The Benedictine motto is Ora et labora, or “Pray and work.” In the abbey’s orchards, monks work daily alongside hired local laborers, growing bananas, mangoes, kumquats, and three varieties of grapefruit. But much of their income derives from making, teaching, and playing the kora. A row of modest guesthouses welcomes students for yearly retreats; a busy workshop dispatches koras to monasteries, musicians, and jelis across the world. The monks are also successful recording artists, whose discography has earned, among other distinctions, the Albert Schweitzer International Prize for Music. Their more than a dozen albums collect masses and psalms alongside instrumental works of startling beauty: “Banehu Len,” an intricate suite played by seven koras; “Dimanche des Rameaux,” a spidery dirge to mark Christ’s entry into Jerusalem; and “Quand Renaît le Matin,” a searching evocation of mortality and resurrection. Their sound is as hard to forget as it is to categorize—and unlikely as their origins in the heady nineteen-sixties, when Négritude met Vatican II.
The nine monks who founded Keur Moussa didn’t 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 renowned as “the mecca of Gregorian chant.” Once in Senegal, they carried on singing in Latin—much to the delight of President Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Francophile ex-seminarian who attended the monastery’s opening in 1963. It 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 ordered churches to “inculturate,” or adapt, to the societies around them, particularly by tailoring their liturgies to the “native genius.” The monks opened their ears.
They began in a spirit of pure obedience. The young choirmaster, Dominique Catta, was uncomfortable with African rhythms—they felt, to him, like “stepping into the void”—and he started by arranging Wolof psalms that strictly observed Gregorian conventions. Gradually, though, he and the other monks fell headlong into Senegal’s musical culture, studying radio broadcasts, frequenting village festivals, and attending concerts in Dakar. An early breakthrough came from listening to a traditional singer of the Serer people, whose plaintive melody reminded Catta of a Renaissance motet. He started braiding local music into the liturgy, borrowing motifs from vernacular songs that welcomed the harvest or beseeched Marabouts for spiritual assistance. Rather than simply Gregorianizing what he heard, he began using the Church repertoire as a “key for deciphering African music.”
At the start, this hybrid liturgy’s only available accompaniment was a secondhand harmonium, whose “crybaby sounds” so irritated Catta that he pawned it off on a neighboring congregation. Then, in 1964, the monks heard an unfamiliar strumming on the radio. The locals didn’t recognize it, but a friend in Dakar identified it as a kora and donated a spare instrument to the monastery. At the time, knowledge of the instrument was tightly controlled by jelis, two of whom were persuaded to visit Keur Moussa and sell their teachings. A course of weekend lessons culminated in a landmark session at the monastery’s church, where the jelis played a Mandinka refrain as the monks chanted a psalm in Latin. Their concord was miraculous.
Within a year, Senegal’s Gregorian griots were accompanying themselves. In 1966, during the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, a Paris radio station broadcast a Mass at the monastery; not long after, Keur Moussa secured a record deal with Decca. “The sonorities of ‘kora’ and tam-tam mix, in a sort of soft and supple carpet, with the pure voices of the monks (blacks and whites together),” one critic wrote of their début, “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 across the world, from the Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez’s “Misa Criolla” to Father Guido Haazen’s famous “Missa Luba,” recorded in 1965 by a choir in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the monks followed up with research trips across the continent, working to create a truly pan-African liturgy.