Kora (instrument)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Kora DSC 0355.JPG
String instrument
Classification Malian stringed instrument with 21 strings
Hornbostel–Sachs classification323-5
(Acoustic instruments which have a resonator as an integral part of the instrument, in which the plane of the strings lies at right angles to the sound-table; a line joining the lower ends of the strings would be perpendicular to the neck. These have notched bridges. Sounded by the bare fingers)
Developed16th century
Playing range
Traditional range of the kora
Related instruments
harp, gravi-kora, seperewa, simbing, ngoni, bolon
Toumani Diabaté, Jaliba Kuyateh, Ballaké Sissoko, Sona Jobarteh, Foday Musa Suso, Seckou Keita, Toubab Krewe, Jacques Burtin, Alhaji Bai Konte and sons Dembo and Sherrifo, Mory Kante, Sidiki Jobarteh, Alahji Malamini Jobarteh father of Tatadinding, Pabobo Dembo, Landing Jobarteh, Lalo keba Drameh Jobarteh, Moussa Kouyate
Sound sample

The kora (Manding languages: ߞߐߙߊ köra[1]) is a stringed instrument used extensively in West Africa.[2] A kora typically has 21 strings, which are played by plucking with the fingers. It combines features of the lute and harp.


The kora is built from gourd, cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run underneath it. It has 21 strings, each of which plays a different note. These strings are supported by a notched, double free-standing bridge.[3] The kora doesn't fit into any one category of musical instrument, but rather several, and must be classified as a "double-bridge-harp-lute." The strings run in two divided ranks, characteristic of a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are instead held in notches on a bridge, classifying it as a bridge harp. The strings originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, also making it a lute.

The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style it bears resemblance to a guitar played using the flamenco or Delta blues technique of plucking polyrhythmic patterns with both hands (using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings). Ostinato riffs ("Kumbengo") and improvised solo runs ("Birimintingo") are played at the same time by skilled players.

Kora players have traditionally come from jali families (also from the Mandinka tribes) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. Though played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, the instrument was first discovered in the Gambia. While those from neighbouring Guinea were known to carry the lute, Senegalese Griots were known as carriers of a hand drum known as the Sabar. Most West African musicians prefer the term "jali" to "griot," which is the French word. "Jali" means something similar to a "bard" or oral historian.

Traditional koras feature strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21.[4] Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, such as cow or antelope skin. Today, most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line,[5] sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

A vital accessory in the past was the nyenmyemo, a leaf-shaped plate of tin or brass with wire loops threaded around the edge. Clamped to the bridge,[6][dubious ] or the top end of the neck[7] it produced sympathetic sounds, serving as an amplifier since the sound carried well into the open air. In today's environment, players usually prefer or need an electronic pickup.[6]

By moving the konso (a system of leather tuning rings) up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian modes.[8][9]


Kora (Bridge-Harp Or Plucked Harp-Lute) from St. Cecilia's Hall Museum, Edinburgh
Kora (Bridge-Harp Or Plucked Harp-Lute) from St. Cecilia's Hall Museum, Edinburgh

In the 1300s, the traveller Ibn Battuta mentioned that the women who accompanied Dugha to perform were carrying bows that they plucked. He did not mention the number of strings, but this clearly shows the existence of harp instruments in 14th century Mali and could be the earliest written reference to the kora. The kora is designed like a bow with a gourd, similarly to Ibn Battuta's description, but Battuta did not go into enough detail about the instruments for them to be identifiable. The earliest European reference to the kora in Western literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa (1799) by the Scotsman Mungo Park. The most likely scenario, based on Mandinka oral tradition, suggests that the origins of the kora may ultimately be linked with Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko, some time after the founding of Kaabu in the 16th century.[citation needed]

The kora is mentioned in the Senegalese national anthem "Pincez Tous vos Koras, Frappez les Balafons."

Nowadays, koras are increasingly made with guitar machine heads instead of the traditional konso (leather rings). The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that this design limits the tuning range of the instrument because string lengths are more fixed and lighter strings are needed to lift it much more than a tone. Learning to tune a traditional kora is arguably as difficult as learning to play it, and many tourists who are entranced by the sound while in West Africa buy koras and then find themselves unable to keep it in tune once they are home, relegating it to the status of ornament.[citation needed] Koras can be converted to replace the leather rings with machine heads. Wooden pegs and harp pegs are also used, but both can still cause tuning problems in damper climates unless made with great skill.

In the late 20th century, a 25-string model of the kora was developed, though it has been adopted by only a few players, primarily in the region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Some kora players such as Seckou Keita have double necked koras, allowing them to switch from one tuning to another within seconds, giving them increased flexibility.

The French Benedictine monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal (who possibly were the first to introduce guitar machine heads instead of leather rings in the late seventies) conceived a method based on scores to teach the instrument. Brother Dominique Catta, choirmaster of the Keur Moussa Abbey,[10] was the first Western composer who wrote for the kora (solo pieces as well as duets with Western instruments).[11]

An electric instrument modeled on the kora (but made primarily of metal) called the gravikord was invented in the late 20th century by instrument builder and musician Robert Grawi. It has 24 strings and is tuned and played differently than the kora. Another instrument, the gravi-kora, a 22-stringed electro-acoustic instrument, was later developed by Robert Grawi especially for kora players who wanted a modern instrument. Its playing and tuning are the same as the traditional kora.[12] The gravi-kora has been adopted by kora players such as Daniel Berkman,[13] Jacques Burtin,[14] and Foday Musa Suso, who featured it in recordings with jazz innovator Herbie Hancock,[15] with his band Mandingo, and on Suso's New World Power album.[16]


Kora sheet music (fragment of the score of One Thousand Sources, for solo kora, by Jacques Burtin).

As part of the oral tradition of West Africa, music for the kora was not written until the 20th century. Ethnomusicologists were the only ones to record some traditional airs in the normal grand staff method, using the G clef and the F clef.

Today, kora scores are written on a single G clef, following the Keur Moussa notation system. This notation system was created for the kora in the late 1970s by Brother Dominique Catta, a monk of the Keur Moussa Monastery (Senegal). The seven low notes that should be written on the F clef are replaced by Arabic or Roman numerals and written on the G clef.

While jali still compose in the traditional way (without writing scores), some Western musicians began to write partitures for the kora and adopted the Keur Moussa notation system at the beginning of the 1980s. More than 200 scores have already been written for kora solo or kora and Western instruments. Two notable Western composers for the kora are Brother Dominique Catta[17] and Jacques Burtin[18] (France), who wrote most of these scores, though composers like Carole Ouellet[19] (Canada), Brother Grégoire Philippe[20] (Monastère de Keur Moussa) and Sister Claire Marie Ledoux[21] (France) have also contributed with their own original works.

Derek Gripper (Cape Town, South Africa) has transcribed a number of West African kora compositions by Toumani Diabaté and others for performance on western-style classical guitar, and has performed some of these transcriptions on two recordings and in concert from 2012 through 2017.[22]


  • Eric Charry, Mande Music : Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa, University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Ousmane Sow Huchard, La kora : objet-témoin de la civilisation manding : essai d'analyse organologique d'une harpe-luth africaine, Presses universitaires de Dakar, Dakar, 2000.

Selected discography[edit]

African composers (oral tradition)[edit]

  • Mali: cordes anciennes ("Mali: Ancient Strings"), Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko, Buda Music, 2000. First published in 1970, this CD was the first album totally devoted to the kora. Sidiki Diabaté was the father of Toumani Diabaté and Mamadou Sidiki Diabaté, and Djelimadi Sissoko was the father of Ballaké Sissoko. Toumani and Ballaké recorded New Ancient Strings - Nouvelles Cordes Anciennes in 1999 (Hannibal), as a tribute to their fathers.
  • Gambie : l'art de la kora, Jali Nyama Suso, edited by Roderic Knight, Ocora, 1996. First published in 1972, this CD is also a historical recording.
  • Kora Melodies from the Republic of The Gambia, West Africa, Alhaji Bai Konte, Recorded and produced by Marc D. Pevar; photography and notes by Marc and Susan Pever. Rounder Records 5001.
  • Jali Kunda - Griots of West Africa & Beyond, Ellipsis Arts, 1996. A book and a CD edited by Foday Musa Suso, produced by Bill Laswell. Photographs by Daniel Lainé. A journey through traditional kora music and three original meetings: kora and piano ("Spring Waterfall" by Foday Musa Suso and Philip Glass); kora and synthesizers ("Lanmbasy Dub'", with Bill Laswell, bass, and Jeff Bova, synthesizers); kora and saxophone ("Samma", a duet with jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders).
  • The Mandé Variations, Toumani Diabaté, World Circuit, 2008. Twenty years after his first CD, Kaira (Hannibal, 1988) - the first CD ever recorded with solo kora pieces without any song, Toumani Diabate alternates traditional pieces on a kora with leather rings and his own creations with a special tuning on a kora with wooden pegs.

Western composers (written music)[edit]

  • Quand renaît le matin, Abbaye de Keur Moussa, Art et Musique, 2007. First published in 1991, this album gathers pieces composed and performed by Brother Dominique Catta and Carole Ouellet: solo kora pieces, songs with kora accompaniment and a Concerto for flute and three koras. There is also a piece composed by Brother Grégoire for three koras differently tuned and played by one musician.
  • Le Jour des Merveilles, Jacques Burtin, 3-CD Box Set, Bayard Musique, 2009. Pieces for solo kora, duets with cello, viola, guitar and koto, suites for flute, guitar and three koras.

Notable players[edit]

Master kora-maker Alieu Suso of the Gambia

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Faya Ismael Tolno (September 2011). "Les Recherches linguistiques de l'école N'ko" (PDF). Dalou Kende (in French). No. 19. Kanjamadi. p. 7. Retrieved 17 December 2020.
  2. ^ "Kora". Archived from the original on 2007-07-08. Retrieved 2007-03-21.
  3. ^ Loquenz, Harald. ""Construction of the Instrument"". West African Kora Music and Jaliya Culture. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  4. ^ "The Kora Instrument – Kora Music". www.kora-music.ml. Archived from the original on 2020-08-13. Retrieved 2020-04-06.
  5. ^ Calderwood, Eric (August 18, 2009). "The Kora: A Primer". pastemagazine.com.
  6. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  7. ^ "Other Musical Instruments – Kora Music". www.kora-music.ml. Archived from the original on 2019-08-10. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
  8. ^ "Tuning the Kora". Archived from the original on 2006-10-06. Retrieved 2006-10-17.
  9. ^ "Tuning the Kora". Archived from the original on 2009-11-11. Retrieved 2009-05-18.
  10. ^ okejust-communications-72.fr, Edem Oklouvi. "Abbaye de Keur Moussa au senegal et en france 72". Abbaye-keur-moussa.org. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  11. ^ Lumière Radieuse - Keur Moussa, Art et Musique, 2007; Sénégal, Messe & Chants Au Monastère De Keur Moussa, Arion, 2010.
  12. ^ The gravi-kora in the Gravikord web site : http://www.gravikord.com/instrument.html#gravikord
  13. ^ Calabash Moon, Magnatune, 2005 ; Heartstrings, Magnatune, 2009. Video (Daniel Berkman on Gravikord, 1998)
  14. ^ Le Chant de la Forêt (The Song of the Forest), suite for kora, gravi-kora, flute and viola, Bayard Musique, 2008. Video (Gravi-kora improvisation by Jacques Burtin, 2010)
  15. ^ Village Life, Columbia, 1985 ; Jazz Africa, Polydor, 1987.
  16. ^ New World Power, produced by Bill Laswell and Foday Musa Suso, Island Records, 1990.
  17. ^ Selected scores of Brother Dominique Catta : Banehu Len, Suite n°1 for koras, 1983 ; Fleuves d'Eau Vive, Suite n°2 for koras and chant, 1986; Du Désert, d'ici et d'ailleurs, Airs de kora, 1988 ; Banehu Len II, Suite n°3 for kora and flute, 1990 ; Psautier rythmé de Keur Moussa, 150 Psalms with kora accompaniment, 1996 (all scores published by the Keur Moussa Monastery). The influential Méthode progressive pour airs de kora (Progressive Method for kora learning), by Brother Dominique Catta, was published in 1987 by the Monastery Keur Moussa.
  18. ^ Selected scores of Jacques Burtin : Une Rosée de Lumière, Nine pieces for kora, Monastère de Keur Moussa, 1988; Le Chant intérieur / The Inner Song, Pieces and suites for kora, Editions Studio SM, Paris, 1996 ; Joies soudaines, Works for kora 1988-2010, Marie-Chantal Froment Editor, Le Mans, 2010
  19. ^ Four scores of Carole Ouellet have been published in Du Désert, d'ici et d'ailleurs (Monastère de Keur Moussa, 1988). Her other compositions have been recorded along with Brother Catta's works. See discography.
  20. ^ Quand renaît le matin, Prelude for 3 koras and a kora player, by Brother Grégoire Philippe, has been published in 1991 by the Monastery of Keur Moussa.
  21. ^ Sister Claire Marie Ledoux composed pieces for solo kora and songs accompanied by the kora. They can be heard in the CD Une Rosée de Lumière - Saint François et Sainte Claire d'Assise, by Jacques Burtin and Sister Claire Marie Ledoux, Studio SM, 1997.
  22. ^ "Derek Gripper: Solo Acoustic Guitarist - African and Contemporary - Composer and Performer". Derekgripper.com. 2017. Retrieved 24 September 2017.
  23. ^ Toumani Diabate web site "Toumani Diabaté - griot - maître de kora - Bamako - Mali". Archived from the original on 7 February 2011. Retrieved 31 January 2011. - Video (Toumani Diabate playing Cantelowes at El Real Acazar, Sevilla, Spain)
  24. ^ "Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze on MySpace Music - Free Streaming MP3s, Pictures & Music Downloads". Archived from the original on 2010-07-24. Retrieved 2009-01-21.
  25. ^ "GRIOT". Griotmovie.com. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  26. ^ "Full Service WordPress Web Hosting - PressHarbor". Tasanacamara.blogharbor.com. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  27. ^ "Home". Seckoukeita.com. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  28. ^ "Home". guylene.com. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  29. ^ "Adam Doughty". Archived from the original on 2014-04-27. Retrieved 2014-04-26.
  30. ^ Jacques Burtin web site [2] - Video (Jacques Burtin playing Ballade de l'île d'Yeu)
  31. ^ "Welcome to nginx!". Laminsaho.tk. Retrieved 3 November 2018.

External links[edit]