The Kora is the traditional instrument the griots carry. In the organological classification, it is a lute-harp featuring some characteristics of both the lute (straight shaft) and the harp (perpendicular strings to the resonator).
The Kora is undoubtedly the most famous string instrument in Africa. It was used to celebrate heroes in very rich and moving instrumental forms. It is made from a large calabash cut in half and covered with goat or young cow skin stretched using leather laces (Today, pegs or pins are used to hold the skin). The skin is perforated to create two handles for the player to hold the kora, and a long hardwood neck runs through the calabash across the middle of the skin perpendicular to the bridge and the two handles. 21 strings are held in notches on the bridge using cow leather straps.
More importantly, Kora originated from the Manding culture and this is why its various chords are based on Manding songs.
A kora is a harp built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run under it, and it supports a notched double free-standing bridge. It doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments, but rather several, and must be classified as a “double-bridge-harp-lute.” The strings run in two divided ranks, making it a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are held in notches on a bridge, making it a bridge harp. They originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, making it a lute too.
The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco and delta blues guitar techniques. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns (using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings). Ostinato riffs (“Kumbengo”) and improvised solo runs (“Birimintingo”) are played at the same time by skilled players.
Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (also from the Mandinka nationalities) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and the Gambia. A traditional kora player is called a Jali, similar to a ‘bard’ or oral historian. Most West African musicians prefer the term ‘jali’ to ‘griot’, which is the French word.
Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin – now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.
By moving leather tuning rings up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian modes.
The earliest European reference to the kora in Western literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa (1799) by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. The most likely scenario, based on Mandinka oral tradition, suggests that the origins of the Kora may ultimately be linked with Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko, some time after the founding of Kaabu in the 16th century.
The kora is mentioned in the Senegalese national anthem “Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons”.
Nowadays, increasingly, koras are made with guitar machine heads instead of the traditional leather rings. The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that this design limits the pitch of the instrument because string lengths are more fixed and lighter strings are needed to lift it much more than a tone. Learning to tune a traditional kora is arguably as difficult as learning to play it, and many people entranced by the sound while in Africa buy a kora and then find themselves unable to keep it in tune once they are home, relegating it to the status of ornament. Koras can be converted to replace the leather rings with machine heads. Wooden pegs and harp pegs are also used, but both can still cause tuning problems in damper climates unless made with great skill.
In the late 20th century, a 25-string model of the kora was developed, though it has been adopted by only a few players, primarily in the region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Some kora players such as Seckou Keita have double necked koras, allowing them to switch from one tuning to another within seconds, giving them increased flexibility.
The French Benedictine monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey (Senegal), who possibly were the first to introduce guitar machine heads instead of leather rings in the late seventies, conceived a method based on scores to teach the instrument. Brother Dominique Catta, choirmaster of the Keur Moussa Abbey, was the first Western composer who wrote for the kora (solo pieces as well as duets with Western instruments).