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At the heart of English folk
Catrin Finch

Catrin Finch

Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita are bringing their unique cross-cultural collaboration to Cecil Sharp House on Thursday 14 February. Ahead of their performance, we had a chat with Catrin to find out more about how the duo began, their creative process and plans for the future.

What was the initial idea behind the project?

It’s celebrating two cultures. Firstly, it’s the instruments – both instruments come from the same family. It’s also the countries we come from – the harp is a big part of our culture in Wales, as is the kora in parts of Africa. Theatr Mwldan and Astar Artes (the original co-producing partners, with support from Arts Council Wales), thought it would be nice to put together a project to celebrate these two cultures.

How do you go about picking your repertoire?

It’s been a changing process over the years. I come from a very classical background; I grew up playing Mozart. Seckou on the other hand doesn’t read music. He very much comes from tradition of listening, and from a long line of Kora players.

We started off using traditional music, and soon discovered a lot of similarities between the two traditions. A lot of the chord structures are very similar; I could start playing something I knew and Seckou would be able to play something he knew underneath. So we started off playing pieces that we knew from our respective traditions, but we’re doing a lot more original work now.

How do you go about arranging your pieces as a duo?

It’s a very experimental process. One of us comes up with an idea and we sit down and see what we can do with it. We’ve been playing together for four years now, so we’re a lot more experimental, open to new things, willing to take bigger risks. It’s a much more organic process. We’re currently going through process of creating second album, so we are sharing new ideas in that way; it’s a nice process to go through.

People sometimes ask what genre we are - I’m essentially a classical musician with a bit of folk, while Seckou is what we tend to call ‘world music’. So when we play together, we pull from all three of those. It’s a mix of lots of genres, which is quite refreshing these days. It’s become its own thing.

What would you say are the main functional differences and similarities between the kora and the concert classical harp?

The two instruments sound very similar. If you sit in one of our concerts and close your eyes, it’s often hard to distinguish who’s doing what. But the instruments are really very different; if I were to sit behind Seckou’s kora I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it, in the same way he wouldn’t know what to do with my harp.

The main difference is that the kora isn’t chromatic. Seckou is developing a system to flatten and sharpen notes with levers, but this is still a very new innovation for the kora. When we play, we start with a primary key, but as the harp is fully chromatic I can experiment around it a bit. He’s got 22 strings, I’ve got 47, so there’s a difference in range.

It’s the difference between a ‘traditional’ instrument, and an instrument that’s been developed over hundreds of years. There’s still a tradition in Senegal and Mali of making your own kora, whereas we would go to some big manufacturer to get a classical harp.

How have you each developed as musicians through this collaboration?

You’re constantly developing as a musician – part of who I am is being open to new projects. It’s a really positive way of using music. You get more confident – although I’ve done a lot of improvising before, it was a new experience playing with the kora and music in those African traditions.

When we first sat down I took some manuscript paper to write down the main ideas, but soon realised it was a waste of time. The music Seckou plays really doesn’t lend itself to transcribing; you have to feel it and breathe it. Once I realised that, it became a lot more enjoyable – it’s nice when you can cast those restrictions aside.

It’s been a learning process for both of us, but we had a lot of respect for each other and our respective traditions, and we had the patience to create something. I can’t expect to sit down and play music in a week that Seckou’s lived his whole life – it takes time.

What have you got planned for the rest of the year?

Seckou has a new album coming out with Omar Sosa. I’ve got my normal touring, a lot of solo recitals and orchestral things. I also have French chamber music CD coming out to be toured in autumn. We’re doing some festivals together in the summer, and also working on our new album!

Find out more about the show
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