How to describe Seckou Keita?
Griot, praise singer, composer, djembe master, virtuoso, Kora player, pioneer?
The answer is ‘yes’ to all of those.
Seckou Keita is a true master of his instrument, a childhood prodigy, born of a line of griots and kings (Keita is the royal lineage, and not traditionally a griot name). Cissokho, his mother’s family name, gave life to his talent. His family includes Solo Cissokho, Seckou’s uncle, who introduced him to the International stage in 1996.
A childhood of strict training and discipline was enforced by his Grandfather, a training that Seckou now recognises as a gift, saving him from a life travelled by some other musicians, a life that is victim to whimsy and temptation. In line with tradition, Seckou started his apprenticeship on the kora when he was seven years old. No one gave him lessons. He learned by close observation of all the many kora players and musicians in the household. And he learned quickly. Seduced by the diverse rhythms all around him, Seckou also set out to master a variety of drumming techniques; first the seourouba drums with teacher Souti Silamé, then djembe with ‘Machine’ Sylla and sabar with Pa Cor N’diaye. His grandfather, angry at first that Seckou should neglect his studies at home and at school for such frivolous diversions, eventually relented and granted the young Seckou the right to become the ‘family drummer’ and practitioner of a griot form of percussion called jali dundun. His talent and dedication soon brought him to the attention of the International music community.
The intense rhythm of Seckou’s working life was driven by the desirability of his musical talents and his ability to get along with all kinds of different people. He toured with the Sierra Leonean musician, Francis Fuster, one time sidekick to Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango, and with Baka Beyond, whose founders Martin Cradick and Su Hart had befriended Seckou in Ziguinchor a few years before. The pair helped to produce his first solo kora album, Baiyo (Orphan), which was released in 2000 (and subsequently renamed Mali by the record label Arc Music).
Fast forward 14 years and Seckou has proved himself to be a musician almost without equal in his field. A driven, talented musician, with a heart full of tradition and a mind driven to compose, invent and push boundaries, through collaboration, tunings and playing with the genres he understands so well.
How to list his achievements? Well how about:
- Five successful album releases, both as solo artist, with his family and as a quartet and later a quintet
- 400 concerts in 30 countries with SKQ. Work with the Womad foundation that has seen him tour the world
- Collaboration with Mamady Keita, the world’s most recognised djembe talent, taken under his wing and seen as a natural successor
- Several No 1’s in the World Music charts
- A partnership with the Red Cross to support his humanitarian conscience
- And, perhaps most notably, several nominations and awards for the outstanding collaboration with Catrin Finch, including fRoots album of the year, and Songlines best album 2014
- As a leading light in the Do you Speak Djembe family, Seckou continues to push boundaries and help the world celebrate the very best of West African Music.