The weekend before the Senegalese elections earlier this year one music video went viral, taking over the airwaves. It called out to the people saying ‘The community needs us, the country needs us, everybody needs us. Our hands are dirty, let’s cleanse them.’ The song was ‘Rewmi’ by griot musician and kora (harp-lute) player Seckou Keita.
“I never dreamt I’d sing about politics,” Seckou tells me before a London performance promoting his latest album, Miro, which opens with this very track. “I tried to stay out of the politics in Senegal, but it’s my job as a musician and a griot. If there are urgent messages, I feel like it’s a must for me.” The video calls for unity and became the anthem for the elections. “What I’m trying to say is we must take our individual responsibilities. The words are quite powerful, saying we must make sure our hands are clean, even if we think they are clean, we must cleanse them further.”
Miro is Seckou’s fourth release and means ‘positive thought’. Or rather, he says, “in Mandinka ‘miro’ means ‘thought’. But here, I’m talking about positive thought,” which is the idea behind the album. And the album definitely has a positive feeling about it as a whole, with most of the songs reaching out and reminding people to act responsibly, reconnect with family, share with others and, of course, think positively.
Born to a Senegalese griot family, Seckou learned the kora early on. “In my family, I got training on the kora, but because everyone was playing kora I was curious, very curious.” This curiosity led him to pick up the djembé (drum). “If there was [an event] in the family, everybody would pick up the kora, so I would pick up the djembé and be the rhythm side of it. I became the drum of the family.”
When he first relocated to the UK in 1998 he continued to play and teach the djembé, but the kora remained his first love and it wasn’t long before he had picked up the instrument again. However, not content to work strictly within the traditional framework of the instrument, he began inventing his own tunings. “The first ever tuning I did happened by mistake. My daughter played with me while I was tuning and suddenly it was like ‘Ooh, that sounds interesting.’” There are four traditional kora tunings and Seckou estimates that he has created five new ones.
He uses one of these new tunings on a track from the new album, ‘Hino,’ which beautifully combines flamenco and griot styles and requires the use of a non-traditional tuning. On this track, Seckou is supported by the haunting voices of flamenco singer Inma ‘La Carbonera’ and Mohamed Diaby. “There is a huge similarity between the way the griots sing, they way they cry their words, and the way the flamenco singers cry their words. The gut they use is so similar.”
Despite the passionate fusion of ‘Hino’, Seckou says Miro is a step back to his roots, to a simpler, more African feel. “When I was a child, I heard my grandfather playing very simple kora and my grandmother singing along – there’s a beauty in that and respecting those traditions.”
Seckou’s return to a traditional sound doesn’t mean this is an album of traditional songs. All but one of the songs on the album are original compositions (‘Tara’ is a traditional praise song dedicated to Seckou’s family line of griots), and they are all connected by an uplifting sense of social and political awareness. “You can’t change people but you can make them aware. If they’re aware of something, they’re more careful about it.”
This awareness led Seckou to begin a partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), offering them 50% of profits from his 2008 album, The Silimbo Passage. When asked why, he says “Red Cross was in my mind since childhood. It’s one of those things that played a very important part in my life, visually. When I was a child in the southern part of Senegal, when there were conflicts, you used to see just a car with a red cross. As a child I didn’t know what it meant or why they were there, but one thing I was sure about was I felt safe. ‘Ah OK, they’re here, so we’re cool.’”
He tells me he hopes to do something similar with Miro, giving something back and reinforcing the message of love and peace that is so central to the album.