The Instrument | Typology
Chordophone > Membranophone > Bridge > Calabash > Double-Course Strung > Harp
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Note: I avoid personally to define the Kora as part of Lute family of instruments that can be found in many definitions, effectively approximating the Kora as a Guitar. OK for the Akoning (A) but not for the Kora that is definitly so far from the first one due to its' phisics, that produces: other way of playing = decoration patterns = style = sounds = music. So I understand the point of view but I personally do not share it.
Lute (Wikipedia) “... can refer generally to any string instrument having the strings running in a plane parallel to the sound-table...”. This is true for the Kora but not, for example, for zithers. They are not lutes and have their own denomination. Would a piano be a Lute also? “... any plucked string instrument with a neck (...) and a deep round back...” The main Harp of all harps the Ngombi (B) has a neck and a "round" back and Pillar Harps (Frame Harps) also have a neck and a “round" back.
So essentially I think that at some point it is "healthy" to break off from the term Lute when distinguishing families. For me a Pedal Harp is not less Lute-like. I could built a Frame Harp (like Lever midi one) that has no sound-box, it is just a "chassis" all around (a kind of "extended" neck forming an inverted "L" = like a Kora neck being bent) and then add calabashes or any "box" (passing through or not) like the Mvet do and this for me would be no motive to call it Lute (or Lute Harp) because it is still just a Harp.
Chordophone From the family of string instruments. In the past (and present) as a lot of cordophones’ strings were built from animal guts (01). Nowadays it seems that Nylon (02) is the standard (though there are other materials). It has longer resonance and more brilliance than handmade traditional Gut. This doesn’t mean it’s “much güt” just different, and in fact is used mainly due to it’s availability.
Membranophone (sound-board) (03) Refers to the traditionally use of animal skin tissue (membrane from bovinae or caprines) as a sound-board, as common in the construction of drums in general.
Bridge The vibration starting from the strings is first collected by a piece of wood where the strings are attached (04). This piece of wood lays above the sound-board under the high pressure of the strings forming a “kind of bridge” elevating the strings over the sound-board and neck.
Notice that in the case of mauritanian Ardin (C) instrument there is no bridge (strings are born directly into the sound-board as on a Pillar Harp = Frame Harp). “Ardin is a kind of Kora but following the linear structure of a Pillar Harp.
Calabash (sound-box) I class the calabash (05) as part of the definition to distinguish the instruments that use a gourd (plant fruit) as a sound-box (mono-body) from the ones where the sound-box is built with multiple glued wooden parts. Calabashes have long been widely used for building instruments’ sound-boxes in “all” civilizations around the world.
So the vibration from the sound-board is transmitted to the sound-box to definitly increase the sound and general sustain of the strings.
Double-Course Strung Refers to the fact that the strings are set in the bridge forming two parallel rows (06). Eleven strings for the left hand and ten for the right hand. We find this ‘parallel rows’ concept also in double, triple and cross-strung (D) harps (used in early European music).
Harp The Kora (07), as for earlier classes of harps (with less strings = less pressure), is not “closed” by a pillar like Frame Harps are: Pedal Harp (08) and Celtic Harp. The neck is sufficient to do all the work of stretching the strings while avoiding structural collapse. Also a pillar is not needed because the bridge helps to distribute the pressure not just in the ‘y’ axis but also in ‘x’, adding a second resting pressure point = distribution of effort.
As a member of Harp family the Kora is played as the earlier one: the Ngombi (09) with bass notes near the body of the player while treble ones are furthest. The ngombies (also found as Adungu, it can have many names depending on the ethnic group) are not a museum piece from the Jurassic Age as we might be use to thinking... they are alive an kicking around Africa, thankfully. Kora continues the line of Ngombi and Seprewa (10) the bridge between the Ngombi and the Kora (the father-mother of Kora in my opinion). But that being said Ngombis are also played vice-versa in some ethnicities like Pillar Haps (Frame Haps) are. More on this super interesting chapter soon.
Another aspect defining the Kora as part of harp family is definitely due to it’s timbre where the harmonics are mainly in the same range (just playing a glissando in any strings’ row becomes obvious the Harp sound). That being said, the Kora’s sound’s originality and mesmerizing appeal are especially due to one’s being able to hear multiple other instruments’ timbres at the same time, evoking more or less of one or the other, varying from one Kora to other :
The membranophone aspect of Kora makes this instrument remmembers the Banjo timbre because Banjo in fact is a metal Akonting (11) and the Akonting uses same materials as Kora and structurally is very near. The Akonting is the origin of american Banjo that “is basically a Guitar” with animal skin (sound-board) and a half calabash (sound-box). The Banjo was in effect the replacement of this nature “alive” elements to metal (sheet) elements like cans, etc., available during the time of large-scale construction of railways (metal industry) in the expanding America. Yes! the “so american” Banjo is “so african”... but this is another real interesting chapter.
The strings, if longer, sound much more like a Guitar… and if they begin to be “too” long (in relation to their thickness) begin to sound more like a Sitar (especially if the strings buzz in contact with the konso = the raw-hide strings tuner rings that uses traditional Koras). As you shorten them and use bigger diameters the sound approaches that of a Harp and as you add strings the Harp-like quality of the Kora increases more and more due to increasing harmonic resonances.
At last also you can hear a little of the Ukelele’s sweet feeling there, especially if the strings have a low tension like Seprewa do.
Finally in the mix of all these shades this magic Harp is recognized as a Unique Sound Personality and this is why it has it’s own... name : Kora!
Did you like it? Nextly a "much revealing" info: Kora within Harps Family (Africa the Amazing!).
–Carlos A. (M&C Strings)– Kora player & luthier and Harp player.
Special Thanks to Ian M. for his "first class" help with corrections and suggestions.