Europe's 1st African Kora Festival
University of Brighton
Sallis Benney Theatre
August 21, 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This could be one of the most important reviews I’ll ever write. Important, because it marks the start of a brand new, uniquely exhilarating festival in the already vastly diverse African and World music firmaments - the very 1st European Kora Festival, organised by Brighton Kora maker, player and ever championing enthusiast, Les Sherwood. Les is, as the festival programme states, one of ‘only a handful of specialist Kora makers in the U K and co-founder of Adapatrap, Brighton’s specialist world music and percussion shop. (see below) This festival, clearly a labour of love on the parts of Les and everyone involved, was developed in close harmony with the performing artists themselves.
Those who played on this vibrant programme are all, save one, West African griots, or story-telling musicians, whose instrument, the kora, a twenty-one stringed lute/harp half-pumpkin, skin covered, long necked tool of soulfulness, is potentially capable of making vast numbers of beautifully expressive sounds. However, as one musician wisely explained in the midst of his performance, though others may take up the kora, the deep relationship the griots have with it, like their oft ancient song stories, is a way of life that has been handed down through generations. These days, kora players often experiment with newer sounds, while still acknowledging their traditions with love and respect.
My first close encounter with the kora was at WOMAD Charlton Park ‘09, when Guinean griot Ba Cissoko amazed the crowd at his workshop with the revelation that the kora has, as its’ strings, ‘fishing tackle,’ available at any ‘sports shop.’ Perhaps Western audiences’ general lack of soulfulness is what made for incredulity at his revelation. However, further explorations into the origins and trajectory of the kora reveal that it is, indeed, a sacred instrument for the griots playing it, and a sacred trust for those bringing their traditions forward. Since that fortunate introduction, I’ve become a fervent fan of those elevating the kora’s purposes, so it was at times, a heightened, humbling experience being in the company of so many masters of this challenging, compelling instrument.
Sura Susso was playing in the blue and yellow cloth tent erected on the back lawn of the campus when we arrived. Having enjoyed Susso’s sensitive playing in a concert at St. Bart’s Hospital, London in July as part of the yearly cultural Festival in the square mile, we were delighted to hear him again. Susso has a great mastery of his instrument, slowing his strumming down to a whisper during the playing of a concluding prayer.
Although it is traditional for griots to sit on the floor as they play, in the kora workshop for beginners, chaired participants took advantage of a rare chance to handle and strum this magnificent instrument, courtesy of Festival founder/kora maker, Les Sherwood, as Kadially Kouyate talked them through the playing of a West African folk song. With ten strings on one side of the kora and eleven on the other, musicians are able to alternatively and if expert enough, simultaneously, shade their sounds, providing deeper tones and bass in contrast with melodic and rhythmic lines while playing. There were not enough koras to go around, and at one point, the man next to me offered me his, but I gratefully declined, as his intense excitement was made all the more apparent by his recording of the lesson.
Jali Burama Mbye’s playing was soulfully melodic as he stood and sang along, periodically walking back and forth across the stage in the blue and yellow rosette patterned tent, fingering his kora like the harp that it is. His stunning set reminded us that the kora is capable of generating rippling sounds as dappled and variegated as shifting sunlight on a stream.
As Ravi played his experimental set in the Bernie Sallis Theatre, people sat on folding chairs and the wooden floor, though the kora was just one of many instruments he dabbled in, others being guitar and a zither type harp. Although his singing and playing was smooth, especially when accompanied by a female back-up singer, and he had the unusual ability to switch between a jazzy style and what sounded like Mongolian throat singing, his was not the type of musicianship I’d come to the festival to explore, though his audience obligingly bobbed along.
In contrast, Yiri Ba from Ghana who’ve dubbed themselves a highlife band, utilise drums from various parts of West Africa to create infectious layers of sound, over which their call and response chant singing reverberates. ‘No holding back, feel free to dance’ their lead singer cried, as they played off one another in their fiery opening. Beats, like fishing lines were casually dropped, one after another, to reel unsuspecting listeners onto the grassy dance space, where their own agile dancer leapt like a gazelle as an example for us to attempt to do the same. The kora lead on one number, as nearly everyone in the tent joined the dance. If relentlessly hypnotic drumming’s your thing, check out multiplicitous, mighty, Yiri Ba
Seven chairs were set before us in the tent for the griot’s circle which Seckou Keita lead, and musicians with koras joined him as he spoke of the time when the ‘kora was new,’ and ‘West Africa was a big empire, with eleven countries, which are now divided.’ In its beginning, the kora had twenty-two strings, and one was removed when the first player of the instrument passed away, in his honour. Keita said his mother had been a griot, which answered one of the questions the audience posed, ‘Would you let your daughters be griots?, an honour traditionally only granted to males.
Diabel Cissokho and his group played a very exciting set in the hall with two guitars, hand drumming and pummelled gourd drum, topped with the equally excellent singing and kora playing of Cissokho himself. The band has a full bodied sound, combining African, rock and funk influences, and given the instantaneous response from the crowd, it seems as though Cissokho, who sings and plays with great focus and intensity, and company are set to become the next big World Music stars. Their final piece was a poly-rhythmic stunner, sure to delight rockers and World enthusiasts alike. I’d missed them at WOMAD Charlton Park this year, simply because there were too many bands to see at once, but from the You tube clip I saw of Cissokho’s workshop there, it seemed they were a huge success.
Diabel’s brother, Moudou Cissoko, entertained us in the outdoor tent immediately after, demonstrating the versatility of the kora by bringing out its poetic side, as he sang and played with an African flute player and a couple of local musicians, one on electric bass, and none other than Sara Susso, whom we’d heard doing singing and kora honours earlier, on pounded gourd drum. Their set contained compositions rife with rhythmic hooks and virtuoso playing from Cissoko and his flutist, for the most part exuding deeply warm, beautifully infectious music employing a mix of flavours including Island, Latino and of course, African.
Upbeat, multi-layered and happy, that’s the sound of Jally KebbaSusso and his six piece band, as Jally gets down on his kora and singing up front and his female vocalist backs him up. Some of their songs are pure pop, African style with Jally’s fabulous rock tinged riffs gliding over tight bass, rock and African guitar playing. At times, his performance took Jimi Hendrix turns toward wailing blues, while he pranced amid a band so tight they don’t even have to think about it. A great female singer joined the band for one number, leaving the crowd begging for more. Jally and the band have an album coming out in September, so you’ll be able to enjoy their danceable Afro-beat/pop/blues/funk for yourself.
Guitar nearly as prominent as his kora opened Kalidy Kouyote’s set in the theatre, though his assured singing and distinctive playing, with that of his band, quickly drew the crowd into the grooves of their sparkling set. A count-off via the drummer’s sticks and the next song begins. Kouyote’s voice has a waver in it that at first seems plaintive, but evolves into passion. The crowd responded by dancing through the group’s first and second songs – ‘Love’ and Peace,’ as the clear tones of Kalidy’s kora prevailed, at times, on songs, seemingly, in synch with the sound of an African xylophone, generated by the group’s keyboard player. Their hand drummer played so rapidly on one song, alongside of Kouyote’s swiftly soaring kora that together they conjured thoughts of the exuberance of youth.
Seckou Keita began his set as though he was tapping out a message on his kora, then testing the waters by drawing some lovely, wistful sounds from his instrument, eyes closed in concentration, face breaking into a wry smile when a baby breaks his focus with a high-pitched scream. He continues making exquisitely delicate sounds via his nimble fingering and a melody emerges like a welcoming, but elusive mirage. As he teases the strings into lush, independent life, the song moves fluidly along. Seckou Keita – kora wizard, maker of such sweet, soul music when his earnest vocals accompany his playing – enriching music to feel alive to. His deep purple tunic and trousers suit his high talents. The sticks normally used as handles on either side of the strings become rhythmic instruments in their own right. We are watching a maestro at work. He switches koras to one with an even clearer sound. No one has combined singing and playing so successfully. Sura Susso joins him onstage to keep rhythm via a box drum and the two counter-balance each other, before both burst into free-form flight.
The grand finale of this incredible programme features the whole contingent of kora playing singers who’ve gone before, the aforementioned flutist and some dynamite drummers, and a jam ensues, the like of which I’ve never seen or heard anywhere, as the crowd cheers and dances along with the musicians, now dancing themselves onstage. The house is, metaphorically, and literally, brought down, and judging by the great vibes in the hall as we reluctantly leave, we are all, buoyed up to the max.
Will there be a European Kora Festival in Brighton again next year? Let’s hope so. It’s Les Sherwood and the musicians hope that the festival will become an annual event. And, speaking from experience, you’d be hard pressed to find a more positive and enthralling musical event – anywhere!
1pm – Midnight
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