The Kora Epic
A pandemic tale for the new year – In March 2020, when it became clear we were hunkering down for the long haul due to the pandemic, I decided to order a kora. I was thinking that it would be an engaging creative way to spend my time, seeing as I was out of work. A kora is a West African 21 string harp built out of a large calabash gourd with a long neck made of wood. I’ve wanted to learn it from the moment I first heard one in 1990 when a friend came back from Senegal with street vendor cassette tapes he’d scored. I thought then and still think now that it’s the most enchanting instrument I’ve ever heard and have long thought it would be a retirement goal to learn how to play one. Well, why not now with all this time?
One of my favorite kora players is Sona Jobarteh from The Gambia ~ If you haven’t heard of her she is most decidedly worth checking out. She is the first woman to be widely recognized as a master in the griot tradition of the regions where kora music comes from. I discovered that the luthier that she has worked with for years in developing an evolved kora has them available for sale through her website. They’ve taken the best elements of the instrument from it’s traditional form, and added contemporary hardware and structural reinforcement to traditional materials and have created a concert quality instrument. I reached out and learned that each instrument was custom made upon ordering, and set the process in motion. After all my research and decision making, by now it was late March.
The first question I got asked was how I would like the top of the neck and the handles to be carved. The image that immediately leapt to mind was a spiral and without hesitation I wrote right back. Within a day I was sent a photo asking if the design was alright. I was blown away and said yes. Soon after I started getting photos of the neck as it developed, and then a picture of the calabash gourd that would make up the body of the instrument. Needless to say I was thoroughly stunned at what I was seeing, and that they were sending me step by step pictures of the instrument being created from scratch.
After a couple weeks of back and forth with design choices I got a message that the kora was finished (!!!) and that now the luthier would tune it up and stress test it for 2 weeks to ensure everything settled into place before being shipped. Oh man was I blown away seeing these pics and knowing this glorious creation was soon to enter my life. I also fell in love looking at the place this was made, seeing the palm trees in the yard, and truly hope I can visit there someday.
I finally got a message on May 14 2020 (will never forget the date) letting me know that my kora was finished & passed through all of the stress tests before shipping. There was only one problem – now the national mail service in The Gambia was closed due to the pandemic. Dang. So now I began my wait. Long story short – this turned into a masterclass in patience. International shipping resumed mid October after a couple of agonizing false starts, and we walked in the door Halloween night (!!!) to find this lovely surprise after waiting over 7 months from when I ordered.
I ended up in a lovely correspondence friendship with the agent for The African Guild due to this extended process, as we exchanged emails weekly that became increasingly personal ~ I look forward to meeting him someday. And now I’ve embarked on the most enchanting musical relationship I’ve ever known.
This has been a profound process throughout, especially knowing that the instrument that I now play daily was made specifically for me. Sometimes I walk into my office studio and just look at it, marveling at it’s journey across the ocean and into my home. The kora truly is a magnificent creation, a work of art that implies a cultural sophistication and aesthetic depth far beyond what is typically attributed to the region where it comes from. There is such a wealth of musical heritage and creativity born through the kora, and I am honored to hold one in my hands. It teaches me daily, and I’ve never known an instrument to lead me on as readily as this one.
And our adventure together has only just begun…