The 21-string harp, the kora, is a signature instrument of West Africa. Complex and beguiling, kora music was long the exclusive domain of griots, musical historians by heritage. But once recordings began to circulate in the 1970s, the instrument went international, finding its way into jazz, pop, rock and even classical and religious settings. In this episode, we sample a wide range of kora music, and hear tales of its remarkable global journey. Produced by Banning Eyre.
Journeys with the Kora
WINDOW/BED: M01_Jarabi.m4a, Toumani Diabate, Kaira (Hannibal Records, 5 016071 133825) (first 14 seconds, then to bed)
GEORGES: THAT’S THE UNMISTAKABLE SOUND OF MALIAN VIRTUOSO TOUMANI DIABATE PLAYING THE 21-STRING WEST AFRICAN HARP, THE KORA. THIS PERFORMANCE COMES FROM TOUMANI’S GROUND-BREAKING 1987 ALBUM, KAIRA. I SAY GROUND-BREAKING BECAUSE KAIRA WAS THE FIRST SOLO KORA ALBUM, AND IT INSPIRED A GENERATION OF YOUNGER KORA INNOVATORS. THE KORA GOES WAY BACK IN THE HISTORY OF THE MANDE PEOPLE. IT IS TRADITIONALLLY AN INSTRUMENT PLAYED ONLY BY JELIS OR GRIOTS, HEREDITARY PRAISE HISTORIANS AND MUSIC MASTERS. BUT TODAY, AS WE’LL HEAR, THE KORA HAS GONE GLOBAL. HELLO, I’M GEORGES COLLINET WITH AFROPOP WORLDWIDE FROM PRX. THIS EDITION: “JOURNEYS WITH THE KORA.”
ACTY: 01_Sirifo_kora.wav: The kora is the West African harp with 21 strings. It's built with a half calabash and cowskin on the calabash. With a neck made from wood. With the word called kano. I remember back in the day when my grandfather used to build koras. He would get the wood from the forest and then dry it out for maybe six months. It's gotta be really dry. Not rushing like now with the building the kora within a month or two. The strings are made from fishing line nowadays. Before it was a type of skin. But what they did was to have a special treatment for the skin to make the skin hard and not break. It was time consuming.
ACTY: 02a_DMTounkara_complet.wav: (French)
ACTY: 03a_MSD_IDCard.wav: (French)
ACTY: 03b_VO.wav: This instrument is the ID card for the Mande people. And it is unique in the sense that it is open to everyone. It is free. It is vast. The kora is like a river.
ACTY: 04_Sirifo_dialogue.wav: The kora, like my dad used to say, we have a special connection. When we play the kora we face the kora to us. We don't face it backwards. You face the kora. You are communicating with the kora. You don't play like you're playing a guitar or ngoni. It's facing the public. It's not facing you. But the kora, you are meditating when you play it. It's like you were having a dialogue with your kora.
GEORGES: THAT’S SIRIFO SISSOKO, BROTHER OF BALLAKE SISSOKO, AND SON OF THE LATE DJILIMADY SISSOKO, ONE OF THE FIRST PLAYERS TO BRING THE KORA FROM GAMBIA TO MALI. WE ALSO HEARD FROM DJELY MORI TOUNKARA AND MADOU SIDIKI DIABATE. MUSICOLOGIST LUCY DURAN HAS BEEN STUDYING KORA MUSIC SINCE THE 1970S. ONE OF THE FIRST PLAYERS WHO INSPIRED HER WAS JALI NYAMA SUSO OF THE GAMBIA.
WINDOW: M02_Jali Nyama Suso-Dorokuta.mp3, recorded Anthony King, 1970, Bakau the Gambia (with permission from the King estate) (top to 0:20, then to bed)
ACTY: 05_Lucy_JaliNyama.wav: This is “Dorokuta,” a piece that was recorded by the academic specialist in West African music Anthony King. Jali Nyama sings, because normally the kora would be an accompaniment to song. But just listen to the delicacy of his playing. He's not showing off. He's just deeply immersed in the music.
WINDOW: M02_Jali Nyama Suso-Dorokuta.wav (to 1:09, then to bed)
GEORGES: IF YOU ASK A KORA PLAYER THE ORIGIN OF THE INSTRUMENT, YOU MIGHT HEAR A STORY ABOUT DJINNS, GENIES OR SPIRITS THAT GAVE THE KORA TO HUMANS IN A DISTANT PAST. HISTORIANS AND MUSICOLOGISTS TRACE THE KORA’S ORIGIN TO THE KABU EMPIRE, FOUNDED IN THE 16TH CENTURY IN WHAT IS NOW GAMBIA, SOUTHERN SENEGAL AND GUINEA BISSAU. THE FIRST DESCRIPTIONS AND DRAWINGS WE HAVE OF KORAS ARE FROM THE LATE 18TH CENTURY. WE’RE GOING TO HEAR SOME OF THE GREAT KORA MASTERS OF THE LATE 20TH CENTURY. BUT FIRST…
ACTY: 06a_MSD_intro .wav: (French)
ACTY: 06b_VO.wav: I greet everyone today I am Mamadou Sidiki Diabate, kora player. But I am not just a kora player. I am the owner of this instrument because I come from a family with 71 generations of kora players transmitted from father to son.
GEORGES: NOW, YOU MIGHT BE WONDRING HOW THERE COULD BE 71 GENERATIONS OF MUSICIANS PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT THAT WAS ONLY INVENTED A FEW CENTURIES AGO. WELL, WHAT CAN I TELL YOU? PERHAPS THE IDEA OF “GENERATIONS” IS A LITTLE DIFFERENT IN A LAND OF ENORMOUS FAMILIES WITH MULTIPLE WIVES. IN ANY CASE, [[tighten]] WE MET MADOU SIDIKI AS HE WAS ABOUT TO PERFORM AT LA NUIT DE LA KORA, THE NIGHT OF THE KORA, AT THE NUITS D’AFRIQUE FESTIVAL IN MONTREAL.
ACTY: 07a_MSD_Kelefaba.wav: (French)
ACTY: 07b_VO.wav: We’re tracing the story of Mande from the 13th century till today. Because when we speak of the kora, it's a complete history. The first song you play on the kora is “Kelefaba.” Some people call it “Kurunto Kelefa”. When you begin the master gives you this song, and when you have learned to play it well, the master will leave you alone to play all the others. Because once you play this, none of the others will be a problem for you.
GEORGES: “KELEFABA” WAS COMPOSED TO HONOR A GREAT WARIOR, KELEFA SANE.
ACTY: 08_Sirifo_Kelefaba.wav: Kelefa Sane he was a king in Guinea Bissau, Kabu. So I guess when you play when you get the kora, you play for your patron.
GEORGES: LIKE SO MANY PIECES IN THE MANDE GRIOT REPERTOIRE, THIS IS A PRAISE SONG. AND IN MADOU SIDIKI’S HANDS, IT IS ALSO SUBLIME.
MUSIC: M03a_MSDiabate_Kelefaba_board-mono.wav + M03b_MSDiabate_Kelefaba_house-stereo.wav (top to5:00, then to bed)
GEORGES: HOW ABOUT THAT, A SOLO PERFORMANCE BY MADOU SIDIKI DIABATE. BY THE WAY, MADOU IS TOUMANI DIABATE’S YOUNGER BROTHER. AND FOR SOME YEARS NOW, HE’S BEEN THE KORA PLAYER IN SALIF KEITA’S BAND. BUT LET’S GO BACK IN TIME. ONE OF THE FIRST COMMECIALLY AVAILABLE KORA RECORDINGS WAS “CORDES ANCIENNES” ANCIENT STRINGS, RELEASED ON A GERMAN RECORD LABEL IN 1971. IT FEATURES A NUMBER OF DUO TRACKS PAIRING SIDIKI DIABATE WITH DJELIMADI SISSOKO, TWO OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL PLAYERS OF THEIR TIME.
MUSIC: M04_Kayra.m4a, Sidiki Diabaté, Djelimady Sissoko, Mali: Cordes anciennes (Musique du monde/Buda Records 3259119 778226) (up to 1:45 then to bed)
GEORGES: THE SONG IS “KAIRA, PERFORMED BY SIDIKI DIABATE AND DJELIMADI SISSOKO IN 1970. FAST FORWARD TO 1999, AND LISTEN TO THEIR SONS, TOUMANI DIABATE AND BALLAKE SISSOKO, PERFORMING A DIFFERENT VERSION OF “KAIRA” ON AN ALBUM CALLED NEW ANCIENT STRINGS, PRODUCED BY—YOU GUESSED IT—LUCY DURAN.
MUSIC: M05_Kita Kaira.m4a, Toumani Diabaté & Ballaké Sissoko, New Ancient Strings (Hannibal 031257 14282 3) (emerge 0:19-2:40)
GEORGES: TOUMANI DIABATE AND BALLAKE SISSOKO. MAYBE YOU HEAR THAT THEIR PLAYING IS MORE ELABORATE THAN THEIR FATHERS’. EACH GENERATION OF PLAYERS TRIES GO BEYOND WHAT WAS DONE BEFORE. MANDE MUSIC GOES BACK TO THE 13TH CENTURY, A TIME WHEN GRIOTS HAD NO OTHER PROFESSION AND PLAYED ALL THE TIME. SO THIS IS REALLY A CLASSICAL TRADITION. IT’S COMPLEX, EVER-EVOLVING, AND IT CARRIES A DEEP SENSE OF HISTORY. AS WE SAID, THE KORA ORIGINATED IN WHAT IS NOW GUINEA BISSAU AND GAMBIA. SIDIKI DIABATE AND DJELIMADY SISSOKO GREW UP IN GAMBIA, AND SIRIFO SISSOKO, DJELIMADY’S SON, SAYS THEY STARTED OUT PLAYING IN THE GAMBIAN STYLE.
ACTY: 10_Sirifo_Kora2Mali.wav: The men do the singing and play the kora. It's a different style. So when my dad and Toumani’s dad travelled to Mali, they were confronted with a different kind of music. That was ngoni. It was balla. There were all these instruments over there. And for them to really count, they had to embrace those instruments and play together with them. So Sidiki and Djelimady, even though they're from the Gambia, they became the style in Mali. They did a good job, so the president gave them land to stay in. But to be truthful, somebody else brought the core to Mali before my dad.
GEORGES: THAT PERSON WAS BATROU SEKOU KOUYATE, IN THE EARS OF LUCY DURAN, ONE OF THE GREATEST KORA PLAYERS OF THE 20TH CENTURY.
WINDOW: M06_Nin ko ka dissa-EDIT.m4a, Batourou Sekou Kouyate, (recorded ORTM c. 1974) (top to 0:15, then to bed)
ACTY: 11_Lucy_BatourouSekou-EDIT.wav: Batourou Sekou Kouyate from Mali. Wonderful kora player with a very original style. It reminds me of raindrops on water. Ping, pin, ping. Very clear. Every note perfectly articulated. And when he strums the strings it's like bells ringing. It's very evocative, extremely musical, very melodic. It’s absolute groove.
MUSIC: M06_Nin ko ka dissa-EDIT.m4a, (up to 1:59, then to bed)
GEORGES: “RAINDROPS ON WATER.” I LIKE THAT. BATROU SEKOU KOUYATE PLAYING KORA AT RADIO MALI IN THE 1970S. BUT CAN IT REALLY BE TRUE THAT THERE WERE NO KORA PLAYERS IN MALI BEFORE BATROU SEKOU? SIRIFO SISSOKO SAYS IT IS.
ACTY: 12_Sirifo_Mali.wav: In Mali? Nobody. Batourou Sekou was the first one. He travelled to Gambia and learn the kora way before Sidiki and my dad. I would say probably in the late 40s. But for the kora to really expand, it started with Sidiki and my dad.
BED: M07_Alhaji Bamba Bojang.m4a, Alhaji Bai Konte, Kora Melodies from the Republic of the Gambia, Rounder Records 011661 50012 9) (top to 0:22, then to bed)
GEORGES: MUSICOLOGISTS LIKE RODERICK KNIGHT IN THE U.S. AND ANTHONY KING AND LUCY DURAN IN THE U.K. WERE STUDYING KORA MUSIC LONG BEFORE IT BECAME WIDELY KNOWN. BUT FOR MANY OF US, INCLUDING SEAN BARLOW, THE CREATOR OF THIS PROGRAM, DISCOVERY CAME WITH THE 1973 ROUNDER RECORDS RELEASE OF ALHAJI BAI KONTE’S ALBUM, KORA MELODIES FROM THE REPUBLIC OF THE GAMBIA. THE ALBUM WAS RECORDED BY A YOUNG AMERICAN FOLK MUSICIAN NAMED MARC PEVAR, WHO, ALONG WITH HIS WIFE SUSAN, SPENT A YEAR STUDYING KORA IN BAI KONTE’S COMPOUND IN BRIKAMA, GAMBIA. MARC WAS A GUITAR PLAYER, TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THIS REMARKABLE 21-STRING HARP.
ACTY: 13_MPevar_thesound-EDIT.wav: I spent a long time trying to understand what was so distinctive about the sound quality of the kora. I think I understand it now. With the guitar or any fretted instrument, most of the time, you hold down the string and you pluck it or strum it and you cause it to vibrate, and then you lift off of that fret, that sound is gone. It's not there at all. Not even a shred of it. But with a harp, when you pluck a string, until you physically dampen it, stop it with your hand, that sound keeps going. So if you're playing guitar, you can get six sounds out of the guitar. Six strings you're gonna get six sounds. With a kora, with 21 strings, you could have 21 sounds happening at any one time. Usually it's gonna 10. Maybe 15 or 16. Usually. Because certain notes are used very seldom.
WINDOW: M08_Debussy-LaMer.wav, Debussy . La Mer . Nocturnes, The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez (Deutsche Grammophon, 439 896 2) (very short. Just establish the sound)
ACTY: 14_MPevar_Debussy.wav: It's more like listening to Debussy or an orchestra that's playing almost like waves of colors. Sounds that have wonderful coloration that blends one into another.
WINDOW: Debussy-LaMer.wav: (30 seconds, then to bed)
ACTY: 15_MPevar_Birimintingo.wav: Debussy's writing like in “La Mer and things of that nature, is much closer in the classical music world as an orchestra to what you can do with the kora as a soloist. This is something that Bai Konte was extremely good at. He would take a basic melody and after but if you're paying attention, you realize that he's playing a variation of that first melody, and then you say, “But when did he stop the other one and start the new one?” And it didn't really happen that way. It's a very slow, one little note change the time and it keeps moving and shifting and shifting, and then with a sly grin, the really good musician will throw in what are called birimintingo. Birimintingo are these very fast runs, sometimes more than double time. Blisteringly fast. And then slow the pace down to a snail’s pace again.
BED: M09_BaiKonte-JATO-excerpt.wav (crossfade this in under Marc, for a couple of riffs, then to bed)
GEORGES: A KORA TEACHER CAN SHOW YOU THE ACCOMPANIMENT FOR A SONG, THE “KUMBENGO.” BUT BIRIMINTINGO?
ACTY: 16_Sirifo_birimintingo.wav: Kumbengo is like accompaniment. But birimintingo is improvisation. So they actually teach you the kumbengo, but birimintingo is something that depends on your emotions and your feelings. “Can you show me the birimintingo for this song.” I’m going to show you the birimintingo for “Jabari.” No. Nobody will show you the birimintingo. You know? You’re improvising.
WINDOW: M09_BaiKonte-JATO-excerpt.wav (up to about 0:50)
GEORGES: ALHAJI BAI KONTE WITH “JATO.” FOR THE WHOLE STORY OF THAT BAI KONTE ALBUM, CHECK OUT OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARC ON AFROPOP.ORG. ONE DETAIL YOU MIGHT REMEMBER ABOUT THE ALBUM IS THE PSYCHEDELIC IMAGE OF THE ARTIST ON THE COVER. THAT ALBUM COVER CAUGHT THE EYE OF A YOUNG TAJ MAHAL, AND IT LED TO TAJ’S FRIENDSHIP WITH MARC AND HIS LATER COLLABORATION WITH BAI KONTE AND HIS SON DEMBO KONTE. MARC AND SUSAN PICK UP THE STORY.
ACTY: 17_MSPevar_cover-photo.wav (stereo, two voices)
Susan: The funny thing about the picture is, it was actually a mistake. We were so broke so we were sending our film home to a friend, who claimed he could do the printing.
Marc: Ektochrome slide development.
Susan: It was certainly messed up, but when we saw that picture. It was supposed to be the cover.
Marc: I saw the picture when the slides came back and our friend was very apologetic. He sent it back and said, "I don't know what happened if it was a temperature or this or that, but some of them got solarized,” he said. I looked at that and thought, "Oh my Goodness this is an album cover." This is the middle of the psychedelic era.
Susan: Taj Mahal might not have spotted that album if it hadn't been that picture.
Marc: Yes, if my friend hadn’t made the development mistake.
GEORGES: (chuckle) FUN FACT. MARC AND SUSAN FIRST TRIED TO GET SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS TO RELEASE THAT BAI KONTE ALBUM, BUT MOE ASCHE REFUSED TO DO A COLOR COVER. SO THE HONOR FELL TO ROUNDER RECORDS, AND THE REST IS HISTORY.
MUSIC: M10_Alla L'aa Ke.m4a, (start as bed under Marc and Susan and emerge on vocal at 0:33-3:20, then to bed)
GEORGES: ALHAJI BAI KONTE WITH “ALLA L’AA KE.”
ONE OF THE EARLY PIONEERS OF PERFORMING KORA OUTSIDE OF WEST AFRICA WAS FODAY MUSA SUSO. FODAY MUSA GREW UP IN A VILLAGE IN EASTERN GAMBIA, NOT FAR FROM THE MALIAN BORDER. HE WAS A QUICK STUDY ON KORA AND SOON BEGAN TRAVELING WIDELY. IN 1977, HE LANDED IN CHICAGO WHERE HE FORMED A BAND CALLED THE MANDINGO GRIOT SOCIETY. FODAY MUSA WOULD GO ON TO COLLABORATE WITH BILL LASWELL, PHILLIP GLASS, HERBIE HANCOCK AND MANY OTHERS, BUT HIS DIVE INTO KORA FUSION STARTED IN CHICAGO. HERE’S A TASTE FROM THE MANDINGO GRIOT SOCIETY’S DEBUT ALBUM, FEATURING THE LATE, GREAT JAZZ TRUMPETER DON CHERRY.
MUSIC: M11_MandingoGriot-Apollo-excerpt.wav, Apollo-Fusubara, Mandingo Griot Society (Flying Fish, FF076) (up to 1:50, then to bed)
GEORGES: WOW, A BLAST FROM THE KORA PAST. FROM 1978, MANDINGO GRIOT SOCIETY FEATURING FODAY MUSA SUSO. MORE KORA ADVENTURES COMING UP, PLUS: WHAT MAKES A TRULY GREAT KORA PLAYER. VISIT AFROPOP.ORG TO SEE KORA VIDEOS AND READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARC PEVAR. I’M GEORGES COLLINET, AND YOU’RE LISTENING TO AFROPOP WORLDWIDE, FROM PRX.
WINDOW: 20-second break: M12_Nimissa,wav. Ba Cissoko, Nimissa (Cristalrecords, 3 149028 011821)
WINDOW/BED: M13_Suma.m4a, Sona Jobarteh, Fasiya (African Guild Records, 6 10696 77881 9)
GEORGES: ONE SIGN THAT KORA MUSIC IS EVOLVING IS THE EMERGENCE OF FEMALE KORA PLAYERS. TOPPING THAT LIST IS SONA JOBARTEH, DAUGHTER OF SANJALLY JOBARTEH AND GRANDDAUGHTER OF AMADOU BANSANG JOBARTEH, THE ICONIC GAMBIAN KORA MASTER. SONA GREW UP BETWEEN GAMBIA AND THE U.K., AND ONLY KNEW HER LEGENDARY GRANDFATHER WHEN SHE WAS VERY YOUNG.
ACTY: 18_Sona_father-EDIT.wav: In the Gambia, I can't say that I was lucky enough to study with my grandfather. He passed away when I was 9 or 10, so I was not old enough. I often wish I could travel back in time as the player that I am now be able to have just one lesson with him. But saying that, I was very lucky to have my father, because my father was Amadou Bansang’s main student in terms of learning kora. My father was the one who really studied with him for the most time and toured with him and was always with him. And so I was really fortunate to be able to study with my father and to get so much knowledge from him, and obviously from my grandfather through him.
GEORGES: BUT BEFORE SHE WORKED WITH HER FATHER, SONA STUDIED CLASSICAL MUSIC IN ENGLAND, PLAYING CELLO AND LEARNING WESTERN COPOSITION. SHE HAD ALSO TOURDED WITH HER BROTHER TUNDE JEGEDE, WHO WAS FUSING KORA INTO REGGAE, INDIAN MUSIC AND OTHER INTERNATIONAL STYLES. BUT AFTER ALL THAT, SONA WENT BACK TO HER ROOTS.
ACTY: 19_Sona_father2-EDIT.wav: By the age 17 is when I really decided that the kora is the only instrument, despite everything, that I feel 100 percent connected with. I love all the other instruments that I do, but they do not talk to me the same way. So that's when I really wanted to study the old songs. So I went to my father living in Norway at the time. And I asked him, "Will you give me what you know? Will you teach me?" And I think it was interesting, because he agreed, and we spent such intensive time just on the side of his bed for so long. Studying and studying and studying as much as I could. I never knew until many years later really how he internalized that whole process. It was when I had an interview not so long ago with my dad. And they asked, "What did you think about your daughter?" And he said, "Yeah, I told her if she wants to do this. I told her, ‘Make sure you don't consider the female thing. I'm going to teach you as my child, not as my daughter. This is me passing it on to the next generation.’ And it’s true, he told me at the time, The one thing I want is to make sure you become a good kora player, not a female kora player, a good kora player."
Well, what was interesting is the interviewer asked him, “Do you think she succeeded in this?”. And you know, my dad is the older generation. They don't say, "Oh, well done," and things like that. So, after a pause, he said, "Yes. She did." And that meant the world to me.
WINDOW: M14_Fasiya.m4a, Sona Jobarteh, Fasiya (short)
MUSIC: HERE’S SONA JOBARTEH WITH THE TITLE TRACK FROM HER INTERNATIONAL DEBUT ALBUM, FASIYA.
MUSIC: M14_Fasiya.m4a (Up to 3:35 then to bed)
GEORGES: LOVELY! SONA JOBARTEH WITH “FASIYA.” AS THE KORA HAS GONE INTERNATIONAL, MORE AND MORE WESTERNERS HAVE TRAVELED TO WEST AFRICA TO STUDY THE TRADITION. ONE OF THOSE IS A YOUNG WOMAN WE MET AT THE NUITS D’AFRIQUE FESTIVAL IN MONTREAL, WHERE SHE NOW LIVES.
ACTY: 20_Sophie_intro.wav: My name is Sophie Lukacs from Budapest, Hungary. I started playing the violin when I was four and I studied classical music for 16 years and then I was in Burkina Faso by chance in 2008 and I met the kora and Mande music and fell in love with this repertoire. I didn't start playing the kora right away, but I started listening obsessively to kora music, solo kora, for many years. And then I was living in New York and I saw Yacouba Sissoko at Music at the Met on a Friday, and I went up to him and said, “I need a lesson.” And I had a lesson with him. That was in 2013 and then I said, "That's it. I'm going to play the kora.”
GEORGES: A FEW YEARS LATER, SOPHIE ACCEPTED AN INVITATION FROM TOUMANI DIABATE TO COME TO MALI. SHE STAYED FOR SEVEN YEARS, AND… WELL, LISTEN FOR YOURSELF.
WINDOW: M15a_SLukacs_Salimu-board-mono.wav + M15b_SLukacs_Salimu-house-stereo.wav (1:15, then to bed)
GEORGES: WOW HUNGARIAN-CANADIAN KORA PLAYER SOPHI LUCAKS TURNING ON A CROWD AT CLUB BALATOU IN MONTREAL. BUT LET’S HEAD BACK TO WEST AFRICA, THE LAND OF THE KORA.
WINDOW: M16_Kausu Kouyate - Buna Kiling Tomora.mp3, with Dembo Konte commenting - Yeyengo. recorded in Boun Kinlin, Casamance, by Lucy Duran (short. Time to next emerge)
ACTY: 21_Lucy_Kausu .wav: Another of the greats of the late 20th century was Kausu Kouyaté. Kausu was from southern Senegal, a small town called Boum Kinlin, which actually means ”one room.” There's a style of music called Yeyengo which involves a lot of strumming on the kora. I think you will see how remarkably creative this musician was with extraordinary dexterity, yes, but just deep deep musicality. One of the things for me about the kora, about what makes great core players great is when they sing with the kora. It can literally be singing, singing along, humming, but it can also be making the kora sing, and Kausu does both.
WINDOW: M16_Kausu Kouyate - Buna Kiling Tomora.mp3, (emerge on vocal at 1:00-2:44, then to bed)
GEORGES: KAUSU KOUYATE IN A RECORDING MADE BY LUCY DURAN IN CASSAMANCE, SOUTHERN SENEGAL, IN 1986. YOU KNOW, FOR AN OUTSIDER, IT’S EASY TO GET LOST IN KORA MUSIC. IT ENVELOPES YOU. IT CASTS A SPELL. YOU HEARD LUCY SPEAK ABOUT WHAT MAKES A GREAT KORA PLAYER. WE THOUGHT WE’D ASK A FEW PLAYERS WHAT THEY THINK IS THE SIGN OF GREATNESS, STARTING WITH DJELY MORI TOUNKARA AND SOPHIE LUCAKS.
ACTY: 22a_DMTounkara_touch .wav: (French)
ACTY: 22b_VO.wav: For me, it’s the touch and the sensibility each person has. I can listen to a recording and say, “That’s Madou Sidiki playing.” I can listen to another and say, “That’s Ballake.” Or Toumani. Everyone has their touch.
ACTY: 23_Sophie_soul.wav: A great kora player is not actually different from a great violin player. You need everything. You need amazing sensibility and timing, and then I think so much of the kora is improvisational, your feeling. You have to have a lot of soul.
ACTY: 24_Sirifo_great.wav: To me a great kora player is someone that really plays with their melody. Not the technique. Because the kora is basically melody. You sing through the strings. It's like you're singing a song. These kids nowadays who are doing this fast stuff. It doesn't mean anything. They're just doing technique. Because to make it beautiful, it's not like a competition thing. OK everybody's gotta show their skills. No. You want to combine to be something nice. Like my dad was with Toumani’s dad. Toumani’s dad would do the solo and everything. My dad would do the accompaniment. Does that make my dad a lousy kora player? No. It doesn't work like that. Everybody knows everybody specific value.
ACTY: 25_Lucy_great.wav: What makes a kora player great? It's very subjective ultimately, but I think we need to go back to ideas about musical greatness from the culture itself. There is a term called Ngara that means master musician. Ngaraya is musical mastery. This goes beyond just kora. It's singing and any other form of musical performance particularly by the griots of the jalis. Ngaraya, musical greatness, implies that the music goes beyond mere entertainment. It has a power, the ability to make things happen. It moves you to do great things.
WINDOW/BED: M17_Sinyara.m4a, Foday Musa Suso (short, just intro)
GEORGES: BACK IN 1987, WE SPOKE WITH FODAY MUSA SUSO OF GAMBIA, AND HE SAID THAT ONE MARK OF A GREAT KORA PLAYER IS TO KNOW ALL THE DIFFERENT STYLES OF KORA THROUGHOUT THE MANDE TERRITORIES.
ACTY: 26_FMS_styles.wav: One thing about the kora, I play any style on it. tomora, silaba, hardina, sauta. These are the four, From Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea. Usually in the western part of Gambia, they played tomora, the western part of Gambia, Banjul and Brikama,, they play just tomora. So if they go to Mali, they cannot play with the Mali musicians, because it's a whole different thing, but I play all of them no matter which part of Mandingo area I am.
GEORGES: FOUR DIFFERENT TUNINGS; FOUR DIFFERENT STYLES: TOMORA, SILABA, HARDINO AND SAUTA. HERE’S SIRIFO SISSOKO.
ACTY: 27_Sirifo_styles.wav: Let's say for example if you go to Casamance, most of the style is tomora. In Guinea Bissau, most of their tuning is hardino, more mellow than Casamance style. Casamance style of kora playing has a little bit more speed to it, a little rougher. You don't find it gentle like the instrument play in Mali or Guinea Bissau. It's a little bit different. Gambia it's more like Casamance, mostly they play with saliba and tomora. And then you go to Mali, and they play sauta.
WINDOW/BED: M18_Soumbou Ya Ya.m4a, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit/Nonesuch 7 69233 00722 3)
GEORGES: SOPHIE LUCAKS PARTICULARLY ADMIRES TOUMANI DIABATE’S COLLABORATION WITH ALI FARKA TOURE ON THE SONG “SOUMBOU YA YA.”
ACTY: 28_Sophie_Toumani.wav: Toumani is so amazing because what he did with traditional kora songs is he modernized them. He also changed the structure of songs. These songs went on for 20 minutes. He made “Sambou Ya Ya” a three minute song.
ACTY: 29_Sopie_Ballake.wav: Toumani is much more melody focused than any other kora player. And then Ballake comes with so much sensitivity too , but with all this ornamentation, but never for the sake of ornamentation. I think it's very intentional. We hear Ballake.
WINDOW/BED: M19_Demba Kunda.wav, Ballaké Sissoko, A Touma (No Format, unreleased) (first 13 seconds, then to bed)
ACTY: 30_Lucy_Ballake.wav: I suppose I have to confess here that I am a bit of a traditionalist. I prefer really the oldest ways of playing. Having said that, I am complete fan of Ballake Sissoko who sings with his kora. His music is infused with melody, and with a kind of a spirituality. It’s also very dexterous, virtuousic, but that isn't the main point. There’s soul in it.
GEORGES: MAYBE THIS IS NO SURPRISE, BUT SIRIFO SISSOKO TOO CALLS HIS BROTHER BALLAKE A TRULY GREAT KORA PLAYER, IN FACT, HIS FAVORITE.
ACTY: 31_Sirifo_Ballake.wav: Ballaké in the studio setting is nothing. Ballaké even sometimes in the concert setting is nothing. But if you sit down with Ballaké in the compound late at night and you sit next to him and he's just playing his kora, It's something. I get goosebumps. I cry to some of the stuff the actually plays. It's powerful.
ACTY: 32_Lucy_DKunda.wav: If you listen to a piece like “Demba Kunda”. “Demba Kunda” is the name of his home village where his father was born and raised. Just on the southern border of the Gambia, very near Casamance. So it’s a tribute to his home.
WINDOW: M19_Demba Kunda (up to 2:34, then to bed)
ACTY: 33_Lucy_fusion.wav: Although I celebrate the fact that there are so many kora players now, young kora players who are brilliantly virtuosic, and are recording widely and doing fusion stuff. And I think this is all excellent, and the kora has really become a very established instrument now, but I would say that the whole idea of narayan, musical greatness, is sort of fading away and instead is being replaced by physical dexterity, running up and down the strings of the kora with machine gun speed with little real musical content. So at the end, you are impressed by the dexterity, but you're not moved by it.
GEORGES: WELL, AS LUCY HERSELF SAID, THESE JUDGEMENTS ARE SUBJECTIVE. BUT WE CAN’T FINISH OUR JOURNEY WITH THE KORA WITHOUT SAMPLING SOME OF TODAY’S INNOVATORS, LIKE BA CISSOKO OF CONAKRY, GUINEA, WITH HIS ROCKING TAKE ON KORA.
WINDOW: M20_Sabolan.m4a, Ba Cissoko, Sabolan, Marabi (3 307514 680825) (top to 0:53)
GEORGES: BA CISSOKO WITH “SABOLAN.” OR MAYBE YOU PREFER THE KORA JAZZ TRIO FROM DAKAR, SENEGAL.
WINDOW: M21_Moanin'.m4a, Kora Jazz Trio, Part IV, (Giro Music/Cristal Records, 0190758 065625) top to 1:19, then to bed)
GEORGES: HOW ABOUT THAT? KORA JAZZ TRIO COVERING A BOBBY TIMMONS BLUES, “MOANIN’.” CUBAN JAZZ MAESTRO OMAR SOSA HAS RECORDED AND TOURED WITH SENEGALESE KORA PLAYER SEKOU KEITA. SEKOU PLAYS A KORA WITH TWO NECKS, ALLOWING HIM TO PLAY IN ANY KEY HE LIKES.
WINDOW: M22_2020 Visions.m4a, Omar Sosa, Sekou Keita, Suba (bendigedig, 5 065002 172105) (emerge 1:55—2:55, then to bed)
GEORGES: AND HERE’S DENMARK-BASED DAWDA JOBARTEH, ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE GAMBIAN JOBARTEH CLAN, PUTTING KORA INTO A QUASI-ORCHESTRAL SETTING ON AN ALBUM CALLED SOARING WILD LANDS.
WINDOW: M23_Golden Horses (Instrumental).m4a, Dawda Jobarteh, Soaring Wild Lands (Stern’s Africa B09QYXG9BP) (top to 0:58).
GEORGES: AND THIS IS JUST A SAMPLE OF KORA FUSION PROJECTS. WE HAVEN’T EVEN TOUCHED ON TOUMANI DIABATE’S ADVENTURES IN JAZZ, ROCK, FLAMENCO, AND CLASSICAL MUSIC. BUT WE LEAVE YOU WITH A TRACK FROM OUR MONTREAL FRIEND, ZAL SISSOKHO AND A PROJECT CALLED KORA FLAMENCA.
MUSIC: M24_Gnafoyé.m4a, Zal Sissokho, Kora Flamenca, (Centre des Musiques du monde/ANALEKTA, 7 74204 91712 8)
GEORGES: ZAL SISSOKHO AND KORA FLAMENCA WRAPPING UP OUR JOURNEYS WITH THE KORA. JUST A TEASE, MY FRIEND. THERE’S A WHOLE WORLD OF KORA MUSIC OUT THERE, JUST WAITING FOR YOU!
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THANKS TO SIRIFO SISSOKO, DAVID GILDEN AND LUCY DURAN FOR THEIR HELP WITH THIS PROGRAM. VISIT AFROPOP.ORG FOR MUCH MORE ON KORA MUSIC. YOU CAN ALSO FIND US ON FACEBOOK AND FOLLOW US ON TWITTER AT “AFROPOPWW.” MY AFROPOP PARTNER IS SEAN BARLOW. SEAN PRODUCES OUR PROGRAM FOR WORLD MUSIC PRODUCTIONS. RESEARCH AND PRODUCTION FOR THIS PROGRAM BY BANNING EYRE. AND, BE SURE TO SUBSCRIBE TO OUR PODCAST, INCLUDING RADIO PROGRAMS AND OUR AFROPOP CLOSEUP PODCAST SERIES.
JOIN US NEXT WEEK FOR ANOTHER EDITION OF AFROPOP WORLDWIDE. OUR CHIEF AUDIO ENGINEER IS MICHAEL JONES. THIS PROGRAM WAS MIXED AT STUDIO 44 IN BROOKLYN BY MICHAEL JONES. ADDITIONAL ENGINEERING BY GC FROM THE SYNCOPATED LAIR IN WASHINGTON, DC. BANNING EYRE AND CC SMITH EDIT OUR WEBSITE, AFROPOP.ORG. OUR DIRECTOR OF NEW MEDIA IS MUKWAE WABEI SIYOLWE. AND I’M GEORGES COLLINET.
PROMO TEXT (THIS PROGRAM,)
THE KORA IS A 21-STRING HARP, AND ONE OF AFRICA’S SIGNATURE INSTRUMENTS. FROM ITS MYSTERIOUS ORIGINS TO ITS INFLUENCE ON JAZZ, ROCK AND EVEN CLASSICAL MUSIC, THIS IS AN INSRUMENT WITH STORIES TO TELL. HELLO, I’M GEORGES COLLINET. JOIN ME FOR “JOURNEYS WITH THE KORA,” NEXT TIME ON AFROPOP WORLDWIDE FROM PRX.