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Cory Seznec and the East Africa experience

By Alison Hird

Franco-American guitarist and songwriter Cory Seznec comes from the American tradition of fingerpicking guitar, blues and ragtime. But three years living in Ethiopia and Kenya further enriched his style. He talks to RFI about bringing poly-rhythms into the "soupy gumbo of finger-style work" on his new album Backroad Carnival.

Seznec, a founding member of the roots act Groanbox and duo The Seznec Bros., has made a name for himself as a finger style guitarist and claw hammer banjoist.

“I’d always wanted to go to Africa,” he told RFI, “Bamako, Kinshasa… somewhere with a good guitar tradition.”

But life is full of surprises.

When his partner got a job in Addis they wound up in Ethiopia. Not an obvious place for a lover of the blues, bluegrass, New Orleans jazz. But it proved to be “incredible, a total eye opener,” he says.

“With Ethiopia we have this narrative here, you know there’s Ethio jazz, Mulatu Astake, the pop version [with] Mahmoud Ahmed, all these different guys who come and tour over here. But there’s a whole heavy dose of traditional music across the country.”

Local governments help fund small bands playing local instruments such as the krar (lyre), masenqo (one-string lute), kebero (drum) and washint (flute).

Seznec formed two bands of his own: MistO-MistO “a large ethio sci-fi pop band” and the more traditional Damakase. The latter introduced him to lots of folk musicians.

“I played some of the stuff on banjo, a little on guitar, to try and get closer to their sound. But my approach is not to repeat what they do, just mix it all up with other things.”

Three years in Addis runs through Cory Seznec's latest album Background Carnival © Philipp Schütz

Back in Paris, Seznec recorded his second album Background Carnival in late 2017. While the song Tattered Flag was “definitely influenced by a mix of Congolese guitar and maybe some Afro blues, Afrobeat type stuff”, the album leans more towards blues and American folk.

Seznec’s East African experience has, however, nourished several of the stories on the album.

The song Sell you my soul is directly influenced by his recording trip with Damakase.

“I ended up in the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia, putting microphones in these huts. And this man comes and tries to sell me his sister. And then I said ‘no’ and he tries to sell me his other sister. He was not joking.”

Seznec reckons the locals in this remote village probably hadn’t seen a farangi (foreigner) for a long time and saw an opportunity to make a quick killing.

“It was a kind of absurd and horrifying moment and triggered this blues tune; kind of a giant metaphor on how we’re all ready to sell our souls in different ways. This was an extreme version but we’ve all done it in ways to get ahead.”

The song Colette Bar & Restaurant meanwhile was inspired by a real bar in a small city called Awassa, run by “Madame Colette”.

Sung in French, Seznac says it's his "take on old school Congolese rumba” and revisits the spirit of evenings spent playing there with his band MistO MistO.

“The whole thing was absurd and funny. There were fights breaking out, the sound was a mess, we were eating fish on the lake. It was very beautiful and chaos as well.”

Omutibo torchbearers

In July 2016, Seznac headed off with filmmaker Gonzalo Guajardo to Luhya country in western Kenya to make a documentary on some of the few remaining omutibo style guitar players.

Omutibo is an old style of Kenyan guitar music played with thumb and index on the right hand.

"It’s very driving, interestingly syncopated [and was] influenced directly by the traditional music of the Luhya region of Kakamega in western Kenya," Seznac explains. "The founding father was George Mukabi and he and his descendants and others have taken on this tradition, but it’s sort of started to die out now. His son is one of the last really playing it.”

Seznec managed to track down three of the remaining guitarists. One is Shem Tube. “He has 16 kids and the youngest son, Wyclef, plays, and plays great. None of the others play.”

He promises an omutibo-style track on his next album. But for the moment praises a piece by William Osale, George Mukabi’s brother.

Usimalize Mali is sung in Luhya. It’s beautiful, driving music and speaks to me in a deep way. It’s hard to know why."

Part of the answer may lie in Osale’s finger picking prowess, despite having no thumb on his left hand.

“He lost his thumb in an accident with a saw or something so couldn’t clamp the guitar with his thumb. He’s just figured out how to do it without clamping the neck. How can you do that? It’s like Django Reinhardt’s shriveling three fingers on his left hand!”

Seznec performs at the Sunset jazz club, Paris, on 16 May. Follow him on facebook.

Check out his music blog, Cocoringo’s Circadian Sounds.

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