A compilation of some of the questions we’ve been asked (and answers.) If there’s something you’d like to ask - please use the comment form at the bottom of the page, or the contact us section at the top.
About the kora
- What are the origins of the kora?
The Jali have lots of traditional stories and oral history about how they first got the kora. Many of these involve djinns (also called genies when they live in lamps!) The historical evidence suggests that the kora probably evolved from similar, less complex instruments, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.
- Which countries is the kora played in?
Originally, the kora was played in those areas where Mande culture (descended from the old Mali Empire of the 13th - 17th century AD) is found. That corresponds to the modern day nations of Mali, Guinea, Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and perhaps also the Ivory Coast. Today, of course, you can find people playing kora all over the world.
- Why is the kora said to be a Mande (or Manding) instrument?
It’s traditionally associated with the Jali, a class of hereditary oral historians, praise singers and musicians, found across the Mande (also called Manding, Mandinka or a bunch of similar names.) The Mande peoples speak a range of languages and live in several different countries. Traditionally, only a man born into a Jali (also spelled and pronounced Jeli, or Djeli) family can play the kora.
- Can the kora have more than 21 strings?
Yes. Koras sometimes have additional bass strings (particularly those of musicians from Casamance, the southern part of Senegal.) Of course, some people have made modified koras with many more strings.
- What is the difference between the kora and the ngoni?
There are several instruments which use the name ngoni. The donso ngoni, the hunter’s harp, is now very much associated with Wassoulou style music from the south of Mali. A modern variant is the smaller kamale ngoni (youth harp.) Like the kora, these have a calabash resonator. There are usually two rows of three strings, which pass through holes in the bridge, rather than notches in the side of the bridge.
The “jali” ngoni (or n’goni) is a different instrument. Traditionally, like the kora, it was played only by Jali. The ngoni is a lute-like instrument that is thought to be an ancestor of the banjo. Its body is a hollowed-out, canoe-shaped piece of wood with dried animal skin stretched over it like a drum, to form a resonator. The name ‘Kontingo’ is used in Mandinka and ‘Koni’ in Maninka. The number of strings is not fixed, although usually four, five or up to eight. There are typically two melody strings, which are fingered by the left hand in a similar way to a guitar or banjo. Additionally, there are a number of strings which are set to a fixed pitch, sometimes called harp strings. Like the kora, there are several different tunings, and most songs are traditionally associated with a particular tuning, although some pieces can be played in more than one tuning. The musical ability of the ngoni has been considerably extended in recent times. Basekou Kouyate, from Segou in Mali, is perhaps foremost in this. The history of the ngoni appears to be longer than that of the kora. It is mentioned in the writings of Arab traveller Ibn Battuta in 1352.
- How many songs are there in the traditional repertoire?
There are around 200, some of which are several hundred years old, but some are of much recent (20th century) origin. No one individual will play all of those songs and many pieces are clearly derived from others, while many songs are played in different ways by different people.
- Who are the great kora players?
It would take thousands of words to answer this properly! See the music section here, for some answers. If one considers only players from the past, the names of Sidiki Diabaté (Father of Toumani Diabaté), Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Alhaji Bai Konte, Ali Nyama Suso, Alhaji “Papa” Bunka Susso, Lalo Keba Drame and Soundioulou Cissoko are widely considered to be greats. You can find old recordings of many of these musicians online.
- Are there many ways to play the kora?
On this website, we mainly focus on traditional kora playing and the West African (Mande) repertoire. However, the monks of Keur Mousa Abbey in Senegal have used the kora to accompany Gregorian chant for many decades and people are using the kora to play Jazz, Reggae and many other modern styles of music and there are modern classical pieces written for kora. So it is by no means the case that there is only one way to play.
Learning to play
- Can I find a kora teacher in my area?
See the resources section of this website. Many teachers will offer lessons over the internet.
- How long does it take to learn to play kora?
How long does it take to learn any musical instrument? To pick out a familar tune (for example, Happy Birthday) might not take very long, but a lifetime would probably not be enough to reach the virtuosity of Toumani Diabate!
- Do you need to be a Jali to learn or teach kora?
Traditionally, only a Jali would learn kora, and they would only learn from another Jali, usually within their extended family. Many Jali today are very happy to teach kora to outsiders and see it as a way to pass on their culture and the history of their people’s heroes and to adapt to the modern world.
- Do you need to know music theory to learn play kora?
Not at all, as kora has historically been learned by listening and repetition, rather than by written notation. Nevertheless, it can add something to your understanding and enjoyment if you know a little about scales and modes.
- Why do kora players only use the two index fingers and two thumbs?
Playing 4 notes at once and coping with polyrhythms is already complicated enough! The remaining fingers are used to hold the kora.
- Is the traditional way of playing kora fixed, or does it change over time?
The traditional way of playing has certainly changed in recent decades. The kora was traditionally used to accompany singing and was not played as a solo instrument, for example. Nor is the use of guitar effects pedals, amplification etc. traditional. It would be unreasonable to expect musicians to ignore the many useful innovations of the modern world. Nevertheless, Jali continue to play songs and tunes which are centuries old and to praise heroes from centuries gone by.
- Can someone who doesn’t play another instrument learn to play the kora?
Yes, playing the kora doesn’t require any previous knowledge of another instrument.
- Does it help to know the harp or some other instrument to learn the kora?
There are no immediately transferable skills from the harp, or other instruments. Even the method of producing a note from the string is different on the harp. Of course, if you already know another instrument, you will have some existing listening ability, know how to practice and perhaps some knowledge of how music works. So your brain is already wired to help you learn a new instrument!
- Is it better to buy a kora with guitar tuners or one with traditional rings (donso)?
That is a matter of opinion! One of the great kora players, Sidiki Diabaté, considered that a kora with tuning pegs was not actually a kora and some traditionalist Jali refuse to let such an instrument into their house! Some people think that the traditional tuning method produced a nicer sounding instrument. However, tuning is very much simpler and quicker with tuning pegs and they are very widely used by both top musicians and beginners.
- How often do the strings of a kora need to be changed?
Usually only when they break. On a guitar, mandolin or similar instrument, you may find that strings become “dull” over time and need to be changed, but this doesn’t seem to happen so readily on the kora.
- Does a kora go out of tune easily?
Once it’s been set up and the strings and everything else have settled, I don’t think it’s any worse than other stringed instruments. Obviously, anything which is made from organic components such as a calabash/gourd, wooden neck etc. will undergo changes particularly if the temperature or humidity changes and that will cause tuning to change. As different traditional songs can require the use of different tunings, the kora often needs to be re-tuned during a performance in any case.
- Do I need to have an electronic tuner?
No. If you have a good ear, you can certainly tune the kora without one. People managed for hundreds of years without the use of electronic tuners, after all. However, their use can certainly help when playing with others, or to speed up the time to tune the kora.