On my last day of training wth Hammay, we went to Sanementereng which is a very important place. It is the place that Jali Madi Wuleng first received the kora from the spirit world of the Jinns. When I first visited The Gambia in 2012, I found this place accidentally on my own taking a long walk from Sukuta as I was feeling lonely and homesick after 5.5 weeks in a new land. I walked all the way to the turntable and beyond in the blazing hot sunshine until a kind taxi driver stopped me and offered me a lift to the Brufut fishing place for free. Then I walked along the beach and sat under a tree. Not long after, a man stopped to chat and after explaining I was learning the kora, he let me into the secret of the place. We walked up to the holy tree, I removed my shoes, wrote a prayer and buried it under some small stones.

It was so good to return there again after 6 years. As I explained earlier in my blog, I can only share an outer husk of this experience through words. Perhaps the music Hammay and I shared with the spirit world can give an impression. I’ll be working on trying to improve the audio quality when I get chance but here’s the rough cut for now of one of the pieces we played our last training day together. We sat on the tree roots and said thank you to the spirits/universe/God first before playing.

This song Djata, as I explained below, is compiled from different parts of the Djata story. Son of Farakoro Makhan and Sukulun Konteh, Djata saved the Mandinkas from the evil grasp of a brutal tyrant. Djata the first born and the last, He took the bows and arrows.


Sorry / thank you

I realised when listening back to recordings of my training with Hammay that I say sorry all the time – too much. I also noticed that Hammay was saying Abaraka (thank you) when I made a decent attempt at a new variation or played something well. It made me realise that it’s more productive to be grateful for the things that have gone well than to be anxious or apologetic for the things that haven’t gone so well. Say thank you for the learning, rather than sorry!

I now remember a similar learning curve from last year’s training – the things I am unable to do today, I may be able to tomorrow. Have patience and keep trying.

It’s not necessary to say sorry for getting a few notes of music muddled up. There are sins that are worthy of apology and repentance but getting jumbled over fingers and thumbs in a musical context is not amongst these! My “sorries” actually spoiled the flow of some really beautiful shared musical experiences but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Hopefully i will keep returning to this important lesson as I continue my Kora journey!


New Gambia


I spent most of January working hard with my incredible teacher Jali Hammay Saho in The Gambia – Kora bootcamp! It was wonderful to arrive peacefully in The Gambia again after all the potential turmoil last January when tourists were evacuated due to the political situation arising over Jammeh’s departure and Barrow’s inauguration. New Gambia is positively buzzing with palpable fresh energy – people seem relaxed and happy – trade is hopefully picking up again after the economic ramifications of last year’s events.

Once again, I stayed with the wonderful Senghore Family in their compound in Kololi, not so far from Sukuta where Hammay and my friends live and convenient for accessing WiFi facilities in nearby Senegambia. It’s a lovely, peaceful place, cooled by sea breezes and with plenty of shade in which to sit practising, working and reflecting. The family are so welcoming and warm and I love them dearly as if they were my own relatives. Everything is easy going with them supporting me and through my relationship with them I feel more confident going about in their local community – walking to the little shops or saying hello to people feels easy because locals know I am staying with a very good, respectful, hard working and Godly family.


My learning agenda for this trip was to focus in detail on just 3 pieces rather than trying to learn many songs partially.  I also wanted to improve my technique, making more use of my thumbs and developing clearer articulation, in keeping with traditional West African ways of playing. I selected the three pieces through discussion with Hammay in advance of coming as they needed to thread into the thematic material of the whole album. We’d also worked a little on the basic accompaniments and some thumb figures using WhatsApp – Hammay would record short phrases and send them to me for me to learn.

My album will be called “The Nine Pure Gifts” and this derives from a wonderful invocation of the gifts from the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of prayers and incantations from the Western Isles of Scotland.

“I bathe thy palms in showers of wine,

In the lustral fire, in the seven elements,

In the juice of the rasps, in the milk of the honey,

And I place the nine pure gifts in thy fair fond face,

The gift of form

The gift of voice

The gift of fortune

The gift of goodness

The gift of eminence

The gift of charity

The gift of integrity

The gift of nobility

The gift of apt speech”

The album will have an introductory piece setting the scene and then each song/piece will be one of the nine pure gifts.

With Hammay, I wanted to work on two quite old and classical kora pieces. Tuta Jarra belongs to the Jarra Kunda (family) and Sukulun Konteh, daughter of Sankarang Madibar Konteh, was the mother of the great leader of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita. This is her family song as Konteh are part of Jarra Kunda. I wanted to celebrate Sukulun’s role in raising and supporting the child who would become one of the most important Nobles in West African history – even through torment, public ridicule, exile and finally through her own death.  Tuta Jarra would therefore be the gift of nobility. Her nobility and that of Sundiata her son.

The story of Sundiata would take days to unfold and is traditionally accompanied by many and various different Kora pieces and songs. I wanted to work with Hammay on some of this Djata epic as the gift of eminence. There has never been a more eminent leader in all of West African history – a King of great justice and integrity. He took the bows and arrows, son of Nare Makhan Konateh, he took the bows and arrows, son of Sukulun Konteh, he conquered the bush, hero of heroes, making his mother’s name famous, He took the bows and the arrows.

On my second training trip to the Gambia in 2015, I was pleased to meet the grandson of Ansoumana Susaba Susso, a master griot who had composed the song Jula Jekere Bayo around 100 years ago. He loved to come and listen to Hammay and me practising this song under the tree in Sukuta. Jula Jekere Bayo converted to Islam after a slightly more shady past and in doing so, made Tobaski offerings of charity to many people. This song would therefore be the gift of charity. There should be no war when the traders are praying and offering charity to their people – go and tell all the kings the traders are praying. If only today’s traders were more occupied in prayer and less in exploitation.

I’ll tell you all about the other gifts in the next blog update but for now, back to New Gambia!


I certainly didn’t expect to witness part of the life cycle of the praying mantis right on my doorstep in the flowers next to my house. In the first picture, you can see what I think is the male praying mantis enjoying life on a leaf for now. In the middle photo, you can see how the female mantis on the left has sucked the life out of the male mantis on the right following procreation and all that remains is his exoskeleton. In the third photo, you can see the pregnant female with tail unfurled, belly full of child and husband. Slightly “ugh” but also fascinatingly mind-boggling and miraculously beautiful.

I guess slightly “ugh” but also fascinatingly mind-boggling and miraculously beautiful is an apt way of describing elements of this trip. Ugh certainly applies to putting on horrid deet every morning and evening to repel malaria carrying mosquitos. Deet melts plastic away and eats into metal (as I discovered when it leaked on my tuning device for the kora) – what on earth does it do to your skin? Fascinatingly mind-boggling applies to the many stories, histories, proverbs and tales I heard from Hammay and other folk – happenings and mystical mishappenings from a culture so far removed from my own I sometimes shuddered, cried inexplicably or danced with fervour on my own outside my house just to ease the enormity and heaviness of what I had heard. Miraculously beautiful applies to this little monkey – my friend Nur aged 5 who came to play each day with her Aunty Holly. We made a card for Hammay and Hawa’s new baby boy – another little beautiful miracle!


I drank a lot of Julbrew beer and some gin in the late evenings when I was alone and listening back to the recordings of the day or reflecting! I tried to keep a proper diary but only got to the 15th January. Reading and re-reading Niane’s translation of Mamadou Kouyate’s narration of the Sundiata epic, I came across this;

“Other peoples use writing to record the past, but this invention has killed the faculty of memory among them. They do not feel the past anymore, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice. What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books.”

I am sometimes too reliant on referring back to things I have written down rather than actually memorising and embodying/living out my knowledge. I want to remember my lived experience during this Africa trip in new ways. The way my body tingled and my heart leapt when I held my teacher’s newborn first son in the hospital only two hours after his birth. The immense gratitude that surged in my spirit as Hammay and I sat under the holy tree at Sanementereng and played and sang to the spirits and for God/Goodness. The tears that flew from my eyes when one of the visitors in the compound spontaneously came and sang his Quranic prayers to the accompaniment of my kora, kneeling at my feet on the veranda outside my house. The childlike playfulness of games of hide and seek with Adama and Nur in my little house. The prickle of nervous excitement and depth of honour in singing/playing my teacher’s Saho family song with him and his Aunty and baby Musa Saho who had just been named that morning in a special ceremony. You can’t sum these kind of experiences up neatly in sentences. They are mine – God given, given through Good, they are secret in part, like the secrets of Malian history but I can share some outer husk of their form with you through words.

It is helpful to write things down – I’m rubbish at remembering names of characters and Mandinka vocabulary but the more you use it, the less you lose it.



I’m keen to get back to my practise now but I’ll be posting some videos and offering a few more insights into my trip in the next instalment so please bear with me!

Hammay Saho is a patient, honest and thorough teacher who has become a brother to me. I am blessed to know Hawa Saho and little nephew Musa Saho. What wonderful neighbours they have around in Sukuta! I am also blessed to be part of Senghore Kunda in Kololi – it is a fantastic place to stay if you are visiting the Gambia.

More in due course.



Increasing productivity

At the beginning of December I had the good fortune to participate in music careers coach Angela Beeching’s Creative Productivity Challenge course which was hosted by NewMusicBox USA on their Facebook Site. Angela covered different topics each day, intending to help musicians conquer any negative gremlins, establish milestones across a realistic timeframe for particular projects, use their time more efficiently and productively and to be more positive in articulating their goals.

This was perfect timing for me at the mid-way point in my sabbatical. I had started to think slightly negatively about having so much time and yet seeming to be achieving so little. I had fallen into negative patterns of thinking which were working counter to efficiency.

By participating in the course each day, I started to plan out my time using the Pomodoro Technique whereby you set 25 minutes for undertaking one particular task and time yourself doing it, stopping when the time is up. Generally, the brain tends to switch off if you are focussed on a task over a longer period of time so breaking the day up into varied 25 minute chunks helped me to keep my brain active and to feel like I was achieving a lot more across each day. I also reflected on why I am often so hard on myself, telling myself I am not doing enough or not doing things as well as I should be doing them. This actually stems from a very positive drive to achieve my full potential but the negative gremlins get hold of this and twist it into something else!

Angela’s wise words, drawn from an array of related research literature helped me to reframe my focus more positively and the establishment of a schedule of small building blocks of time helped me to feel I was being much more productive and to congratulate myself on small achievements.

I also set timelines for the recording and production of my CD, for the associated tour and for the next phase of my So Many Beauties project. There’s a lot of work to be done in bringing in funding for these projects but having realistic timelines to work to helped the forthcoming workload to seem less mountainous!

The Pomodoro technique was also useful for practising the kora. I would spend 25 minutes working on a particular element of one piece such as phrasing or articulation rather than solid hours of just playing without really focussing on the fine detail.

This “chipping away” at different tasks across each day really gave me a sense of momentum and couldn’t have come at a better time. Also, “chipping away” at negative thought processes has been brilliant. One way of countering negativity is to consider what Angela referred to as the Gratitude Flow. Think of one small thing that has made you happy in the last few hours – it might be stroking your cat, enjoying a nice meal, hearing the birds singing in the trees. Really embody the happy feeling of gratitude for those small things. Scientific research shows the brain is unable to experience happy thoughts at the same time as negative thoughts. The gratitude flow can at least divert the brain away from negative thoughts for a short time and the more you do it, the more you can reprogram your brain to steer towards a more positive outlook.

You can find the first part of Angela’s course here and then follow on to the other sessions from the site.

Following on from Angela’s course, I decided to treat myself to a 5 day trip to Eigg to celebrate my birthday on this incredible Island and also to review where the materials for the album were up to. I was incredibly lucky with the weather, especially on my birthday when I was able to walk round the coastline without a coat on and to go bare-legged into the sea for a splash about! I was also able to enjoy some of the island festivities in the run up to Christmas including the primary school’s amazing Winter Solstice musical, written by Nanai Van Goght and the Community Christmas Dinner on my birthday where everyone brought and shared food.

It was wonderful to stay in the Laig Beach Bothy again and to share time and music with friends on the island. Here’s a photo medley from my trip so you get a flavour!


On my return from Eigg, I shared a wonderful Christmas with my brother and his family and our Mum and Dad. My brother JR Marland is the most wonderful chef (he works as Head of Creative at Rhubarb designing menus for the great and the good). We had a fantastic meal, I drank lots of gin and we all enjoyed family games together including cards and scrabble!



I’ve been on sabbatical for three months and I’m over half way with preparing the materials for my solo album. At the beginning of November, I made an appointment to get feedback on my unsuccessful application for funding the album. I can definitely recommend speaking to funders whenever possible because otherwise you spend time coming up with your own ideas about why you didn’t get the money! I had surmised from my own research that many previous recipients were already further on in their recording careers as well as having had significant nominations for prizes and lots of radio play. I was told my application was really strong but because I had listed my genres as “classical”, “world” and “folk” in that order (without realising that they would subsequently be prioritised in that order), the classical reviewer had stated that the concept and proposed content didn’t seem “classical enough” compared with other classical applications.

Massive lesson learned for me and I’m really grateful to the funders for making feedback available but it’s also made me think a lot about how my music actually does fall between these categorisations without being in one genre specifically. I’ve been veering between feeling slightly displaced and boldly pioneering! Why does music get shoved into these boxes? – for the people who stand to make money out of it and need to carve out specific audiences for it? I don’t really care who my album reaches – I’m not trying to target any supposed “type of person/consumer” in particular, I hope that someone of any age/ability/preference could enjoy it and get something from it. I’d also like to make it as beautiful and meaningful as it can possibly be, with the contributions of other great artists in performing and recording it.

If I’d put “folk” first or “world” first would the same issue have arisen as my music doesn’t really stand in either of those categories completely?

Do audience members really like to be defined in terms of genre classification? Toumani Diabate’s solo kora playing is virtuosically intricate, draws from the very roots of the kora playing tradition and speaks of Mali and of the world. It’s not just “world music”. Do people like being put in boxes any more than this beautiful Kora from The Gambia from around 1848 likes being put in a glass case and being peered at as a world music curiosity (with a broken string as well – the Stradivarius would never be displayed with a broken string).


(Kora from around 1848 in the Paris Instrument Museum which I visited on 12 November)

Anyway, I’m so bloody minded that the last three tracks, oh sorry, “pieces”, I’ve written for the album since getting the feedback at the start of the month draw more heavily on my “classical” training than they might have done – I’m so naughty! I think it was a combination of wanting to do a slight “two fingers” at not being “classical enough” and the joy of composing two piano based pieces which allow for much more modulation and chromaticism as well as writing a really rather strange choral octet which I can’t wait to hear performed.

All the text for the album derives from Celtic and African “folklore” – my own poetry in response to certain themes and texts from the translations of epics in Gaelic and Mandinka. I’ll tell you more about the central theme in the next instalment. I’ve been really getting into researching and reading different epic tales and finding common archetypes and messages. Let’s hope everyone can find something to enjoy! There will be classical, world and folk influences!!!!

I had a really fun time in Paris at the beginning of November visiting my dear friends Marianne Clarac and Cecile Provot who I used to work with at Musique et Sante. I also caught up with Philippe Bouteloup, Musique et Sante’s Director. Between 2007 and 2013 we did some very exciting European Project work around music in hospital settings, pioneering the movement in the UK, Ireland and in Eastern Europe. I’m really proud of having been at the forefront of that work with such inspirational people. On this trip I got to sing Georgian choral music and a Beatles Mash Up with Marianne and a lovely workshop singing group standing in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum led by Stephen Taberner!


I love Paris and felt totally energised being there. Although you might have noted I was a bit cross about the Kora being stuck in a glass case with a broken string in the instrument museum, I did get to hear a Strad. violin being played by the co-leader of the Paris Philharmonic which made me cry my eyes out. The sound was so grave.

I also went to a fabulous Brazilian singalong samba night and got swept up by the gorgeous, predominantly Brazilian, audience who didn’t care at all that I didn’t know the moves or the songs!

The Moma exhibition at Foundation Louis Vuitton is definitely worth a visit. My favourite was hearing Tallis’s Spem in Alium recorded using 40 different microphones for each part and played back in a large circle of 40 speakers which you could move around to hear different lines.

I’ve just come back from a weekend with musical friends – happy times jamming with drums, voices and stringed instruments of different sorts! We also got to hear DhakhaBrakha live in Bangor. This Ukranian group are my current favourite artists – such an impeccable, incredible performance. We got to model our hats with them on stage afterwards!


You can watch a live performance/interview with the group on KEXP here

Right, I’d better get back to my kora training – still working on my thumbs and trying to apply some more complex thumb work on the traditional West African songs that will feature on the album…more next month and a very Happy Christmas and New Year to everyone! Here’s a beautiful French carol that we used to sing every year at school to get you in the mood!



Yesterday the clocks went back and we gained an extra hour. This is what being on sabbatical feels like – gaining precious time. It’s been almost 2 months now and I’m just starting to settle into a new way of being. I’ve never had such an extensive period of complete “time out” on my own – I never had a gap year for travelling as many young people do and I’ve worked full time since graduating from University up to the grand old age of 44! I was very lucky to receive both a Winston Churchill Fellowship and a Finzi Award for travelling but both of these trips had very set agendas and required detailed analysis of how project aims were met.

So this precious time, generously supported by Katherine McGillivray Get a Life Fund, is a completely new experience and a massive luxury. I really do feel like I am getting a life! Not having to hare around on public transport to far-flung concerts, workshops and projects has afforded me time for mindful reflection on the past, physical exercise on my new mountain bike and at the gym, catching up with inspirational friends and enjoying time at home with my cat Geoffrey!

Of course, I have objectives for the sabbatical: to improve my kora playing and knowledge of the kora and its history, to build my compositional portfolio and to explore funding streams for my performance and healthcare work. Being able to creatively work on these objectives without a pressing sense of deadline is immensely liberating but also quite an unusual experience. I’ve had to consciously stop beating myself up for feeling like I’m not working hard enough just because I’m not panicking over looming deadlines and burning the midnight oil!

It’s hard to reprogram negative ways of thinking – “I didn’t practise hard enough today – will I ever be able to play that complicated polyrhythm”, “is that song good enough for the album?”, “only a few months left and then it’ll be over”, “there are so many virtuoso Kora players – what’s the point?”. However, this reprogramming of myself is proving to be a really vital part of the sabbatical. Reframing negative thought processes and embracing a positive ‘going with the flow” attitude – letting myself take time with my practise and creativity and learning to congratulate myself on achieving small milestones.

Since I got back home from 3 weeks in Eigg, I’ve started to make quite significant strides in improving my thumb technique on the Kora. I’ve been having “What’sApp” lessons over the last few weeks with Muhammed Saho my teacher who has been passing on exercises which involve fast, ornamented phrases. These are the kinds of phrases that the index fingers find relatively easy but the lazy thumbs are less inclined to tackle. I’m trying to develop little “brains” in my thumbs so that they are much more aware of what they are doing rather than stabbing away in the dark! These ornamentations and their specific articulations are very traditional for the kora and any griot listening should hopefully appreciate my desire to play in a more authentic way whilst also writing new music for the instrument.

I’ve also managed to distil a theme for my solo album from an extensive amount of research, watching documentaries and reading. I’m not going to reveal this in its entirety quite yet but I will do soon! I’ve realised that if I try to write “lyrics” they can sometimes sound a bit contrived and simplistic (Note to self – maybe a bit too derogatory but somewhat true!). I’ve therefore been experimenting with writing poetry and then setting this to music and this is quite an exciting new way of working. The poetry doesn’t need to have a fixed metre, stanza length or to rhyme. This means that the melodies that arise from it are freer in movement and there are more opportunities for word painting and alliteration within lines rather than the words following a preset melody. I’ve written 3 tracks so far and have another poem to set. I’ll be arranging these for kora, strings, voices and percussion.

I didn’t get the first funding I applied for to record the CD and, in the bid not to beat myself up, consoled myself with the knowledge that most of last year’s recipients were already very well established with several albums out, radio play and Mercury nominations! I am going to try and find other more realistic sources of funding for this debut album and have been compiling a list of prospects. Rather than just doing the bog standard album tour, I’m keen to collaborate with other artists/producers to develop the musical material into a small scale, easy to put on theatre production that could tour unusual venues…watch this space!

I’ve also been exploring funding options for my “So Many Beauties (SMB)” healthcare project (dementia/neonatology) which will move into phase 2 once the sabbatical is over. I hope to establish SMB as a CIC and to really build this programme of work so that my portfolio is 50% healthcare work and 50% performance/composition work. Seeing the impact of music on people with dementia and also families with premature babies has been such a transformative experience for me. The premiere of the oratorio So Many Beauties was also met with such incredible critical acclaim that it makes absolute sense to try and develop this work further.

So I’ve certainly not been idle over the last three weeks but equally I’m learning not to over saturate myself with expectations and pressures. It takes time to change the way you work – the way you think about and approach work. I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to take more time and hope I can adjust my working life post-sabbatical so I’m not feeling so pressurised and anxious as I have been in the past. I hope to gain a good work-life balance in the future, to have projects in healthcare that are more local and require less travel and to have put something new and beautiful out there on the music scene.

Here’s a sketch of one of the new tracks from the album as an appetiser in the mean time! Actually, I take that last statement back, time isn’t mean – it’s generous if it’s used mindfully! This track isn’t in my new poetic style but the lyrics are drawn from a prayer for pilgrims from the Celtic collection Carmina Gadelica.

Eigg sketches

I’ve uploaded some of the unedited field recordings I captured whilst I was in Eigg last year (August 2016). You can listen to them here:

My creative batteries are charging up for the sabbatical time ahead being here in this incredible setting.

The enchanted Isle of Eigg

It’s been an epic start to my sabbatical, coming to the Isle of Eigg for three weeks to let off steam romping round the Autumnal landscapes, sharing a fair few drams with old and new friends, reflecting on the last year of musical projects and beginning to assimilate themes and content for a new solo album.

Eigg is my place of pilgrimage. I am utterly in love with its lochs, brooks, forests, glades, shorelines, cliffs, bracken, pastures, rainbows, storms, tides. The people aren’t bad either!

How brilliant to have a proper holiday here after such an intense year of work! I was so lucky to be joined by dear friends Olga, Geri and Dave in the first week, staying in the incredible Laig Beach Bothy. We were joined by the stupendously marvellous Stephen Taberner of the Spooky Men’s Chorale who we lured from Glasgow using various forms of emotional blackmail. Watching him magic people into music making was hugely inspirational and I’ve learned a lot from observing and also being participant to his approach.

I’ve explored new parts of the island and played my kora outside in the balmy Autumnal sun. Today I’m writing a funding application to support the recording of the new album so fingers and toes will be crossed for a favourable outcome.

I’ll be collecting all the recordings from last year’s work on this site in due course as well as blogging about the sabbatical and posting ideas for the album but, in the mean time, here is a live recording of the title movement from the oratorio So Many Beauties co-composed by me and people with dementia which premiered at Manchester Cathedral in April 17.  Thanks to Stephen Kilpatrick from Salford University who recorded the live performance.


Holly’s Sabbatical Blog

Generously funded by Katherine McGillvray’s Get a Life Fund, I’ve started a 7 month sabbatical as of today! This time will be spent practising the kora and working on compositions with a view to recording a solo album in April 2018 and then going on tour. I’ve decided to leave Facebook as it becomes quite time consuming and so I’ll be keeping a log of my activities and adventures on this site.

I’ve had a lovely first day today, writing some new technical exercises for the kora – “cat on the shoulder” and “the lion is full of dignity”. These are to get my thumbs working a bit better!

I’ve also started a new composition, read The Sunjata Story (Penguin Epics) and watched Jali Alaji Mbye telling the Story of the Kora (click on link to view).

I’ll be updating reasonably regularly. I’m off to Scotland in two weeks time to the beautiful island of Eigg so I’ll take lots of photos so you can see why I have fallen in love with it!

Kora blankspace