KORA: The Grammy-award-winning African instrument.

By Hilmelda Tenkeu


Thumbnail Photo: the kora instrument Photo courtesy of

Do you know the guitar, piano or saxophone? Of course you do. But do you know the Kora? Thought as much! The beauty in Africa’s diversity is reflected in the people, the food, the languages, the MUSIC, amongst other features. “Music is food for the soul”, so they say. But in the Mande territory, Music is a language. Ask Toumani Diabate, Sidiki Diabate, Sona Jobarteh, Mamadou Sidiki Diabate, or Tunde Jegede.

The Mande territory, (commonly referred as Mandinka territory) is made up of countries of West Africa: Nigeria, Guinea Conakry, Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Niger, Sierra Leone and Mali. One common characteristic of these people is that they are griots. Griot or “Jali” (the Mandingo word for) is the repository musician and storyteller of Mande’s ancient oral tradition, transmitting history and culture from generation to generation, from father to son. “we are the custodians of history… the remembrance of West Africa”, says Toumani Diabate, a griot.

I guess you have come across movies or songs in which fictitious characters or not, sit around a fire and listen to a story, told by an elder person- a griot. In the words of Toumani Diabate, usually referred to as the “king of kora”, “you are born a griot, you don’t become one”. Griots use various forms of art to tell their stories: poems, drawings, acts, spoken words and music. More specifically instruments, amongst which the Kora.

Toumani and son, playing together. Photo courtesy of

The origins of the instrument are not very clear but in the 1300s, the traveler Ibn Battuta mentioned that the women who accompanied Dugha (a prominent interpreter at the time) to perform were carrying bows that they plucked. He did not mention the number of strings, but this clearly shows the existence of harp instruments in 14th century Mali and could be the earliest written reference to the kora. The Kora is a string instrument used extensively in West Africa. It typically has 21 strings, which are played by plucking with the fingers (the thumb and index of each hand only). It is built from a large calabash, cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck.

The skin is supported by two handles that run underneath it. Each string plays a different note, supported by a notched, double free-standing bridge. The kora doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instrument, but rather several, and must be classified as a “double-bridge-harp-lute.” Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. The strings were authentically made from thin strips of hide, such as cow or antelope skin. Today, most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings.

Toumani and Sidiki performing. Photo courtesy of

A vital accessory was the nyenmyemo, a leaf-shaped plate of tin or brass with wire loops threaded around the edge. Clamped to the bridge or the top end of the neck, it produced sympathetic sounds, serving as an amplifier since the sound carried well into the open air. In today’s environment, players usually prefer or need an electronic pickup. By moving the konso (a system of leather tuning rings) up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian modes. The Kora is regarded as the identification canon for the Mande people. Therefore, it is somewhat sacred. Formerly, in order to learn to play this instrument one would give 10 pieces of colanut plus 100 cowries. But these days, one pays 500 francs CFA plus 10 pieces of colanut.

This is symbolic and it preserves the value and significance of the culture and history of the Mande people. The soulful and soothing sounds that the kora produces has made various players from the likes of Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate to earn national and international recognition from all over the world such as Emmys, Grammys, BET and others. You can savor these pure works of art in titles like Jarabi, Cantelowes, Rachid Ouiguini, among others. The Diabate griot family have been doing music with the kora for over 71 generations.

This shows and proves the attachment, value and respect that Africans in general and the Mande people in particular hold for culture and tradition.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top