THE MANDINKA KORA
The Kora is arguably the most complex chordophone of Africa. It is played in the westernmost part of Africa in Mali, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Senegal. Each of the regions have characteristic playing styles and to some extent a region can be deduced from specific repertoire, but they
share quite of bit of repertoire as well. It is very common to hear the same song with a variety of regional variants. The people most famous for the development of the Kora are the Mandinka of The Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. The Kora is made from a half a gourd calabash with a hardwood post that runs through it to which the strings are attached. The calabash is covered with a cowhide that is stretched over the open side of the half calabash and then left in the sun to dry tight and hold the handposts in place. A tall bridge is mounted upright on the skin face of the instrument and separates the strings into two planes. The Kora player supports the instrument with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th fingers and the notes are played with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands. A Kora can take up to a month to make in the hands of a skilled craftsman. When the craftsman is at the stage of stretching the skin over the calabash it can sometimes take up to three men to pull it properly. The construction of a Kora is very hard work. A Kora player may make his own Kora or may enlist the help of someone who is known for their Kora making. Some variables present in choosing materials for a Kora include; deep or shallow calabash large or small calabash, dry or moist wood, heavy or light skin, and deciding whether or not to use a traditional mixture to bring the hair from the skin or "gas" from the market which makes the skin very white. A Traditional Kora has 21 strings but it is very common to see a 22 string Kora with an extra bass string used in the style known as Yenyengo (get up and dance).
In the Cassamance region of southern Senegal it is also common to see the 25 string Kora Cassamance. The Kora is strung with monofilament fishing line in varying thickness. In the days before monofilament was available braided antelope hide was used and produced a sound less brilliant than the modern Kora sound. The range of the Kora is about 3 and 3/8ths of an octave and is capable of highly contrapuntal textures. A Kora musician may accompany his own voice or he may have a Jeli Woman sing the vocal line while tapping the rhythm on the calabash. Kora repertoire may also be performed instrumentally. Since each Kora song relies strongly on the vocal line it is easy to discern a piece when it is played instrumentally. A good musician will bring out the vocal line in an instrumental rendering of a traditional piece and ornament it and play off of that line with soloistic runs called birimintingo. The ostanato pattern that the vocal line or birimintingo is performed over is called theKumbengo. The Kumbengo is not an ostanato in the orthodox sense of being a repeating line but is usually a looping contrapuntal texture.
The Jelis -
In the Mandinka society there are certain families whose sole responsibility is the keeping of history and music, these families are called Jeli (or Griot in French). There is no real translation for this caste, about the closest we can come is to say they are bards. The title of Jeli identifies members of these families who like bards, serving at once as musicians, historians, storytellers, genealogists, entertainers, and oftentimes in the cases of the older Jelis who are established in their communities as advisees and social counselors. All the skills needed for the Jaliya, as the profession is known, are passed down orally from parent to child. The tradition of Jaliya is very much alive and thriving today with some of its repertoire now almost 1000 years old.
New songs are being added to the repertoires of the Jelis and the old classics are still widely played by each Jeli. Indeed it is the very stuff they are weaned on during training (which generally begins around age six) and will develop as part of their repertoire as they build their careers. Jeli's are famous as praise singers and in the days when Jeli's sat in the courts of kings it was the role of the Jeli's to make the will of the king known to the public. compositions often reflect a patrons benevolence or stubbornness. It is said that the Jeli's are the only non royal members of a society that are truly allowed to comment on philosophical and political issue within a society. A Jeli knows many things about human nature and about a society and for this reason they are feared somewhat due to the fact that they can very easily expose a persons secrets or insecurities. All of their functions are often carried out through allegorically and music. A Jeli can make someone famous or spread an idea or opinion very effectively. This is the traditional work of the Jeli and it is very easy to find musicians in West Africa today whose entire subsistence is won by this work.