Kora (instrument)

Kora (instrument)
Kora (African lute instrument).jpg
String instrument
Classification West African stringed instrument with 21 strings
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 323-5
(Composite chordophone sounded by the bare fingers)
Playing range
Traditional range of the kora
Related instruments
harp, gravi-kora
Toumani Diabaté, Ballake Sissoko, Foday Musa Suso, Seckou Keita, Toubab Krewe, Jacques Burtin, Alhaji Bai Konte and sons Dembo and Sherrifo

The kora is a 21-string bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa.[1]



A kora is built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator, and has a notched bridge. It does not fit well into any one category of western instruments and would have to be described as a double bridge harp lute. The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style, it bears a closer resemblance to flamenco and delta blues guitar techniques. 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). Ostinato riffs ("Kumbengo") and improvised solo runs ("Birimintingo") are played at the same time by skilled players.

Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (also from the Mandinka nationalities) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia. A traditional kora player is called a Jali, similar to a 'bard' or oral historian. Most West African musicians prefer the term 'jali' to 'griot', which is the French word.

Traditional koras feature 21 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. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin - now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

By moving 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.[2][3]


Djeli Madi Wuleng is traditionally linked to the origins of the kora in the early 19th century. However, the earliest European reference to the kora in Western literature is in Travels in Interior Districts of Africa (1799) by the Scottish explorer 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.[4]

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

Nowadays, increasingly koras are made with guitar machine heads instead of the traditional leather rings. The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that it limits the pitch of the instrument as the 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 people entranced by the sound while in Africa, buy a kora and then find themselves unable to keep it in tune once they are home, relegating it to the status of ornament. 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.

The Gravi-kora

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, and giving them increased flexibility.

The French Benedictine monks of the Keur Moussa Abbey (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,[5] was the first Western composer who wrote for the kora (solo pieces as well as duets with Western instruments).[6]

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 but is tuned and played differently than the kora. Another instrument the Gravi-kora, a 21 string 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.[7] The gravi-kora has been adopted by kora players such as Daniel Berkman,[8] Jacques Burtin, Le Chant de la Forêt (The Song of the Forest), suite for kora, gravi-kora, flute and viola, [9] and Foday Musa Suso, who featured it in recordings with jazz innovator Herbie Hancock,[10] with his band Mandingo, and on Suso's New World Power album.[11]


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

The kora music being part of the oral tradition, its music was not written until the 20th century. The ethnomusicologists were the only ones to note some traditional airs in the normal grand staff method using the G clef and the F clef.

Nowadays, 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 griots 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[12] and Jacques Burtin[13] (France), who wrote most of these scores, though composers like Carole Ouellet[14] (Canada), Brother Grégoire Philippe[15] (Monastère de Keur Moussa) and Sister Claire Marie Ledoux[16] (France) contributed with original works.


  • 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

African composers (oral tradition)

  • Mali : cordes anciennes / Mali : Ancient Strings, Sidiki Diabate and Djelimadi Sissoko, Buda Music, 2000. First published in 1970, this CD was the first album totally devoted to the kora. Sidiki Diabate was the father of Toumani Diabate, and Djelimadi Sissoko was the father of Ballake Sissoko. They both 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.
  • 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 Pharaoh Sanders).
  • The Mandé Variations, Toumani Diabate, World Circuit, 2008. Twenty years after his first CD, Kaira (Hannibal, 1988) - that was also 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)

  • 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 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 kora players

Master kora-maker Alieu Suso of The Gambia

See also


  1. ^ http://asza.com
  2. ^ http://www.coraconnection.com/
  3. ^ http://www.thekoraworkshop.co.uk/
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Keur Moussa web site : http://www.abbaye-keur-moussa.org.
  6. ^ Lumière Radieuse - Keur Moussa, Art et Musique, 2007; Sénégal, Messe & Chants Au Monastère De Keur Moussa, Arion, 2010.
  7. ^ The gravi-kora in the Gravikord web site : http://www.gravikord.com/instrument.html#gravikord
  8. ^ Calabash Moon, Magnatune, 2005 ; Heartstrings, Magnatune, 2009. Video (Daniel Berkman on Gravikord, 1998)
  9. ^ Le Chant de la Forêt, Bayard Musique, 2008. Video (Gravi-kora improvisation by Jacques Burtin, 2010)
  10. ^ Village Life, Columbia, 1985 ; Jazz Africa, Polydor, 1987.
  11. ^ New World Power, produced by Bill Laswell and Foday Musa Suso, Island Records, 1990.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ « 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.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Toumani Diabate web site [2] - Video (Toumani Diabate playing Cantelowes at El Real Acazar, Sevilla, Spain)
  18. ^ [3]
  19. ^ [4]
  20. ^ Daniel Berkman web site
  21. ^ Jacques Burtin web site [5] - Video (Jacques Burtin playing Ballade de l'île d'Yeu)
  22. ^ [6]
  23. ^ [7]
  24. ^ [8]
  25. ^ http://www.zoudiarra.com/index_uk.php?land=engels
  26. ^ http://www.korafola.com
  27. ^ http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yann_Tambour
  28. ^ [9]
  29. ^ [10]
  30. ^ [11]
  31. ^ [12]
  32. ^ [13]
  33. ^ [14]
  34. ^ [15]

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Kora — can refer to: * Kora (instrument), a stringed musical instrument of West African origin * Kora (pilgrimage), a type of pilgrimage in the Buddhist tradition * Kora (tribe), another name for the Banjaras, a tribe of central India * Kora (sword), a… …   Wikipedia

  • Kora (musique) — Kora  Cet article concerne l instrument de musique. Pour les autres significations, voir Kora (homonymie). La kora est un instrument de musique à cordes africain. C est une harpe luth mandingue (Mali, Sénégal, Gambie, Guinée, Sierra… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • kora — [ kɔra ] n. f. • d. i.; mot d une langue d Afrique de l Ouest ♦ Instrument à cordes pincées, composé d un long manche et d une calebasse tendue d une peau. Le griot et sa kora. ● kora nom féminin Harpe luth à 21 cordes des Malinkés (Guinée, Mali… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Kora (instrumento) — La kora es un instrumento de 21 cuerdas, mezcla de arpa y de laúd, muy extendido entre los pobladores de África occidental. Contenido …   Wikipedia Español

  • Kora — Cet article concerne l instrument de musique. Pour les autres significations, voir Kora (homonymie). Schéma d une kora La kora est un instrument de musique …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Kora — Koraspieler Jali Fily Cissokho Die Kora ist eine mit beiden Händen gezupfte westafrikanische Stegharfe (auch „Harfenlaute“ oder „Doppelharfe“). Äußerlich hat das Instrument eine entfernte Ähnlichkeit mit einer altägyptischen Bogenharfe, deren… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Kora (band) — Infobox musical artist 2 Name = Kora Img capt = Background = group or band Birth name = Alias = Born = Died = Origin = New Zealand Instrument = Genre = reggae/dub metal Occupation = Years active = 1991 present Label = Associated acts = URL =… …   Wikipedia

  • kora — ▪ musical instrument       long necked harp lute of the Malinke people of western Africa. The instrument s body is composed of a long hardwood neck that passes through a calabash gourd resonator, itself covered by a leather soundboard. Twenty one …   Universalium

  • Kora (homonymie) — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Le terme kora accepte différentes significations : La kora, un instrument de musique africain La kora, un pèlerinage dans la tradition bouddhiste Il… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • kora — UK [ˈkɔːrə] / US [ˈkɔrə] noun [countable] Word forms kora : singular kora plural koras a West African musical instrument like a guitar …   English dictionary

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