So I thought I got a lot of attention being the only non-Gambian in the village I live in. But walking through Brikama holding a Kora opened my eyes to anew level of attention. The Kora, in case you don’t know, is a traditional West African stringed instrument which can best be described as somewhere in between a guitar and a harp, and I was recently fortunate enough to experience the increased fascination that comes with a toobab holding an inconspicuous instrument as I accompanied Darrin, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer based closer to the more developed coastal region of The Gambia, to his weekly Kora lesson with my visiting father.
My father had come to visit me from the U.K and he had expressed interest in learning about some of the musical traditions of The Gambia. Whilst I can’t get enough of P-Squared being blasted through a Nokia and bidongs being beaten, I was slightly worried that wasn’t what my father was looking for, so I was relieved that Darrin was on hand to provide a window into a deeper musical tradition.
We made our way through the inquisitive eyes and endless statements of the obvious (“You have a kora” “Yes, I have a kora”) to the Jobarteh Kundah compound to meet with Darrin’s teacher Moriba Kuyateh. Moriba descends from an illustrious line of Griots and he is held in high regard as a teacher and player across The Gambia. Being a relative of the Michael Jackson of Kora playing, Jaliba Kuyateh, no doubt enhances this reputation.
Moriba welcomed us into the compound and told us that today was an important day for Darrin as he would be selecting his first Kora. Darrin had been loaning a Kora for practicing on, but would be purchasing his very own Kora today and had the difficult job of selecting between two near identical, to the untrained eye, freshly made Koras. Moriba went on to explain to us some of the history of the Kora. He told of how it had originated in Guinea and had made its way up through Cassamance, followed by The Gambia, before finding its way to Mali. He was keen to point this out, as Mali is sometimes mistakenly seen as the birthplace of the Kora and is often the country most strongly associated with instrument in Western eyes.
Moriba then shed some light on how the instrument had evolved. Originally the Kora was made from antelope skins and was a much simpler instrument of only 6 strings. As player’s skills developed the number of strings increased to the current 21, and as antelope numbers dwindled in West Africa Kora makers turned to using cattle skins to stretch across the impressive calabashes. Recently people have turned to making Koras using guitar machine heads instead of using the traditional wraps of leather that snake around the Teek neck of the instrument. Both Moriba and Darrin were disparaging of the sound the more modern looking instrument made, saying it lacked the warmth and depth of a more traditional instrument. They conceded that tuning was easier on the guitar head but that pitch and tone is compromised.
Moriba and Darrin then demonstrated the depth and beauty of the instrument to me and my father. It was part lesson, part concert, and it was mesmerizing. Watching the two players feeding off of each other and reacting to each other’s slightest change in tempo and pitch reminded me of jazz, and similarly to that genre it evoked a hypnotic sadness in me. The hours flew by as Moriba gently encouraged Darrin to try new rhythms and taught him new phrases to add to his already impressive repertoire, and only mine and my father’s grumbling stomachs tore us away from the Kuyateh compound. We left relaxed but hungry, and I felt uplifted to have had such an interesting musical cultural experience, although slightly saddened that my service has not contained more such experiences.
On a final note – do not try and feed Plassas (a sauce made from a variety of leaves, dried fish, peanuts and topped with a gallon of palm oil) to your visiting father for lunch in Brikama car park at 4 pm on his third day in country. He will not appreciate it.