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

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Notable Malian kora musicians, past and present

Batrou Sekou Kouyate is shown below.

Photo credit: Oliver Gresset

Most kora musicians are concentrated in Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and The Gambia. The vast majority of kora musicians come from Jeli families, hereditary musicians that can trace their lineage back to the Sunjata epic of the 13th century, when the Mande empire was established in West Africa. Today’s most famous kora musicians, such as Toumani Diabate and Mamadou Diabate are indeed the sons of an older generation of kora musicians.

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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)

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