Buying any instrument can be quite a challenge for the beginner. A poor instrument may lead to frustration and discouragement and ultimately be a waste of money. Common advice is to have a knowledgeable friend who can play to help you choose, and to try several different instruments before buying. Both of these may be difficult in the case of the kora, where many would-be learners will not know anyone who already plays and may also lack the opportunity to try an instrument before purchasing (for example, when buying over the internet.) The best solution may be to begin by attending a course or workshop in which instruments are provided. Ideally, you should buy from someone who can offer a guarantee and after-care and whose instruments are used by good musicians.
Nevertheless, it is worth describing the features which distinguish a good instrument from a poor one. Clearly, the sound that it makes is the most important (and perhaps most subjective) factor. The instrument’s ability to be tuned, and to stay in tune is also vital. Most westerners prefer to play koras with tuning pegs rather than the traditional “konso” leather rings. For the instrument to remain playable for many years, it’s important that the neck is straight and strong enough to hold the tension of the strings. The mechanical design of the instrument needs to ensure that the strings are of relatively even tension. This means that the bottom string needs to be relatively thick (more than 2mm) and this means that the tuning peg needs to be large enough to cope with a string of that size (not always the case for standard guitar tuners.) It is worth checking that all of the strings are not too slack or floppy or under very high tension and that the tuning pegs allow small, precise changes in pitch. Play each string in turn and listen for any unwanted buzzes or rattles. It is worth quickly inspecting the bridge and seeing that the notches are evenly cut.
You should also look at the quality of materials used - the wood, the calabash, the skin etc. The size of the calabash does not particularly affect the quality of the note produced, but does have some influence on the volume. A larger gourd will usually generate a louder sound and the diameter is typically around 45cm (i.e. measured across the widest point of the front of the instrument.) Few good instruments would be more than a few cm smaller than this. The skin should not be too thick, as it will dampen the sound. It should not be completely smooth on the calabash, as there is some natural variation in both the gourd and the skin. The colour of the skin is not relevant to the sound and playing quality of the instrument and of course, neither is the decoration on the back, although aesthetic considerations may also play a role in your purchase.
In general, I would tend to avoid instruments which have been mass produced for sale to tourists as decoration. These can often be identified by their heavy coating of varnish, or being highly decorated. There are some beautiful koras decorated with pyrography for sale to tourists in certain markets in West Africa, but the emphasis is on making an attractive souvenir rather than playability.
You can see our list of companies and people who sell Koras online <a href=”https://www.thekoracafe.com/resources/instrumentsales” here ›</a>