String Theory

String Theory

Words Mark Hooper
Photographs James McNaught

Seckou Keita is one of the world’s leading players of the kora, a traditional stringed instrument from West Africa. But what sets him apart is his ability to change and adapt, to make the stories he has learned relevant for all…

Seckou Keita didn’t choose his job. From the age of seven, he was trained by his grandfather and his uncles to follow in their footsteps to become a griot – a venerated musician who holds an elevated position in Senegalese society. Although his choice of instrument may seem alien to western audiences, the position of the griot – essentially an oral storyteller – is a familiar one to all cultures. ‘Griot is like a bard,’ says Keita. ‘It’s actually a French word; in our language it’s a jali. They play an important role in society – it’s not just about music: they also act as a kind of mediator between the people of the village and the king.’

Musician, mediator, storyteller: the griot’s role is to hold a society’s memories and ensure they are passed on to subsequent generations, from legends to births, deaths and marriages. So essentially he passes on the wisdom of his culture – but he also has a very practical role. ‘He is able to communicate, to facilitate with problems between families, between villages, between kings; to bring peace,’ says Keita. ‘And he does this using traditional instruments such as the kora.’

To hear Keita play the kora is a magical experience. A stringed instrument with a neck and a bulbous base, it is held vertically when played. Its sound is often compared to a harp, but there is also a wildly soulful element to the kora – reminiscent if anything to flamenco guitar. ‘The kora is hard to describe exactly,’ admits Keita. ‘It is a little like the harp in the way it’s played. But for me, it’s an instrument that’s so connected to earth and to humanity, more than any other instrument I’ve come across: I have a very spiritual connection with my instrument. It has the neck with the strings, which is the sky; the body is the earth, and beneath it is what comes after the earth. And there is the air around it. There is a spiritual connection. It’s a very special instrument.’


Seckou’s kora has 22 strings – just like that played by Jali Mady ‘Wuleng’, the first kora player according to legend. Many learn to play on 21 strings, having removed one in honour of Wuleng’s passing.


And, it has to be said, Keita is a very special player. Never mind the training, which would be enough to put most people off . ‘From the age of seven I was taught how to play the instrument. And then of course you have to learn hundreds of songs with the stories behind them; you have to know the stories; you play by heart,’ he says. ‘The learning goes from father to son, and nothing is written down, you have to memorise everything.’ But he stresses that there is a contemporary element to his craft – since a culture’s stories are constantly being written by the people living them. ‘The songs are composed from stories that are memorised, but then they also talk about the actuality of what’s happening today: and so that is copied and memorised for the next time around, 20 years later.’

While you have to be born a griot, Keita also has another legacy to live up to: ‘There are two parts of my family: my griot heritage comes from my mother’s side – you can tell from her surname, which is Cissokho. But my family name is Keita, from my father’s side, who are not griot at all. Back in the 13th century, the Mali empire – which was made up of 11 countries – was ruled by one man, Sundiata Keita. That’s where my name comes from. So normally the Keita family were kings; they would not be allowed to perform.’ This dichotomy adds a unique element to Keita’s own story: he is the storyteller to kings, but he is also descended from a king himself. It’s all part of the source material for him: another story to learn and pass on. ‘Whatever I learn from my grandfather and my uncles, that is the story that I then put my own interpretation on. It’s a chain. You pass it on, as a tradition, but also I have to make a statement of my own.’

Keita’s own compositions have helped him to find a new, modern audience. Next year he is planning a major retrospective tour, celebrating 20 years on the international stage, during which time he has collaborated with musicians around the world, incorporating diverse influences. This, he makes clear, is nothing particularly unusual. ‘Already in my hometown, I have to deal with different cultures – there are 12 languages,’ he says. ‘So when I hear musical collaborations, I always hear the similarities first, not the differences. I put those aside. And then I see how the instruments complement each other. I bring everything to my playing: the circumstances of what I hear and what I see during my travelling over the course of 20-odd years.’

Part of the process of developing and evolving his repertoire is to be open to all genres of music. ‘For me there’s only two types of music: good music and not so good music,’ he says. ‘There are certain things I won’t listen to too much. I could be listening to a rock player today, and after half an hour I want to leave the room. But in a couple of months, I might find myself influenced by a pattern I heard from him in one of my own compositions. So it’s important to be open. Of course I don’t only listen to kora music. I listen to classical, I have the radio on, I listen to reggae, folk music – I listen to beautiful music. And the closer I get to other music, I like it more.’



Likewise, despite his own heritage, he is happy to pass on his knowledge of the kora to anyone with an aptitude for it. ‘Nowadays of course you see gifted players who are not griot – I have students all over the world. There are people in Japan, or North America, or South Devon – all learning the kora and playing it beautifully. So I think it is there for all humans. Keeping the tradition stable but also being creative, for ourselves.’ It could be a slogan for Keita’s career – and that ability to balance tradition and innovation in his own work.

‘I believe that tradition really helped me a lot in fully understanding my instrument,’ he says. ‘But it was  important for me to open up a door, to extend the life of the kora beyond what my grandparents have done. I have extended their tradition. Because at the end of the day, no matter if you’re playing the Goldberg Variations; your interpretation will be intimate – you bring yourself into it. So today I am extending that framework; I am making a statement about this tradition. When I sit down with my grandparents and uncles, griot families, great players, I can play these traditional songs for hours, and it’s great. But then for me, it’s important that I’m spending my time between Africa and here, extending the frameworks to get a greater understanding and to adapt.’


‘For me, there’s only two types of music: good music and not so good music.
There are certain things I won’t listen to too much’



Part of Keita’s story is a peculiar quirk concerning the number of strings on the instrument he plays. Many koras have 21 strings, but Keita’s has 22. Typically, Keita has two ways to explain this: one a myth, the other purely practical. ‘According to legend, the first human who played the kora was called Jali Mady ‘Wuleng’. Wuleng means ‘the red’. So he was the jali (or griot) named Mady ‘the red’. When he first played, the kora had 22 strings. But when he passed away, his fellow musicians – the griots – took one string out to commemorate his passing. So the kora was left with 21 strings. But where I come from in the southern part of Senegal, and in Gambia – which is where the kora originally comes from – they still use 22 strings.’

As for the practical reasons – Keita gets technical. ‘We play with seven notes – Do, Re, Me, Far, So, La, Ti. For the main key of the kora – let’s say it’s tuned in G – you need to have four octaves. And that leaves you with six notes that need to have three octaves each. So that’s 22 strings straight away. But if you’ve got 21 strings, there is a note missing. So for instance, in the key of G, you will always have the C, or C# missing. That’s the musical difference. So for me, it’s important to preserve the tradition; but technically as a musician it’s important to have those octaves as well!’ But he is always aware of the early inspiration that set him on this path, and to remember the purpose of his gift. ‘When I was writing my last album, I decided not to go to the studio, because then you’re always looking at the clock. It becomes business, so whatever comes out of that will have a money basis; I’ve been through that before.’

It’s clear that Keita takes great pride in his griot heritage, but what really stands him apart is his ability to change and to adapt; to make the instrument relevant to different, contemporary audiences and his inspiring collaborations that put the kora into new contexts – for example with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. For all his travels, one has to ask: where does he feel most at home? ‘It’s always with water. I love being in the sea. I love to just sit by the sea, or to fish. The water always inspires me. But I can also find inspiration on a long-distance flight. The sky and the earth: those are my inspirations!’

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