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.
If you’d like to comment on any of the albums featured in this post, please leave your thoughts below for others in the TT community. Remember you can also subscribe to updates of the Tolerant Traveler using Twitter, RSS or the newsletter, meaning you’ll know as soon as a new post is published.