ⓘ Kora (instrument)
The kora is a string instrument used extensively in West Africa. A kora typically has 21-strings which are played by pucking with the fingers, and combines features of the lute and a harp.
A kora is a Mandinka harp built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run under it. It has 21 strings, each playing a different note. It supports a notched double free-standing bridge. It doesnt fit into any one category of musical instrument, but rather several, and must be classified as a "double-bridge-harp-lute". The strings run in two divided ranks, making it a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are held in notches on a bridge, making it a bridge harp. They originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, making it a lute too.
The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco and Delta blues guitar techniques of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings. Ostinato riffs "Kumbengo" and improvised solo runs "Birimintingo" are played at the same time by skilled players.
Kora players have traditionally come from jali families also from the Mandinka nationalities who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Gambia. Most West African musicians prefer the term "jali" to "griot", which is the French word. "Jali" means something similar to a "bard" or oral historian.
Traditional koras feature strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example cow or antelope skin - now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.
A vital accessory in the past was the nyenmyemo, a leaf-shaped plate of tin or brass with wire loops threaded around the edge. Clamped to the bridge, or the top end of the neck it produced sympathetic sounds, serving as an amplifier since the sound carried well into the open air. In todays environment players usually prefer or need an electric pickup.
By moving the konso a system of leather tuning rings up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian modes.
2. History of the Kora
In the 1300s, explorer Ibn Battuta did mention that the women who accompanied Dugha to perform were carrying bows that they plucked. He didnt mention the number of strings, but this clearly shows the existence of harp instruments in 14th century Mali and could be the earliest written reference to the kora. The kora is designed like a bow with a gourd but Ibn Battuta did not go into detail about these instruments. The earliest European reference to the kora in Western literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa 1799 by the Scotsman Mungo Park. The most likely scenario, based on Mandinka oral tradition, suggests that the origins of the kora may ultimately be linked with Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko, some time after the founding of Kaabu in the 16th century.
The kora is mentioned in the Senegalese national anthem "Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons".
Nowadays, increasingly, koras are made with guitar machine heads instead of the traditional konso leather rings. The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that this design limits the pitch of the instrument because string lengths are more fixed and lighter strings are needed to lift it much more than a tone. Learning to tune a traditional kora is arguably as difficult as learning to play it, and many tourists who are entranced by the sound while in West Africa buy koras and then find themselves unable to keep it in tune once they are home, relegating it to the status of ornament. Koras can be converted to replace the leather rings with machine heads. Wooden pegs and harp pegs are also used, but both can still cause tuning problems in damper climates unless made with great skill.
In the late 20th century, a 25-string model of the kora was developed, though it has been adopted by only a few players, primarily in the region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Some kora players such as Seckou Keita have double necked koras, allowing them to switch from one tuning to another within seconds, giving them increased flexibility.
The French Benedictine monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal who possibly were the first to introduce guitar machine heads instead of leather rings in the late seventies conceived a method based on scores to teach the instrument. Brother Dominique Catta, choirmaster of the Keur Moussa Abbey, was the first Western composer who wrote for the kora solo pieces as well as duets with Western instruments.
An electric instrument modeled on the kora but made primarily of metal called the gravikord was invented in the late 20th century by instrument builder and musician Robert Grawi. It has 24 strings but is tuned and played differently than the kora. Another instrument, the Gravi-kora, a 21 string electro-acoustic instrument, was later developed by Robert Grawi especially for kora players who wanted a modern instrument. Its playing and tuning are the same as the traditional kora. The gravi-kora has been adopted by kora players such as Daniel Berkman, Jacques Burtin, and Foday Musa Suso, who featured it in recordings with jazz innovator Herbie Hancock, with his band Mandingo, and on Susos New World Power album.
The kora music being part of the oral tradition, its music was not written until the 20th century. The ethnomusicologists were the only ones to note some traditional airs in the normal grand staff method using the G clef and the F clef.
Nowadays, kora scores are written on a single G clef, following the Keur Moussa notation system. This notation system was created for the kora in the late 1970s by Brother Dominique Catta, a monk of the Keur Moussa Monastery Senegal. The seven low notes that should be written on the F clef are replaced by Arabic or Roman numerals and written on the G clef.
While griots still compose in the traditional way without writing scores, some Western musicians began to write partitures for the kora and adopted the Keur Moussa notation system at the beginning of the 1980s. More than 200 scores have already been written for kora solo or kora and Western instruments. Two notable Western composers for the kora are Brother Dominique Catta and Jacques Burtin France, who wrote most of these scores, though composers like Carole Ouellet Canada, Brother Gregoire Philippe Monastere de Keur Moussa and Sister Claire Marie Ledoux France contributed with original works.
Derek Gripper Cape Town, South Africa has transcribed a number of West African kora compositions, by Toumani Diabate and others, for performance on western-style classical guitar, and has performed some of these transcriptions on two recordings and in concert from 2012 through the present 2017.
- Ousmane Sow Huchard, La kora: objet-temoin de la civilisation manding: essai danalyse organologique dune harpe-luth africaine, Presses universitaires de Dakar, Dakar, 2000.
- Eric Charry, Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
5.1. Selected discography African composers oral tradition
- Mali: cordes anciennes "Mali: Ancient Strings", Sidiki Diabate and Djelimadi Sissoko, Buda Music, 2000. First published in 1970, this CD was the first album totally devoted to the kora. Sidiki Diabate was the son of Toumani Diabate, and Djelimadi Sissoko was the father of Ballake Sissoko. They both recorded New Ancient Strings - Nouvelles Cordes Anciennes in 1999 Hannibal, as a tribute to their fathers.
- Gambie: lart de la kora, Jali Nyama Suso, edited by Roderic Knight, Ocora, 1996. First published in 1972, this CD is also a historical recording.
- The Mande Variations, Toumani Diabate, World Circuit, 2008. Twenty years after his first CD, Kaira Hannibal, 1988 - the first CD ever recorded with solo kora pieces without any song, Toumani Diabate alternates traditional pieces on a kora with leather rings and his own creations with a special tuning on a kora with wooden pegs.
- Kora Melodies from the Republic of The Gambia, West Africa, Alhaji Bai Konte, Recorded and produced by Marc D. Pevar; photography and notes by Marc and Susan Pever. Rounder Records 5001.
- Jali Kunda - Griots of West Africa & Beyond, Ellipsis Arts, 1996. A book and a CD edited by Foday Musa Suso, produced by Bill Laswell. Photographs by Daniel Laine. A journey through traditional kora music and three original meetings: kora and piano "Spring Waterfall" by Foday Musa Suso and Philip Glass; kora and synthesizers ; kora and saxophone "Samma", a duet with jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.
5.2. Selected discography Western composers written music
- Le Jour des Merveilles, Jacques Burtin, 3-CD Box Set, Bayard Musique, 2009. Pieces for solo kora, duets with cello, viola, guitar and koto, suites for flute, guitar and three koras.
- Quand renait le matin, Abbaye de Keur Moussa, Art et Musique, 2007. First published in 1991, this album gathers pieces composed and performed by Brother Dominique Catta and Carole Ouellet: solo kora pieces, songs with kora accompaniment and a Concerto for flute and three koras. There is also a piece composed by Brother Gregoire for three koras differently tuned played by one musician.
6. Notable kora players
- NFaly Kouyate Guinea
- Foday Musa Suso Gambia, United States, recorded with Herbie Hancock
- Djeli Moussa Diawara also known as Jali Musa Jawara Guinea, now playing a 32-stringed Kora
- Sona Jobarteh Gambia/United Kingdom, female kora player
- Moussa Kouyate Mali
- Ablaye Cissoko Senegal
- Papa Susso Gambia
- Jalli Lamin Kuyateh Gambia/The Netherlands
- Toumany Kouyate Senegal - singer and musician for O Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.
- Kandia Kouyate Mali
- Soriba Kouyate Senegal
- Justin Perkins United States
- Toumani Diabate Mali
- Guylene Solon Haiti/United States, female kora player
- Bai Konte Gambia
- Jali Nyama Suso Gambia
- Alhaji Bai Konte Gambia
- Jaliba Kuyateh Gambia
- William Parker United States
- David Gilden Texas/United States
- Lamin Saho Gambia
- Jacques Burtin France
- Adam Doughty United Kingdom
- Mamadou Sidiki Diabate Mali
- Tasana Camara Guinea
- Sidiki Diabate Mali
- Ballake Sissoko Mali
- Dembo Konte Gambia
- Mamadou Diabate Mali
- Seckou Keita United Kingdom
- Tunde Jegede Nigeria/United Kingdom
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