Adventures with a kora, 4

It is, of course, not true, despite what you might read in unreliable sources, that my musical activities are largely restricted these days to playing the kora. In public, I play viola and violin, and in private, also piano, recorder and kora. But I have been having kora lessons, on and off, from Seikou Susso, and I find this musical culture fascinating. It is difficult for me, trained in the European classical musical tradition, to accommodate myself to an aural, semi-improvisatory tradition. The fact that there is no fixed pitch is hard to deal with since I have perfect pitch. But the music itself is of a sophistication and virtuosity that is marvellous to behold. Accustomed as I am to reading rhythms off the page, I find it more difficult than I expected to analyse and internalise rhythms by ear. The stress accents in the music, as in the Mandinka language, are less obvious than in English, and it is easy to mis-read a main beat as an off beat, or an appoggiatura as being before the beat instead of on the beat. The music is typically in 4/4 on an ostinato bass or tenor line (kumbengo), but it is often designed to make the beats as rhythmically ambiguous as possible. 2+3+3 is common, but far greater subtlety is often introduced. There is a fluidity of rhythm that cannot easily be notated in Western musical notation. The treble line (birimintingo) often contains a bewildering variety of rhythmic devices and ornamentation. There is only one rule, as far as I can see – you must get to the beginning of the next bar at the right time.

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3 Responses to “Adventures with a kora, 4”

  1. Robert Wilson Says:

    In private I also play hardingfele – the Hardanger fiddle – but I restrict myself to rhythmically unambiguous dances such as halling, vossarull, and the like, and steer clear of the springar, whose rhythm of about three and a half beats in the bar I cannot comprehend.

  2. Robert Wilson Says:

    It is not as easy as you might think to get to the next bar on time – Seikou tells me not to rush, and get there too early. Habit of a lifetime…

  3. Robert Wilson Says:

    Three bass notes across the four beats of the bar is typical. As well as 2+3+3 and 3+2+3 across 4/4 one also finds 5+3+4 across 12/8.

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