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Kora (instrument)

Kora (instrument)

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The kora is a 21-string
String instrument
A string instrument is a musical instrument that produces sound by means of vibrating strings. In the Hornbostel-Sachs scheme of musical instrument classification, used in organology, they are called chordophones...

 bridge-harp
Harp
The harp is a multi-stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicularly to the soundboard. Organologically, it is in the general category of chordophones and has its own sub category . All harps have a neck, resonator and strings...

 used extensively in West Africa
West Africa
West Africa or Western Africa is the westernmost region of the African continent. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Western Africa includes the following 16 countries and an area of approximately 5 million square km:-Flags of West Africa:...

.

Description


A kora is built from a large calabash
Calabash
Lagenaria siceraria , bottle gourd, opo squash or long melon is a vine grown for its fruit, which can either be harvested young and used as a vegetable, or harvested mature, dried, and used as a bottle, utensil, or pipe. For this reason, the calabash is widely known as the bottle gourd...

 cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator, and has a notched bridge
Bridge
A bridge is a structure built to span physical obstacles such as a body of water, valley, or road, for the purpose of providing passage over the obstacle...

. It does not fit well into any one category of western instruments and would have to be described as a double bridge harp lute. The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco
Flamenco
Flamenco is a genre of music and dance which has its foundation in Andalusian music and dance and in whose evolution Andalusian Gypsies played an important part....

 and delta blues guitar techniques. The player uses only the thumb and index finger 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
Ostinato
In music, an ostinato is a motif or phrase, which is persistently repeated in the same musical voice. An ostinato is always a succession of equal sounds, wherein each note always has the same weight or stress. The repeating idea may be a rhythmic pattern, part of a tune, or a complete melody in...

 riffs ("Kumbengo") and improvised solo runs
Solo (music)
In music, a solo is a piece or a section of a piece played or sung by a single performer...

 ("Birimintingo") are played at the same time by skilled players.

Kora players have traditionally come from griot
Griot
A griot or jeli is a West African storyteller. The griot delivers history as a poet, praise singer, and wandering musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition. As such, they are sometimes also called bards...

 families (also from the Mandinka
Mandinka people
The Mandinka, Malinke are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa with an estimated population of eleven million ....

 nationalities) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. The instrument is played in Guinea
Guinea
Guinea , officially the Republic of Guinea , is a country in West Africa. Formerly known as French Guinea , it is today sometimes called Guinea-Conakry to distinguish it from its neighbour Guinea-Bissau. Guinea is divided into eight administrative regions and subdivided into thirty-three prefectures...

, Guinea Bissau, Mali
Mali
Mali , officially the Republic of Mali , is a landlocked country in Western Africa. Mali borders Algeria on the north, Niger on the east, Burkina Faso and the Côte d'Ivoire on the south, Guinea on the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania on the west. Its size is just over 1,240,000 km² with...

, Senegal
Senegal
Senegal , officially the Republic of Senegal , is a country in western Africa. It owes its name to the Sénégal River that borders it to the east and north...

, Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso
Burkina Faso – also known by its short-form name Burkina – is a landlocked country in west Africa. It is surrounded by six countries: Mali to the north, Niger to the east, Benin to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Côte d'Ivoire to the southwest.Its size is with an estimated...

 and The Gambia
The Gambia
The Republic of The Gambia, commonly referred to as The Gambia, or Gambia , is a country in West Africa. Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa, surrounded by Senegal except for a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean in the west....

. A traditional kora player is called a Jali, similar to a 'bard' or oral historian. Most West African musicians prefer the term 'jali' to 'griot', which is the French word.

Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance
Casamance
Casamance is the area of Senegal south of The Gambia including the Casamance River. It consists of Basse Casamance and Haute Casamance...

 region of southern Senegal
Senegal
Senegal , officially the Republic of Senegal , is a country in western Africa. It owes its name to the Sénégal River that borders it to the east and north...

 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 antelope skin - now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

By moving 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
Major scale
In music theory, the major scale or Ionian scale is one of the diatonic scales. It is made up of seven distinct notes, plus an eighth which duplicates the first an octave higher. In solfege these notes correspond to the syllables "Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti/Si, ", the "Do" in the parenthesis at...

, Minor
Minor scale
A minor scale in Western music theory includes any scale that contains, in its tonic triad, at least three essential scale degrees: 1) the tonic , 2) a minor-third, or an interval of a minor third above the tonic, and 3) a perfect-fifth, or an interval of a perfect fifth above the tonic, altogether...

 and Lydian
Lydian mode
The Lydian musical scale is a rising pattern of pitches comprising three whole tones, a semitone, two more whole tones, and a final semitone. This sequence of pitches roughly describes the fifth of the eight Gregorian modes, known as Mode V or the authentic mode on F, theoretically using B but in...

 modes.

History


Djeli Madi Wuleng is traditionally linked to the origins of the kora in the early 19th century. However, the earliest European reference to the kora in Western literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa (1799) by the Scottish
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

 explorer Mungo Park
Mungo Park (explorer)
Mungo Park was a Scottish explorer of the African continent. He was credited as being the first Westerner to encounter the Niger River.-Early life:...

. The most likely scenario, based on Mandinka
Mandinka people
The Mandinka, Malinke are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa with an estimated population of eleven million ....

 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
Kaabu
The Kaabu Empire was a Mandinka Kingdom of Senegambia that rose to prominence in the region thanks to its origins as a former province of the Mali Empire...

 in the 16th century.

The kora is mentioned in the Senegal
Senegal
Senegal , officially the Republic of Senegal , is a country in western Africa. It owes its name to the Sénégal River that borders it to the east and north...

ese national anthem "Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons
Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons
"'" is the national anthem of Senegal, adopted in 1960. The lyrics were written by Léopold Sédar Senghor, who became Senegal's first president, and the music by Herbert Pepper, who also wrote the national anthem of the Central African Republic, "". The kora and balafon are Senegalese musical...

".

Nowadays, increasingly koras are made with guitar machine heads instead of the traditional leather rings. The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that it limits the pitch
Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

 of the instrument as the 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 people entranced by the sound while in Africa, buy a kora 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
Casamance
Casamance is the area of Senegal south of The Gambia including the Casamance River. It consists of Basse Casamance and Haute Casamance...

, in southern Senegal. Some kora players such as Seckou Keita
Seckou Keita
Seckou Keita is a kora player and drummer from Senegal. He is a charismatic live performer and one of the few champions of the less-known and rhythmically rocking kora repertoire from Casamance in southern Senegal....

 have double necked koras, allowing them to switch from one tuning to another within seconds, and giving them increased flexibility.

The French Benedictine monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey (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
Gravikord
The gravikord is an electric double bridge-harp invented by Robert Grawi in 1986.- Description :The gravikord is a new instrument developed on the basis of the West African kora. It is made of welded stainless steel tubing, with 24 nylon strings but no resonating gourd or skin. The bridge is made...

 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
Jacques Burtin
- Biography :After studying Literature and Art at La Sorbonne , he was introduced to the kora by brother Dominique Fournier at the Abbey of Bec Hellouin and by brother Dominique Catta, composer and choirmaster of the Keur Moussa Monastery...

, Le Chant de la Forêt (The Song of the Forest), suite for kora, gravi-kora, flute and viola, and Foday Musa Suso
Foday Musa Suso
Foday Musa Suso is a musician and composer from the West African nation of Gambia. He is a member of the Mandinka ethnic group, and is a jali...

, who featured it in recordings with jazz innovator Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbert Jeffrey "Herbie" Hancock is an American pianist, bandleader and composer. As part of Miles Davis's "second great quintet," Hancock helped to redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and was one of the primary architects of the "post-bop" sound...

, with his band Mandingo, and on Suso's New World Power album.

Scores


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 Grégoire Philippe (Monastère de Keur Moussa) and Sister Claire Marie Ledoux (France) contributed with original works.

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 father 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 : l'art de la kora, Jali Nyama Suso, edited by Roderic Knight, Ocora, 1996. First published in 1972, this CD is also a historical recording.
  • 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 Lainé. 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 (Lanmbasy Dub, with Bill Laswell, bass, and Jeff Bova, synthesizers) ; kora and saxophone (Samma, a duet with jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders).
  • The Mandé Variations, Toumani Diabate, World Circuit, 2008. Twenty years after his first CD, Kaira (Hannibal, 1988) - that was also 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.


Western composers (written music)
  • Quand renaît 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 Grégoire for three koras differently tuned played by one musician.
  • 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.

Notable kora players


  • Toumani Diabaté
    Toumani Diabaté
    Toumani Diabaté is a Malian kora player. In addition to performing the traditional music of Mali, he has also been involved in cross-cultural collaborations with flamenco, blues, jazz, and other international styles.-Biography:...

     (Mali)
  • Ablaye Cissoko
    Ablaye Cissoko
    Ablaye Cissoko is a musician from Senegal, who plays the kora. His show is called "Le Griot Rouge" sounds about the legend of the man who has created the kora. During this performance, Ablaye Cissoko transmits with smoothness, grace and intelligence the values of a generous tradition and sings...

     (Senegal)
  • Lamine Cissokho (Senegal, Sweden, Austria)
  • Daniel Berkman (United States)
  • Jacques Burtin
    Jacques Burtin
    - Biography :After studying Literature and Art at La Sorbonne , he was introduced to the kora by brother Dominique Fournier at the Abbey of Bec Hellouin and by brother Dominique Catta, composer and choirmaster of the Keur Moussa Monastery...

     (France)
  • Lamin Kuyateh (Gambia)
  • Tasana Camara (Guinea)
  • Brother Dominique Catta (France, Senegal)
  • Lankandia Cissoko (Senegal)
  • Zoumana Diarra (Mali)
  • Mamadou Diabaté
    Mamadou Diabaté
    Mamadou Diabaté is a kora player. He began playing quite early in his life, became known as a musician in the area of Mali in which he lived, and has since moved to the United States, recording several albums.-Life and career:...

     (Mali)
  • Sidiki Diabaté
    Sidiki Diabaté
    Sidiki Diabaté is a Malian Kora player known throughout West Africa as "the King of the Kora." He is regarded as one of the greatest kora players of all times and is the father of kora player Toumani Diabaté....

     (Mali)
  • Ida Verstraten (Netherlands)
  • Yann Tambour  (as Thee Stranded Horse, Isle of Sark)
  • David Gilden (United States)
  • John Hughes (United States)
  • Djeli Moussa Diawara
    Djeli Moussa Diawara
    Djeli Moussa Diawara, [born 1962 in Kankan, Guinea] is a Kora player , a composer, and singer.- Short Biography :Djeli Moussa Diawara was born to a family of the Griot tribe. His father was a balafon player, and his mother a singer...

     also known as Jali Musa Jawara (Guinea, now playing a 32-stringed Kora)
  • Tunde Jegede
    Tunde Jegede
    Tunde Jegede is a composer and multi-instrumentalist who is uniquely placed between the worlds of Contemporary Classical, African and Pop music. He is a prolific Producer/Song writer and has worked across several genres both as a performer and producer...

     (United Kingdom)
  • Sona Maya Jobarteh (Gambia/United Kingdom, female kora player)
  • Sanjally Jobarteh (Gambia/Norway)
  • Solo Cissokho (Afrika)
  • Seckou Keita
    Seckou Keita
    Seckou Keita is a kora player and drummer from Senegal. He is a charismatic live performer and one of the few champions of the less-known and rhythmically rocking kora repertoire from Casamance in southern Senegal....

     (United Kingdom)
  • Bai Konte (Gambia)
  • Djimo Kouyate (Senegal, 1946–2004)
  • Kadialy Kouyaté (Senegal/UK)
  • Kandia Kouyaté
    Kandia Kouyaté
    Kandia Kouyaté is a Malian jelimuso and kora player; she has earned the prestigious title of ngara, and is sometimes appellated La dangereuse and La grande vedette malienne...

     (Mali)
  • Moussa Kouyate
    Moussa Kouyate
    Moussa Kouyate is a kora player from Bamako, Mali. His father, Batrou Sekou Kouyate, was also a prominent kora player.-Biography:In 2003, Moussa Kouate came to Finland to record his album "Finlandiafrica", which was produced by Marco Tikkanen, which has been highly acclaimed in his home country...

     (Mali)
  • N'Faly Kouyate
    N'Faly Kouyate
    N'Faly Kouyate is a Guinean musician. He is a member of the Mandinka ethnic group of West Africa. His father was the griot Konkoba Kabinet Kouyate, who lived in Siguiri, Guinea....

     (Guinea)
  • Toumany Kouyate (Senegal) - singer and musician for O (Cirque du Soleil)
    O (Cirque du Soleil)
    O is a water-themed stage production by Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian circus and entertainment company. The show has been in permanent residence at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States, since October 1998...

     in Las Vegas.
  • Jaliba Kuyateh (Gambia)
  • Kurtis Lamkin (United States)
  • Chris Marolf (United States)
  • Kane Mathis (United States)
  • Alagi Mbye (Gambia)
  • William Parker
    William Parker (musician)
    William Parker is an American free jazz double bassist, poet and composer.-Biography:Parker was not formally trained as a classical player, though he did study with Jimmy Garrison, Richard Davis, and Wilbur Ware and learned the tradition. Parker is one of few jazz bassists who regularly plays arco...

     (United States)
  • Justin Perkins
    Toubab Krewe
    Toubab Krewe is an American instrumental band which fuses the music of Mali with American musical styles . The group's instrumentation includes kora , kamelengoni , soku , two electric guitars, electric bass guitar, drum set, and African percussion...

     (United States)
  • Lamin Saho
    Lamin Saho
    Lamin Saho is a kora player, vocalist and the leader of the band Roots and Culture.He lives in The Gambia, in West Africa and he is the oldest son of the famous late Yankuba Saho, who was a griot also....

     (Gambia)
  • Ballaké Sissoko
    Ballaké Sissoko
    Ballaké Sissoko is a noted player of the kora. He has worked with Toumani Diabaté and Taj Mahal and several others. He can be heard on Diario Mali. Ballaké's father, Djelimady Sissoko, was a notable musician in his own right.-Biography:...

     (Mali)
  • Mansour Seck
    Mansour Seck
    Mansour Seck is a blind Senegalese singer and musician born in Podor, in the north of the country. Best known for his collaboration with life-long friend Baaba Maal, he has also toured and released several solo albums.-Biography:...

     (Senegal)
  • Youssoupha Sidibe (Senegal)
  • Yerko Fuenzalida (Chile)
  • Foday Musa Suso
    Foday Musa Suso
    Foday Musa Suso is a musician and composer from the West African nation of Gambia. He is a member of the Mandinka ethnic group, and is a jali...

     (Gambia), recorded with Herbie Hancock
    Herbie Hancock
    Herbert Jeffrey "Herbie" Hancock is an American pianist, bandleader and composer. As part of Miles Davis's "second great quintet," Hancock helped to redefine the role of a jazz rhythm section and was one of the primary architects of the "post-bop" sound...

  • Jali Nyama Suso
    Jali Nyama Suso
    Jali Nyama Suso was a kora player from Gambia. He had a program on "Radio Gambia" for 20 years. He had his first album in 1971 while he was teaching at the University of Washington. In the 1980s he toured in England, France, Germany, and Sweden.He also worked on the soundtrack for Roots...

     (Gambia)
  • Mamadou Susso (Gambia)
  • Papa Susso
    Papa Susso
    Alhaji Papa Susso is a griot or jeli, master kora player, and director of the Koriya Musa Center for Research in Oral Tradition. He was born 29 September, 1947, in the village of Sotuma Sere in the Upper River Division of The Republic of Gambia, West Africa. The Susso family represents a dynasty...

    (Gambia)

External links