Interview: Seckou Keita (February 2017)

On the eve of the release of his latest album Transparent Water, Senégalese kora player, percussionist and singer Seckou Keita was packing to fly to Paris for some radio sessions and shows in France – when he managed to find a moment to talk to Rhythm Passport about the latest of his many collaborations, this time with Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa who, along with their Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, are about to set out on a tour of Europe.

The project germinated after Keita and Sosa were introduced by drummer Marque Inna-Most Gilmore (who had worked with Keita on the Do You Speak Djembe? project) at a concert at CLF Art Café in Peckham, South London, back in 2012. Keita tells what happened on that fateful evening:

“Omar and I had never met before, you know. We had no rehearsal for that show, just a sound check. But on that night, playing together Omar and I basically clicked. Also playing that night was Marque (Inna-Most Gilmore), who had played with both of us separately before, and a really amazing double bass player Davide Mantovani (who played in Keita’s own Seckou Keita Quartet). They were together with me on a project called Do You Speak Djembe?  But then we also started playing some stuff from Omar’s albums. He was very open. So Omar and I basically clicked – the click was just there! Marque kept making jokes, saying, “Oh my God, Omar can’t stop playing! He just realised that whatever he brings in Seckou can answer back!” So we were having a laugh. Marque brought us together saying, “How about this show – Omar & Seckou?” At the end of the shows Omar said, “Man, I want your number!” So we swapped numbers and that was it. We left it really open.”

At that point Sosa and Keita had many other work commitments. Keita was involved in a project with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, so it wasn’t until a year later that the two musicians got in touch again:

“Towards the end of the year Omar called me to make a plan and talk about what could happen. So then we went to Germany to an amazing studio (Fattoria Musica recording studio in Osnabrück ). We cooked for ourselves in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere – just us and an amazing sound guy as well. We stayed there for the week with nothing to distract us, and we were just really open with the ideas that had been in both of our heads before we met up. And from that, everything kicked off, to be honest. It was a good experience.”

But as well as musical ideas flowing in the studio, the pair obviously had time for fun:

“I’m going to tell you a joke now. The funny thing is that I was not smart enough. When I say I wasn’t smart enough it is because we were cooking and making music at the same time. On the first night Omar cooked because he arrived before me. He cooked this lovely meal, and then we ate. And I said, “Yeah, next time I’ll have to cook.” But I think I cooked too well.  I shouldn’t have made it so good otherwise Omar wouldn’t cook again. And when we ate it was like ‘boom!’ So on the third day we said, “Let’s eat”, and then things went quiet. Half an hour passed by and we said again “I think we should eat.” And Omar said “Oh my God! That was some love you put into that food yesterday, man – you beat me up, and you know it!” So the result was that the music was beautiful, but I ended up cooking most of the week, more than he did – apparently because I was the better cook!  Next time I’ll cook really badly, and then he can end up cooking all the time. It was fun though. We joked and laughed a lot – it was beautiful.”

So how did the tracks develop in the studio?

“We recorded our parts live together. I came with some songs, some ideas, and he came with his ideas, and then we played them more openly. Then we just laid down tracks playing live together, then did some overdub so our percussionist Gustavo could also add some shakers and stuff like that, then we added some djembe. But then Omar’s intention was to get some other artists involved as well – a Japanese koto player and also the Chinese sheng player Wu Tong. Some of those guys I have met in the past. We talked about it and we listened to what they had done. So I said oh yes, let’s meet. That will be fantastic! So this really became more of an extension of the Cuban/African thing, which is more unusual in the fact that there are artists from Cuba and Africa, but also from Japan, China, India and Korea.”

To explain, while living in Spain Omar Sosa had met Wu Tong at a reunion of musicians that had been involved in Yoyo Ma’s ‘Silk Road’ project at the home of Galician piper Cristina Pato in Santiago de Compostela. The other guests he had worked with previously, including Paris-based koto player Mieko Miyazaki. We asked if the guests will be touring with him and Sosa:

“No we only have Gustavo [from Venezuela], the percussionist. He’ll be touring with us as a trio. It’s really, really interesting playing with him. He’s a really amazing guy. He can be polyrhythmic – and then we have fun! Me and him do a little bit (in the live show)- just the two of us – because I’m a percussionist as well. So playing together we discovered that what he would call ‘a’ I would call ‘b’. We were trying to find a theme between them, so it became really interesting. We’d say “Let’s keep it in Brazil, no lets go to Africa,” and we’d improve our minds in that way by not being bored on the road. That’s a really good thing!

So he plays these things that you tap on the ground made with bamboos – culo’e puya. Then there’s another percussion instrument that he used – the guataca from Venezuela (originally an instrument made from a hoe), and the way he plays is so amazing. Some of the rhythms are really similar to our rhythms – it almost sounded like sabar (drums) sometimes. He was playing these on ‘Dary’, the live video. He just played them at the end, and I thought, wow, this is really interesting. I feel like I’ve travelled, and I’ve come back with something else. In a way, it was as if I could see a clear picture as I walked through it, which is great.

The producer (Paris-based English drummer of Loose Tubes fame Steve Argüelles)
 of course put his mark on the album while he was mixing with Omar. And there were so many songs that we had to leave some of them behind.”

Enough for a second album perhaps! But first, what did people think the album would sound like when the idea was first mooted?

“People said: “That mix is going to be fantastic with dancey bits”, but in fact we are the opposite in a way. This is music of the soul. That’s why it became less dancey. It is music to enjoy listening to. It is also very detailed music, really, that people don’t often go to. Some people won’t really visit that kind of artist. But this is what I want for myself – beautiful music.”

So what are your plans over the next few months Seckou?

“Well we are touring Europe with the band and doing some European Radio sessions. I’m also working with Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne in France with Gustavo on a project. An autumn tour in the UK is also being planned for this trio with Omar.”

So you keep yourself busy then?

“Yes. You know my last album was recorded in 2015 – a solo one – but I enjoy playing with others. I’m still working with Catrin (Finch) and we’re planning another album next year. At the same time I have to keep my African roots base, so I’m releasing a single there (in Senégal). It’s funny – it’s really pop. It’s a very, very different market. It’s crazy the difference! And the thing is you either join in or you get left out. You have to have a profile in your country otherwise there’s no point, they call you Senégalese in Europe, but if I don’t do these poppy things I don’t exist there (in Senégal).  They want to be dancing to stuff in clubs, at weddings and naming ceremonies. They don’t want to be just sitting there in their room and listening to music, you know. So it’s become a more difficult market for all musicians – even Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal. They all have to do that now. But the good thing about it is they (Senégalese audiences) are good listeners. If you do one or two poppy releases then they’re ready to listen to another of your projects, and in a year or so they will come round to it. People love what I do with Catrin. They like my solo project for sure. The project with Omar could be a new thing for them. All they need is some pop to pull them in – a little bit of bait. But that’s a market that we can’t sell here – never! People would say, “What’s going on?” I don’t like the term ‘World Music’. It’s just a marketing term – I do music for the world!”

The interview draws to an end as Seckou has to finish his packing. “Don’t forget your kora!” we joke, and we’re back to the humorous Seckou again:

“That would be a disaster. If I leave my kora behind I will have to take over Gustavo’s work. He can clap, and I’ll play the drums!”

Photo ©: Paolo Hollis