What do Wales and Senegal have in common? Not a lot, you might think, but think again. Both countries have the harp as a central instrument; both have a bardic storytelling tradition and then there’s the matter of that bird of prey, the osprey.

Catrin Finch and Seckou KeitaSeckou Keita and Catrin Finch

For centuries the fish hawks were common in Wales but by 1604 they were hunted out and on the point of extinction. Then, more than 400 years later, a pair returned and hatched a chick, Clarach. The conservationists tracked the young bird’s flight to Senegal where she stayed for two years before returning to the Welsh nest where she was born.

Catrin Finch, former royal harpist to Prince Charles and a star in the world of classical music, was born and raised on the coast near where the ospreys nested and came up with the idea of marrying the two musical cultures for a concert in 2012. But when renowned Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté had to cancel, Senegalese maestro Seckou Keita stood in, and a fruitful friendship and musical collaboration was born. The two instruments meshed together brilliantly, as did the disparate musical styles – Keita’s joyful, rhythmic improvisations complemented Finch’s western classical technique alloyed with her Celtic influences.

The pair made an album in 2013, Clychau Dibon, which garnered rave reviews from world music fans and more adventurous classical devotees alike, but they had to wait another five years for the next one, Soar, with its instrumental dedicated to Clarach as the opening track. And this was the tune that launched this concert, the first in the 2020 season of the Utzon Music series, as well as Finch and Keita’s Australian debut before they head for Womadelaide. The 90-minute set, mainly featuring songs from the Soar album, was a fascinating meeting of two consummate musicians with the rare and joyful chemistry.

One of their tracks perhaps sums it up best. It’s called Bach to Baisso and is a musical journey from Leipzig in the 18th century to a small town in Senegal, all the in the space of six minutes. It starts off with a gorgeous duet woven around the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and then morphs into an improvised solo on kora with Keita singing the chants of the griots, the West African bards.

Also from the same album two songs, Téranga-Bah, which translates as “Big Hospitality”, and 1677, the year the French invaded the island of Goree off Dakar and set up a slave station, showed off Keita’s mastery of his instrument, from the syncopated bass lines with the thumbs dampening the strings to the rippling arpeggios and dizzying improvisations played by the fingers.

The to and fro between the two musicians was a feature of the evening, neither trying to outdo each other but rather revelling in the duel as jazz musicians do.
Keita, a man with a witty turn of phrase and irresistible smile, has two koras, one with a single mahogany neck, the other with a double neck, much like Jimmy Page’s famed Gibson guitar. “I’m not fully chromatic like Catrin’s harp, which has seven pedals,” he explains. Each neck has 22 strings made from fishing wire. Two wooden upright rods either side of the strings are gripped by the other three fingers and are often used for percussive effects.

Finch’s dazzling technique is more than equal to this question and answer format, often using her sound board as a drum or scratching post and injecting blues and jazz effects with ease, exchanging smiles and nods with her musical partner.

Both performers have a relaxed stage manner, ready with a joke. “They say this about sitarists as well – kora players spend half their lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune,” Keita quipped.

But the program had its serious side too, as in Finch’s haunting and dramatic Cofiwch Dryweryn about a village cleared in the 1970s to build a reservoir with the water going to the English. This became a touchstone for Welsh nationalism.

The set left the audience wanting more, and they got it with Bamba, a no-holds-barred piece with a skipping beat and ever more virtuosic variations.
There can’t have been another Utzon Music concert which got so many feet tapping, shoulders swaying and heads nodding.