I’ve just been listening to a track by the Bembeya Jazz National (see the video on the right). A track from the 1960s needs some context so here goes: it was following Guinean Independence in 1958 that saw Guinean pride soar to new levels and numerous bands sprang up throughout the African country. Of those that appeared, one of the most noted was the Bembeya Jazz National, which won two awards at the Biennale festivals of 1962 and 1964. It’s when you listen to Bembeya Jazz that you appreciate that it’s sound is timeless and, unlike Europe’s modern day Biennale X-factor, by contrast Bembeya will provide people in future years with their musical awakening, and fuel a desire to learn about music from the African continent. The group was formed by Aboubacar Dembar Camara in 1961 and the group, which went on to include members such as lead vocalist Sekouba Mabino Diabate, and Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate on electric guitar, specialized in modern arrangements of classic Manding songs. After Camara was sadly killed ina car accident in 1973 critics said the group lost its sparkle, despite continuing for a number of years before finally disbanding in 1991. So here on these pages we salute Camara and members of Bembeya Jazz National for the music and the passion of their grooves.Tweet
I’m going to begin with a dedication to the Gambian artist responsible for introducing me to the Kora, his name, Basiru Suso. His album, ‘Suso Kunda’, was for me an epic journey, it shares a timelessness in the same way that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos do. I don’t think the album was ever commercially released, save for those few copies on display in London’s Leicester Square, but I’m sure he’d be only to happy to answer any enquiries you might have about his music. Basiru’s music is very much free from additives, you get the Kora, and perhaps a plucked bass as backing, and that’s about it, which is just what Kora diehards tend to enjoy the most.
To arrive at Basiru or the more traditional forms of Kora playing, you’ll first need a gentle introduction or you might get scared off. There are usually musical bridges that one comes across moving from one musical style to another.
For example, I arrived at the Kora via this route,
70s Funk -> House Music -> Drum and Bass -> Reggae -> Dub -> African Blues -> Kora
Because everyone’s music history is different, to try and propose an exact starting point is always going to be difficult. So I’ll review the albums here, I think act best as musical bridges, and hope that you identify one that matches your own personal music history.
Ali Farka Touré & Tomani Diabaté – ‘In the Heart of the Moon’
As I type out the name of this album I smile. Ali was the original African bluesman and Toumani shows he can work the Kora like no other. In the Hotel Mande, overlooking the Niger River these two legends came together and recorded one of the singularly most inspired recordings in music history. It’s just pure talent improvising, enjoying and sharing a fusion of guitar and Kora, like no other. It’s 12 tracks of sublime relaxation, reflection and positivity. You buy this CD because if you’re the type of person that likes to be sent on a journey when listening to music, and it’s because of that, that you have a great music system for hearing it. The recording does not disappoint.
I don’t know if I can actually beat that opener but I’m going to try…
Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra
The year following the release of ‘In the Heart of the Moon’, Toumani stepped up to the stage with his Symmetric Orchestra to show that, apart from being able to sound mellow, the Kora could also rock just as hard the discotheque. The album is a fusion of funk, and other urban rhythms born out of 10 years of Friday night jam sessions in Bamako’s Hogon Club. It’s what makes the album a much more upbeat and energized affaire then the calming ‘In the Heart of the Moon’. Toumani shares with us songs that cover a complete range of styles, from the slower, ‘Mali Sadio’, which tells the story of a Hippopotamus that drinks from a lake, through to knee bouncing grooves, sweeping backing vocals, and Toumani’s electric Kora playing (as heard on the track, ‘Single’).
Ba Cissoko – Electric Griot Land
What happens when you plug the Kora into guitar effects boxes? The answer lies with Ba Cissoko, who’ve done just this. This album makes the use of background sounds, and other forms of artificial noise to add great depth and better imagery to their music. The group also performed as support act for Femi Kuti, so their skills are noted at the highest levels. I’m recommending the earlier of their two albums as this is the stronger of the two offerings.
When you take a track like ‘Silani’, on which K’Naan also collaborated, you’ve got to ask why such an album and such talent can’t get high profile on the international stage.
3Ma – Rajery, Ballake Sissoko and Driss El Maloumi
A collaboration between a Madagascan, Malian, and Moroccan provides the cultural context for this cross-border collaboration which that brings together this trio of musicians each armed with their country’s national instrument. Driss brings the Arab lute, Rajery the Valiha (a bamboo tubular zither) and our friend Ballake, the jaw dropping Kora. It’s around the four minute mark of the opening track, ‘Anfass’, that you hear the first fruits born of this beautiful fusion of cultures played out by these very gifted musicians.
Rokia Traoré – Tchamantché
As we are building a list of ‘bridging albums’, I’m including an artist in the list that does not actually play the Kora. However, the Kora features so poignantly on her latest album, that I’m including it as it will no doubt encourage listeners of classical and jazz to be brought closer to the Kora. The twist of the Kora in this album is in its combination with Rokia’s voice – always one to bring a cold chill and edginess to her performance that will send shivers down your spine. If you liked Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew back in the 1960s, you’re going to like this one too.
So that ends our introduction to the Kora. I urge you to pick one of the albums above, take a small financial risk and dive in, this is a music you need to hear.
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I discovered the Kora 8 years ago while walking through London’s busy Leicester Square. As I was drawn towards the sound, I expected to find a group of musicians playing, instead I discovered just one musician with a Kora in his hands. Hearing it that day stopped me dead in my tracks, and since then I’ve never looked back.
Moving forward a few years and it was the collaboration between one of Africa’s greatest bluesman, Ali Farka Toure (now deceased), and the explosive talents of a certain Toumani Diabate, that brought to the international stage an instrument that’s been a staple in traditional West African music for centuries.
Read on and be awestruck, because here comes the mighty Kora!
What is the Kora?
The Kora (spelt Cora in French) has 21 heavenly strings and its sound is most closely aligned with the harp, an instrument that has its origins in Egypt, the same continent as the Kora’s birthplace. Principally it’s played in the countries of Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia, where artists including Mamadou Diabate, Ba Cissoko, Baba Sissoko, Mory Kanté, Issa Bagayogo, Alhaji Bai Konté, and Tata Dindin Jobarté, bring this instrument to life.
And what a life it has.
Musically the Kora has a range of three octaves and its defining beauty is its ability to operate on many different levels. It can play high, middle, and low notes just like many others, but the Kora can allow a gifted musician to play across all 3 octaves simultaneously. This short video, featuring Toumani Diabate, offers a great example of what I mean.
This is the most amazing instrument, and in the next post we’ll reveal the best albums to introduce you it’s magic.
Have you been spellbound by this instrument too? Please share your experiences with the rest of the TT community below.