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On the Organology of the Kora

Kora made by Mamadou Kouyaté, Mandinka people, Senegambia, c. 1960, Metropolitan Museum of Art 1975.59

By Althea SullyCole

The kora, a 21-stringed harp, is one of the most popular and easily recognized instruments from the Mandé [1] region of West Africa. Kora players can be found on stages in the largest music festivals across the U.K., in subway stations in New York City, and in internationally acclaimed shows like Cirque Du Soleil. Often it is the instrument’s mystique—its ancient-ness and connection to the “roots” of blackness (as portrayed in Alex Haley’s seminal historical fiction)—that draws audiences around the world. A study of the instrument’s construction over time--the subject of this admittedly brief survey--however, tells a different story.

The kora boasts an elegant, five-foot tall frame. The neck of the instrument supports the tension of twenty-one nylon strings strung through an iron ring at the base, then through slats or holes lined up and down each parallel side of a wooden bridge, followed by braided leather rings called konso (or wooden or metal keys) attached to the neck. They crisscross when viewed from one side, like the wires of a cable-stay bridge held vertically. The belly of the instrument is adorned with shiny metal tacks, arranged in decorative swirls, which hold a cowhide in place as the soundboard.

My first introduction to the kora was from my father, jazz musician and educator Bill Cole, who kept a kora in our house growing up, although I never saw him play it. One could say it was a symbolic appendage of some distant connection with Africa rather than a creative tool. The first time I heard the kora was at St. Nick’s Pub in NYC. I remember noticing the top of the kora, perhaps 7 feet tall (sitting in the lap of its player), seemed to undulate in and out from the sea of concert-goers. Even the keenest listeners, however, would struggle to hear the kora player's fighting fingers trying to get the soft harp’s strings to sound over the amplified sounds of the rest of the band. Thus, my introduction to this instrument was as an ornament, more impactful sculpturally than musically, in the pan-Africanist strokes on an otherwise robustly African-American landscape, at least in the cultural and historical imaginary of Sugar Hill.

Eight years ago, I traveled to Senegal for the first time to study abroad. Soon after my arrival, I was introduced to Edou Manga’s kora playing, and began taking lessons with him. Through Edou’s teaching, and, later, that of Malian virtuoso Yacouba Sissoko in New York, I was introduced to the subtle, intricate coordination between the thumbs and indexes as kora players pluck, brush, strum and flick the instrument’s strings, allowing for an almost infinite number of possible cycles and syncopations.

Edou, who studied the instrument at L’École National des Beaux Artes in Dakar (as opposed to inheriting a style of playing through a patrilineal tradition), and other non-traditional players highlight a history seldom told about African instruments: namely, the remarkable richness and dynamism of their changing traditions over time. This is also what makes African instruments so challenging to write about. With so few written primary source materials documenting the instrument's early presence in West Africa and conflicting narratives from the instrument's local specialists, constructing a genealogy of the kora up until the late 18th and early 19th century remains a challenge. For example, it is hard to pin down exactly when the story of the kora ought to begin. If one were to hear this story from Toumani Diabaté―undoubtedly the most famous kora player in the world today―this story would begin before the Common Era, at the beginning of the seventy-two generations of kora players he claims precede him. Toumani’s father, Sidiki Diabaté, however, told a different version of this story. On multiple occasions, the elder Diabaté traced his lineage back seven generations to Jali Mady Wuleng.

Many (but by no means all) kora players agree that Jali Mady Wuleng was the first to construct and play the instrument. They also often agree that Wuleng “caused it to come out”[2] in Sanimentereng; a town in the kingdom of Kabu,[3] located in present-day Gambia. One of teh most popular stories regarding Wuleng's discovery amongst kora players is that he went in search of his runaway bride in a cave and came out with the kora. However, both Sidiki Diabaté’s genealogy of kora players in his family and the largely-agreed-upon origin story of the kora, refute the popular depiction of the instrument’s “ancient”-ness. Rather, these two pieces of information would date the instrument back a little more than 200 years, in the eighteenth century.[4]

The earliest known written reference to the kora was published in 1799 by Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Somewhere along Park’s exploration inland from the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa, he bore witness to a show of West African wrestling, dance and music:

“Of their music and dances…. I have now to add a list of their musical instruments, the principal of which are, [among others,] the korro, a large harp with eighteen strings.”[5]

Over the course of the 19th century, a number of drawings, followed by the instrument’s arrival in museums, photographs and even postcards in continental Europe, document snapshots in its evolution to the present.

Despite limited information, a number of conjectures concerning the kora's geology can neverthelessbe made. The instrument bares a striking resemblance to similar harps with calabash (large, pumpkin-like gourd) resonators in the region, and it follows that it developed as an evolution of these harps. One of the most widespread of these kinds of harps is the donsongoni, the hunters’ harp from Wasulu, a geographic region bordering the Kabu region in present-day southern Mali, eastern Guinea and northern Cote d’Ivoire. Another is the simbin, the Maninka’s hunter’s harp from southwest Mali (also bordering Kabu). Like the kora, the donsongoni and simbin have long necks, supporting the strings strung through a bridge placed on top of a leather soundboard that is laid over a calabash. With two parallel rows of strings, the donsongoni is closer in resemblance to the kora than the simbin, which has a single row. Unlike the kora, these two hunter’s harps are smaller in size, have relatively few strings (seven to eight) and are tuned to a pentatonic (as in the case of the donsongi) or heptatonic (as in the case of the simbin) scale, as opposed to diatonic scale (as is the case with the kora).

Perhaps the most likely direct antecedent to the kora is the soron, a harp of seventeen to eighteen strings from the upper parts of Guinea (again, very close to the Kabu region). Although this instrument has virtually disappeared today, recordings of it from the early 1950s are available thanks to the fieldwork performed by French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget in Guinea. On these recordings, one can clearly hear the contrapuntal or interlocking playing style engendered in kora technique, though the tuning is radically different than that performed on kora today.

Besides the instrument’s size, number of strings, relatively complicated construction and intricate playing style in comparison to these harps, the reason why the kora is thought of as a much younger instrument compared to others in the region is also due to its relatively limited influence. In addition to the above harps, lutes (such as the ngoni) and xylophones (such as the balafon) can be seen across West Africa in different forms, whereas there is little that resembles the kora outside of the Mandé region.

Until 1950, the instrument was constructed almost entirely from natural materials found in the West African Savannah; a calabash (large, pumpkin-like gourd) for a resonator; rosewood for the neck, handles and bridge; antelope skin for the soundboard, strings and konso (loops braided tightly around the neck to tune and hold up the strings); and iron to anchor the neck to the bottom of the calabash.

Koras built today are made from quite different materials. Some of the changes are subtle; for example, cow leather has come to replace that of an antelope for the soundboard. Other changes, though, are quite pronounced. Perhaps the biggest shift from natural to synthetic materials can be seen in the instrument’s strings and how they are tuned. Starting in 1950, the strings began to be replaced by nylon fishing line, although the bass strings continued to be made from twisted pieces of leather until well into the 1970s. Today, however, leather strings are visibly absent from the instrument and, in addition to fishing line, nylon harp strings can be seen strung on the kora as well.

Keur Moussa Abbey (Senegal)

New materials used for the strings are but one of the materials used today that reflect colonialism’s impact on the instrument. Starting in 1963, the monks at Keur Moussa (House of Moses), a monastery approximately fifty-six kilometers inland from the coastal capital of Dakar, Senegal, were the first to implement wooden tuning pegs in the place of the konso. This innovation made it easier for the instrument to adapt the western scales played at mass. Over the past four decades or so, the wooden tuning pegs have gradually been replaced by guitar machine-heads, now widely adapted by a number of instrument-makers who build koras both in and out of the continent. In addition to different kinds of tuning keys, the monks at Keur Moussa have also added harp levers to the construction of their koras, allowing the kora player to modulate each individual string by a half step with the flip of a lever. As such, these koras are referred to as “chromatic”, although the tuning remains largely diatonic and it is rare to hear the key of the kora radically modulated in a single performance. The weight of the many kinds of keys added to the kora demand larger, more durable calabashes, bridges, handles and necks, all of which have make the instrument much heavier. This factor, in addition to a purportedly metallic or unnatural kind of sound, is a large part of the reason that many kora players continue to use the konso instead any other tuning method.

Whereas the material used to tune the strings are perhaps the most visually noticeable change between the koras built before 1950 and koras today, the most audible difference between the two is the absence of the nyenyemo or shekere, a metal rattle once attached to the end of the bridge as both a natural amplifier and percussive element. Players began removing the shaker in the 1970s and by the mid-80s it had disappeared almost ubiquitously. “They think it’s a confusing sound” New York-based Gambian kora player Salieu Suso told me about sound engineers’ reaction to the shekere in an interview last year. “In the West… they want to hear it clear”, he said.

Suso’s observations bring to light the pragmatic nature of the changes of the kora as they adapt more and more to the international stage. These changes can be easy to overlook with the number of neo-classical albums that have been produced by virtuosos like Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko and Yacouba Sissoko in recent memory. However, it is imperative to remember that these kora players on the international stage are not without their predecessors; notably, Gambian korist Foday Musa Suso who, upon moving to the U.S. in 1977, introduced the kora to Herbie Hancock and Philip Glass; Guinean player Mory Konté who worked his amplified kora into the disco world with his 1987 hit “Yé Ké Yé Ké”; and Senegalese performer Soriba Kouyaté who often used guitar pedals in performance with his kora at international jazz festivals in the 90s and early 2000s, among others. Today, pickups of various kinds are installed in professional players’ instruments and even an all-electric version called the gravi-kora (or, similarly the gravikord) has been developed.

Gravikord made by Bob Grawi, Florida, New York, late 20th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art 2016.719.

Until relatively recently, organology, or the systematic study of instruments, has been considered an obsolete mode of analysis in ethnomusicological scholarship, under which most scholarship on Mandé music practices falls. The changes seen in the kora over time and their relationship to social, cultural and political changes both within and outside of the Mandé region bring to light the need for ethnomusicologists in particular to engage this mode of thinking in order to enrich the larger conversation concerning African cultural heritage. Never has this engagement been so consequential, in no small part due to recent calls for the restitution of African artifacts, of which African instruments are no doubt a part but seldom deeply considered. Without a deeper understanding of these objects, their role in and out of the museum in both the western and African context, it is almost impossible to understand what restitution might mean and look like, let alone what impact it may have. In thinking about the organology of the kora for the American Musical Instrument Society, I hope I have encouraged music scholars, museologists and musical instrument collectors of all sorts to continue to consider new modes of organlogical thought and its impact.

[1] Encompassing present-day Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and southern Mali.

[2] a rough translation of the Mandinka term bondi

[3] also spelled Gabu or Ngabu

[4] see Duràn 2008, Charry 2000. [5] Quoted from Charry 2000, 370.

Althea SullyCole is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and ethnomusicologist from New York City. She received a B.A. in Ethnomusicology at Barnard College in 2012; an M.A. with Distinction in Music in Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in 2016; and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 2018. She is currently working on her doctorate in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University. Althea studied her primary instrument, the 21-stringed West African harp called the kora, under korists Yacouba Sissoko and Edou Manga. She spent 3 years studying the instrument in Dakar, Senegal, where she was a resident artist at Bois Sakre studios. In addition to her solo work, she has worked with Billy Harper, Billy Bang, Ras Moshe, Fred Ho,Sahad Sarr, Daara J Family, Faada Freddy, Royal Messenger, LaFrae Sci, Lisette Santiago, Joseph Daley and father Bill Cole (in his Untempered Ensemble), among others. Althea has also worked as an FCC licensed jazz programmer at WKCR; as an archivist for the Association for Cultural Equity (home of the Alan Lomax Archives); as Music Programs Editor at SOAS Radio; and is currently a contributing editor to AnthroPod, the podcast produced by the Society for Cultural Anthropology. She also hosts and produces The Earfull, a podcast that explores the lives of musicians through music.


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