The kora is a twenty-one-stringed harp from the Mandé region of West Africa, which refers to the geographical shadow of the Mandé empire (1235-1469 A.D.), including present-day Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and the Gambia. It is traditionally the purview of Mandinka jali: a patrilineal tradition of musicians, storytellers, and singers who perform a variety of functions in society.
The kora has a resonating miraƞo (calabash, or gourd), at the base, over which a cow hide is stretched. The gourd is adorned with tawsiño, metal tacks, that hold the cowhide in place as the soundboard. Its faló (neck), bulkalamo (handles) and bató (bridge) are sculpted from rosewood. The faló of the instrument supports the tension of twenty-one juló (strings) made of the animal gut. They are tied to bonsuƞo, either nylon cord or string, which, in turn, are tied to a jutoné, an iron ring at the base. The juló are strung through slats or holes lined up and down each parallel side of the bató suspended perpendicularly on top of the sound board, typically supported by a kularaƞo, or cushion. The juló are then tied to braided leather rings called konso attached to the faló. The strings crisscross when viewed from one side, like the wires of a cable-stay bridge held vertically. The kora’s vertically notched or pierced bridge places it within a family of plucked stringed instruments with vertically notched or pierced bridges, which are found only between Senegal and Angola along the sub-Saharan African coast.
Many kora players agree that Jali Mady Wuleng was the first to construct and play the instrument sometime in the eighteenth century. One of the most popular stories regarding Wuleng's discovery among kora players is that he went in search of his runaway bride in a cave and came out with the kora. This cave was in Sanimentereng; a town in the kingdom of Kabu (also spelled Gabu or Ngabu) located in the present-day Gambia. Kabu was the result of western migrations led by one of the Mandé empire's early generals, Tiramakan Traoré, which ended in the lower Senegambian region. Once settled in the region, this group of migrants became known as the Mandinka. Along with the surrounding ethnic groups (of which there was considerable intermixing), the Mandinka formed the confederation known as Kabu in the wake of the fall of the Mandé empire in 1537. The empire lasted until 1867.
The kora bears a striking resemblance to similar harps with calabash resonators in the region, and it follows that it developed as an evolution of these harps. One of the most widespread of these kinds of harps is the donsó ngoni, the hunters’ harp from Wasulu, a geo-linguistic region bordering the Kabu region in present-day southern Mali, eastern Guinea and northern Cote d’Ivoire (an example of which can be found in the Met’s collection (accession # 89.4.2023)). Another is the simbiƞ, the Malinke’s hunter’s harp from southwest Mali (also bordering Kabu). Like the kora, the donsó ngoni and simbiƞ have long necks, supporting strings strung through a bridge placed on top of a leather soundboard that is laid over a calabash. With two parallel rows of strings, the donsó ngoni is closer in resemblance to the kora than the simbiƞ, which has a single row. Unlike the kora, these two hunter’s harps are smaller in size, have relatively few strings (seven to eight) and are tuned to a pentatonic (as in the case of the donsó ngoni) or heptatonic (as in the case of the simbiƞ) scale, as opposed to diatonic scale (as is the case with the kora).
Perhaps the most likely direct antecedent to the kora is the soron, a harp of seventeen to eighteen strings from the upper parts of Guinea (again, very close to the Kabu region). Although this instrument has virtually disappeared today, recordings of it from the early 1950s are available thanks to the fieldwork performed by French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget in Guinea in the 1950s. On these recordings, one can clearly hear the contrapuntal or interlocking playing style engendered in kora technique, although the tuning is radically different than that performed on kora today.
Besides evidence in the oral tradition, the instrument’s size, its number of strings, its relatively complicated construction and its intricate playing style, the reason why the kora is thought of by ethnomusicologists as a much younger instrument compared to others in the region is also due to its relatively limited influence. In addition to the above harps, lutes (such as the ngoni; see, for example, accession ## 89.4.473 and 89.4.475) and xylophones (such as the bala (for an example in the Met’s collection, see accession # 89.4.492)) can be seen across West Africa in different forms, whereas there is little that resembles the kora outside of the Mandé region.
The instrument’s lowest note–sometimes referred to as the mara timbango or timbamba–is found at the far left corner of the bridge, which is to say closest to the player when the instrument is pointed in a playing position towards them. The next three ascending notes–typically jumping an interval of a fifth, followed by two approximate whole steps–are also found lined up after the timbango progressively on the left hand side. The next note in the scale, typically a half step up, reaching an octave from the mara timbango, is on the far right corner of the bridge. This note is often referred to simply as the timbango. Each note then ascends on the opposite side of the bridge for the next two octaves, which is to say that the notes following the timbango in the scale are the fifth string on the left hand side, followed by the second on the right, the sixth on the left, the third on the right, and so on. At the top of those two octaves is the eighth string on the right side, which is followed on the right side with the two highest notes on the instrument, a whole step between each.
Much of the kora’s repertoire is drawn from an older instrument called the bala, a wooden xylophone. In the case of the bala, the right hand voices the bass and tenor notes, while the left hand voices the alto and soprano notes on the instrument. On a kora, the role of the right hand on bala maps onto the thumbs while the role of the left hand on bala maps onto the indexes.
A kora piece often begins with the indexes spelling out the melodic introduction, followed by the thumbs’ articulation of the kumbengo: a rhythmic pattern, similar to a vamp, that characterizes Mandé instrumental performance. At the same time as the thumbs play the kumbengo, the indexes perform a series of melodic and rhythmic lines. While the thumbs and indexes work, respectively, to articulate musical lines step-wise in the scale, the thumb and index fingers on opposite hands work together to voice octaves, while the thumb and index on the same hand will be used to create chords, since most of the intervals between strings on one side of the bridge are thirds. If this coordination wasn’t intricate enough, some kora players, particularly inheritors of the tradition in the Western parts of the Mandé region, will also flick the knuckle or nail of their index fingers on the instrument’s handles as a percussive element.
The kora has undergone a number of changes since this particular instrument was built in the nineteenth century. Materially, the juló, or strings, on contemporary koras tend to be made from nylon, instead of the traditional animal gut, and are tuned with tuning pegs or guitar machine heads, in lieu of the konso, or braided leather loops. Musically, the instrument's four principle modes–hardino, tomoraba (or silaba), sauta, and tomora mesengo–have modulated both upwards and to the closest Western diatonic scales on recordings and in performances of kora in recent decades. The upward modulation, in particular, has been attributed to the ripple effects of the emphasis placed on singers’ virtuosity in performances local to the Mandé region; singing higher is frequently associated with a more virtuosic technique, so instruments have modulated upwards in order to meet the demands of singers they accompany, who sing progressively higher over time. (Althea SullyCole, 2022)
Charry, Eric. 2000. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of West Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Durán, Lucy. 2010. "The Kora: Tales of a Frontier Instrument." World Circuit. [Accessed Dec. 8 2019] https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/15829/1/Toumani_Diabate_The_Kora_Tales_of_a_Frontier_Instrument.pdf
Rouget, Gilbert. 1999 . Guinée: Musique des Malinké [Guinea: Music of the Mandinka] Le Chant du Monde: CNRS-Musée de l'Homme.