The sound of West Africa’s harp-lute instrument resonates somewhere between the heart and memory. The kora, as it is called, has a sacred history in countries such as Mali, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea and Senegal, where tribal priests and storytellers known as griots or jalis learned to play and sing the hauntingly beautiful instrument and perform moral-tales for their people. Tomorrow, Senegalese master kora player, Youssoupha Sidibe, performs at the Princeville Church of the Pacific. Steelgrass Music of Kapa‘a is proud to host Sidibe’s visit.
The hollow gourd, stretched with cow or goat skin, has 18-23 strings and is played with two hands. Players traditionally use fishing line for their strings, creating a vivid and expressive sound. In the 13th century kingdom of Mali, the Mandinka (Mandingo) tribe spread across the West African region into modern Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. The Manding people were the keepers of religious song and healing; the kora was an integral aspect of the griot’s role as healer, priest, royal councilor and entertainer. Griots are still revered in West Africa and perform at important festivals and personal ceremonies, including weddings and births.
The sound of the kora can be soothing and sublime like that of a harp, or dynamic and expressive like that of a flamenco guitar. The graceful rippling quality of a scale played on the instrument comes from the need to play alternating left and right strings to create a full scale. With a seven-note scale, the sound is not far from a typical blues sound, often reminding the listener that American blues music owes much to West Africa and is a descendent of these traditions. As important as the djembe drumming tradition, kora music holds the distinguished position of a sacred sound in West African society and continues to be a powerful cultural symbol.
Youssoupha Sidibe studied music at The National Music Conservatory of Senegal and has collaborated with numerous international musicians, most recently having produced Charles Neville’s (of the Neville Brothers) next album. Sidibe collaborated with artist Matisyahu on two songs for the album entitled “Youth”, including a solo kora track called “Ancient Lullabye.” The album went gold and Rolling Stone magazine singled out Sidibe’s two songs as the “key tracks on the album.” He has also worked with India Arie, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Futureman, and Michael Franti. Sidibe is currently mixing two solo albums to be released under his label — Sacred Sound. He aims to create sound that unites all cultures through the power of music.
Many ethnographers, including the foremost in Manding study, Eric Charry, claim that the music, both the kora rhythms and song lyrics, have continued to furnish the contemporary peoples of West Africa with a deep sense of identity and lineage. The sacred religious legacy of the Manding people is kept alive through the playing and performing of this music. It only takes listening to one live kora performance to convey the validity of what musicologists call one of the first sacred sounds to be created by man.
Hear the music
It is rare to hear live kora outside of West Africa, Steelgrass Ranch and The Power of Music series invites the Kaua‘i community to experience this magnificent sound. The show begins at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Church of the Pacific in Princeville. Tickets are available at Small Town Coffee in Kapa‘a, or at the door. For more information contact Tony Lydgate at 821-1857.