When harp meets hip-hop

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate at UD

By Rusty Pate

Photo: Joe Driscoll & Sekou Kouyate’s debut album Faya was released in 2014

Sometimes, the most inspired collaborations arise from the most unlikely of pairings.

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate don’t really share many common experiences. Kouyate grew up in Conakry, Guinea. He plays the kora, a West African harp, and hails from a family with deep roots in the traditional African music. However, that has not stopped him from expanding his own sound, using guitar effects and electricity to mix old-world sensibilities with tasteful contemporary influences.

Driscoll grew up near Syracuse, New York. Far from a traditional singer/songwriter, he mixes elements of hip-hop, folk and reggae into a style all his own. The two came together when a festival promoter thought they might hit it off, giving the pair about a week to work out a set in advance of the show.

There was just one small problem – the two didn’t speak the same language.

Driscoll said that fact was almost a blessing, and the duo was able to sort things out in fairly quick order.

“We were pretty much able to relay all the important matters without language,” Driscoll said. “Also, a lot of the arguments that you sometimes have around music can be big detractors from what works naturally. Over thinking things is a big occupational hazard with music at times, with too much discussion and too much thoug put the album in. There’s certainly loads of African influence, loads of hip-hop, loads of reggae, loads of folk, loads of pop and, there’s even some elements of rock in there. I really would not know where to put this album in the CD store.”

When asked what people who don’t know much about their music could expect from the show, Driscoll said there isn’t much out that can really be compared to it.

“Some insanely funky grooves, a soloist ripping unbelievable riffs on that kora and something that, for my money, is a totally unique experience with the fusion of New York reggae and hip-hop mixed with the West African style – I think for me, looking around, it’s a one of a kind show,” Driscoll said. “It’s kind of like a modern day Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ but updated with hip-hop and reggae. We’re really looking forward to getting out there, and we hope the crowd out there in Ohio is looking forward to us just as much as we’re looking forward to getting out there.”

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate will perform at the University of Dayton Kennedy Union Boll Theatre, 300 College Park Ave., on Thursday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 for the general public, $12 for UD faculty, staff, alumni, seniors and $8 for UD students and youth. For more information, visit joeandsekou.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.Sometimes, the most inspired collaborations arise from the most unlikely of pairings.

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate don’t really share many common experiences. Kouyate grew up in Conakry, Guinea. He plays the kora, a West African harp, and hails from a family with deep roots in the traditional African music. However, that has not stopped him from expanding his own sound, using guitar effects and electricity to mix old-world sensibilities with tasteful contemporary influences.

Driscoll grew up near Syracuse, New York. Far from a traditional singer/songwriter, he mixes elements of hip-hop, folk and reggae into a style all his own. The two came together when a festival promoter thought they might hit it off, giving the pair about a week to work out a set in advance of the show.

There was just one small problem – the two didn’t speak the same language.

Driscoll said that fact was almost a blessing, and the duo was able to sort things out in fairly quick order.

“We were pretty much able to relay all the important matters without language,” Driscoll said. “Also, a lot of the arguments that you sometimes have around music can be big detractors from what works naturally. Over thinking things is a big occupational hazard with music at times, with too much discussion and too much thought. I think it’s been great to remove that element. We don’t think about anything – if it sounds good and it feels good, press record and that’s the only litmus test for if something works or not.”

Sonically, each player occupies a different space. Driscoll describes himself as “kind of a rhythm man,” while Kouyate has been described as the Jimi Hendrix of the kora. Driscoll provides a structural framework, allowing Sekou to flex his considerable improvisational muscle.

Their voices also mix together so well, Driscoll said it’s often hard to distinguish where one part ends and the other begins.

“It was really one of those things like brie and raspberry jam where you don’t really think that’s going to work well together and then you try it and it’s like ‘whoa, that’s totally complementary – that totally works,’” Driscoll said. “For me, I was raised on like hip-hop, Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel – with the West African influence. Sekou’s stuff was the African traditional. At the same time he was listening to a lot of Damien Marley. We were both kind of in the same wheelhouse of stuff that got us excited and got us off musically. It just ended up being a perfect partnership. It’s definitely one of those magically stumbled upon things that just worked.”

Any time African rhythms come into the mix, the term “world music” will inevitably follow. Add in a storied West African musician, and the pigeonhole shrinks even further.

However, Driscoll and Kouyate seem to defy genre. When so many different ingredients are thrown together, they eventually meld into a larger whole. With this project, there was no mindset of mixing any particular styles. Rather, the idea was to throw it against the wall and see what would stick.

“It definitely wasn’t conscious,” Driscoll said. “That has always been one of my strongest selling points, but one of my most difficult things to overcome in my career as well. For example, we just got nominated in my hometown of Syracuse’s area music awards. It’s been a month discussion on which category to put the album in. There’s certainly loads of African influence, loads of hip-hop, loads of reggae, loads of folk, loads of pop and, there’s even some elements of rock in there. I really would not know where to put this album in the CD store.”

When asked what people who don’t know much about their music could expect from the show, Driscoll said there isn’t much out that can really be compared to it.

“Some insanely funky grooves, a soloist ripping unbelievable riffs on that kora and something that, for my money, is a totally unique experience with the fusion of New York reggae and hip-hop mixed with the West African style – I think for me, looking around, it’s a one of a kind show,” Driscoll said. “It’s kind of like a modern day Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ but updated with hip-hop and reggae. We’re really looking forward to getting out there, and we hope the crowd out there in Ohio is looking forward to us just as much as we’re looking forward to getting out there.”

Joe Driscoll and Sekou Kouyate will perform at the University of Dayton Kennedy Union Boll Theatre, 300 College Park Ave., on Thursday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 for the general public, $12 for UD faculty, staff, alumni, seniors and $8 for UD students and youth. For more information, visit joeandsekou.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at RustyPate@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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