Maker: Mamadou Kouyaté (d. 1991) (bridge by Djimo Kouyaté)

Date: ca. 1960

Geography: Senegal

Culture: Mandinka people, Senegambia

Medium: Gourd, goat skin, antelope-hide, ebony, metal, wood

Dimensions: Height: 45 9/16 in. (115.8 cm)
Width: 20 11/16 in. (52.5 cm)
Diameter: 10 7/8 in. (27.6 cm)

Classification: Chordophone-Harp

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1975

Accession Number: 1975.59


Plucked stringed instruments with vertically notched or pierced bridges are found only along the African coast from Senegal to Angola. The unique bridge seen here on the kora lifts the strings on a plane perpendicular to the body instead of parallel to it. Constructed of a calabash resonator, covered with sheep or goat hide and bearing nylon strings secured around a wooden neck, the West African kora combines features of the harp and the lute. It is played either standing or sitting by professional musicians traditionally associated with the nobility. It is played either standing or sitting by professional musicians traditionally associated with the nobility. The jali (performer) holds the kora upright and plucks the twenty-one strings with thumb and forefingers to accompany spoken narratives, genealogical recitations, and praise songs. The kora also provides solo interludes. Tuning is achieved by turning the antelope-hide rings to which the strings are tied.
This kora was made by Mamadou Kouyaté, the chief musician of Senegal's first president Leopold Sengor. The bridge was made by Djimo Kouyaté.
Among the Mande peoples of the western and central Sudan, kora and other stringed instruments accompanied the epic narratives of jeliw (singular jeli), a class of bards who are retained by wealthy patrons to chronicle family histories and propagate stories of heroic ancestors. A hereditary position, jeliw remain intimately linked to the same families for generations and serve as living repositories of chronicles passed down through time. As revered keepers of family history, they are often called upon to act as intermediaries during disputes among relations.
Talented musicians, jeliw employ music to help them recall and organize the extensive amounts of information with which they are entrusted. This kora from Senegal, which combines features of both the harp and lute, is an example of an instrument that would be played during such recitations. Constructed of a calabash resonator covered with hide and bearing nylon strings tied to hide tuning rings tensioned around a wooden neck, it is played upright with the resonator placed on the ground or cradled in the lap. The musician grasps the instrument by the twin handles on either side of the neck and plucks the twenty-one strings with thumbs and forefingers. Tuning is adjusted by turning the antelope hide rings to which the strings are attached.

The social role of jeliw has remained much the same in contemporary Mande society, although their patronage has undergone some significant changes. Many jeliw now perform for general audiences, while others are employed by individuals who have met with success in the postcolonial era.