In academic circles, The Kora is categorized as a “spiked lute.”   It would, perhaps,  be more descriptive to call it a double strung harp.  It has a large calabash (gourd) body, a cow hide sound 'board', and twenty-one nylon strings.  Each of the stings is attached to a ring of cow hide braided around a rosewood neck. These tuning rings hold their position only by friction, and can be moved up or down the neck to tension or slack the strings. Though the origins of the kora can be traced back to around the thirteenth century, the instrument as we find it today dates back to the late eighteenth century. Remarkably, it has changed little in the last eight hundred years, or so. One notable modification took place in the early 1950's when the preference turned from strings made of finely twisted strips of antelope hide to nylon fishing line which remains the standard today.

The kora was traditionally played only by Jelis of the Mandinka people - a cultural group whose homeland is situated, roughly, between Kouroussa, Guinea and Bamako, Mali in West Africa. Jelis are hereditary musicians, singers, public speakers, oral historians, praise singers, go-betweens, advisors, and chroniclers. They represent the collective memory of Western Africa. In effect, they are living libraries of their culture, possessing vast repertoires of compositions detailing family lineages, historical epics, and cultural commentary. Jeliya, the art of the jeli, is the field of music most closely associated with the ruling Mandinka elite, but it is appreciated by all members of Manding culture. Jeliya can be chamber music, played in the open courtyard of a patron, or concert music, played in the halls or stadiums of large cities. Although Jeliya is sometimes intended to animate dancing, deep Jeliya is for listening and is meant to inspire listeners to take moral and constructive actions.

Four named traditional heptatonic tunings are in general use. Tomoraba (great Tomora), also known as Siliba (the main road), is the original kora tuning and the one in which the oldest kora songs are played. The other three are: Tomora mesengo (little Tomora), Hardino, and Sauta. Tomoraba is predominant in the Casamance and western Gambia. Tomora mesengo and Hardino are predominant in eastern Gambia, with Sauta prevailing in Mali. Tomoraba and Hardino are somewhat similar to a western major scale. For example, the seven note scale of Tomora has three notes on standard pitch, two that are slightly flat and two that are somewhat sharp. In the Sauta tuning, the fourth degree of the scale is raised a half step. The qualifications - ba (big, great) and mesengo (small, thin, little) refer to the relative positions of the tonic in each of the tunings. Mesengo has a 'thinner' or higher pitch tonic, while ba, has a 'bigger' or lower pitch tonic. There is no real sense of absolute pitch in traditional kora music. The instruments are usually tuned to match the range of the vocalist, who may or may not be the player himself.


The Kora

Electric and acoustic koras stand side by side.  On the left is a ‘kora’ I had custom built out of Stainless Steel and maple.  It has no resonator so has very little sound when not plugged in to an amplifier. 

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You are listening to an excerpt from a rehearsal with the amazing cellist, Stephen Katz.

To hear more of our duo, simply click on the words below:

Kora & Cello Duo

Pegged Kora

I finished building this kora in January of 2014.  It has tuning pegs to replace the braided rawhide rings of a traditional kora and has 22 strings rather than 21.   The pegs, while they appear much like ebony friction pegs one would find on a cello, are made of aluminum and resin composite and have gears inside of the shafts.  As a result, they provide a 1 to 4 tuning ratio to facilitate fine tuning.  The neck is made from a very hard wood from South America called Jatoba (Hymenaea Courbaril) and Ebony.  The bridge is made of an even harder wood from South America  called bloodwood (Brosimum Rubescens).  The handles are from the same piece of Jatoba as the neck.

Traditional Meets Modern

I finished building the kora shown below in the Summer of 2017.  The bridge is made of Jatoba from Brazil while the handles are of Goni from Guinea, West Africa.  The ‘tailpiece’ has been totally redesigned.