The Mandinka kora is a unique instrument with a harp-like appearance and a notched bridge similar to that of a lute or guitar. Found in many an African recording studio it sounds somewhat like a harp, but its intricate playing style can be closer to flamenco guitar.
Recording Studio: Kora
The first known reference to the kora comes from Mungo Park in his 1799 book, Travels in Interior Districts of Africa. He describes it as “a large harp with 18 strings.”
The kora’s body is made from a calabash gourd cut in half and partially covered with cow skin. Traditionally, there are twenty-one playing strings plucked by the thumb and forefinger of each hand. The remaining fingers grip the two vertical hand posts. For strings, players use fishing line which provides a brilliant tone and is easily obtained at the local market. Twenty-one anchor strings attach the playing strings to an iron ring bored through the base of the kora’s hardwood neck. The player tunes the kora by moving the leather rings to achieve the appropriate tension on each string. Kora players use a variety of tunings. It is a great instrument to have in the recording studio to get that African or world music sound.
The Gambia has more kora players than Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Here English is spoken along with Manding, Wolof and other local dialects. In the neighboring francophone West African countries, you will sometimes see kora with it’s French spelling cora.
A traditional recording studio kora has 21 strings arranged in two parallel planes, with 11 strings for the left hand and 10 for the right. To play a scale you alternately pluck the left and right strings. The approach allows for the fast, scalewise runs characteristic of kora music. A great player like Alhaji Bai Konte incorporates rippling rhythms, elevating this technique to virtuoso levels. By moving the leather rings, up or down the kora’s wooden neck, the player puts the instrument into one of four traditional tunings. Each tuning uses a heptatonic (7-note) scale, three of which approximate modes used in Western music–major, minor and lydian–and one that’s reminiscent of the blues scale.
Here is some more information about the history of the Kora.