WME: You were born in 1978 so you’re relatively young for a traditional musician, yet you have encountered many crossroads, forged relationships with diverse musicians, and returned to your roots wiser and more understanding than you would have been in your youth. When you encounter young musicians now, especially ones wanting to study a tradition, what advice or encouragement do you give them?
SK: There’s a proverb in Mandinka that says if you’re not sure where you are heading, go back where you come from. My advice is never force your ears, not to listen to all type of music and never give up learning the tradition and especially the histories behind anything you learn. As I’m still learning, make sure you mastered what ever you are learning before adding your own touch.