Koras : Sidiki Diabaté, Batourou Sékou Kouyaté, Djelimady Sissoko, N'Fa Diabaté
ln the Mande world, one finds various bridge harps (also called harp-lutes, which seems less pertinent) such as the donson n'goni of the Wassoulou hunters and the kamélé n'goni, a recent instrument derived from it, both of which are equipped with six strings. In Guinea, they have a bridge harp with fifteen or nineteen strings: the soron. In Gambia you find the kasso. The Dan of Côte d'lvoire play the six -or seven- string ko. The Guéré, also in Côte d'lvoire, use the six-string duu. The sanku is found in Upper Guinea. The five-to nine- string simbing is used among the hunters of Gambia as well as among the Mandinka and Diola of Senegal. Mungo Parks mentions a seven-string variant in Mali. Bridge harps have also been adopted by some of the populations neighbouring the Mande world. One can mention the seven-string konchuhun used by the Gwin in Burkina Faso, the kondene of the Yalunka in Guinea and Sierra Leone, the Dogon gingiru, along with the six-string kari played by the Senufo in Côte dlvoire. You can even find a six-string bridge harp called seperewa among the Ashanti in Ghana.
The first description of the kora, the most refined of these harps, can be found in the book by a Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, who travelled from 1795 to 1797, mainly throughout what is now Mali. "I must add a list of their music instruments, the main ones being: the kounting, a kind of three-string guitar ; the korro, a large eighteen-string harp ; the simbing, a small harp with seven strings ; the balafon, an instrument made of twenty pieces of hard wood, under which are fixed gourds cut in the shape of a shell to raise the sound; the tang- tang, a drum open at the lower end; and lastly; the tabala, a large drum generally used to spread the alarm throughout the country..."
This korro, which became kora, is now commonly equipped with twenty-one strings. It is no doubt relatively recent (some authors say three-hundred years) since Mungo Park was the first to describe it, while xylophones had already been observed by Ibn Battûta, the great Arab traveller who visited the Malian court in 1352.
It is thought that the kora first appeared in what is now Guinea-Bissau, probably associated with the warrior princes Nyencho from Kabu. Gambia is now renowned for the quality of its korafolaw (Sidiki Diabaté and Djelimadi Sissoko, who became Malian, both originated from Gambia).It is said that the instrument became popular in the mid-1800s thanks to Koriyang Musa, a disciple of the legendary Jali Madi Wuleng, whose jatigui (patron) was the Mandinka hero KeIefa Same. In its present shape, the kora usually has twenty-one nylon strings in two parallel rows set on a bridge, which is perpendicular to the cow-skin soundboard. The latter is tensed on a half-gourd traversed by a cylindrical sandalwood, or sometimes mahogany neck. There are two sticks on each side of the neck to hold the instrument, whose strings are played with the thumb and index fingers of each hand. A hole, like the sound hole of a violin, is pierced in the sound box. It is also used for spare strings, and Iisteners gladly slip bank notes in it to reward the musician.
The kora has four main tunings, all heptatonic. Tomora ba the large tomora, also calIed sila ba, the large path) is the closest to the western tempered scale : F; G, A (slightly lower), B flat, C, D, E (slightly lower), F. Two other tunings can be considered as symmetric variants giving a different colour from the basic scale (according to Susan Gunn Pevar ). One is hardino - F, G (slightly lower), A, B flat, C, D (slightly lower), E, F -the other is tomora mesengo - F; G (slightly higher), A flat (slightly higher), B flat, C, D (slightly higher), E flat (slightly higher), F. In the hardino scale, the intervals between the second and third and between the sixth and seventh degrees are enlarged, while they are shortened in the tomora mesengo scale. The sauta scale -F; G (slightly lower), A, B, C, D (slightly lower), E, F is derived from hardino with a transformation of the fourth into an augmented fourth. According to Roderick Knight 3, "hardino is virtually identical to the western major scale, although the seventh and the third may be higher than in the latter." Each piece comprises a main theme, kumbengo, from which the musician makes variations called birimitingo. The thumbs usually play the bass line while the index fingers play the melody. In these recordings, tracks 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 use the sila ba tuning, tracks 8, 10, 11 and 13 are in sauta, while in tracks 5, 7 and 9, Sidiki Diabaté is tuned in sila ba and Batourou Sékou Kouyaté in sauta.
ln 1977, the Festival d'Automne organized an African programme in Paris, which notably featured at the 'Cirque d'Hiver' a troupe performing Hira-Gasy, Madagascar's musical theatre, and the Ekonda ballet ensemble from Zaire, and the Zairian sanza player Elanga N'Kake at the Bouffes du Nord theatre. That venue also hosted the concert which was to leave the strongest mark on Parisian amateurs: the meeting of the two greatest korafolaw of that time, Sidiki Diabaté and Batourou Sékou Kouyaté, along with two djelimoussolou, Mariam Kouyaté and Wandé Kouyaté.
The astonished audience discovered all together the amazing universe of court music of extreme refinement, an instrument quasi unknown at that time (the LP republished here had yet to be released in France) as well as a people whose mores they knew nothing of. Many Malian workers were attending. The European public discovered those people whom they saw daily as garbage men or street sweepers, turned into blood princes who prodigally distributed their meagre salary to the musicians and singers celebrating their ancestors, and even their watches or jewellery when they had no money left. Malian immigration has grown a lot since then (Montreuil, in the suburbs of Paris, is said to be the third Malian town in the world). We have become accustomed to hearing kora players in restaurants or concerts, but we sti11 remain under the charm of this first meeting with the Mande world, and more particularly that of the djéliw, the griots.
recordings present the most accomplished expression of their art.
Sékou Kouyaté (Kouyaté:
there is a secret between you and me) and Sidiki
Diabaté (Diabaté: nobody
can refuse you anything) are our best kora-players.
These off springs of the two great families of griots
(poets) of Mali perpetuate a secular art. Our public opinion polls have
shown that one cannot love the one without the other. But one can say
that Batourou Sékou, who expresses
himself in the Mandeka style, is more intellectual, more airy.
: Ancient Strings