Almost 25 years ago, I was walking down West 4th street in Manhattan, and heard a harp-like sound that seemed extraordinarily out of place in the urban noise surrounding me. I tried to locate the source, and eventually realized it was emanating from three tall, slender men in robes who were sauntering up the block ahead of me. I sped up my pace and as I got abreast of them, saw that one of them was playing what I learned later was a kora, as he strolled.
And something magical was happening; the instrument changed the environment surrounding the three, and all around it, people were calmed and drawn to it. These three stately men had everyone --including myself -- in thrall with the pure, rippling notes of the kora. The instrument itself was sort of a cross between a harp and a some kind of lute, and the most conspicuous part, the resonator, was half of a large gourd. I walked a block out of my way before tearing myself from the sound to go home.
Since then, there have been quite a few musical collaborations involving the kora in combination with other western instruments. (The wonderful "Chamber Music" with Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal is one of the most successful.) But as far as I know, the collaboration between Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch is the first one to pair the kora with another harp. And upon hearing this duet, one actually wonders what took so long.
The two musicians in this duo are well matched, Keita has a history of innovating and experimenting with his instrument -- he plays a western-machined double necked kora -- but has been careful to always maintain some distinctive root of his beloved West African music. Catrin Finch (known in her home country of Wales as the Queen of Harps) is also known for her forays into experimental music, as well as her mastery of the standard classical and folk repertoire. For their performance at WOMEX 2013, Keita brought both a single and a double necked kora, while Finch played a striking Camac "Big Blue 47" concert harp with pickups on each of the 47 strings.
There was quite a buzz building up to their performance at WOMEX, which this year was in Cardiff, Wales. It was unfortunate that it took place in a rather small concert room instead of the big auditorium, as it filled up to capacity far too quickly and many delegates could not get in to see the show.The room was jammed with a mostly Welsh audience, and anticipation crackled in the air. I was pretty much crushed up against the apron of the stage, almost in the middle... not the best angle for shooting!
When Finch and Keita play together, there is a complete immersion one with the other. Keita plays the rhythmic patterns and Finch's precise fingers play a counterpoint or a harmony figure and it all just feels right. Keita grins when Finch plays a stately figure enhancing his motif, and Finch nods back, giving Keita the room to cascade away on the kora. And that's quite a blazing solo he takes at the end, I might add. Through it all, there is a close communication that is palpable. Purists from one tradition or another may take issue with this blend -- and I did hear one opinion voiced that it sounded too Welsh and not sufficiently Senegalese, but I think it is just that the two players have made allowances for each others music, and this give and take creates a true hybrid. At any rate, I was in string heaven, awash in pleasure from lovely music, exquisitely played.
For more information about these artists visit astarmusic.co.uk/