Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita met by chance in 2012, when Keita was called in to substitute for Toumani Diabaté in rehearsals for a tour with Finch. A military coup in Mali had prevented Diabaté from leaving the country in time, so Keita stepped in to help prepare the repertoire with Finch—a classical musician who had never seen or heard a kora before. For his part, Keita, a Senegalese kora master and griot of royal descent, didn’t read music. A wonderful musical partnership was born.
The accomplished harpist Catrin Finch is known as the “Queen of Harps.” She has served as the Royal Harpist to the Prince of Wales, tours widely as a soloist and with the world’s top orchestras, and works to promote the harp to young audiences through the Catrin Finch Academy. Seckou Keita hails from the Casamance region of southern Senegal. His mother, Fatou Bintou, was the daughter of Jali Kemo Cissokho, from one of Senegal’s most revered griot families. Griots are the storytellers and musicians who serve as the traditional historians in African culture.
Both Finch and Keita play harps, but from different continents and traditions. The Welsh harp looks like Brittany and Irish harps, but larger. Like them, it is plucked with finger picks and without foot pedals, as one would see on the big French concert harp used in symphony orchestras. The traditional West African kora, played in Guinea, Senegal, and Mali, is a large gourd with 21 strings and a long round wooden neck. With goatskin covering the gourd and often decorated with elaborate beadwork, the kora is one of the most beautiful instruments I know of. Both the Welsh harp and kora are part of the folk traditions of the British Isles and West Africa.
From their chance collaboration in 2012, Finch and Keita realized that their two musical traditions were perhaps more similar than appeared to the eye. The harp is the national instrument of both Senegal and Wales, and the two continued to work together after Finch completed the tour with Diabaté. Their 2013 debut release Clychau Dibon celebrates the harp, with the kora blending seamlessly with the Welsh harp. Take a listen for yourself in the video below:
I’ve been listening to an advance copy of their gorgeous second album called SOAR, which will be released in April of this year. The new album’s title is inspired by the osprey, a large raptor that returned to Wales in the early 2000’s after 400 years of absence. Ospreys used to migrate annually from West Africa to the estuaries of Wales, a 3000-mile journey. Finch and Keita composed and named the first track on the album, “Clarach,” after the first Dyfi Osprey chick to be recorded back to Wales after migration in 2016. The ospreys thus connect Wales with West Africa, and symbolize the historic link between the two artists’ instruments and their unique sound.
On SOAR, Keita and Finch continue to explore and celebrate the differences and similarities between their instruments and cultures. Their musical duets are intricate and ethereal, filled with a filigreed and gossamer sound. Their original compositions and arrangements seamlessly blend African and western elements. I particularly like the track “Bach to Baisso,” on which they begin with an excerpt from Bach’s Goldberg Variations before moving organically into an African Baisso melody. You can be sure that I’ll be featuring music from the new album in an upcoming show!