The kora is a long necked 21 string harp of the Mande people of West Africa. It is built from a large calabash, cut in half and covered with cowskin. A long hardwood neck passes through the calabash and the strings pass over a notched bridge. The thumbs and index fingers are used to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns. Ostinato riffs ("kumbengo") and improvised solo patterns ("birimintingo") are played at the same time by skilled players.
Legend tells us that the first koras were played by the jinns (supernatural spirits) and that the original kora had 22 strings. The kora is said to have been brought to mankind by Jeli Mady Wuleng, whose surname was Sissokho. One day, Jeli Mady Wuleng was walking in the forest, following a beautiful woman. The woman suddenly disappeared into a cave. He heard a wonderful, enchanting sound and he, too, disappeared into the cave. When he emerged from the cave, he was holding the kora, but the woman was nowhere to found. He played the 22 string kora until his death in memory of his adventure. When he died, one string was removed in his honour. The presence of jinns and the unkown world is at the heart of kora mythology and many djelis believe that all music is a gift of the spirit.
Today, the kora has become one of Africa’s best known and most versatile melody instruments, expanding into new territories and crossing many musical borders, breaking down musical barriers whilst, at the same time, remaining deeply rooted in the tradition.