THE KORA: 21 string Gambian traditional instrument

The Kora (Manding languages: ߞߐߙߊ köra) is a stringed instrument used extensively in West Africa. A Kora typically has 22 strings, which are played by plucking with the fingers. It combines features of the lute and harp.

The Kora is built from a large calabash, cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run underneath it. It has 22 strings, each of which plays a different note. These strings are supported by a notched, double free-standing bridge. The Kora doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instrument, but rather several, and must be classified as a “double-bridge-harp-lute.” The strings run in two divided ranks, characteristic of a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are instead held in notches on a bridge, classifying it as a bridge harp. The strings originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, also making it a lute.

The sound of a Kora resembles that of a harp, though when played in the traditional style it bears resemblance to a guitar played using the flamenco or Delta blues technique of plucking polyrhythmic patterns with both hands (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 jali families (also from the Mandinka tribes) who are traditional historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. Though played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, the instrument was first discovered in the Gambia. While those from neighbouring Guinea were known to carry the lute, Senegalese Griots were known as carriers of a hand drum known as the Sabar. Most West African musicians prefer the term “jali” to “griot,” which is the French word. “Jali” means something similar to a “bard” or oral historian.

Much thanks to Salieu Suso for showing us this beautiful instrument.

Full performance of a traditional song, Jimbu Sen: https://youtu.be/h6Vn8ZOJfKI

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