The Kora: A Primer

Music Features

The kora is a West African harp with 21 strings and a large calabash gourd body. According to Eric Charry, a historian of West African music, the instrument originated in the late 18th century, during the era of the Gabu empire, which encompassed present-day Guinea Bissau, southern Senegal and the Gambia. It eventually traveled to Mali in the early 20th century via the Dakar-Bamako railway. The traditional kora, writes West African-music specialist Lucy Durán, was made by hand with materials from the West African savanna: a calabash gourd cut in half for the resonator; rosewood for the neck, handles and bridge; and cow or antelope leather for the sound table, tuning rings and strings. Until the 1970s, most kora players attached a metal rattle (nyenyemo) to the end of the raised bridge, which acted as a natural amplifier and added a percussive buzzing sound. Today, many elements of the traditional kora have changed. The metal rattle is gone, and wooden tuning pegs—sometimes even guitar machine-heads—have replaced the leather tuning rings. The strings, which were traditionally made from thin strips of finely twisted antelope hide, are now made with nylon fishing line. Charry writes that kora players switched to fishing line because it’s durable and resistant to changes in weather. Kora master Toumani Diabate offers a more ecological explanation: “We had to save the antelopes!”

A hereditary caste of professional musicians known as jelis or griots guards Malian musical and oral traditions. The kora is one of their signature instruments, along with the bala (xylophone) and the koni (lute). In 1971, Sidiki Diabate, known in his time as the “king of the kora,” joined another virtuoso, Djelimadi Sissoko, to record Ancient Strings, which helped introduce the instrument to Western audiences. The world’s most famous living kora virtuoso is probably Sidiki’s son, 43-year-old Toumani, who comes from 71 generations of kora players, but taught himself to play. “The kora,” he says, “was a gift from God to me.”

The kora is played with four fingers: Thumbs provide a bass alternation, while the index fingers improvise melodic runs. The kora’s neck isn’t fretted, so each string produces one note—a distinctive plink that resembles a plucked concert harp or a high-pitched raindrop. Anyone interested in learning to play the instrument can visit Diabate’s private kora school in the Malian capital of Bamako. The application process is easy, he says: “Just go to the Bamako airport and ask the taxi driver for Toumani’s house!” At the school, students can also learn about the art of kora construction. “You make your kora,” Diabate says. “There is no shop.”

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