The kora is a plucked bridge-harp of the Mande people of West Africa. Although found distributed widely throughout the Mande cultural area, the kora pictured and described here was constructed by and purchased from Alhadji Papa Susso, a Mandinka jeli (hereditary music specialist) from The Gambia. Papa Susso is also seen performing in the video clip. The kora is inextricably associated with this caste of specialists and their art, called jeliya (for other instruments associated with Mandinka jeli see Jeliya Instruments of Mandinka Hereditary Musicians from The Gambia).
The kora is a 21-string bridge harp (alternately known as a ‘harp-lute’) with a long neck and hemispheric gourd resonator. The stocky, slightly arched wooden neck runs through holes cut into the walls of the resonating chamber. A soundtable of antelope or cow rawhide is stretched over the open face of the gourd and is affixed with a good deal of tension to its sidewalls with iron nails and brass studs. Two wooden handles on either side of the neck are held firmly in place against the rim of the resonator by the tension of the soundtable, and a third stick running perpendicular to these handles across the face of the resonator and underneath the handles further stabilizes the handles and increases the tension of the rawhide soundtable. A large, notched, rectangular-shaped wooden bridge rests vertically on a cloth-covered wood disc, which in turn rests flat against the soundtable. The bridge is held in place by the tension of the strings that pass over the notches cut into its sides. This bridge divides the strings into two parallel ranks (eleven on one side, ten on the other) that run perpendicular to the plane of the soundtable (see first detail photo). Nylon fishing line, used for the strings on this instrument, has come to replace tightly twisted antelope hide, the traditional material used for the playing strings. One end of each string is attached to a metal ring that is anchored to the base of the neck at the bottom of the instrument. After being inserted into one of the bridge notches, each string is attached to a rawhide collar that is tightly braided around the neck and that can be slid up and down the neck to tune the string to the desired pitch. There is a sound hole cut into the side of the resonating chamber, next to the right handle (see second detail image). Some koras, although not this one, will have a jingle made of sheet metal with an edging of wire loops attached to the bridge.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The player stands, sits in a chair, or sits cross-legged on the ground and holds the instrument nearly vertical, by its two handles, the bridge facing his (or perhaps, more recently, her) chest. For a given performance the 21 strings are tuned to one of four non-tempered heptatonic scales (see King and Duran for details) and cover a range of over three octaves from around D2 to F5. The longest and lowest-pitched strings pass through the uppermost notches of the bridge, the shortest and highest-pitched ones pass over the bottom of the bridge. In general, the notes of a scale are divided between the two ranks of strings, successive scale degrees alternating from one side to the other (however, the four lowest pitches are situated on the left side and the highest two on the right). The performer uses the thumb and index finger of each hand to pluck the strings and to produce polyphonic ostinatos (kumbengo) and ornate melodic passages (birimintingo) in support of vocal melody (donkilo) and declamatory text (sataro). The player’s index fingers play high-register melodic lines while the thumbs contribute primarily to low-register bass line and harmonic facets of the kumbengo ostinato (see video clip). Additional sounding effects include a quickly damping a plucked string and strumming over multiple strings on one side of the bridge with the index finger. A second musician can tap a timeline rhythm on the back of the gourd resonator with a metal rod.
The kora most likely developed from similar Mande instruments approximately 300 years ago and was first documented in the 1799 chronicles of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park. It was popularized in the hands of jeli associated with a mid-19th century Mandinka hero named Kelefa Sane. In the last half century, the kora has come to be utilized in music and social settings outside that of traditional jeliya, but still performed by jeli. Some jeli, such as Foday Musa Suso, have commissioned the construction of electric kora on which they perform both traditional and fusion repertoire.
Charry, 2000. Mande Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
King, Anthony, and Lucy Duran. 1984. “Kora (i).” NGDMI v.2: 461-463.
Knight, Roderic. 1984. “Music of Africa: The Manding Contexts.” In Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives. ed. Gerard Behague. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, pp. 53-90.
________. 1973. Mandinka Jeliya: Professional Music of the Gambia. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
Pevar, Susan Gunn. 1978. “The Construction of a Kora,” African Arts 9/4: 66-72.
Suso, Foday Musa. 1990. Mandingo: New World Power. LP. Axiom 539 876-1.