Kora music notation

The music of the kora is part of an oral tradition and as such, had no need for a written musical notation system. It is possible to notate kora music using the standard western classical system, but doing so can be somewhat unsatisfactory, as it does not allow easy annotation of kora playing techniques. In addition, it requires some music reading skill, as there may be 4 notes played simultaneously and the range of the instrument requires many ledger lines to be used. A number of different conventions have been adopted (but not standardised) including using two treble clefs (and playing one an octave lower than written, as is done with the guitar), and using a key to show which notes are played with which hand (for example by changing the colour or shape of the note.)

Bani Kumbengo Staff Notation

Kumbengo for the song Bani Le

Another method is to use a representation of the kora bridge and strings, which allows the musician to see the interaction of the index finger and thumb on each hand for a better representation of kora playing technique. The main difficulty with this is that it is quite unwieldy and requires one to have blank sheets printed out to notate a piece.

Bani Kumbengo Kora Strings

Opening notes of Bani Le - showing strings

One can also use a form of tablature. Harald Lorenz’s Jaliya software uses its own form of tablature. Another method is to create a simple spreadsheet to show which strings are played. Each “beat” can be sub-divided into 4 (or 8) pulses and a number used to show which string is played, which finger or thumb is played with and the length and timing of the note. Even here, there is no standard convention on note numbering. Some people simply count from 1 to 10 (or 11) from the player upwards. Some prefer to count from the musician upwards for the thumb and from the kora downwards for notes played with the index finger.

Bani Kumbengo Tablature

Simple tablature example: Kumbengo for the song Bani Le (bass notes only)

(Note that the three representations above are of different versions of the same piece; they are not equivalent.)

However, most musicians will learn by listening and memorizing, albeit possibly helped by a mobile phone or recording device. This method of careful listening, repetition and rote learning is common to nearly all folk musics and has several advantages. Learning by listening carefully to a teacher allows subtle phrasing and technique to be acquired - things which cannot easily be expressed in written form. The ability to learn “by ear” allows the player to use recordings to learn new songs or variations, in the absence of a teacher.