Interview: Seckou Keita – The Busy Life of a Modern-Day Griot (August 2019)

There’s always a good reason to pick up the phone and have a chat with Seckou Keita. That’s why every couple of years, we feel the need to reach him to get an update on his countless projects and to “brace ourselves” for the ones to come.

If you add the fact that the Senegalese musician is not only one of the most talented kora players enriching the UK music scene, but also an entertaining character, you have the perfect interviewee, so much so that we constantly find it hard to hang up the phone.

Our most recent reason to call Seckou was, next to congratulating him for the BBC Radio2 Folk Awards nominations for Musician of The Year, Best Band/Duo (together with Catrin Finch) and for Best Album (again with Catrin for their latest release SOAR), his upcoming gig at London’s Jazz Cafe on 18th August, when he will enthrall the audience in a double-bill show with another remarkable kora player, the Gambian Jally Kebba Susso.

We started there, investigating what it means for him to play solo and to share the stage with fellow musicians, but then, we inevitably went off on a tangent…

“The only differences I can tell between solo and shared performances are energy-wise and related to space. When I play solo, the energy has to be heavier, because it’s harder to deliver, which I enjoy as well, because it’s more challenging and it also better expresses who you are. Then there’s the space issue, which is really important and is related to who I am, but also who I am in relation to the others, instead of just me and me and me… you have to be an open-minded musician to know that. So yes, it’s important to play with other musicians as well, because you can be inspired by them if you’re a good listener and you give yourself some boundaries at the same time”.

When it comes to music inspiration, Seckou has his very own approach…

“I have this thought in my head that there are no music categories. I don’t feel the need to divide music into jazz, world, folk or classic… I just think that there are two types of music: good music and bad music. This is it. I’ve preferences in styles, so maybe I listen more to one style than another, but generally, I’m a very good listener, so I listen to every kind of music. So, my inspiration is really open, and when I hear something good, it inspires me. When my ears don’t get bored with a style, that inspires me.

Also, some musicians who have been part of my life inspired me as well. I’d say that my biggest source of inspiration was my uncle, who sadly passed away in May, but he had a big impact on my musical life. He opened my eyes because he was one of the guides in my family. He wasn’t only traditionally trained, but he also transformed the way in which people play the kora. So, I feel I’m extending the framework of kora music”.

Considering the relevance of Seckou Keita as kora player and advocate, we wanted to learn more about the development of the instrument that is becoming increasingly universal with admirers all over the world.

“I feel that part of the job has already been done. There are still things to do because the kora is not completely out there. I mean, it’s not like the standard guitar that everybody recognises. But I really appreciate and am grateful for the fact that the older generation of kora musicians prepared the ground where my generation is moving now. So, we are extending their work now.

Today, the reaction of the people to the kora is amazing. At gigs now, among the audience, there are more and more people who lift their hands up when I ask who has listened to the kora before. There’s still work to do, but it’s surely better than before”.

Collaborations with other musicians playing “more conventional” instruments are crucial in the diffusion of kora. So, we tried to understand what Seckou looks for when he approaches a new music partner.

“First of all, I look at similarities and, even more important, at differences. I feel that it’s really important to celebrate our differences. If we were all perfect, we wouldn’t need each other. It’s our differences that we need to celebrate because that’s what will come out at the end of a project. For example, what stands out in the collaboration with Catrin Finch and myself are our differences…starting from the fact that she’s a woman and I’m a man. Then, she’s white and I’m black. We have different religions and come from different parts of the world. But still, we are on the same stage, playing together, sharing our differences and celebrating them. For me, that’s what comes out of collaborations, and that’s what touches people! In the end, I feel that somehow we are all connected. So, that’s what I look for when I look at collaborations. Then, to be honest, when I look at music, at the music I play, it has always been about collaborations. When I came to Europe, I debuted playing in Scandinavia with musicians from Norway, Cuba and India. So collaboration was already there”.

Every time you reach the “project for the future” moment, you already know that with Seckou Keita that will be an intricate one. And this occasion was no exception.

“To be honest, my project for the future is to take a break. I feel that a break is important at this point, so I’d like to take a couple of months for myself to have some time off. But I have a lot of projects going on, in the studio and live. At the moment, I also have a lot of new cues and projects coming my way, and I really need to have a look at them and decide what to pick up.

Anyway, the old projects will still come back; while talking about new ones, I think my next main project for 2019 will start in November and is a tour with AKA Trio [together with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale]. That’s my priority right now. But I’m still working and touring with Omar Sosa (I’ll be in Tunisia with him in October) and Catrin Finch. 

While in 2020, there will be something completely new, but I can’t disclose it right now. Sorry, but you’ll have to wait a bit to know more”.

As anticipated, in a few days’ time, when Seckou Keita will perform at the Jazz Cafe, he will give life to a rare solo performance. Still, there will be a strong continuum with the other musician enriching the event’s line-up, giving life to some kind of kora party.

It’s going to be a kora celebration. It will be an opportunity to celebrate the kora itself, as well as the differences between me and Jally Kebba Susso. Our origins are different [Seckou is from Senegal, while Jally is Guinean], and our styles are different too. But different in a good way, so the audience coming to the Jazz Cafe and attending the show will be transported to another place all together, with a shared ticket. They will enjoy the show as much as I will, because kora is an instrument meant to bring peace to people. The griot himself is not just a kora player or a singer; he is a person with wisdom and energy who brings people together and brings peace to people. The music we play is intended to be listened to and danced to with the heart. There’s so much rushing around in London (and cities in general) that I feel there’s the need to “heal” people.

 It will also be a special show for me because I played at Jazz Cafe with my quartet a long time ago. I can’t remember when exactly, but I feel it was 2006 or 2008… and I also played solo there before for BBC3. I think that was the first-ever BBC3 live show recorded there. So, Jazz Cafe has a historical meaning for me. If you add the fact that I was also living next door for a while… then yes, it’s a place that always brings me good memories.

We are pretty confident that the Jazz Cafe will bring more good memories, both to Seckou and his audience, after the show on the 18th, and to invite you, we ended the interview by asking Seckou to introduce, in a few words, his music and what to expect from the night…

In a few words… To be honest, I don’t really know who I am and how to describe myself. I’ve been nominated in the Musician of the Year category by BBC Radio2 Folk Awards today, but I don’t know if I’m a folk musician, a jazz or a world one. So, forget about categories! My music is just music to be listened to. It’s good music to be listened to. It’s good music for the soul and is music you can listen to anywhere you are. No matter your feelings, if you’re sad or happy, it will fit in. It’s a healing process.

So, at the end of the day, after the rush hour, come to the Jazz Cafe to chill and let your soul be transported to a beautiful place.

Photo ©: Andy Morgan