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Album review: Seckou Keita “22 Strings” (FRUK)

May 4, 2015

Seckou Keita - 22 Strings22 Strings is the new album from Seckou Keita, the Senegalese kora player and griot (hereditary musician and composer) and relates many stories of Seckou’s remarkable life, told through ten, mostly instrumental, compositions on the kora. According to legend, Seckou’s home of Gabou (now southern Senegal and Guinea) is where the first kora was given to the griot Jali Mady by supernatural creatures made from smokeless fire, whose name – djinn – means “hidden from sight” (there are tantalising parallels with Seckou’s own name for his father, l’homme invisible, or “the invisible man”). The original kora had 22 strings but after Jali Mady’s death, his fellow griots took one string away in his memory to leave the 21-stringed harp known today. However, in Gabou, the 22-stringed kora survives and, as the PR notes point out: “For Seckou Keita, that one extra string represents home: the place where his heart resides”.

Driven by a slow, insistent bass riff overlaid with an intricate tangle of strings and spangled with intermittent chord clusters, ‘The Path From Gabou’ winds ever on, drawing the listener deeper into its unhurried exploration of landscapes, both internal and external, of the ancient kingdom of Gabou. It reflects Seckou’s own, ultimately unsuccessful, journey through Gabou to the Malian capital Bamako, in search of the father who abandoned him soon after he was born.

‘N’doké (Little Bro)’ is a delicate and gentle composition with some surprisingly deep and mellow bass notes beneath its steady rhythmic pulse over which double-time flurries of sound drift like a warm breeze, allowing Seckou to demonstrate his mastery of the kora. It’s possible that the piece is dedicated to his younger brother Surahata “Sura” Susso, also a griot and kora player with whom Seckou was in a band some years ago. Equally, it might be more metaphorical in meaning; part of the questioning theme which underpins the album, specifically the two apparently simple questions – “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” – and how we define ourselves in relation to each other, as well as to the wider world.

Seckou’s quest for answers to those questions around his identity continues in ‘Mikhi Nathan Mu-Toma’. The title translates as “The Invisible Man”, which we know from the sleeve notes is a reference to his father, and it’s as much a eulogy as it is a meditation on some of the fundamental questions of existence. From a quiet, downbeat beginning, it grows into an affirmation of life founded on a recognition of shared humanity. The expressions that cross Seckou’s face in the accompanying video are as touching to see as they are deeply personal, and while the onlooker may initially feel that she is somehow intruding on private grief, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the piece. The moment where a broad smile spreads across Seckou’s face as he finds himself in the moment, at one with his music and his past and present, is one of the most heartwarming things I’ve seen in a music video in a very long time – but even without that visual accompaniment, this beautifully elegaic composition remains one of the standout tracks on the record.

While those two questions – “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” – are easy enough to pose, their answers are often difficult to pinpoint conclusively. Most likely they’ll be as many and varied as humankind itself and perhaps, ultimately, unanswerable. ‘If Only I Knew’ is as valid an answer as any – and certainly as good a song title as any. One of the few tracks on 22 Strings where Seckou sings as well as plays, it’s worth remembering that we don’t have to understand the words to appreciate the music. A minor key piece, slow and thoughtful with some heartfelt harmonies, the listener shouldn’t be deceived by its apparent simplicity; listen with your heart and soul as well as your ears and the complexity of its sentiment is as clear as the crystalline sound of the kora.

‘Alpha Yaya’ is a more upbeat, major key composition which retains the meditative feel of the album while wearing the audio equivalent of a quiet smile on its face. There’s a lot of space in this piece, a stillness between the played notes, encouraging us to take a step back from the overwhelmingly non-stop pace of contemporary life and reflect on our place within the ebb and flow of history and, of course, those who went before us: our ancestors.

‘Kana-Sila’, meaning “Don’t be afraid” in English, is the second song on the album to feature vocals. Seckou’s multitracked harmonies are as reassuring as the song’s title suggests, and the kora strings stroked as tenderly as any parent’s fingers soothing the worried brow of a child in this gentle lullaby. ‘Tatono’ is similarly healing, a meditative composition with an understated rhythm evoking images of waves lapping against the shore as the sun goes down.

‘Mandé’ takes its title from the ancient Central Saharan people who founded one of the largest West African empires and are known to have been skilled in the making of woven textiles as well as in jewellery-making and carvings. Senegal, like many African nations, existed long before the waves of invasion by white European settlers began in the 15th century and this pre-colonial past can still be seen in the families of ethnic groups in West Africa which continue to exist today. An awareness of the history of one’s people, its culture and its heritage, can be incredibly insightful and liberating, particularly if you are questioning your own place in the world. Seckou’s musical tribute to his past strongly conveys this sense of a history existing across millennia, as well as his links to that past through what the sleeve notes call “the century-spanning chain of griot transmission” and, of course, through the kora, which originated in Kaabu.

The penultimate ‘Abdou N’Diaye’ is a short yet still sweet instrumental with scattered flurries of chords falling like a soft blizzard of cherry blossoms on a Spring day, its melody hinted at like fragments from a half-remembered dream. The closing ‘Future Strings In E’ makes a fitting end to the album as it turns our thoughts away from what has been, and what is, to thoughts of the future. What that future holds for any of us is bound to be uncertain and there’s a nervous energy about ‘Future Strings In E’ that is both unsettling and anticipatory. It’s a tour de force display of Seckou’s mastery of, and oneness with, the kora which reminds us of what’s important as we face whatever tomorrow may bring.

22 Strings finds Seckou Keita at the top of his game in a never less than compelling collection which draws together many threads: musings on identity, place, history, of music viewed through the lenses of past and present. In the process, Seckou has created an absorbing document of his inner search for answers to some of the essential questions of existence, filtered through his deep respect for tradition while facing the future with an irrepressible positivity.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (04 May 2015)

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