Origins of the Kora

by Christina Barnett, and Kent JonesOrigins…The Kora is a Mandengo 21-stringed chordophonic calabash bridge-harp that is plucked simultaneously with both hands. The strings are arranged with eleven strings in the left hand, and ten in the right. The scale alternates between left and right strings. Traditionally, only Djelis play the instrument, but since it has been exported to the west, there are non-djeli players and amateurs who have picked it up. The first western account of the Kora was by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park in the eighteenth century, but Mandengo legend attributes its creation to Jali Madi Wuleng (with the help of a jinn) during the Kabu empire. He is attributed with the composition of Kuruntu Kelefa and Kelefaba, the earliest pieces in memory for the Kora. (“Mande Music”, Charry, 2000) 3D Interactive KoraCora ConnectionKora Information from AccessGambia.comKora Jaliya WebportalLegend of the KoraThe Kora, played by the Djeli’s of the Mande, originated in the area that includes the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bassau and Mali. The genealogy of these kora playing jaliyaa profess a history of oral tradition, historical tales and matrilineal and patrilineal praise-singing also including an instrumental performance. However, the history of the origin of the Kora itself varies by region.Legend of the KoraMali: Legend from Mali states that the Kora was discovered by Tiramaghan, general of Sundiata who stole the instrument from a genius-woman of Kansala. Claiming to have fallen in love with the instrument’s music, Tiramaghan pilfers the instrument with the aid of his two companions Waly Kelendjan and Djelimaly Oule Diabate, to present to the griot of his community. Hence, the instrument has been passed down through patrilineal lines in the Diabate family until it was introduced in Mali.Guinea: Legend from N’Gabu (Guinea) states that the Kora is linked with djeli Mady Fouling Cissoko from Manding, a descendent of Touramakhan Traore (relations with Mali’s Tiramaghan). On visit with the king, Cissoko visited a mystical lake in hopes of finding a genius who could grant him three wishes. On encountering the genius, Cissoko implored that the genius construct an instrument that no djeli had seen before and in exchange offered his sister Djanghan Sakilibu Cissoko as payment for his prize. According to legend, the genius ordered Cissoko, “ Foly feng kora” which translates in Maninka “new and recent, play on it”. Thus the origin of the kora manifested itself in the N’Gabu region and has become a staple of Guinea culture and tradition.Kora Playing Technique and MusicologyThe Kora is played to accompany praise singing and other musical outlets of commemoration. The Kora is a polyphonic instrument that is played by plucking a total of 11 strings on the left and 10 on the right. The most important strings on the kora are the first and third strings on the right side, known as timbango and timbango a jingkandango (one that answers). Two other important strings played in alteration are the lowest strings on the kora placed on the left side of the instrument. These two strings establish the tonal center for the majority of kora pieces. The thumbs create a bass line while the rest of the fingers produce the melody. The Kora part of the praise ensemble is known as the kumbengo, which is played in octaves, and derives from the vocal line, or the konkilo. The kumbengo, which varies per kora player, is reiterated throughout the piece with slight discrepancies. Birimingtingo sporadically will interject the kumbengo creating an elaborate and rapid succession of improvisatory patterns that enhance the depth of the piece. Knocks such as the bulukondingo podi or the konkong are tapped on the back of the kora to keep time. Although the noted pitch for the instrument is F most kora players who produce their own instruments pitch them to suit themselves thereby implementing an instrument that is played on pitches that range from a 4th below F or a 5th above it. When played together or with other fixed-pitched instruments the players will pitch them between E and G. Tuning of the kora varies by region. Tomoraba, also known as silaba, is popular with players from western Gambia, southern Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. This style of playing is commemorated as the original kora tuning. Hardino is prevalent in eastern Gambia, northern Guinea, and southern Mali. Sauta and Tomora mesengo are associated with eastern Gambia. Because of the instrument’s versatility, the kora is easily adaptable to play with other African and Western instruments. Today, kora playing has expanded past its traditional beginnings now incorporating a genre that has influenced the international music scene, Western jazz, the avant-garde, and classical music.Morphology and PlayingAdditional Kora Links:Kora on Wesleyan University’s Virtual Instrument MuseumJalikundaa Kora Website

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