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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 widespre