-- CD + 16-page booklet, Sounds True STA A337.
The Benedictine abbey at Keur Moussa near the Senegal coast is a simple building, ringed and shaded by trees. Inside, the tiled floors are cool and the stylised black and red pictures of the life of Christ draw attention to the high altar beyond the plain wood benches. White-robed monks with dark and pale skins hold silence before their God as the mass begins. A bell in the tower calls the faithful to prayer; a kora harp solo leads into a plainchant recitation of a Psalm with xylophone, calabash and sabar drum accompaniment. Songs in Wolof, French and Latin lift hearts in worship to God, fusing musical styles, languages and ethnic influences into an “entirely new liturgical choral tradition.”
This album captures the unique sound of Keur Moussa, which was intentionally developed after the French choir master noticed strong parallels between the modal system of the Gregorian chant in which he was trained and the scales used by itinerant Mandinka musicians who passed through the neighbouring village. The monks studied the kora harp with these musicians, then adapted the method of playing and tuning the instrument to make it possible to tune reliably and play in the daily offices as an accompaniment to the plainsong chant and the new songs being developed. These new songs are mostly based on African melodies from many sources, sung in Wolof (the majority language of the area) and also later in French to serve the Senegalese men who were joining the body of monks at the monastery. The Catholic Vatican council II in 1963 strongly encouraged the use of local musical resources and local languages to spread the Christian message. This has profoundly altered the face of Catholic church music in Senegal as local composers have drawn on their own traditions for church use (see also my review of “Sénégal: Christmas in Casamance,” page 20).
The kora technique and instruments have spread throughout the Catholic churches of Senegal and beyond. I have heard Keur Moussa music being used in Catholic communities as far away as Cameroon and France! Although they no longer train outside musicians at the abbey, the monks still produce harps for sale, and continue to compose, record and publish new music for the church year. The music is only used in Catholic contexts, at least in Senegal, and is considered attractive but western “tasting” by local Muslim people due to the extensive fusion of musical styles and instruments. An additional factor in this judgement is that the texts in Wolof are drawn from a liturgical translation of the Bible that does not always seem natural to the Senegalese ear.
A variety of text sources are used. Track 15 is the Nicene Creed with music “inspired by the night melodies of holy services held in Senegal’s Muslim villages.” This implies song styles accompanied by tabala drumming, but what we hear are gently-flowing, major-scale melodies that sound like Gregorian chant, not the Islamic-flavoured, ornamented melodies heard in such religious ceremonies (listen to Village Pulse CD 1002 for examples).*
This album contains 12 songs and 5 instrumental pieces used for communal worship in the abbey, apparently recorded outside the context of worship. Although the songs are in French, Wolof and Latin, the full texts are presented in English, along with some introductory notes, details of the origins of melodies and instrumentation, and photos of the abbey and the monks at worship. This album was the first to be issued in North America (see www.soundstrue.com), but a wide selection of recordings on cassette, CD and video are available through the web site www.keurmoussa.com. Most of these are labelled in French, as is the website, though an English translation is in progress. Transcriptions of some pieces are available from the Abbey.
*This observation is by the editor.
--reviewed by Sue Hall, Senegal
Published in Vol.2, No.1 of