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