Show #48: The Kora, Africa's Beautiful Harp Lute

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The beautiful African kora (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The 21-string kora is West Africa’s traditional harp lute. It is part of West African musical history in Senegal, Guinea, Mali, and other countries.  It is a beautiful hand-crafted instrument: a large gourd is fashioned, a round neck is added, and the gourd part is covered in goatskin and ornamented with patterned beadwork. Kora players typically wear the flowing robes that make up traditional African dress: watching a kora player is like watching a beautiful audiovisual ritual. It is an integral part of griot culture, the traditional storytellers of African history. Kora virtuosity is also passed along from father to son, teacher to disciple. Some Malian griots such as the great Bassekou Kouyate go back to the 16th century. This is African classical music.

Both Diabates–père et fils–are descendants of a dynastic griot clan that goes back 71 generations and 700 years. Griots are the historians of African culture and custodians of ancient oral traditions. The sense of discipleship and mutual respect between–similar to classical Indian music–them is palpable throughout the new World Circuit album. Plus it has punch, groove and wit. Presdient Barack Obama said that his favorite record of all time was Toumani Diabate‘s album with Taj Mahal, Kulanjan.

The kora is also a versatile instrument, fitting not only into all West African styles but into classical and western music as well. You can find the kora prominently in music by Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock, pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and jazz trumpeter Volker Goetze.

Detailed ornamental beadwork of the kora (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This week’s Rhythm Planet finds the kora in different musical contexts, both traditional West African and Western. I hope it properly showcases this most beautiful of musical instruments.

We begin with a new release featuring father/son virtuosos Toumani & Sidiki Diabate, 2 of Mali’s greatest kora players. Their album is available May 5th. We return to an earlier World Circuit release by Guinean maestro Jali Musa Jawara from neighboring Guinea. Next comes a UK-based kora and cellist Tunde Jegede with his stunning track called “Song of the Waterfall” that I loved so much I licensed it for my own album, Trance Planet, Vol 5.

Issa Bagayogo is another popular kora player from Mali whose music and remixes on the popular San Francisco based Six Degrees label has made him a fixture on both radio and the hipper club circuits. After that, some African-Occident dialogues featuring German jazz trumpeter Volker Goetze and Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi.


Rhythm Planet Playlist: 3/28/14

  1. Toumani & Sidike Diabate / Hamadoun Toure / Toumani & Sidike / World Circuit
  2. Jali Musa Jawara / Bana / Soubindoor / World Circuit
  3. Tunde Jegede / Song Of the Waterfall / Trance Planet Vol. 5 / Triloka
  4. Issa Bagayoga / Tcheni Tchemakan / Mali Koura / Six Degrees Records
  5. Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze / Amanke Dionti / Amanke Dionti / Motema
  6. Ludovico Einaudi & Ballake Sissoko / Laissez Moi En Paix / Diario Mali / Ponderosa

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Look at this trailer for the new Diabate father-son album on World Circuit.