by Ian Mann
September 23, 2013
Finch & Keita add some of their own ideas to the traditional melodies of Wales and West Africa, ingeniously tying all these elements together into a satisfyingly organic whole.
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita
(Astar Artes/Mwldan Records AARCDA025)
Due for release on October 14th 2013 under the joint auspices of Astar Artes and Theatr Mwldan in Cardigan this album brings together the celebrated Welsh concert harpist Catrin Finch and the Senegalese kora virtuoso Seckou Keita. It’s hardly a jazz record but Finch, the first Harpist by appointment to the Prince of Wales has consistently explored avenues outside the classical music world and has performed at Brecon Jazz Festival, which is good enough for me.
“Clychau Dibon” was recorded at Finch’s Acapela Studio in Pentyrch near Cardiff and explores the musical and cultural links between Wales and Western Africa, which, as Andy Morgan’s comprehensive liner notes make clear, are considerably closer than might first be supposed. The album title comes from the Welsh “Clychau”, meaning “bells” and “Dibon”, a member of the hornbill family of birds native to Sub-Saharan Africa. The call of the Dibon has found its way into the music of the Manding people and the bird now shares its name with both a rhythmic pattern and the name for the second bass string on the left hand side of the kora.
The bardic tradition of Wales and the griot tradition of West Africa are cultural counterparts with both the harp and the kora being used to accompany songs and words that have been passed down the generations. As well as exploring and fusing ancient traditions Finch and Keita also bring plenty of themselves to this recording, adding some of their own ideas to the traditional melodies of Wales and Africa and ingeniously tying all these elements together into a satisfyingly organic whole.
In 2012 Finch undertook a tour of Wales with another great kora player, Toumani Diabate, and it was that experience that inspired this current project. It’s therefore perhaps appropriate that the album begins with “Genedigaeth Koring- Bato”, literally “Genesis of the Kora”, the instrument’s name a derivation of “koring bato”, the box of the koring, the warriors of the Manding people. Dedicated to Diabate the piece incorporates melodies drawn from both African and Welsh folk song. The kora riff “Macki” and the tune “Kelefa Ba” blend with the Welsh folk melodies “Beth Yw’r Haf I Mi” (“What is the summer to me?) and “Pontypridd”, the twenty one strings of the kora dovetailing seamlessly with the forty seven of the harp. In the hands of these two great virtuosos it all seems perfectly natural and organic.
Keita consistently attempts to push his kora playing into new musical areas, the title of the following “Future Strings” signalling his intent. The piece incorporates Finch’s playing of “Prelude from the Asturias” by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz as the structured world of European classical music meets the more informal traditions of West Africa in a highly effective and often profoundly beautiful manner.
The lovely melody of “Bamba” is Keita’s dedication to the Senegalese holy man and resistance leader Cheikh Amadou Bamba Mbacke. It’s a delightful piece in which Keita attempts to express something of Mbacke’s “wisdom, kindness and gentleness”. He succeeds admirably.
However it is perhaps “Les Bras De Mer” that best sums up the spirit of this album with Finch and Keita expressing their memories of the coastlines of their respective countries in music, bringing traditional tunes from each culture and blending and overlaying them to create something beautiful and unique. Keita had previously played with the harpist Llio Rhydderch and rediscovered the tune “Conset Ifan Glen Teifi” for this session, an appropriate choice given that the River Teifi runs through Cardigan. Keita teams the tune with “Niali Banga” named after an ancient Wolof king and also brings the Manding tune “Bolong”, which like “Les Bras de Mer” means “The Arms of the Sea” with Finch contributing “Clychau Aberdovey” (“The Bells Of Aberdovey”). Once again the seemingly disparate musical sources combine to create a perfectly natural fit, nothing sounds forced or unnatural with Morgan’s notes speaking of strange symmetries and historical coincidences.
“Robert Ap Huw meets Nialing Sonko” explores similar territories, the piece an imagined meeting between the 16th Century Robert Ap Huw and the Manding king Nialing Sonko. Ap Huw did much to preserve the Welsh harp tradition with his documenting of tunes that may otherwise have been lost. From the Ap Huw canon Finch brings the tune “Caniad Gosteg”, it’s melody matched to “Kelefa Koungben”, the rhythm of Kelefa named after Kalefa Sane, one of the pioneers of the kora.
There’s a hypnotic quality about this piece which carries onward to the following “Ceffylau” (“Horses”), based around a Keita created groove and possessed of an appealing and memorable melody.
Finally “Longau Terou Bi” takes the Welsh air “Longau Caernarfon” (“The Ships of Caernarvon) and relocates it to Terou-bi beach near Dakar in Senegal. An atmosphere of longing and nostalgia pervades much of the album but no more so than here where Finch and Keita reflect on the shared tribulations of the Welsh and West African peoples, poverty, hardship and economic decline in Wales and the enforced slavery of so many Africans with poverty and hardship also affecting those left behind. The playing here is more sparse, with greater use being made of space. It’s a delicately haunting conclusion to an often beautiful album.
Having said that this is an album that may hold limited appeal for jazz lovers. The tones and timbres of the two instruments are very similar and for all the prettiness there’s a pronounced lack of dynamic range. As pleasant as the album is I suspect that the best way to truly appreciate the talents of these two masterful performers would be to see them live. Finch and Keita will be touring extensively in the UK with a particularly strong emphasis on Wales during October and November 2013.
October / Hydref
20 Hall for Cornwall, Cornwall http://www.hallforcornwall.co.uk
25 Horizons Stage WOMEX 2013, Cardiff
30 The Apex, Bury St Edmunds http://www.theapex.co.uk
November / Tachwedd
1 Salisbury Arts Centre, Salisbury http://www.salisburyartscentre.co.uk
2 Artrix , Bromsgrove http://www.artrix.co.uk
6 Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon/Aberhonddu http://www.brycheiniog.co.uk
7 Theatre Felinfach, Llanfihangel Ystrad http://www.theatrfelinfach.com
8 Y Ffwrnes, Llanelli http://www.carmarthenshiretheatres.co.uk
9 Torch Theatre, Milford Haven/Aberdaugleddau http://www.torchtheatre.co.uk
10 Theatr Harlech, Harlech http://www.theatrharlech.com
13 Pontardawe Arts Centre, Pontardawe http://www.pontardaweartscentre.com
14 Theatr Hafren, Newtown /Y Drenewydd http://www.thehafren.co.uk
15 Bangor University, Pontio, Bangor http://www.pontio.co.uk
16 Neuadd Dwyfor, Pwllheli http://www.gwynedd.gov.uk
17 Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead / Caergybi http://www.ucheldre.org
20 Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham http://www.lakesidearts.org.uk
21 Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal http://www.breweryarts.co.uk
22 Hull Jazz Festival @ Hull Truck Theatre http://www.hulltruck.co.uk