The Benedictine motto is pray and work, or “Pray and work”. In the abbey gardens, the monks work daily alongside local hired workers, growing bananas, mangoes, kumquats and three varieties of grapefruit. But much of his income comes from making, teaching, and playing the kora. A row of modest guest houses welcome students for annual retreats; a busy workshop sends koras to monasteries, musicians and jelly worldwide. The monks are also successful recording artists, whose discography has earned them, among other distinctions, the Albert Schweitzer International Music Prize. His more than a dozen records include masses and psalms together with instrumental works of incipient beauty: “len banehu”, an intricate suite performed by seven koras; “Sunday of Rameaux”, a spider song to mark Christ’s entry into Jerusalem; Y “Quand Renait le Matin”, a scrutinizing evocation of mortality and resurrection. Their sound is as hard to forget as it is to categorize, and unlikely as its origins in the heady sixties, when Négritude met Vatican II.
The nine monks who founded Keur Moussa did not set out 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 Francophile former seminarian who attended the monastery’s inauguration in 1963. He might have remained an island of medieval plainsong were it not for 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, particularly by adapting their liturgies to the “native genius.” The monks pricked up their ears.
They began in a spirit of pure obedience. The young choirmaster, Dominique Catta, did not feel comfortable with African rhythms — they seemed to him to be “taking a step into a void” — and he began by arranging psalms in Wolof that strictly observed Gregorian conventions. Gradually, however, he and the other monks immersed themselves in Senegal’s musical culture, studying radio broadcasts, frequenting village festivals and attending concerts in Dakar. An early breakthrough came when listening to a traditional singer from the Serer people, whose plaintive melody reminded Catta of a Renaissance motet. He began to weave local music into the liturgy, borrowing motifs from vernacular songs that welcomed the harvest or begged marabouts for spiritual help. Instead of simply Gregorianizing what he heard, he began to use the Church’s repertoire as a “key to decipher African music.”
At first, the only accompaniment available for this hybrid liturgy was a secondhand harmonium, whose “crying sounds” so irritated Catta that he pawned it to a neighboring congregation. Then, in 1964, the monks heard an unknown strum on the radio. The locals did not recognize it, but a friend in Dakar identified it as a kora and donated a spare instrument to the monastery. At that time, knowledge of the instrument was strictly controlled by jelly, two of whom were persuaded to visit Keur Moussa and sell his teachings. A weekend course of lessons culminated in a historic session in the monastery church, where the jelly he played a Mandinka chorus while the monks sang a Latin psalm. Her concord was miraculous.
Within a year, the Gregorian griots of Senegal were accompanying each other. In 1966, during the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, a Paris radio station broadcast a mass at the monastery; soon after, Keur Moussa landed a record deal with Decca. “The sounds of ‘kora’ and tam-tam are mixed, in a kind of soft and flexible carpet, with the pure voices of the monks (black and white together)”, wrote a critic about his debut, “whose melismas appeal to a double tradition, without ever betraying one for the benefit of the other.” The release joined a wave of vernacular liturgies around the world, by Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez”creole mass” to the famous “Missa Luba” by Father Guido Haazen, recorded in 1965 by a choir in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the monks went on research trips across the continent, working to create a truly pan-African liturgy.