An Interview with Seckou Keita

By Isabel Bedford

I meet Seckou Keita in a café in central London on a grey, soggy October afternoon, where he shares his thoughts on the role of the modern-day griot, insights into his unique musical style, and the wisdom behind his latest album, Miro. Seckou tells me; “you should not die with your knowledge”. Instead he believes you should share it during your lifetime and use it as a force for positive change. I feel privileged to spend a couple of hours in his warm and engaging company, learning from his deep musical knowledge and being inspired by his personal philosophy and worldview.

Seckou has performed in concerts the world over, taking his own unique brand of kora playing to audiences far and wide, and has collaborated with wide-ranging artists from flamenco singers to traditional British folk musicians. He is currently based in Bristol but hails from Casamance, the southernmost region of Senegal. The name Keita, inherited from his father, denotes noble birth but his mother belongs to the Cissokho family, a name indicating griot lineage, griots being West African hereditary musicians and storytellers. Seckou grew up in a Cissokho household, immersed in traditional Mande music culture within the confines of his family compound, but beyond the walls he was exposed to the myriad other music cultures belonging to the different ethnic groups who populate this part of the world. Although Seckou is best known these days as an outstanding kora player, it was percussion, in particular the djembe, he was particularly drawn to whilst growing up.

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Photograph by Josh Pulman

Seckou has always been musically curious and open-minded. This has led to him becoming one of the most innovative musicians on the West African circuit, yet he is careful to remain true to what he believes genuinely works. “Never force your ears”, he tells me. Seckou began to experiment with the kora many years ago, and the first original tuning he created was completely by accident. He now regularly devises his own tunings to suit different musical situations. For the song ‘Hino’, a collaboration with flamenco singer Inma La Carbonera and the sixth track on Miro, Seckou developed a special tuning to compliment the flamenco flavour. He has extended the framework of the kora in his own personal way, expanding the horizons of the instrument, but still with the hot, funky, groovy Casamance style of playing lying at the heart. “Being a drummer really brings something to my style of kora playing” Seckou tells me; that something being an impeccable sense of rhythm and an unparalleled momentum in his playing.

When performing live Seckou has to make many key changes, which he describes as “a bit of a battle”. To deal with this issue, he takes two different koras on tour with him, one of which has a harp lever attached to it to make retuning a slicker process. He also owns a double-headed kora. His balafon player has a specially designed chromatic instrument to enable him to play in any key or tuning which Seckou’s music demands.

Miro (“Positive Thoughts”), is testament to Seckou’s skill, versatility and open-mindedness. Throughout the album Seckou is honouring his heritage and fulfilling his role as a modern day griot by using his music as a vehicle through which to spread messages of integrity, unity and positivity, encouraging people to reflect upon and take responsibility for their actions. In our interview, Seckou uses the metaphor of having clean hands, which appears in his song ‘Rewmi’ (‘Our Country’) as a metaphor for living moral lives; “even you think your hands are clean, cleanse them further” he says. Seckou supports the humanitarian organisation The Red Cross, but is also environmentally, as well as morally, conscious, concerned with offsetting his carbon footprint by donating to green projects in the UK and East Africa.

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Seckou with his young cousins. Photograph by Josh Pulman.

I ask Seckou how Miro is different to his previous offerings. He describes the album as being closer to his roots, as a “step back” towards tradition. Nonetheless, the album does have many innovative musical twists and turns and does feature the Mande-flamenco cross-cultural collaboration ‘Hino’. It was also recorded in a variety of locations ranging from Bristol to Havana to Bogota. Original compositions sit alongside reworkings of traditional Mande songs, such as the track ‘Tara’. Elements of different West African musical styles and languages (Mandinka, Malinke, Wolof, Djoola, Fulani, Bambara) are effortlessly woven together. The album showcases the vocal talents of two exciting young West African singers, Mohamed Diaby and Mariama Kouyate. As with his other albums, Seckou calls on the considerable expertise of family members. Sister Binta Suso provides vocals and brother Sura Susso plays various percussion. The cover is a photograph of Seckou with his young cousins, who are learning to play kora in the Cissokho family compound in Senegal.

Seckou returns to his African home annually, normally during the winter months in order to escape the dreary British weather. Whenever he performs in Africa he performs his music in the same way as he would for a European audience. He admits that his home audience might appreciate his music in a slightly different way but that ultimately he talks about shared human experiences that people from every society and culture in the world can access. He tells me how the kora has recently become popular amongst younger Senegalese audiences; “it’s become like a fashion”, when not too long ago it was largely seen as being old-fashioned and outmoded. This can only be a good thing for Seckou as it enables him to reach and spread his positive messages to the younger generation.

“You should be an ocean of receiving and giving”, Seckou tells me. His music, as well as his open-minded and progressive attitude, certainly reflects this wise philosophy.

Seckou is currently on tour in the UK and is due to play at Rich Mix on November 9th. Miro is out now on Astar records.