Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Adventures with a kora, 4

December 23, 2019

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.

Adventures with a kora, 3

January 23, 2017

After belatedly posting no.2 in this series, I thought I’d better post another update. A couple of weeks ago I tried suarta tuning (with B natural, instead of the B flat of silaba tuning, so roughly tuned to a C major scale) and started practising Jarabi, from the video tutorial I bought from the Kora Workshop. The video does not play properly even on my new laptop, so this is a frustrating experience. Nevertheless, I think I’ve got the basics, although I’ve probably misunderstood some of the subtleties of the rhythm. I’ve memorised the introduction and both versions of the kumbengo (thumb version and finger version), and can play them more or less up to speed, though not with all the right notes every time! When I’ve practised them a bit more, I’ll move on to the variations.

Adventures with a kora, 2

January 23, 2017

Oops! I forgot to post this. It’s a bit out of date now:

Eventually I was forced to replace all 21 strings. Mixing the old and new strings simply did not work, as they were very different in thickness and in tension. It took about a week of what felt like fulltime tuning to get it to the point where the strings were all compatible lengths and tensions, so it could be tuned correctly. Each adjustment of one string would require detuning all the shorter strings, and tuning them back up again. The whole process started to feel like the Towers of Hanoi! (I’m exaggerating, of course, it was more like n^2 retunings rather than 2^n.)
The new strings are a lot heavier than the old ones, and so have a much higher tension. Several of the tail loops broke and I had to make new ones out of the old strings. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the strings are now tuned up to F major, and I’ve learnt a few tunes. Kelefa Ba is the one traditionally taught first to beginners, and I reckon I can give a fairly accurate rendition of the basic version by now. No frills yet. That comes later, I suppose. I’ve been working on some more difficult ones, Kuruntu Kelefa and Alla La Ke.

Adventures with a kora

July 9, 2016

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 ┬ámost 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.