The world premiere of a groundbreaking set of transcriptions of the music of Senegalese virtuoso kora player Seckou Keita will be performed by a chamber ensemble in a unique twilight concert in the Howard Assembly Room on 15 January.
The accumulation of a centuries-old oral tradition, Seckou’s music has been transcribed and scored for western instruments for the first time in a new project from Opera North in partnership with Theatr Mwldan and Sinfonia Cymru, supported by the PRS Foundation’s Talent Development Partner Network and Arts Council England.
Seckou will introduce the evening with a short performance before Sinfonia Cymru musicians Abel Selaocoe (cello) and Helen Wilson (flute), award-winning jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, and Paul Moylan (double bass) take the stage to play the new scores.
A descendant of the Malian royal family on his father’s side, and griots (hereditary musicians) on his mother’s, Seckou mastered the harp-like kora – as well as other griot disciplines including poetry, storytelling, theology, history and diplomacy – over years spent with his grandfather Jali Kemo Cissokho.
Having relocated to the UK he now combines a busy touring schedule with education work and his many collaborations including his duo with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. Their two albums together have each won the fRoots Critics’ Poll Album of The Year, and the latest, 2018’s SOAR, made end of year top tens in Mojo and Songlines magazines, among others.
As he began to raise a family far from his ancestral home, Seckou saw how precarious the survival of his tradition was in the contemporary world, and began to think about a way to leave a physical record of it for future generations to pick up and perform.
He says: “When I moved to the UK in 1998, and my first child Bintou was born here, I asked myself whether she would have the opportunity I had, in a griot family, with the kora, the music and everything around me. Maybe not. But I have a duty to train her, to give her that knowledge, as part of her heritage. If it’s only memorised, there’s no way I can pass it on.”
“I thought that the way I could get kids to learn would be to make a book they can grab and use to play the kora player’s music. I’ve been dreaming of doing this for a long time, of allowing them to get their hands on my music, without needing a kora, or being in a griot family or whatever. Just open the book, read it, play it. I realised that if I did that with my music, it would travel more. It would live longer than I will live.”
Seckou approached a previous collaborator, the jazz pianist, composer and producer Alex Wilson, with his idea, and work began with two five-day residencies at Opera North in Leeds. Breaking down, analysing and notating the nuances of this complex, shimmering, highly ornamented music without losing any of its essential character was a huge task for Alex, who used software to slow down recordings of Seckou’s performances, before prising apart the three ‘voices’ of the kora – bass, accompaniment and melody – and scoring them for piano, cello, violin, flute and clarinet.
When drafts of the scores were made, Alex and Seckou invited musicians to test them. Luke Newby, a South African clarinettist who had never heard Seckou’s music before, played the melody for Missing You, a piece dedicated to a close friend of Seckou’s who had passed away. “I was supposed to be concentrating”, says Seckou, “but I was almost in tears with the emotion of listening, of sitting and hearing my music being played by a stranger for the first time on classical instruments. This was it: this was the music I’d dreamt of.”
Seckou feels the weight of his responsibility for the tradition that he is perpetuating, and the pressure to get it right. But, he says, “my grandfather’s time was different to mine. And my kids’ will be different again. It can’t go backwards. My prayers, and meditations and hope will be inside this book. It’s like watching my music taking off.”
Seckou Keita introduces the world premiere performance of works from his Music Book in the Howard Assembly Room on Tuesday 15 January. Tickets, priced at £7.50, are available online or via Box Office on 0844 848 2727. The transcriptions will be published later this spring in the form of eight books of sheet music, aimed at secondary schools and Grade 6 – 8 musicians and above.