INTERVIEW: Joe Driscoll | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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On the surface, Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate don’t seem compatible. One of them comes from Syracuse, New York and grew up on the Beatles and Beastie Boys. The other came from Guinea and grew up to be one of the most influential kora players in the world. Together, though, they’ve already released a highly acclaimed debut album and are gearing up to launch another next year, filled with Afrobeat grooves with a hip hop and rock twist.

Ahead of his gig with Sekou at Hoochie Coochie in Newcastle, I talked to Joe about the perils of international travel and marvelling at his musical partner’s masterful kora playing.

I saw you play at Hoochie Coochie a few years ago, and when I spoke to you then your French was about as good as mine.  Have you been taking lessons?  How is it coming on? Pouvez-vous comprendre cela?

Oui, je comprend! I bought Rosetta Stone and have been practicing a lot. If people speak slow, I can keep up in conversation for tourists. I have a great crash course with having to speak to Sekou daily. Petit a petit.

Faya was a brilliant album; how far away is the next one? 

Next album is done, in the mixing and mastering stage right now. It takes a while to build the press and hype, plan videos, develop the whole strategy, so the official release will probably be in March. For those who supported our Pledge campaign though, it should reach them shortly.

The kora is a magnificent instrument, with, is it 20 strings that need to be tuned between songs?  Are you ever dumbstruck on stage by Sekou’s skill with that thing? I would find it hard not to stop and let me jaw drop…

21 strings in total. Yes, he often needs to tune many between songs and his quickness with it amazes me. I have trouble keeping six in the same tuning! Yeah, luckily I don’t get dumbstruck very often. Normally when he blows my mind I start jumping up and down. Much better visual for the audience then getting frozen in time. But yes, his technical skill and intuition are mind blowing.

Have you tried playing Sekou’s kora? Is it as hard as it looks?

No, so far I haven’t played much kora – it’s kind of been like a cat with a vacuum cleaner for me. Though I haven’t really played the kora much, it is not necessarily a difficult instrument in and of itself. To play the kora the way Sekou plays it, yes, that’s as difficult as you would imagine.

Your music touches on several genres: hip-hop, reggae, afro-beat, funk… how would you classify yourself?

Sekou says at the beginning of Faya that music has no boundaries, no borders. We both feel that strongly. The dictionary definition of “folk music” is the sound of a certain people in a certain place at a certain time. I consider myself [as making] folk music more than anything else. My music is a reflection of where I grew up in upstate New York, where I was soaking up Beatles and Beastie Boys, Nas and Motown. Ultimately, I think music all shares a common root, so it’s not something that I think about too much. Music is music.

joe sekou 2

“My music is a reflection of where I grew up in upstate New York, where I was soaking up Beatles and Beastie Boys, Nas and Motown”

Would you consider taking your mixture of styles further? If you could introduce a third name to the mix who would that be? Which direction would interest you?

Personally I would love to get a real ragga MC in the mix, someone like  Damian Marley, who can sing roots reggae but also has that new style flow. I would personally enjoy just digging in further to our sound vibe. I think Sekou and I are both improvisors and jammers, so the list of who we would like to collab with would be quite long!

How does your music go down in the States? How about in Guinea?

In the States, it’s been great. We totally catch people off guard. Definitely a lot of mainstream folks at the festivals have never seen the kora, let alone seen it translated in that method before. Unfortunately, we are yet to play in Guinea but Sekou assures me that Conakry is awaiting our arrival.

How did you end up in Bristol? 

I moved to London in 2004-2005. From there I fell into the festival circuit, with a lot of my mates based down in Somerset. I stayed with the Chai Wallah festival crew down there and when we’d go out we’d trek up to Bristol. Fell in love with Bristol, it’s got such a great balance of urban culture and gorgeous nature. A perfect mix of big city and small village.

Tracks like Passport highlight the difficulties of international travel; have you encountered any problems on the road?

Yes, I had a long stretch where I wasn’t allowed in UK due to work visa issues. We’ve also been held up a lot due to Sekou’s visas, awaiting approval and at the borders. It can be a very frustrating and exhausting process.

What is your ultimate goal?

Myself, the journey is the goal. I’ve been blessed to play music for a living, making connections with people all over the globe. You always hope for bigger crowds, more money, more recognition, so you can continue doing what you love. To me though, I’m achieving the goal but we always strive to get better at what we do. The goal is to continue on the path, and get better at it every year, hopefully every day.

Your gigs are always so full of energy, what can the Newcastle crowd expect on the 9th?

Yes, we bring a high energy show full of improvisation and it’s funky dance music if you like to dance. We absolutely love the Newcastle vibe – such a rowdy city. We’ll try to bring the noise as to connect with the local character! Really, I’m proud of the show and I think the Newcastle massive will love it. It’s high on positive energy and funky danceable grooves. Hope to see them all out there.

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate play at Hoochie Coochie, Newcastle on Friday 9th October.

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