This wasn’t so much of a grand opening as a work in progress preview before an audience of warmth-seeking guinea pigs. The coldest March in fifty years brought them to The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff for a night of a thousand and one strings. After the last had been plucked, they disappeared into the slate grey gloom halo’d by what connoisseurs of the British breakfast might call a “Ready Brek” glow.
Apart from a brief first attempt a few years ago involving the great Toumani Diabate, Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita had only been working on their mission to marry the classical harp and the West African kora in total, on an off, for less than a week. This was hard to tell at times given the instinctive intertwining of notes that cascaded up the aisles, eddied round the rafters and poured into the ears of the magnetized audience. Discerning precisely whose flurried fingers were responsible for which cascade often proved fruitless.
Dressed in what he called his “Chelsea Blue” robes, brick brown babouches and tight black skull cap, Seckou Keita wore an absorbed smile in which both the delight in being there and the relief that a marriage of such distant relatives actually seemed to be working were present. Catrin Finch meanwhile, in floating black cape, black tights and spangled gold pumps, was focussed on throwing away her compass, log book and the other paraphernalia of precision that 25 years of classical music training had afforded her to go beyond calculation and lose herself in the flow.
Old Welsh harp songs, Manding kora staples, Latin dashes, Celtic arias and more were woven together to create something new that also possessed enough depth to sound sage, even timeless. If you closed your eyes you might just have glimpsed the late medieval Welsh harpist Robert ap Huw landing on a West African shore, trading his slate-grey skies for the shimmering light of Africa and the busy dark flow of the Taff for the lazy effortless meander of the Gambia river.
Cross-cultural musical collaborations are strange beasts, sometimes beautiful and coherent, sometimes daft and flat. A marriage of kora and harp, distant members of the same family, makes sense on paper. But whether it would work in flesh and bone was uncertain. Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita each have the requisite courage, open-mindedness, patience and affability for the task. They’re also undeniable masters of their own instruments and determined to devote the necessary time for the alchemy to work.
This was only a first taste but it was already golden, despite occasional rawness and hesitation, easily forgiven. With albums to be made, tours to be done and an inevitable maturing yet to come, the marriage of harp and kora seems blessed to be long, warm and fruitful.
Andy Morgan (c) 2013