Traditionally found in West African territories such as Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and parts of Senegal, this unique harp and lute-like instrument is made of a large gourd resonator covered with animal hide (cow or antelope) with a long pole neck attached, which erects 21 playing strings.
The Cora Connection describes the kora as: “A unique instrument with a harp-like appearance and a notched bridge similar to that of a lute or guitar. It sounds somewhat like a harp, but its intricate playing style can be closer to flamenco guitar…
“The kora’s body is made from a calabash gourd cut in half and partially covered with cow skin. Traditionally, there are twenty-one playing strings plucked by the thumb and forefinger of each hand. The remaining fingers grip the two vertical hand posts. For strings, players use fishing line which provides a brilliant tone and is easily obtained at the local market. Twenty-one anchor strings attach the playing strings to an iron ring bored through the base of the kora’s hardwood neck. The player tunes the kora by moving the leather rings to achieve the appropriate tension on each string. Kora players use a variety of tunings.”
Koras come from the tradition of Mande (Mandinka, Malinke, Maninka) griots who used the instrument as accompaniment to their historical storytelling, and other oral traditions that were passed down generationally. As the African Guild explains, “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.”
Watch the world-renowned “King of Kora,” Toumani Diabaté, give both a demonstration and a brief history on this beautiful instrument.
Today, the kora is also used in musical genres such as pop and modern jazz. There’s even a niche that combines American jazz with traditional West African music, with the kora being a primary instrument. The most popular group to demonstrate this style of music is the Kora Jazz Band, formally known as the Kora Jazz Trio.
Listen to how the kora is incorporated into their twist on jazz.