Musical Instruments: the Kora

Of all the instruments made from a vegetable, the kora has to be one of my favourites. It’s made from a large calabash, a type of gourd that grows in West Africa, the original home of this instrument. The calabash is harvested, scooped out and the shell cut in half. A cow skin is used to create a resonator, like a drum skin. Then a long piece of hardwood is inserted to make the neck of the instrument for the twenty one strings of this harp-lute.

Until recent times, it wasn’t just anybody that could pick up the kora to play. That’s because the kora was one of the instruments played exclusively by a hereditary class of musician/storytellers known as griots, whose families originate from the time of the Mali empire, which spanned a large part of West Africa during the 13th -17th centuries. The role of the griot (known locally as jali or jeli), an important one in Mande culture, included learning the history, genealogy and traditions of their people and passing on that knowledge to future generations, through story and song.

There are a few well known griot family names: Diabaté (alternative spelling Jobarteh) Kouyaté and Cissoko for example. In the following clip, Toumani Diabaté talks about the griot’s tradition of kora-playing, and we see a kora being made.

The popularity of the kora in the West has led to people wanting to learn to play it, as is apparent from the clip above. I notice Toumani’s use of the French word ‘amateur’ is translated in the subtitles as ‘lover’ – the literal meaning. Sadly, the word ‘amateur’ in English has acquired the connotation of inferiority. As an enthusiast, I have been tempted to sign up for kora classes at the music summer school held at SOAS, University of London but so far have resisted taking up yet another instrument.

However, a good few years ago, I came across a small kora for sale. I bought it but I have never been able to tune it, as the hide that is used to tie the strings on has become brittle, so for the moment it’s hanging on the wall. I notice that nowadays kora players (particularly on the world stage), such as Toumani himself, have machine heads fitted to their kora which makes tuning easier. Perhaps I’ll try that with my mini kora …

I recently posted some clips of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté and if you enjoyed their music you might like this playlist which covers a range of players, ensembles and styles including kora jazz, kora with cello and my current favourite: kora with viol, percussion and setar.

Here’s one more clip for you, from Africa’s first female griot kora player and singer, Sona Jobarteh. In this video we hear a live performance of her song entitled Gambia. What I love about this track is the sheer joy from everyone joining in, singing and dancing.

Here’s the official video release of the same track which features some brilliant dancing, a beautiful beach and a zebra.

And here are a few of my recommended recordings of kora music:

Kaouding Sissoko: Kora Revolution

Toumani Diabate: Kaira; The Mandé Variations; Toumani and Sidiki

Ballaké Cissoko and Vincent Segal: Chamber Music; Musique de Nuit

Mory Kante: The Best of Mory Kante

Sona Jobarty: Fasiya

Constantinople & Ablaye Cissoko: Jardins Migrateurs

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