Published Mar 26, 2009"When it plays music, people listen," says Mansa Sissoko, Canada's best-known kora player. The instrument is a magnet for attention - it's hard not to marvel at its regal bearing while entranced by its harp-like tones.
The kora dates back to 18th century West Africa. Its resonator is half a calabash (a large, waterproof gourd) bound with cowskin, while its 21 strings - made of fishing line - are anchored by a notched bridge and an iron ring at the base of the instrument. Tuning is accomplished by adjusting leather bands on the neck, though more modern models offer tuning pegs. In order to play the instrument, one holds the hand posts while using the thumb and index finger of each hand to pluck the strings.
This was an instrument reserved for the griots, historians of the Malian empire. The griots were advisers to Malian kings, and their storytelling has remained strong in contemporary society. Today's griots are found not only in Africa but scattered throughout Europe and North America, and most, like Sissoko, trace their lineage to a select few families who were part of this caste.
Learning kora is very difficult - it's more than just a musical challenge, it requires appreciation of its cultural status. Sissoko says that prospective players have to be approved by the "Jali" (masters). "Traditionally you have to offer ten kola nuts [to the jali]; some still do. You take ten kolas and declare your intentions." Though Sissoko was part of a distinguished kora playing family, he wasn't anointed from birth to carry on the griot tradition. "Before I started playing I was dancing in theatre groups. After I did a tour in 1981, I decided to play kora. I was in [cousin] Ballake [Cissoko]'s family home. I looked at the instrument, and I said I wanted to learn it. His mom and the dad [Jali Djelimady Cissoko] discussed it and said OK."
Unusually, Sissoko sings and plays kora at the same time. "It's such a complex instrument to master. There aren't too many players who sing. I'm trying to do it, but it's not easy! You can be an accompanist and play and sing if you want, but to be a soloist and play lots and lots and sing lots and lots, it's difficult. Ballake is an amazing player, but he doesn't sing. Toumani [Diabate] doesn't sing."
Kora players around the world may be the bearers of tradition, but it's a dynamic heritage, constantly adapting to new circumstances. In the last few decades the kora's repertoire has been celebrated as one of the world's great classical traditions. At the same time as players like Toumani Diabate and Ba Cissoko have incorporated everything from Ennio Morricone riffs to distortion pedals into their languages. Diabate's style in particular has been a big influence on Joanna Newsom's harp playing, which has introduced a new audience to this versatile instrument.
Sissoko himself is responsible for one of the best kora crossover records: last year's Africa To Appalachia with banjo player Jayme Stone. The title says it all, as the music reclaims the banjo's African roots while playing up the similarities between kora riffs and American folk. Sissoko is among those players who see no contradiction between the inherently traditional role of the kora and modern hybrids: "I can play traditional pieces but my inspiration comes from having listened to a lot of music. I find links between traditional music and modern music so I'll try to mix. With guitars, you listen to have to listen to their style, you try to find where he's playing on your instrument; sometimes you have to retune. If the key is in F major, there are notes you have to omit [while playing]."
Next on the agenda for Sissoko, in addition to a full slate of European tour dates, is to build his own instrument. Living in Quebec City, it's not easy. However, he'll take his time to find just the right materials. Unlike a manufactured guitar, the kora relies on nature for its personality. "When I return to Mali, I'll need to find just the right calabash. I'll go with my tape measure in hand. If it doesn't measure up, I won't buy it. If only you could make it grow scientifically!"