You were an adviser on the music, language and culture for the first two episodes of the BBC remake of Roots. What was it like working on that production?
It was an amazing experience. They were originally looking for a kora player to help an actor play the instrument. And then I met with the director of the first episode, Phillip Noyce, in London through Film Africa – a production company based in South Africa – and things evolved from there and I was taken on in a larger advisory/consultant type role for the series.
I was only supposed to be there for three weeks but got hijacked for two months in the end.
You were obviously highly-valued. Where were you filming?
We started filming in a small village near Durban in South Africa called Mtunzini (Swamp Forest) and after that we went to another village near Port Edward called Mzamba Valley and then after that to Cape Town and then back to Mzamba. So we shot in a variety of different places.
Did you get to know the cast and crew quite well then?
Yes, very much. I and Lucy Durán did as we were constantly on set, either on camera or on hand to answer questions from the cast and director about the Mandinka language or singing. The director was very specific in terms of what he wanted outside of the script. Something more authentic based on my own experiences. The experiences I have lived and what I have heard from my elders concerning circumcision and so many elements that reflected the actual culture of the protagonist Kunta Kinte and his background.
What was the atmosphere on the set like? The subject matter is very harrowing, did this permeate onto the set?
The stories very powerful, very striking. Like for example when we were shooting the scene on the big ship in episode 1. Water pouring on us for hours, singing the song over and over, lots of takes because we wanted to get the essence of that powerful and horrific moment.
What are your views in general on the depiction of African language and culture in mainstream TV and film?
It’s not easy. In our case, we had to teach this language to people who are not from this region. So the actors are American, British and South Africans. The phonetic of the Mandinka language is difficult for them. They did their best. It would have been easier in a way to use actors who actually speak these languages but the industry is the way it is and so actors will obviously be hired from Hollywood and places like that.
It took some time but we got to the point where it was more than acceptable and I think that shows. Other TV series don’t have this same accuracy.
You’re best known for your mastery of the kora, which is the instrument you teach at SOAS. What can you tell us about it?
It’s the West African harp lute. It has 21 strings. I come from the tradition of West African storytellers. It is a tradition passed from father to son.
I have taught it at SOAS for ten years, so a long time.
Indeed. Well thank you for sharing your experience of working on the series with us. Finally, do you have a favourite SOAS memory you can tell us about?
I had an amazing relationship with the former Director Paul Webley. I got to play at many events over the years at his invitation. Many special moments. So it was amazing for me to be able to play at his memorial event in the Paul Webley Wing recently. He’s someone that I really miss at SOAS.