Our Daily Bread 520: Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita ‘Echo’

June 1, 2022

ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita ‘Echo’
(bendigedig) 27th May 2022

Marking a decade-long collaboration, the harmonic pairing of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegal kora player and vocalist Seckou Keita are back with the third in a trilogy of cross-lineage, cross-cultural and cross-border gilded rich albums.

Imbued by traditions that go back centuries, Finch’s legacy includes Celtic folklore, the classical and the harp’s age-old reverence – Finch was at one time the UK’s Royal Harpist to Prince Charles, a revered title revived at the turn of the millennium, last used during the Autumn years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Keita can trace his lineage back to a long line of Griot bards and kings, and through his father, right back directly to the Medieval Malian Empire’s founder Sunjata Keita.

Garnering much critical and creative praise for their previous SOAR (2018) and Clychau Dibon (2013) records, the duo, caught up like the rest of us obviously in the pandemic, suffered the travails of social-distancing to complete this latest shared experience of loss, reflection and hope. Unable to work this incredible, adroit collaboration of instruments remotely however, both partners in this international union managed to book a conference room in a hotel on the outskirts of Birmingham, in the UK. 

Possibly not the most inspiring of locations, both removed artists found themselves having to reconnect, as if from scratch, separated as they had been by distance, and of course with lockdowns: concentrating on those closer to home and pursing more localized projects. 

As sparks and prompts, accumulated projects as varied as a ballet score to TV commissions, festival collaborations and work-in-progress sketches offered a framework on which to build new ideas. It helps that both maestros of their disciplines have an enviable CV and plenty of experience, awards and concert performances (more than 200) to their names. And so this distance, break in the creative period couldn’t hold the partnership back from picking up on where they left off, pre-Covid.

The backstory to this partnership, a bringing together of musical spheres and instrumentation from, what looks on the surface unrelated, suddenly makes sense; a harmonious connection, fueled by the duo’s last two albums together. For the very first time, Echo welcomes the addition of a strings; a couple of violin, viola, cello and double-bass players from Cardiff. The initial idea was inspired by the partnerships work in 2021 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Here it offers a whole new layer, and a swell of moving classicism and a cinematic score quality to the weaved and enchanted sounds of the harp and kora.  

As always, each composition tells a story, is motivated by the personal and organically showcases a particular unique tuning and skill without losing sight of the melody. Devoid of soulless displays of virtuoso Echo draws the listener right into the moment.

Despite the horrendous last two years, the album actually starts with a peaceable, charmed and gliding display of hope. Originally the ‘overture’ score for the ballet Giselle, and a “scrap of a tune” that surfaced during a sound-check jam before a 2019 gig in Manchester, ‘Gobaith’ (which means “hope” in Welsh) us remolded, turned into a lushly blessed performance of subtle filmic strings, lilted lattice work kora and gently sparkling harp.

Lifting the emotional pull, the string ensemble-free ‘Dual Rising’ weaves a groove out of quickened caresses, flourishes and undulations. With a dash of the Latin, even some Greco antiquity, that liquid – with only some softened small stamps – rhythmic workout takes its inspiration from the duo’s past collaboration with the ‘breackneck’ speedy style of Edmar Castañeda’s Colombian harp.

In a display of the lightened and sweetened, ‘Tabadbang’ has a spring in its step, a sense of happy adventure. In keeping a restless kid busy, hanging around as the adults wish to discuss something far too important for prying ears, back in Keita’s homeland they’d send the youngsters on a wild goose chase of distraction. Here that memory is turned into a lifted, hummed-like lullaby amble.

A testament to this duo’s hybrid of languages, craft and inspirations the enervated pulse setting, spindled and soaring ballad ‘Jeleh Calon’ brings together the Mandinka work for ‘smile’ and Welsh for ‘heart’. It was actually sparked off by Finch’s NHS research into tinnitus, which led to investigating the yoga of sound and, in particular, – hence the heartbeat-like rhythm – the practice of synching one’s heartbeat to a specific timing, or ‘entrainment’ as it’s known.

Though every composition feeds on that hybrid and the counterbalance of cultures, the harmonious qualities of each artist’s particular instrument, ‘Julu Kuta’ challenges both, but especially the kora, with a tricky chromatic scale. As a tribute to innovation, inspired by Keita’s experiment in 2007 to construct a double-necked kora (which he managed to successfully pull-off with the help of his cousin), the Db to D to Eb to E to A scale sounds like a beautiful spell being unfurled. Despite being difficult, Finch’s heaven-calling brushes and waves and Keita’s dainty spirals and spins sound melodically reminiscent and very much at ease.

As a timely reminder of loss and remembrance, there’s the sweetly pronounced ‘Chaminuka’ dedication to Keita’s late friend and fellow musician, the mbira player Chartwell Dutiro. Instead of a mournful elegy, this is a beautifully sung (both in Dutiro’s native Zimbabwean dialect of Shona and in Keita’s own Mandinka) and soothingly played homage.  

The journey from West Africa to Wales has never seemed shorter; the difference in cultures never so close. Finch and Keita perform wondrous parallels together, further elevated by the subtle but evocative additional classical strings. Echo moves this combined strength further along the road, adding depth to the duo’s sound and showing that despite the hardships, distancing, everything still comes together in a unified brilliance of forms and shared experiences. 

music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: