Llangollen Fringe 2018 Interview : Josh Doughty & Tim TysonLlangollen Fringe Festival, St Collen's Church, Llangollen, Sat 21st July 2018
The kora is a 21 string Mandinka harp that is used in West African traditional music. Its long history (first referenced in the fourteenth century) and traditions are balanced with exciting contemporary cross-cultural explorations - for example, the instrument's versatility has been recently showcased in the rapturous interplay between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita on their hugely acclaimed 2018 album SOAR (see : Clarach).
The connections the instrument has to Wales do not stop with Catrin Finch's high profile collaboration - as the career of Welsh kora player Josh Doughty proves. Born in Powis and brought up in Pembrokeshire, Doughty learnt his first piece on the kora aged eight. Then, after lessons from his father, he progressed in 2007, and again in 2009, to periods of tutelage with master musician Toumani Diabaté at his Mali home.
Festivals, international travel, teaching, workshops and session work (including Sampha's Mercury prize winning album, Process) now fill Josh's time.
Songlines has described his status succinctly: "Josh Doughty has become a member of a dynasty that is transforming the kora, widening its audience and breaking new ground." He is prosaic about how this happened:
"I started playing the kora very young, when I was seven - I was immersed in it. My father played the kora, and I was surrounded by people who played it and were from the culture it came from. It was when I was thirteen or fourteen that I really started to fall in love with it. I found a cassette of Toumani Diabaté, and I became obsessed with the way he played. All I wanted to do was to be able to play like him, and I spent endless hours practising."
"It is as if I have always had a connection to the kora, there was never any conscious choice - then I went to Africa and could communicate with people through the music, and be linked to the ancient traditions. It was a profound experience for me."
Doughty's quietly hypnotic 2012 album, Jarabi, demonstrated a wide range of playing and compositional abilities. His more recent piece, Lumière, offers further insight into the kora's capacity to mesmerise when in the right hands. Josh is animated when talking about his fascination for the instrument:
"It's unique - both its link to a very old Jaliya tradition, and its flexibility. It's used in popular culture in Africa, and you can play diverse music on it - piano parts, jazz, pop. It is going to new places now, including new technologies - it's a very exciting time to be involved."
At the 2018 Llangollen Fringe Josh performed a scintillating set as part of a guitar/kora duo. Although they are both from Wales, Josh met his stage partner - guitar player and film-maker Tim Tyson - on his first, 2007, trip to Mali. Tyson was there to learn Manding guitar (a Jali guitar-style that forms the basis of Manding Swing when combined with Afro-Cuban dance music) and to accompany his daughter, who was appearing at a festival.
One aspect of how Tyson and Doughty work together can be heard on the track Shame what a fool believes, but there is a lot more to it, as Josh explains:
"We have played together a lot on and off, but we are working more consistently on new material now, and have some recorded already. We both come from a similar point - we play traditional African music, but we are from the Western world - so we share influences from both sides. We know traditional tunes and can play those together, but can also readily go in different directions."
"This is evident when we perform live. The show starts with solo kora - then some traditional kora/guitar music and then progresses into the more experimental compositions and effects we are working on as duo."
The July Llangollen Fringe date followed Josh winning the World Music Section of the Wales International Harp Festival, which was held at the Galeri, Caernarfon, earlier in the year. The Llangollen date was an inspired booking - the duo fit the Fringe's eclectic history, and the acoustics and reverential setting of St. Collen's church were a perfect place for their blessed music.
As well as performing and recording Josh teaches and runs workshops, notably this year including three days of continuous sessions at Womad 18.