800 Years Of World Music
The West African Kora is the most versatile harp-lute in existence. For centuries, it has provided background music for traditional storytelling in Mande culture. If you've ever heard Kora music, you shouldn't be surprised at how its lovely tunes have infiltrated the western world. In fact, it's common to hear Koras playing throughout modern jazz and pop songs.The Kora features a half-sphere-shaped gourd resonator and a lengthy hardwood neck. The resonator is made from sturdy calabash vine, split and wrapped in cow or antelope hide to create a soundboard. Two small poles protrude from the resonator and function as handles. The Kora's strings run from the bottom of the instrument to leather tuning rings on the neck, and it also features a notched bridge. While strings were traditionally made of animal hide, newer Kora models may have harp strings or nylon fishing line material instead. It must be held vertically when it's being played. Once in position, using their thumbs and index fingers, Kora players simply pluck away. They latch the rest of their fingers onto handles protruding from the resonator for support. It takes talent to play one of these instruments - the most advanced of its kind in Western Africa. In fact, most Koras have 21 strings; 10 for the right hand and 11 for the left. One contemporary version in southern Senegal also features up to four more bass strings.
The Kora is a traditional instrument of West African
Mande tribes. These include Gambia's Mandinka, Mali's Bambara, Guine's Maninka,
and the Ivory Coast's Dioula. However, Kora music is most prominent in Gambia
and South Senegal. For hundreds of years, the Kora has been played at their
Royal courts for the upper class, who owned musicians (i.e., jali) and
storytellers (i.e., griot). Both of these occupations were passed down from
parent to child.
Modern Kora music sounds similar to harp music, but when played in a traditional West African manner, sounds more like the flamenco guitar. Ostinato riffs on the Kora are called Kumbengo and spontaneous solos are called Birimintingo. There are 4 different seven-note Kora scales, which closely resemble our Lydian, major, and minor modes. Moving the tuning rings can help you achieve a better sound, but keep in mind: Although it may sound simple enough, tuning a Kora is actually harder than playing it.
The Kora was first mentioned in Western literature in the early 1799, in "Travels in Interior Districts of Africa", written by an adventurous Scotsman named Mungo Park. However, the Kora existed long before he published his famous book. Stories passed down by the Mandinka indicate that the Kora originated during the life of a Jali named Mady Fouling Cissoko. This was during The Kaabu Empire of Senegambia, most likely during the 1500s. It was quite an invention. Since being created, the Kora has remained essential in Mande culture, and has more recently become a musical marvel around the world. Originally from Mali, the Mandinka gained their independence from previous empires in the thirteenth century, and founded an empire which stretched across West Africa. They migrated west from the Niger River in search of better agricultural lands and more opportunities for conquest. Through a series of conflicts, primarily with the Fula-led Kingdom of Futa Djallon, about half of the Mandinka population converted from indigenous beliefs to Islam. During the 16th, 17th and 18th century as many as a third of the Mandinka population were shipped to the Americas as Slaves, through capture in conflict. A significant portion of the African Americans in the United States are descended from the Mandinka people. The "Malinke Empire" is an ethnic entity governed from its capital of Kangaba since the 8th century. The Mandinka have a rich oral history that has passed down through Griots. This passing down of oral history through music has become one of the most distinctive traits of the Mandinka. They have long been known for their drumming and also for their unique musical style.
The illustration shows the typical string layout of traditional Koras in G-major. The scale begins on the left with the lowest note G2(1), followed by D3 (2), E3(3) and F#3(4); (A2, B2 and C3 are not used, there is a skip of a fifth between string 1 and 2). The next note in the scale is G3(5) on the right at which point notes begin to alternate between right and left, so A3(6) follows on the left, B3(7) on the right and so on down to G5(19) on the right. A5(20) and B5(21) finish off the scale on the right.
While this tuning is in a G key centre, the player can simply flatten the 18th, 11thand 4th notes from F sharp to F natural producing a C scale. With a G drone in the Bass, this produces a Jazz chord G 6th sus4th (G,C,E). It does of course allow for a D Minor scale to be played with the F natural as third. It is little wonder that the inversions that were played on the Kora for hundreds of years, found their way across to the Americas and surfaced by the 1930s in the work of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Jazz harmony, as we know it today, has evolved from this historical tradition of juxtaposing harmony and rhythmic counter play against an original melody! All African music, as we now know, simply plays a 3 beat feel over 2 beats, ( a triplet over 2 crotchets) or a 2 beat feel over 3 beats, ( 2 dotted crotchets over a triplet). The complex polyrhythms that are ubiquitous in West African Music can all be delineated to a 2 over 3 feel!