The monks who took the kora to church

The Benedictine motto is Ora et labora, or “Pray and work”. In the orchards of the abbey, the monks work daily alongside hired local workers, growing bananas, mangoes, kumquats and three varieties of grapefruit. But much of their income comes from making, teaching, and playing the kora. A row of modest guesthouses welcome students for annual retreats; a very active workshop ships koras to monasteries, musicians and I read worldwide. The Monks are also successful recording artists, whose discography has earned, among other accolades, the Albert Schweitzer International Music Prize. Their more than a dozen albums bring together masses and psalms alongside instrumental works of striking beauty:Banehu Len», a complex suite played by seven koras; “Palm Sundaya dirge in the form of a spider to mark Christ’s entry into Jerusalem; and “When the Morning is Reborna penetrating evocation of mortality and resurrection. Their sound is as hard to forget as it is to categorize – and unlikely like their origins in the heady 1960s, when Negritude met Vatican II.

The nine monks who founded Keur Moussa were not intended to become world music pioneers. They came from the Abbey of Solesmes, a thousand-year-old monastery in the Loire region of France, known as “the Mecca of Gregorian chant”. Once in Senegal, they continued to sing in Latin, much to the delight of President Léopold Sédar Senghor, a former Francophile seminarian who attended the opening of the monastery in 1963. It could have remained an island of medieval plainsong without the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which was in session that year. The conference directed churches to “inculturate,” or adapt, to the societies around them, including adapting their liturgies to the “native genius.” The monks opened their ears.

They began in a spirit of pure obedience. The young choirmaster, Dominique Catta, uncomfortable with African rhythms – they sounded like, to him, “a step into the void” – and he began by arranging Wolof psalms that strictly respected Gregorian conventions. Gradually, however, he and the other monks fell headlong into Senegalese musical culture, studying radio broadcasts, attending village festivals and attending concerts in Dakar. A first breakthrough came from listening to a traditional singer from the Serer people, whose plaintive melody reminded Catta of a Renaissance motet. He began to incorporate local music into the liturgy, borrowing motifs from vernacular songs that welcomed harvests or implored marabouts for spiritual assistance. Rather than simply Gregorianizing what he heard, he began to use the Church‘s repertoire as a “key to deciphering African music”.

At first, the only available accompaniment to this hybrid liturgy was a second-hand harmonium, whose “crybaby sounds” irritated Catta so much that he pawned it on a nearby congregation. Then, in 1964, the monks heard an unknown scraping on the radio. Locals did not recognize it, but a friend in Dakar identified it as a kora and donated a spare instrument to the monastery. At the time, knowledge of the instrument was tightly controlled by I read, two of whom were persuaded to visit Keur Moussa and sell their teachings. A weekend course of lessons culminated in a landmark session at the monastery church, where the I read played a Mandinka refrain while the monks sang a psalm in Latin. Their harmony was miraculous.

Within a year, the Gregorian griots of Senegal accompanied each other. In 1966, during the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, a Parisian radio broadcast a mass at the monastery; soon after, Keur Moussa entered into a recording contract with Decca. “The sounds of the ‘kora’ and the tam-tam mingle, in a kind of soft and supple carpet, with the pure voices of the monks (black and white together)”, writes a critic about their beginnings, “whose melismas seduce a dual-tradition audience, without ever betraying one to the benefit of the other. The release joined a wave of vernacular liturgies around the world, from Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez”Misa Criollato the famous “Missa Luba” by Father Guido Haazen, recorded in 1965 by a choir from the Democratic Republic of Congo. And the monks continued with research trips across the continent, working to create a truly pan-African liturgy.

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