Kora The African Lute and What Makes It Special

The African lute with a distinct and unique sound

The kora is the African lute from the coast of West African and belong to the chordophone family. It’s so much related to Harp and Lute but not the same as both. It can be refer to as a complex string instrument of African origin as it has around twenty-one (21) strings. The kora is a musical instrument of a class, it has just over three octaves with a distinct and soft sound. In fact, the sound and music of the Kora are very pleasant to the ear.

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Kora is played by musicians majorly for accompaniment of local poetry and sometime speech.  There are some player that prefer attachment of metal rings to the neck of their instrument. These metal ring will rattle with a percussive buzzing sound when the Kora is playing and also serve as a natural amplifier.

Origin of Kora

The Kora has been in existence and has been played in the West Africa for almost 200 years. The origin of it cannot be specifically stated but Gambia and Senegal are the most famous for the instrument. However, there are famous players in the other region of West Africa like Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Guinea. In a nut shell, Kora is peculiar to the people of Mandinka, an ethnic group in the West Africa.

Construction of Kora

Kora is majorly hand made from local source materials like leather (from sheep, goat, cow or antelope), calabash (gourd) and hard wood. The fabrication of this instrument is very unique in nature.

The body of Kora is hemispherical in shape. This is gotten from a spherical calabash that is cut into half. The half-sphere calabash, also known as hollow gourd, served as resonator is covered by sound-table or soundboard made of leather (animal skin).

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Gourd for Kora

It has a long wooden neck (from hardwood) that passes through its hemispherical body and two planes with 11 strings by the left and 10 strings by the right. Traditionally, Kora strings are formed from strips of hide like skin of a cow or antelope and gut. Though, strings use for kora are now being made from the strings of harp or nylon fishing line that are occasionally plaited together to forge broad/thicker strings.

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The strings are attached to the anchor rings (iron made) that holds them to the bottom of the Kora and passed through a vertical mounted notched wooden bridge. Strings are arranged in parallel ranks on each side of the bridge and tuning collars attached the strings to upper end of the neck.

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Kora with wooden tuning pegs

On the body of Kora closer to the bridge attached the Holding bars. Player encircle each holding bar with two fingers (thumb and index finger of each hand) to hold the Kora. And use other fingers to pluck the strings. In addition, on left and right side of the body attached a supporting strut. Moreover, you will found bead work attached to the kora for beautification.

In today’s world, many component of the traditional kora have replaced.  The metal rattle is no more in used and the leather tuning rings have replaced with wooden tuning pegs and guitar machine-heads. Also, the traditional strings that used to be made from animal skin (leather) are now been made with nylon fishing line.

Tuning of Kora

It require a serious courage to learn how to tune and play a traditional kora. In fact, learning how to tune a Kora is completely a different set skill compare to playing it. However, there are four basic and commonly used ways of tuning a traditional Kora. These are associated with regions where Kora is popularly play. Specifically, each region like Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Mali has its territorial way of tuning the Kora. In fact, most of the Kora players tune his instrument with his regional tuning but that is gradually becoming a different approach now.

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Specifically, tuning of Kora is performed traditionally by changing the leather rings, known as the tuning collars or hide rings, attached to the upper end of the Kora’s neck. The tuning ring is tightening on the wooden neck to decrease or increase the tension of the strings. This is done by either moving the ring up or down the long neck. With desired skill, this required less energy.

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However, in order to tune the top bass string, a reasonable effort needs to be applied. Tuning Kora by this method frequently drift out of tune though the sound with it is wonderful. With this in mind, to balance things up, adjusting the tuning has to be part of the performance.

On the contrary, there is a modified method that used pegs for tuning the Kora. This is a common method used by Kora player nowadays because it cut off the stress of adjusting the tuning during performance. It also makes the performance uncomplicated and let the player concentrate on the music rather than the tuning.

How to Play the Kora

Kora, the african lute, is a little bit portable compare to the larger Irish harp or the French harp. For performance, a Kora player will be on his sit or standing while the Kora will rest on the floor in vertical position with its strings facing up. Furthermore, the instrument will run between the player’s legs to give its body a support. The Kora can also rest between the laps of the player.

playing a Kora
Tunde Jegede playing the Kora

Sound and music are produced from Kora by plucking any of the twenty-one (21) strings it possess. Though some modified Kora with additional low (or bass) strings can have as many as 25 strings. Most of this Kora with more than well-known 21 strings are modern ones made in the Casamance region or southern part of Senegal.

Certainly, you need four fingers to play the Kora. These are your two thumbs and index fingers. Thumbs render a bass variation, while the index fingers extemporize ‘fast’ melodic runs and play the strings with the highest pitch. The other fingers are used to hold the holding-bar at the top of the gourd to stabilize the instrument. Using both hands to play Kora gives it a capability of playing both rhythm and melody simultaneously

Kora Player and Music

There are many people that have mastered the art of Kora playing and among the world’s renown kora virtuoso are: Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Mamadou Diabaté, Sidiki Diabaté, Seckou Keita, Yusupha Kuyateh, Jali Fily Sissokho, Sona Jobarteh, Tunde Jegede, Ablaye Cissoko, Justin Perkins, Alhaji Bai Konte and lots of them.

These are people who rose to fame through their formidable playing technique and incredible Kora musicianship. For your listen, below are the links to the music played with the Kora by some of them.

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