Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita – SOAR
bendigedig – 27 April 2018
Even before the first notes of harp and kora play out from this excellent second disc by Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese Kora player Seckou Keita, there is a lovely piece of romance surrounding it that mirrors the two musics that this duo have put together so very successfully. The main star of Soar is the Osprey, a raptor that has begun breeding again in Wales after a four hundred year absence when it was effectively persecuted to extinction in the country as vermin. The bond between Wales and West Africa has been re-established for the bird, with the first to remake the several thousand mile round journey being christened ‘Clarach’, which also provides the title of the opening track.
As was clear from the duo’s debut Clychau Dibon from 2013, the music produced from this pairing seems to be more a re-establishing of sound and musical cultures, rather than an introduction, which of course ties in well with the story of our eponymous bird, flying the flag for the species in Wales. ‘Clarach’ begins spacious, with a long bass note and phonetics playing alongside the picked kora, before the harp line begins to set a pace and rhythm that grows in strength and urgency as the track develops. At six minutes, there is time to allow the music to unfold here and switch from a minor to major key, which adds to the drama of the bird’s journey, so skilfully illustrated through the duo’s playing. Just before we are two thirds through, there is a subtle shift where the energy calms and Keita’s kora line jumps away from the harp, as if being carried off on a breeze, before rejoining for a rousing end. It’s examples like this running through the whole set that displays the trust the pair have in each other’s ability and the relationship they have built through collaborating this past six years.
And the enjoyment the pair obviously get from playing together runs strongly throughout their work and creates pure pleasure in places. The high notes of Catrin’s harp line, matched with Seckou’s lower kora combine wonderfully on tracks like ‘Téranga-Bah’, which again takes plenty of time to unfold before Keita’s powerful vocal kicks in and ends the song with strong energy through its message based on the ritual of hospitality. It also leads on nicely to ‘Yama Ba’, an altogether looser and more playful track in sepia tone that has the harp and this time louder kora (a nod to the amplification of the instrument to push it into modern music) running along carelessly together in one of the more innocent tracks on the record. And then we go classical on the kora with ‘Bach to Baisso’, probably the most complex and expansive track on the album and one that incorporates two significantly different traditions in classical music and Baisso, an African tune type that is synonymous with wisdom through poetry.
Further on is ‘Listen to the Grass Grow’, a simple melodic piece penned by Catrin to create a sense of calm through two or three chords. At four and a half minutes, it’s the shortest track of the eight and doesn’t deviate far from its initial pattern, but that enables the listener to do the desired and switch off somewhat to allow the delicacy of the song to wash over them. It also works well with the pieces surrounding it, with ‘1677’ possessing a certain darkness with its low noted refrain hanging behind a dancing melody from Finch’s harp. Perfectly contrasting the simplicity of ‘Grass’, this tune is quite mercurial, with only that deep bounce staying steady, which works well with its slave trade based story spanning over a century. In fact, ‘Grass’ becomes even more effective in hindsight, sandwiched between ‘1677’ and ‘Hinna-Djulo’ and creating the respite in an expansive core to the album. ‘Hinna-Djulo’ is a piece that has been incubated since the pair’s collective career began and only now has felt ready to be let loose. Catrin’s fingers create a frenetic pace with this one in places, but then calms to provide an operatic mood, which Keita comfortably works alongside. Wonderful stuff.
The album ends with ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’, a song that takes us back to a Wales and the tragic story of the Tryweryn valley (the song title translates to ‘remember Tryweryn’) and its flooding in 1965 from water now used as the reservoir supplying Liverpool. The piece starts with a gentle harp line and just the hint of the lower kora behind it, but two minutes in the song shifts into its second part with the two instruments joining to create a more serious melody, and the two players singing native lyrics alongside it. The arrangement giving the strings the road lends an ethereal air to the vocal lines that works well with the sense of lament the song is illustrating, both for the loss of the valley and, in a broader sense, the Welsh language itself. Alongside ‘1677’, it creates the album’s most pointed and possibly even angry moments, but the pair are careful and skilful enough to maintain the beauty in their work that has been present throughout the set; both songs are lessons in positivity through adversity.
This ingenious duo have let fly with their second set and released a remarkable album of such texture and prowess that at points its scope, concentrated into the workings of two masters of their instruments, takes the breath away. The pacing, structure, packaging and context, including inspired liner notes from Andy Morgan, is all impeccable and it all combines to result in a truly inspired, beautifully conceived project.
Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita Live Dates
26 Y Tabernacl, MACHYNLLETH, with support from Gwyneth Glyn
27 The Observatory, Dyfi Osprey Centre, MACHYNLLETH SOLD OUT
2 Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan, with support from Gwyneth Glyn
3 St David’s Hall, CARDIFF with support from Gwyneth Glyn
12 Union Chapel, LONDON with support from Gwyneth Glyn
17 Pontio, BANGOR, with support from Gwyneth Glyn
18 Taliesin, SWANSEA with support from Gwyneth Glyn
25 Guildhall, DERBY with support from Gwyneth Glyn
Photo Credit: Andy Morgan