We live in a noisy world. Our cities and towns fizz with an almost permanent tinnitus of machine-generated sound. And even if, by some fluke, all that noise is absent for a while, most of us are left with the din of our own mental machinery churning inside. To disengage from that noise requires a drastic amputation from our usual environment; a trip to some distant wilderness perhaps, or an afternoon in a floatation tank. Sometimes we try to approximate the absence of noise by sitting in a garden or a park with the hum of traffic or roaring jet planes swept into the distance for a brief hour or two. Or we listen to ‘relaxation’ tapes of rhythmic sea-surf, dawn choruses and Celtic harp music laced with saccharine.
Clychau Dibon by Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita isn’t one of those tapes. Believe me.
You don’t pair the greatest young harpist in Wales with one of the most innovative kora players from West Africa for the purposes of relaxation. Their music is too deep, full-blooded and fragile for that. It engages with rather than disengages you from life and plays out against a backdrop of history, places, lives and legends that mirror each other in curious, even startling ways. Music with that kind of depth can never be relaxing. Too much old blood runs through it.
The harp and the kora appear to us like old instruments, designed for quieter sparser times. They can seem out of place in this cacophonous world. They’re old, that’s true. If you have a mind to go back to their beginnings, you’ll need to try and imagine that first hunter-gatherer who plucked the string of his bow and made music. Killing, skinning and eating animals were essential to him, but he also had a need to talk to the spirits and only music could do that. The many different harp-like instruments you can find around the world, including the kora, the classical concert harp and the Welsh harp, are the descendants of that hunter’s bow, just as every human descends from Lucy, our common grandmother.
About three hundred years ago, in an old West African kingdom known as Kaabu, simpler harps made from the tough gourd of the calabash, an African cousin of the melon too bitter to eat but good for just about everything else, were fused to create a new instrument with 21 strings, an instrument of majestic complexity and sophistication. Every griot or ‘bard’ in West Africa has his own version of how the kora was born, but they all agree that it was handed to man by the djinns. In other words, it was born in the spirit world before and then passed on to the human one. Which makes sense. All great music comes from the other side.
Like the Welsh harp, the kora’s original purpose was to help the griot sing the praises of great men, especially noble warriors and fighters. Hence its original name; koring bato – the box of the koring, who werethe warriors of the West African Manding. Like the Celts, the Manding are an ancient people bound together by ties of language and culture who populate the modern nations of Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Mali. The kora is the king of all Manding instruments.
Seckou Keita was born in southern Senegal, in a town called Ziguinchor that sits on an arm of the great Casamance River. His mother was the daughter of a great griot whose bardic lineage stretched back into a distant and foggy past. Seckou’s father was a Keita, in other words, a descendent of the great Manding king Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in the 14th century. The bluest of blood runs in Keita veins.
Seckou learnt the kora under his grandfather’s stern eye. He later rebelled and took up the drums as well. His entire clan, the Cissokhos, are griots and kora players of international renown. Many younger Cissokhos are scattered around Europe, surviving on their wits, their charm, their affability and their music. Seckou has made England his base since 1997.
Catrin Finch was born in Aberystwyth, west Wales, of English and German parents. She grew up in a tiny village near Aberaeron, on the shores of Cardigan Bay, with the sound of the sea in her ears. She fell in love with the harp when she was six years old, after seeing the Spanish harpist Marisa Robles play at the Lampeter Music Club.
By the age of nine, Catrin had dusted all her grades and was soon filling the cupboards of her family home with trophies and stringing gigs with the National Youth Orchestras together with solo concerts and the occasional appearance on Blue Peter. The child prodigy turned into an A-list student at the Royal College of Music in London and, at the age of 19, was invited to become the first harpist by appointment to the Prince of Wales.
Now in her thirties and living in south Wales, Catrin Finch enjoys star status in the classical music world, although her instrument is still the Cinderella of the classical orchestra, considered good enough for the musical expression of sparkling brooks, fluffy clouds and angelic dreams but not much else. That’s something Catrin would like to change. Her collaborations with the Colombian cowboy virtuosos Cimarron and now Seckou Keita provide proof of her desire to leap over cultural barriers and roam in mapless musical territory.
Harp and a kora, woman and a man, Celt and Manding, European and African, written scores and word of mouth; you might expect Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch to be separated by unbridgeable cultural chasms, but you’d be wrong. Go deep and you’ll find strange symmetries and fabulous coincidences that bind West Africa and Wales; bards and griots, djinns and faeries, the Casamance River and the Teifi, Sundiata Keita and the 10th century Welsh King Hywel Dda, the list goes on.
What’s more, both the harp and the kora make music that flows like water and expresses its essential melancholy. The poet Dylan Thomas once wrote a line about the sea singing in its chains. ‘Ceffylau’ (‘Horses’) is a groove that Seckou dreamed up in a moment of nostalgia and longing. It’s doused in the sadness of leaving, of being thrown out onto the mercy of the waves, never to return.
Both the enticement and the loneliness of an empty horizon is expressed in ‘Llongau Terou-bi’, in which the old Welsh air ‘Llongau Caernafon’ (‘The Ships of Caernarvon’) is played out on a quay or terou near Dakar in Senegal, gulls screeching overhead, fishermen unloading their catches, the eyes of a young boy transfixed by that endless coming and going of shore life. Poverty drove many Welsh men and women to take to the sea. Near Terou-bi beach in Dakar lies the Island of Gorée, from which so many Africans were forcibly embarked on ships bound for the new World. Both were enslaved in their own ways.
But the sea, together with the inlets, creeks, swamps and tributaries that are its limbs, is also an enchanter. The island of Carabane at the mouth of the Casamance River and the wide Bae Aberteifi, or Cardigan Bay, are magical places for Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch. Those Bras de Mer (‘Arms of the Sea’) inspire the currents that flow through their fingers.
When they were working on the song Bras de Mer, Seckou remembered this old Welsh tune that he’d once played with another Welsh harpist by the name of Llio Rhydderch, but he couldn’t remember its name. Producer John Hollis found it on the Internet. It was called ‘Conset Ifan Glen Teifi’, ‘The Concert of Ifan Glen Teifi’. Teifi is the name of the river that runs through Cardigan. It’s a lush and beautiful Welsh waterway and the tune fitted Seckou’s Manding melody ‘Niali Bagna’, named after an old Wolof king, like a hand fits an old glove. Seckou then added an old Manding melody called ‘Bolong’, meaning ‘The Arms of the Sea’. Finally Catrin overlaid ‘Clychau Aberdyfi’ or ‘The Bells of Aberdovey’. Everything found its place in the whole without coercion, like the pieces in a puzzle or the water of many rivers flowing into each other for their final journey to the sea. That’s how most of Clychau Dibon came together. Strange symmetries. Strange coincidences.
Like the imaginary encounter between the Manding king Nialing Sonko, famous for collecting too much tax from his people, and Robert Ap Huw, the 16th century musician who invented his own baffling form of notation and wrote down many of those old Welsh harp tunes before history could consign them to oblivion. Seckou chose to name his contribution after Nialing Sonko because the tune echoed the pure Casamance kora style of his youth and Sonko was a Casamance king. Catrin rummaged in the Ap Huw canon and pulled out a melody called ‘Caniad Gosteg’. Once again, the fit was seamless, uncanny, the old courtliness of medieval Wales echoing the old-world dignity of the Casamance style. Then, returning to his childhood again, Seckou added an exercise that all aspiring kora players have to master, Kelefa Koungben, the rhythm of Kelefa. Kelefa Sane was another old Manding warrior whose name is intimately tied to the birth of the kora itself.
Seckou dedicated another of his tunes, which he called Bamba, to the great Senegalese holy man and anti-colonial resistance leader, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké. He was a man who devoted his life to the welfare of those around him. His deeds and miracles have been praised in endless tales and poems. The tune leaves a sense of wisdom, kindness and gentleness – the qualities of true sainthood – in its wake.
Downstream and further out across wide oceans, we come to ‘Genedigaeth Koring-bato’, ‘The Genesis of the Koring-bato’, in other words, the birth of the Kora. The piece is dedicated to Toumani Diabate, probably the greatest kora player in the world, who, in March 2012, pulled off an unforgettable tour of Wales with Catrin Finch, despite illness and the military coup that had just shattered the peace and well being of his native Mali. That tour, the brainchild of producers John Hollis and Dilwyn Davies of Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan, is the genesis of the album Clychau Dibon.
But there’s more. Seckou often had to delve back into the old Manding melodies of his youth, to the genesis of his own style and his own life as a musician, in order to find the necessary symmetry with old Welsh songs such as ‘Beth Yw’r Haf I Mi’, (‘What is the summer to me?’), melodies that cry tears of loss and longing and tell us that Wales is not all about emerald hills and sun-kissed bays, but also boarded-up mines and factories, enforced migration, callousness and poverty, chapel and bible, hopelessness and damnation.
That’s the tone with which Clychau Dibon opens, a Welsh love story gone awry. Out of it, the kora emerges holding down a simple riff taken from a tune called ‘Macki’, named after an old king who was kind to orphans. It’s then overlaid with more longing, this time for a love left behind in Pontypridd, to which the kora answers with a tune called ‘Kelefa Ba’, the ‘Great Kelefa’, the warrior who will not succumb. Not just musical notes, but whole stories and worlds are blended here.
Why? To create something new out of the old. We’re dealing with young hearts whose desire to break new ground is strong. Future Strings is a fine example of the uncharted territory into which Seckou is pushing his kora, a territory in which the theme from ‘Prelude from the Asturias’ by the Spanish composer Albéniz can trip lightly from Catrin Finch’s fingers. The highly structured and complex world of European classical music is fused with the oral traditions of West Africa. Each make compromises, the kora moving into a more structured world that it is perhaps used to, the classical harp jettisoning the strictures of notation and over-bearing reverence for the ancestors to breathe more freely…
Where? To a world where the Bells of the dibon bird – Clychau Dibon – chime their bittersweet chime. The second bass string on the left hand side of the kora is named after the dibon, otherwise known as the West African Ground-Hornbill. During the day, the male and female dibon do everything and go everywhere together. But at night they part to sleep alone, each in their own nest. The next morning they call to each other, a mix of low male tones and higher female ones, so that they can reunite and face the new day.
What are all these old tunes from West Africa and Wales except old pop songs that remain doggedly tenaciously alive. Listen to them carefully. They’ve found each other and created a new sound, another kind of noise to add to the tinnitus of modern life. But listen again and see if you can’t find a different kind of peace in there, not the emptiness relaxation or switching off, but the fullness and peace that only come once you have travelled through life, love and loss, to emerge sadder and wiser on the other side.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2013
Printed in the cd booklet of Clychau Dibon by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita (Astar / Mwldan 2013)