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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 48 November 25, 2023

Kora: in search of the origins of west Africa’s famed stringed musical instrument | Eric Charry

Saturday 25 November 2023


November 9, 2023

“How come we’ve never heard of this beautiful instrument until now?” This was posted by a first-year college student to my world music course discussion board recently. He voiced what many of his peers probably felt after watching the extraordinary documentary Ballaké Sissoko, Kora Tales [1].

The film follows Sissoko [2], a world-class musical artist, from his home in Bamako, Mali to a sacred well and baobab tree in The Gambia on the Atlantic coast. In the film, the award-winning Sissoko revisits his childhood homeland and traces the origins of the instrument that became his destiny.

Sissoko is a jeli (called a griot by outsiders) – a hereditary oral historian and musician attached to the ruling class. Like generations before him, he plays the kora, a unique kind of harp that’s indigenous to the western African savannah. It has 21 strings and is played with four fingers. And it can create dazzling, dense musical textures as well as thin shimmering veneers that accompany the delivery of deep oral history. It is one of the most sophisticated handmade musical instruments in the world, both in its musical capabilities and the depth of its tradition.

Ballaké Sissoko: Kora Tales is a beautifully made film that should be seen by everyone interested in African culture and history.

Kora’s global spread

If you haven’t heard of the kora, it’s not for lack of exposure. Dozens and dozens of kora albums have been released since Gambian Jali Nyama Suso’s [3] debut solo album in 1972. The kora has won more Grammy Awards in the World/Global Music category than the sitar. An album [4] featuring the kora with the BBC Symphonic Orchestra was released in 2023. The reach of the kora beyond western Africa is expansive [5]. It can be heard on recordings by musicians across the world.

I first heard the kora on a 1973 album by Gambian Alhaji Bai Konte [6]. It was an early formative experience that put me on the path towards becoming an ethnomusicologist [7]. In the 1980s, Senegalese-American kora player Djimo Kouyate [8] inspired me to study regional differences in kora playing in four neighbouring countries. I wound up in Bamako, living three doors down from Ballaké Sissoko, studying with Sidiki Diabaté [9] (father of Toumani [10]), who lived two doors down. That became the basis of my first book in 2000, Mande Music [11].

The history

Constructed from a large half calabash, cowhide, thick wooden neck and leather tuning loops and strings (now nylon), the kora is several centuries old. Precursors go back much further.

Two men in a boat, one in colourful African print playing a wooden string instrument, white clouds in the blue sky above them.

Sissoko (right) with Fabouly Diébaté in Senegal. Screengrab/Ballaké Sissoko: Kora Tales/Vimeo

It is intimately intertwined with the history of the Mande homeland along the Niger River, slicing through modern-day Mali and Guinea. This chiefdom rose to power in the 1200s when the legendary Sunjata conquered an oppressive king, Soumaoro Kante, with the help of neighbouring allies. Kante owned the primordial bala (also called balafon [12]), a magical xylophone, which was passed on to the jeli (griot) of Sunjata. His name was Balla Faséké Kouyaté and his ancestors guard that very instrument in a hut in northeastern Guinea.

In 2008 Unesco declared the instrument a site of intangible cultural heritage and today a museum is being constructed on the site. At its height, the Mande empire extended across much of western Africa and its mines supplied most of the gold circulating in Europe. A visit to Mecca by Mande king Mansa Musa [13] in the 1300s secured his reputation as one of the wealthiest [14] people in the history of the world. Migrations westward to the Senegambia region led to the development of a related language and culture, Mandinka.

A man and a woman sit in front of the clay walls of a house. He holds papers and talks using a hand gesture.

Just as the bala (Mande xylophone) has origins in Mali in the 1200s, the kora has origins in the Kaabu federation of the Senegambian Mandinka in the 1700s. Traditionally, jelis have the exclusive right to play both of these instruments. Many origin stories of musical instruments in Africa refer to a jinn (genie) first bringing it out. So it is with the kora.

What the film is about

One of my favourite lines in the documentary comes from Sissoko’s aunt Kadiatou Diabaté, herself a jeli:

This person before you, he was born with the kora. The seventh generation of his lineage. Even if you just touch him, out comes the sound of one of the strings.

Travelling by car, Sissoko leaves his capital city Bamako for a voyage of over 1,000km west to the birthplace of the kora on the Gambian coastline. All of this was part of the Mande empire at its height, as far as the northern reaches of the Niger River at Timbuktu. Sissoko stops at Sibi, where Sunjata is said to have united his armies, made pacts and created the governing constitution of what would become the largest empire in Africa.

The cinematography of the countryside, much of it from aerial drones, is magnificent. Passing through southern Senegal, they cross the Casamance River by boat for a visit with kora master Malan Diébaté. This is kora country and a half dozen kora players appear, singing the praises of Sissoko and his lineage.

Six men in traditional west African robes and headgear walk in a group playing wooden stringed instruments in front of a rural homestead. Behind them stands a row of women in traditional attire, clapping.

They are accompanied by the women in their extended family tapping out a diasporic source of the signature Cuban clave [15] pattern.

Diébaté recounts the supernatural origins of the kora, and Sissoko takes off for that very spot, Sanementereng in The Gambia. In one sense all musical instruments are magical, given the impact they may have on our lives.
Widespread oral traditions attribute the origins of the kora to this specific place on the Gambian coast. When Sissoko arrives here towards the end of the documentary, at a sacred well and a baobab tree that marks the spot, it is a moving experience.

Inspiring work

The writers and directors of the film, Lucy Durán and Laurent Benhamou, have done inspiring work in conveying the beauty of the landscape, the depth and humanity of the tradition, and the artistic persona of Sissoko.
A man in traditional west African robe stands with his back to the camera looking at baobab trees towering above him.

Professor [16] of music and former radio presenter [17] Durán has an awesome track record in this part of the world over many decades, from producing early albums by Toumani Diabaté and other Malian artists to Growing Into Music [18], a pioneering documentary film series [19] laying bare the process of children learning the musical arts of jelis in Mali and Guinea.

Narrated by French-Malian rap star Oxmo Puccino, [20] the documentary takes you deep into one of Africa’s great classical traditions through the eyes of one of its great artists. For the eyes, ears and collective cultural memory, this film is a treasure.

(Author: Eric Charry, Professor of Music, Wesleyan University)

Disclosure statement: Eric Charry does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

[Reproduced from The Conversation in under a Creative Commons licence]

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