Adventures with a kora

I have been prevented from playing the violin or piano by a damaged finger, and yesterday saw a secondhand kora for sale in a local music shop. Since this instrument is played with the thumb and index finger of each hand, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it and give it a try. Sold as seen, I knew it was missing a few of its 21 strings. I soon found out that  most of the strings were in the wrong slots in the bridge, and two were even on the wrong side of the bridge. Four or five of the top strings had been replaced by steel guitar strings. No matter. I started to try and tune it. This is when I discovered that most modern koras are made with tuning pegs like guitars. Not this one, which has the traditional animal hide tuning rings. Steep learning curve. After half a day or so, I reckoned to have 16 of the remaining 17 strings tuned to a decent approximation to E flat major. Apparently I should be aiming for F, but this instrument just isn’t interested in F major, so I let it have its way and settle in E flat. Now the 17th string (second lowest) I found would not tune up to the required B flat, and I put this down to the fact that it is made of a twisted pair of nylon strings, and is probably too heavy for that note. I must order a set of new strings and try to set the instrument up properly. Then comes the real challenge – learn to play it, even to a basic level.

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2 Responses to “Adventures with a kora”

  1. Robert A. Wilson Says:

    Well, I’ve ordered a set of new strings, but until they arrive I’m doing the best I can. I’ve managed to coax it up to E major, and with great effort tune the second string up to B, so I can play the bass line with octave E and B (apparently this is called kumbengo) on the correct strings. The treble line will have to wait until I’ve got enough strings. In the meantime I have found various different versions of the kumbengo to practise. The important thing seems to be to train the thumbs (and later the fingers) to know which string is which. One striking consequence of the fact that the strings alternate between the hands is that typically the left finger works with the right thumb, and vice versa. This is so different from violin or piano technique that it will take a lot of getting used to.

  2. Robert A. Wilson Says:

    The strings arrived yesterday. More steep learning curves. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’ve now put on about 10 new strings, so the instrument has its full complement of 21. Plus a few new tail loops to tie the strings onto, plus moving the base of the bridge forward so it leans back a little and helps bring the short strings clear of the body of the instrument. New strings of course mean lots of tuning, and this is a major undertaking with this instrument. I am worn out, as are my thumbs. I can see it’s going to be several more days before the instrument is really ready to play.

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