Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita

Biography Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita

Catrin Finch
Described as “The Queen of Harps”, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch has delighted audiences with her performances in the UK and worldwide. Inspired to learn the harp at the age of five, her rise to prominence started almost immediately, achieving the highest mark in the UK for her Grade VIII exam at the age of nine. She studied with Elinor Bennett for eight years before entering the Purcell School. Catrin graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2002 where she studied with Skaila Kanga and received the Queen’s Award for the most outstanding student of her year.

Her first major competition success came in 1999 winning the Lily Laskine International Harp Competition in France, one of the premier harp competitions in the world. On winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York, Catrin went on to play in over thirty states in the USA, including recitals and concerto debuts in New York, including the Lincoln Centre and Weill Recital Hall, Boston and Washington D.C. In May 2004, and again in 2012, she was nominated for a Classical Brit Award and has also received an “Echo Klassik” in Germany.

Catrin is the former Royal Harpist to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. Holding the appointment from 2000-2004, she had the honour of reviving this ancient tradition last held in 1873. During her period as Royal Harpist she played regularly at the Royal Palaces and performed to Royalty from around the world.

She has performed extensively throughout the USA, South America, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Europe. She has appeared with many of the world’s top orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Pops, the Philharmonia, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the London Mozart Players, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Charlotte Symphony, the Lake Charles Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony and the Manchester Camerata. Festival appearances include Salzburg, Edinburgh, Spoleto, Smithsonian Folklife, MDR Musiksommer Festival in Leipzig, Le Domaine Forget and Lanaudiere Festivals in Canada and the Gödöllő Harp Festival in Hungary. In November 2012 Catrin released a CD on the DG label celebrating a new collaboration between Catrin and celebrated composer, John Rutter - “Blessing”. The CD, which also features a composition by Catrin herself, the Celt- ic Concerto went to number 1 in the UK classical charts and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award. This follows the success of her “J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations” which entered the UK Classical charts at number 1 in 2009.

Catrin has appeared on all the major television and radio networks in the UK and many abroad. Among her earliest appearances on TV were two features on the BBC’s ‘Blue Peter’, and since then there have been many appearances on radio and television in the UK. In 2003, Catrin presented a TV documentary about herself entitled ‘Charlie’s Angel’ which was awarded a BAFTA Cymru/Wales award for the best music programme. She has recently been heard presenting concerts with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales live on BBC Radio 3 from the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff Bay. Recent TV appearances include BBC Breakfast and the Andrew Marr Show.

She has collaborated closely with composer Karl Jenkins on stage and disc, including the première of a new double harp concerto commissioned by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. She has received half a million hits on You Tube for her performance of Karl Jenkins’ Palladio. Catrin has recorded for most of the major international recording companies, including Universal Records, Deutsche Grammophon, EMI and Sony Classical, both solo and with notable artists such as Bryn Terfel, Sir James Galway and Julian Lloyd-Webber.

Her versatility in different musical genres is demonstrated in her many recordings, which range from solo classical recitals and concertos, her own arrangement for harp of J S Bach’s Goldberg Variations through to an eclectic cross- over mix with her own 14 piece band “CF47” and the presentation of some of Wales’ most popular traditional melodies in an innovative and refreshing way using electric harps, state of the art technology and ground-breaking sound effects.

In 2013 Catrin Finch collaborated with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita on a record celebrating the harp traditions of Wales and West Africa, which has been outstandingly well received, winning the 2014 Album Of The Year in both Froots and Songlines magazines, sitting atop the World Music charts for a number of weeks. Catrin and Seckou toured the album, entitled “Clychau Dibon”, in Europe and the U.S. to rave reviews.

March 2015 sees the release of Catrin’s new self-composed album entitled "Tides", on her new label ‘Acapela’. This new release marks the first time Catrin’s own compositions have appeared as a body of work on stage and on record, revealing a new side to her exceptional musicality, including her piano skills for the first time on this album. Growing up on the West coast of Wales, Catrin cites her childhood by the sea as her main influence on her creativity. She has recently started supporting the International Development charity Water Aid, and has gifted Changing Tides, one of the tracks on her new album, to support the organisation’s work to bring safe water and sanitation to some of the world’s poorest communities. Her ensemble will be touring the UK in May and October to support the album.

She has received honours from the University of Wales Aberystwyth and Bangor, Glyndwr University, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the Royal Academy of Music. She is a visiting Professor at the latter two musical institutions and is in great demand for masterclasses. In July 2012 the first ever Catrin Finch Academy Summer School was held on the outskirts of Cardiff and future plans include developing the project online where Finch will post exercises for young harpists to follow.

Known for her work within the community and with the younger generation, Catrin is committed to promoting the harp and classical music in general to a new and wider audience.

Seckou Keita
"The UK-based Senegalese kora player has made a name for himself as one of the foremost innovators operating in African music today. Nigel Williamson dives into his impressive career and marvels at his myriad works to date Seckou Keita. ​

When Seckou Keita arrived in the UK in 1999 he brought with him his kora and one small suitcase. He was 21, spoke hardly any English and at that point had only left his native Senegal on two brief trips to play a handful of concerts. ​

In the two decades that have passed since, he has established himself as the UK’s foremost kora player and become an integral mainstay of the nation’s vibrant multicultural roots scene. Working solo, or in collaboration with an eclectic range of musicians, his virtuosity has consistently adorned some of this magazine’s favourite five-star albums and won him three Songlines Music Awards in the process.

Born in 1978 in Ziguinchor, the main town in Senegal’s southern region of Casamance, Seckou’s father was descended from the great founder of the Malian Empire, Sunjata Keita, but was not involved in his upbringing. Instead the family was presided over by his maternal grandfather, Jali Kemo Cissokho, a revered griot and kora master. “My earliest memories are of music,” he told Jane Cornwell in the October 2015 issue. “Musicians from all over would come to my grandfather’s compound to play.” Nicknamed Jali N’ding (the little griot), he watched and learned, accompanying his grandfather on sabar and djembédrums and picking up how to play the kora as he went along. To this day he regards himself as both a drummer and a kora player. “Drumming for me is about the heartbeat, about connecting with the earth, with joy, with dance. Whereas the kora can make you cry – for all the right reasons,” Seckou notes.

In his teens he travelled to Dakar to play concerts with his uncle Jali Solo Cissokho and at 18 he was given his own kora, a symbolic moment marking the end of his apprenticeship. That same year he accompanied another uncle, Sadio Cissokho, to Norway to take part in a collaborative project with Cuban and Indian musicians. It was the start of a passion for cross-cultural collaborations and the beginning of a mission to globalise the kora and take its sound far beyond the confines of its West African context. “I listen to every kind of music, so my inspiration is really open,” he says of his approach to collaboration. “In the end, I feel that somehow we are all connected.”

Yet his playing remains deeply rooted in tradition. “All this kora playing with wah-wah pedals and stuff has got too much for me nowadays,” he once told Songlines. “I might play in a different way if I wasn’t traditionally trained.” Now based in Nottingham, his early years in the UK were spent in London, where he worked with Baka Beyond, played in the West End production of The Lion King and helped to set up the first kora examination course at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). His first album, Baiyo (Orphan) in 2000 (later reissued under the name Mali), utilised different tunings to extend the range of material he could perform on his instrument, accompanied by drums, violin, guitars and banjo.

In 2003, he founded Jalikunda Cissokho, comprising members of his family, and released an album called Lindianeafter the suburb of Ziguinchor where he grew up. A year later he assembled the Seckou Keita Quartet, with a line-up including Gambian ritti player Juldeh Camara and Seckou’s brother Surahata Susso on percussion. This line-up recorded the 2006 album, Tama Silo: Afro Mandinka Soul. Two years later they had expanded to a quintet for the 2008 album Silimbo Passage, which included Seckou’s sister Binta Susso on vocals.

But the best was yet to come. After releasing the solo album Miro in 2012, Seckou was asked to stand in for Toumani Diabaté who had dropped out of a planned tour with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch due to political unrest in Mali. Seckou was initially doubtful about how the two instruments could work together: “The harp is more straight while the kora has more wiggle,” as he put it. Yet it proved to be an inspired pairing, leading to the album Clychau Dibon (2013) which won the best Cross-Cultural Collaboration accolade in the Songlines Music Awards. The follow-up, SOAR(2018), inspired by the extraordinary migrations of the osprey between Wales and Senegal, was even better and won a glut of awards. It also saw Seckou’s full flowering as a soulful vocalist. “I started singing young. But there were so many amazing singers in my family that I didn’t want to open my mouth,” he said at the time of the album’s release. “Like all things, my confidence developed with time.”

In between the albums with Finch came 22 Strings (2015), his finest solo album to date, and Transparent Water (2017), a collaboration with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Then, in 2019, came Joy by the AKA Trio, on which he teamed up with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and Brazilian percussionist Adriano Adewale.

The COVID-19 pandemic has naturally slowed down Seckou’s prolific work rate but, utilising the wonders of digital technology, he gathered together a global cast that included Fatoumata Diawara, Noura Mint Seymali and Manecas Costa to record the single ‘Now or Never’ on which he reflected on the need to find solutions to humanity’s problems in the post-COVID world. In early 2021 he released another a new song, ‘Elles Sont Toutes Belles’, featuring the Senegalese singer Aida Samb, one of a series of singles for the African market, including the most recent, ‘Homeland’, with fellow Senegalese artist Baaba Maal. “I’ve collaborated a lot in the West, but not enough in the land of Africa, so that’s where my focus is at the moment,” he says.

Not that he is setting aside his global collaborations. There’s a new album with Omar Sosa awaiting release this autumn and plans are afoot for a third recording with Catrin Finch, this time with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The motto for his quest remains ‘have kora, will travel’ – once we’re finally allowed to do so again." ​

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2021 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe to Songlines ​

The Lost Words, Spell Songs (2019) has been another delightful collaboration for Seckou with folk musicians joined by the words of Robert McFarlane and artwork of Jackie Morris. A new album is underway and will be released at the end of the year.

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