Touki: how West Africa's kora found kindred spirit in the banjo
Issued on: Modified:
When musicians Amadou Diagne and Cory Seznec had a chance encounter in a bar in Bath in 2007, they knew one day they would record together. Thirteen years later, after many "touki" (journeys), they've embarked on a new musical adventure with a debut album Right of Passage. They talk to RFI about making new roots music with kora, banjo and guitar.
“It was a fortuitous meeting of like-minded kindred spirits,” said Seznec, a French-American singer-songwriter, guitarist and clawhammer banjoist who’s honed his sound through travels on the African continent.
He was playing in a bar with his band Groanbox when Diagne showed up with his djembe after a day of busking and the two men began improvising together.
“The energy was fantastic ... some really simple connection happened back in 2007," said Seznec.
They played gigs from time to time, Seznec bringing Diagne on board “for his percussive and harmony prowess” but it took more than a decade for them to form the duo Touki and get into the studio.
“It was always in the back of our minds that we should do something, but life took us in different directions,” Seznec continued. "And then finally the stars aligned.”
When Diagne secured a grant from the Arts Council of England, he immediately thought of Seznec.
“It my dream for a long time to do something with him,” said Diagne, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer-songwriter from near Dakar and who settled in the UK in 2004.
“I just tell him ‘hey man, come on, this is the time now, let’s do it’!”
The two musicians rehearsed in Paris and recorded 13 tunes in Peter Gabriel’s World Circuit Records studios in southwestern England.
Diagne, who was born into a Griot family of drummers and praise singers, sings in Wolof and dug deep into his own personal history for inspiration on several songs.
Yaye Bouye is about his mother dying when he was a young boy, while Tirailleurs draws a parallel between his difficult beginnings in the UK and the Senegalese Tirailleurs who fought bravely alongside French troops in various world wars. Diagne’s own grandfather, Mass Mboup, was decorated by the French for his bravery in WW2.
Two songs, Yaen Yalay and Machallah are influenced by Seznec’s three years in Ethiopia and feature Endris Hassen on the one-string bowed lute known as masenqo.
“Yaen Yalay means ‘thank you’ in Eritrean. It’s a sort of banjo percussive, instrumental track, a nod to Ethiopia and Eritrea,” said Seznec. “It has a very traditional vibe. Even though it’s banjo playing, it speaks to the krar.
“Machallah is a kind of classic pentatonic thing but has a bit of an Ethiopian traditional vibe as well. It could be East or West Africa. Amadou plays some amazing calabash on that, and sings.”
The tune Meeting at the roots is a fine example of the way Seznec’s guitar resonates with Diagne’s kora.
“It was a bit of the goal actually, to mix the kora and banjo or kora and guitar, for it to be very seamless,” said Seznec. “The idea was to sort of lock it together.”
Diagne grew up playing a traditional drum known as the saba and spent seven years as a percussionist with Senegal’s national orchestra. In line with his family griot tradition he could not play the kora, but was drawn to the sound.
When he was around eight he heard the Sissokho family playing the kora. He was on his way to a footall match but the sound stopped him in his tracks.
“I was standing in the door and I forgot I was going to play football," Diagne laughed. "The others said ‘you paid! But I tell them ‘take the money and go, I want to stay here and listen.”
“I start to get the feeling of the kora,” he said. “I was sitting in the back and playing all the time. I love this rhythm.”
Touki was meant to tour the album in France and the UK this Spring but the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that.
“We’re reeling like everyone else and trying to figure out what the next step is. We’re releasing the album now, hope to create a bit of momentum and figure out when we can get back to touring. We’re shooting for the Spring of next year with a tour in May of 2021 in the UK, if all goes well.
“But basically we’ve deleted a full year and are sad about that.”
Seznec can count on Diagne’s optimism and energy to keep the duo’s momentum up.
“He’s taught me a lot, he could be like a mentor in a way because of what he’s been through. He’s just breathing and oozing music and positive vibrations. He buoys me up.”
Musicians on Right of Passage: Diagne - vocals, kora, percussion, guitar; Seznec - vocals, guitars, banjo, gourd banjo, percussion; Special Guests: Oscar Cainer - upright bass (2) Endris Hassen - masenqo (1,4,6) El Hadj Amadou Ndir - electric bass (10,11) Michael Ward-Bergeman – accordion
Right of Passage is available here.
Follow Cory Seznec and Amadou Diagne on facebook
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe