Geographic Region: Africa
Country of origin: The Gambia
Subregion: western Africa
Climatic type: Savannah
Time period: 19th century-
Definition: 21-string calabash harp
SvH No.: 322.11
The kora consists of a large calabash (gourd) resonator covered with cowhide, a long hardwood neck that passes through the resonator, a bridge that sits on top of the resonator, and 21 strings (formerly of finely twisted hide, now nylon fishing line) that pass over the bridge and are tied around leather tunings rings on the neck. Eleven strings pass over the left side of the bridge and ten strings pass over the right side.
Oral traditions generally agree that the kora originated in the Mandinka Kabu empire, in the region of present day Senegambia and Guinea Bissau. It probably stems from one or more varieties of hunter's harps, which have similar construction and are used throughout the western African savannah. The closest relative would probably be the Maninka simbi ("simbingo" in the Mandinka dialect). Oral traditions attribute the kora to a supernatural genie (the Arabic term jinn is used) who "brought it out." The earliest drawings of kora-like instruments were published in the 1820s. It has dispersed in the twentieth century from its homeland to neighboring countries (Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire).
There are four generally recognized heptatonic tunings: two varieties that are similar to the European major scale, one similar to a major scale with a raised fourth degree, and one that has no real comparison in the European musical system. Different tunings are preferred in various geographic regions and pieces usually have their favored tunings.
The two ranks of strings are each plucked by the thumb and the forefinger. The other fingers hold onto the wooden handles.
A system of notating kora music was initially developed in Senegal in the 1960s and refined by Roderic Knight (1973).
The kora is played by jelis (also known as griots), who are hereditary professional musicians and oral historians who have the exclusive right to play the instrument. The primary jeli family names include: Diabate/Jobarteh (using the Malian and Gambian spellings, repectively), Kouyate, Suso, and Sissoko. Traditionally, the kora is used to accompany Mandinka praise singing, story-telling, and epic recitation. Koras are often played in pairs. The two basic kinds of playing are called kumbengo (holding an accompanying pattern with much variation), and birimintingo (fast descending melodic lines). Koras are also played in ensembles with the ngoni (a 4- or 5-stringed lute) and the guitar. Nowadays, with eletric amplification, koras are played in electrified dance bands and with drums.
Knight, Roderic. 1973. Mandinka Jaliya: Professional Music of The Gambia. 2 vols. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
Diabate, Toumani. 1988. Kaira. Hannibal, HNCD 1338.
Last Modified: 05-May-2005TOP