Monday, April 5, 2010

"The Kora" published in the Lone Star Iconoclast

The Kora, a unique musical instrument growing in popularity

By Peter Stern

The kora is a wonderful and vibrant sounding musical instrument originating in West Africa.  It is growing in popularity in the U.S. and throughout the world.  Still, many people are unfamiliar with the kora and will be surprised regarding its long-time history, associated culture and application in the African community.

The kora  traditionally is an ancient African 21-stringed, bridge-harped musical instrument (although one may have 25 or 32 strings) usually made from a bottle-shaped gourd called calabash.  The gourd is cut in half, the long way, and is then covered with [calf] skin to create a resonating sound.  The strings used to be made of animal skins, e.g., antelope, but today nylon strings are often used.

The kora may be considered to be a cross or combination of a harp and lute, with a more harp-like sound and was often played at royal courts.

The oral tradition of the Mandinka, one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, tells us that the kora originated after the founding of Kaabu sometime in the 16th Century.  The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia and is making its way around the world.  The instrument may vary in size, shape and materials, from one nation to another.

Many kora players traditionally have come from griot [jali, or bard] families and also from the Mandinka tribes.  Generally, eleven of the strings are played using the left hand, while 10 are played with the right.  By moving leather rings up and down the neck of the kora, may retune the instrument into 1 of 4 seven-note scales, resembling Western major, minor and Lydian modes.  Today, more koras have modern metal guitar machine heads rather than the leather rings.

The kora may sometimes resemble the shape of a sitar, an instrument played mostly in India and Pakistan, like those made by master kora-maker Alieu Suso of the Gambia, which may differ from those made in other regions of Western Africa and other areas of the world.

It takes time to learn how to master the kora and may take just as long to learn how to tune it.  The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns, using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings.

It would be good for more people to learn more about the kora, to view some photographs, gain some historical and cultural knowledge, as it is growing in popularity   A good site to learn more about the kora, listen to its sound and even to order one is at:

The kora has grown in popularity in the west and has been used in many styles of music, including blues and jazz, as with notable jazz musician Herbie Hancock.

The kora is not merely a musical instrument, but also is a part of West African culture that is being shared with and assimilated in the Western World.

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