Seckou keita biography
Nigel Williamson - Songlines Magazine SEPT 2021
"The UK-based Senegalese kora player has made a name for himself as one of the foremost innovators operating in African music today. Nigel Williamson dives into his impressive career and marvels at his myriad works to date
When Seckou Keita arrived in the UK in 1999 he brought with him his kora and one small suitcase. He was 21, spoke hardly any English and at that point had only left his native Senegal on two brief trips to play a handful of concerts.
In the two decades that have passed since, he has established himself as the UK’s foremost kora player and become an integral mainstay of the nation’s vibrant multicultural roots scene. Working solo, or in collaboration with an eclectic range of musicians, his virtuosity has consistently adorned some of this magazine’s favourite five-star albums and won him three Songlines Music Awards in the process.
There has also been a brace of awards at that very British institution, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, including Folk Musician of the Year, an honour of which he is particularly proud, but which he greeted with characteristic modesty. “I don’t know if I’m a folk musician, a jazz or a world one,” he said at the time. “Forget about categories. My music is just music to be listened to – it’s good music for the soul and no matter your feelings, if you’re sad or happy, it will fit in. It’s a healing process.”
Born in 1978 in Ziguinchor, the main town in Senegal’s southern region of Casamance, Seckou’s father was descended from the great founder of the Malian Empire, Sunjata Keita, but was not involved in his upbringing. Instead the family was presided over by his maternal grandfather, Jali Kemo Cissokho, a revered griot and kora master. “My earliest memories are of music,” he told Jane Cornwell in the October 2015 issue. “Musicians from all over would come to my grandfather’s compound to play.”
Nicknamed Jali N’ding (the little griot), he watched and learned, accompanying his grandfather on sabar and djembédrums and picking up how to play the kora as he went along. To this day he regards himself as both a drummer and a kora player. “Drumming for me is about the heartbeat, about connecting with the earth, with joy, with dance. Whereas the kora can make you cry – for all the right reasons,” Seckou notes.
In his teens he travelled to Dakar to play concerts with his uncle Jali Solo Cissokho and at 18 he was given his own kora, a symbolic moment marking the end of his apprenticeship. That same year he accompanied another uncle, Sadio Cissokho, to Norway to take part in a collaborative project with Cuban and Indian musicians. It was the start of a passion for cross-cultural collaborations and the beginning of a mission to globalise the kora and take its sound far beyond the confines of its West African context. “I listen to every kind of music, so my inspiration is really open,” he says of his approach to collaboration. “In the end, I feel that somehow we are all connected.”
Yet his playing remains deeply rooted in tradition. “All this kora playing with wah-wah pedals and stuff has got too much for me nowadays,” he once told Songlines. “I might play in a different way if I wasn’t traditionally trained.”
Now based in Nottingham, his early years in the UK were spent in London, where he worked with Baka Beyond, played in the West End production of The Lion King and helped to set up the first kora examination course at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His first album, Baiyo (Orphan) in 2000 (later reissued under the name Mali), utilised different tunings to extend the range of material he could perform on his instrument, accompanied by drums, violin, guitars and banjo.
In 2003, he founded Jalikunda Cissokho, comprising members of his family, and released an album called Lindianeafter the suburb of Ziguinchor where he grew up. A year later he assembled the Seckou Keita Quartet, with a line-up including Gambian ritti player Juldeh Camara and Seckou’s brother Surahata Susso on percussion. This line-up recorded the 2006 album, Tama Silo: Afro Mandinka Soul. Two years later they had expanded to a quintet for the 2008 album Silimbo Passage, which included Seckou’s sister Binta Susso on vocals.
But the best was yet to come. After releasing the solo album Miro in 2012, Seckou was asked to stand in for Toumani Diabaté who had dropped out of a planned tour with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch due to political unrest in Mali. Seckou was initially doubtful about how the two instruments could work together: “The harp is more straight while the kora has more wiggle,” as he put it. Yet it proved to be an inspired pairing, leading to the album Clychau Dibon (2013) which won the best Cross-Cultural Collaboration accolade in the Songlines Music Awards. The follow-up, SOAR(2018), inspired by the extraordinary migrations of the osprey between Wales and Senegal, was even better and won a glut of awards. It also saw Seckou’s full flowering as a soulful vocalist. “I started singing young. But there were so many amazing singers in my family that I didn’t want to open my mouth,” he said at the time of the album’s release. “Like all things, my confidence developed with time.”
In between the albums with Finch came 22 Strings (2015), his finest solo album to date, and Transparent Water (2017), a collaboration with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Then, in 2019, came Joy by the AKA Trio, on which he teamed up with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale.
The COVID-19 pandemic has naturally slowed down Seckou’s prolific work rate but, utilising the wonders of digital technology, he gathered together a global cast that included Fatoumata Diawara, Noura Mint Seymali and Manecas Costa to record the single ‘Now or Never’ on which he reflected on the need to find solutions to humanity’s problems in the post-COVID world. In early 2021 he released another a new song, ‘Elles Sont Toutes Belles’, featuring the Senegalese singer Aida Samb, one of a series of singles for the African market, including the most recent, ‘Homeland’, with fellow Senegalese artist Baaba Maal. “I’ve collaborated a lot in the West, but not enough in the land of Africa, so that’s where my focus is at the moment,” he says.
Not that he is setting aside his global collaborations. There’s a new album with Omar Sosa awaiting release this autumn and plans are afoot for a third recording with Catrin Finch. The motto for his quest remains ‘have kora, will travel’ – once we’re finally allowed to do so again."
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2021 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe to Songlines
The Lost Words, Spell Songs (2019) has been another delightful collaboration for Seckou with folk musicians joined by the words of Robert McFarlane and artwork of Jackie Morris. A new album is underway and will be released at the end of the year.
AWARDS, NOMINATIONS and achievements
2019: Seckou Keita wins 'Musician Of The Year' in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2019
2019: Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita win 'Best Duo/Band' in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2019
2018: SOAR wins fRoots Critics Poll Album of the Year 2018
2018: SOAR wins Songlines Magazine Best Fusion Album 2018
2018: SOAR wins Best Transregional Album 2018 in the Transglobal World Music Chart Awards
2016: 22 Strings Winner Best Album - Africa and Middle East Category - Songlines Music Awards
2015: 22 Strings Best Packaged CD in the fRoots Awards 2015
2014: Clychau Dibon, Best Cross Cultural Collaboration with Catrin Finch in Songlines Magazine
2014: Clychau Dibon No.1 in the Amazon World Music Chart
2013: Clychau Dibon fRoots Critics Poll Album of the Year
2012: Miro, No.1 in the European World Music Chart
2010: Silimbo Passage, No.1 in the iTunes World Music Chart
2001: Nomination for the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards – Audience choice