The Kora and Jazz in America – Two Album Reviews

As with many instruments associated with “World Music”, the 21-string harp known as the Kora has had a relatively successful career infusing traditionally Western musics with a (for better or worse) “exotic” sound.  The Kora in particular has struck a chord with jazz musicians who have used it to enhance the sound of their ensemble.  Generally the musicians that promote this type of sonic exploration would locate themselves on the fringes of genre definition, and so it would come as no surprise to jazz listeners that two of the more adventurous musicians in jazz, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra, have both featured the kora on records and in live performances.  In my first example, the Kora is played by a professional African Kora player, and in the second, an African American jazz musician associated with the avant-garde/experimental movement.  Each player has his own way of utilizing the instrument and musical contexts in which he is located.

Village Life

In 1985, Hancock released an Album with Foday Musa Suso, a Kora player from The Gambia, called Village Life.  On it, Hancock plays the Yamaha DX-1 synthesizer and drum machine, and Suso plays the kora and talking drum.  I would consider this album an attempt on Hancock’s part to assimilate musically to the traditional griot style exemplified by Suso, as opposed to an appropriation of an exotic sound just to turn heads.  For example, Hancock was able to retune the synthesizer (which was capable of being tuned in microintervals) to match the tuning of Suso’s kora.

The music itself is very much lead by the Kora, playing this traditional style, with Hancock accentuating chord changes or interspersing his own lines of beautiful but sometimes slightly odd-sounding synth in between Fuso’s musical phrases.  Hancock’s contribution to the second track is simply a repeated synthesized rhythm that is repeated for the duration of the piece.  Fuso often solos over Hancock’s understated accompaniments (using the birimintingo technique) much like a jazz guitar or horn player.  The presence of African language vocals (presumably sung by Fuso) play a large role in anchoring this album in an African tradition that is augmented by some jazzy arrangements and instrumentation.  It would be difficult to call this album jazz outright, but calling it “World Music” would restrict it to a category in which it does not necessarily belong.  Here is the first track off the album, called Moon/Light:
Herbie Hancock & Foday Musa Suso – Moon/Light
You can purchase Village Life from Amazon HERE (it’s out of print and not cheap)

Marshall Allen

In the very recently released 28-CDR box set of Sun Ra and the Omniverse Jet Set Arkestra, The Complete Detroit Jazz Center Residency, 1980-1981, lifetime Arkestra member and alto sax player Marshall Allen breaks out the Kora at several points throughout the week-long residency to entertain the crowd.  Allen had supposedly been playing the Kora since the mid-70s, and according to the El Ra Records website biography of the musician, is the only American jazz musician who has built and plays the Kora regularly.  The placement of the Kora improvisations within the band’s sets is interesting, as it usually comes as the first song of a night’s performance.  Whether this is used to simply warm up the crowd with a relatively gentle number, or if it is an attempt to cast an other-worldly mood over the rest of the show is debatable, but particularly interesting.

Allen’s playing is very aggressive and can be rather harsh at times.  His sound is much different from the traditional Kora playing that I have heard, perhaps due to the use of a non-traditional tuning.  It sounds as though he has some knowledge of the technique of traditional kora playing, but his approach to the instrument is definitely influenced by his string-playing jazz contemporaries and perhaps more so by his chaotic sax playing.  It sounds like Allen is using a Ksink Ksink (the buzzing rattle) on his Kora, which brings his playing a bit closer to the motherland, but not enough to anchor it in any sort of African tradition.  He plays this instrument very much like how he plays the sax – he is wild, imprecise, but certainly soulful.  Check out the track below:

Sun Ra and the Omniverse Jet Set Orchestra – Unidentified Title (Kora, Bass, Percussion, etc.)

(The Wesleyan University Scores & Recordings Library was gracious enough to purchase this rather expensive box set at my request, so everyone should check it out at some point – Sun Ra’s extended synthesizer solos are absolutely insane!)

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