Show #233: The Entrancing Sound of the West African Kora


Covering the upcoming concert by Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal has rekindled my long-time love of the West African kora, the beautiful 21-string harp-lute used by griots, the storytellers who sing and chronicle the history and traditions of West Africa. Typically crafted from a large gourd and covered in goatskin and delicate beadwork, the kora is a classical instrument with a tuning that produces a very distinct sound. A musician plays it seated or standing, and it’s much more portable than its larger European Irish and French harp counterparts.

We begin today’s spotlight on kora music with a classical African track from Guinean kora master Jali Musa Jawara, with his lovely album Soubindoor, issued by World Circuit Records. We then feature the kora in different musical contexts, proving its compatibility with other instruments, including cello, piano, and trumpet. Ludovico Einaudi, the popular Italian composer and pianist (who performs tonight, Friday, October 20, at UCLA) collaborated on his first album with kora player Ballaké Sissoko. The most popular kora duo today is that of Ballaké and French cellist Vincent Segal, who together have recorded two glorious albums on the popular Six Degrees label. We’ll listen to the track “Oscarine” from their first album together called Chamber Music. After that, we hear New York-based trumpet virtuoso Volker Goetze with Senegalese kora player Ablaye Cissoko in a gorgeous song called “Sira.”

We move next to two tracks by the great Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté—one with his Symmetric Orchestra and a second with his son, Sidiki Diabaté, who is now astoundingly the 71st generation of kora players in his family. Malian cellist and kora player Tunde Jegede then plays the lyrical “Song of the Waterfall” from Trance Planet Vol. 5, a compilation I produced way back in 2000.

We wrap it up with a cut from Ballaké Sissoko and Kassé Mady Diabaté from a stupendous new production called Les Routes de l’Esclavage / The Routes of Slavery, with 2 SACDs, a concert DVD, and a hardback book with 538 pages of text covering the first use of slaves in 1444 to the year slavery ended, in Brazil, in 1888. It is an epically-curated work of both music, history, and scholarship.

Many other great kora masters couldn’t be featured today for reasons of time—like Malang Cissoko, Foday Musa Suso, Ba Cissoko, Kaouding Cissoko, Dawda Jobarteh, Maher Cissoko, and Djelimoussa Cissoko. This show should, however, give you a taste of this fascinating instrument.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 10/20/17

1. Jali Musa Jawara / “Cherif” / Soubindoor / World Circuit
2. Ludovico Einaudi / “Laissez-Moi en Paix” / Diario Mali / Ponderosa
3. Ballakè Sissoko & Vincent Segal / “Oscarine” / Chamber Music / Six Degrees
4. Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze / “Sira” / Sira / Motema Music
5. Toumani Diabaté / Toumani / Boulevard De L’Independence / World Circuit
6. Toumani Diabaté & Sidiki Diabaté / Hamadoun Toure / Toumani & Sidiki / World Circuit
7. Tunde Jegede / “Song of The Waterfall” / Trance Planet Volume 5 / Triloka
8. Kassé Mady Diabaté & Ballakè Sissoko / “Manden Mandikandenou” / The Routes of Slavery / Alia Vox

Banner image of 4 koras by Mathas (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons.