By Althea SullyCole
The kora, a 21-stringed harp, is one of the most popular and easily recognized instruments from the Mandé  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.
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