Kora master Balla Tounkara enchants listeners with rich, ancient compositions in the meditative musical tradition of the Mandingo royalty of Mali. This unique recording of multi-layered music is performed entirely on a solo acoustic kora, the West African harp.
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Spa Song Kora Essay by Robert Nolan
It is said that the majestic dunes of the Sahara Desert once served as a kind of transcendental radio tower for the region's nomads, traders, hunters and musicians, its natural frequency eternally connecting wayfarers to the outside world. From the bustling streets of Bamako to the legendary desert oasis of Timbuktu, the journey into the heart of West Africa is full of similar links to the region's magnificent past. Here, sand-stained mosques and sacred huts pay tribute to the Kingdom of Mali's one-time rulers, or mansa, whose enlightened reign helped create one of Africa's most sophisticated kingdoms in the thirteenth century.
Castles made of sand that once provided local villages with an earthy, subdued backdrop to the chaos of the marketplace continue to provide peaceful refuge from the heated desert sun. A walk along the fertile Niger River basin, the agricultural breadbasket of Mali then and now, is contrasted by a pilgrimage to the remote outpost and cultural mecca of Timbuktu, where desert dwellers peer out from the deep blue headscarves of the Tuareg nomads. And though the Islamic call to prayer has awoken Bamako's urban dwellers at dawn as far back as most can remember, it is the arid sands of the Sahara more than anything else that remain Mali's most clairvoyant link to its ancestral heritage.
While gold bartered along trans-Saharan trade route would bring the mansa many riches, it was their religious tolerance and patronage of the arts that would become their lasting legacy. Finely detailed Islamic structures built under the rule of the "Lion Prince" Mari Djata and his grandson, Mansa Musa today provide breezy, open air chambers that amplify the soothing sounds of the kora, the preferred instrument of West African griots who continue to serve as the musical caretakers of this noble culture.
The music of the kora is the music of Malian royalty. A courtly, stringed instrument, the kora blends the classical melodies of the harp with a dry, high-pitched twang that is distinctly African. Early versions of the kora likely graced the palaces of the Kingdom of Mali, its tranquil, heavenly chords echoing throughout the chambers of the mansa. The definitive musical medium of the region since the end of the nineteenth century, the kora's traditional 21 strings have a range of more than three octaves, and listeners are effortlessly enchanted by the multi-layered compositions performed by kora masters for their patrons, their resonance transcending the borders of geography, culture and time.
The essential elements of the kora are drawn from Mali's ancestors as much as from the region's natural surroundings. Traditionally, a kora's strings were crafted from braided antelope hide, its intricate notched bridge and hardwood neck from local wood. The two pieces meet inside a calabash gourd, and when covered with stretched animal skin dried for days under the African sun, produce a mystifying, heavenly reverberation.
By making use of a variety of tunings, the griots of Mali employ both hands to gracefully pluck the kora's strings in a style not dissimilar from virtuosos of the flamenco guitar. This deliberate, staccato style that defines Malian kora playing is sometimes referred to as "speaking the kora" as griots draw largely from a classic repertoire of songs -- some dating as far back as 1,000 years -- to tell the collective history of their people.
According to lore, the Emperor Sunjata, founder of the empire of which Mali was the center, once said, "Do not make the griots cry! Be the eyes, ears and mouth of the [Mandingo] Empire!" Entrusted with such a revered task, griots in Mali are respectfully known as jelis -- a word that literally means "blood" -- since it is through their craft that the lessons of the ancestors live on.
Bound by an unspoken code of secrecy due to their sensitive role in society and revered for their otherworldly connection to connection to the spirits, or djinns, the griot has over centuries taken on a variety of diplomatic tasks. Traveling from village to village to help end feuds, offer advice and proverbs to patron kings and to undertake other sentimental tasks like weddings and funerals, the words and music of the griots can win fame or furor for their subjects depending on their songs of praise or condemnation.
Since each village and region has its own history, griots rely on a classic repertoire to fulfill their role as "praise singers". Most traditional songs, such as "Sunjata" and "Lambang" take advantage of the kora's range and versatility, allowing for various accompaniments and improvisations, not unlike American blues or jazz. In addition to the main accompaniment, appropriately referred to as the "big meeting," variations are known as birimintingo, named after the subtle yet high-pitched twang of the kora. In instrumental kora renditions (such as this one), it is the birimintingo that replaces the vocal component, a style practiced by only the most skilled kora masters.
Since the Malian Empire recorded little of its glory on parchment, the ways of the griots, known as jaliya, are passed down orally from one generation to another, and Balla Tounkara is no exception. Tounkara was taught by his virtuoso grandfather, Batourou Sekou Kouyate, who despite tradition was entirely self-taught. Renowned as one of the greatest kora players of the 20th century, Kouyate performed renditions of the national anthems of France, the United States, Guinea and Mali on the kora. "My grandfather told me the kora could play anything," Tounkara once reportedly said in praise of this grandfather's skills.
Born in Boudefo, Mali, Balla Tounkara represents the next wave of a family rich in the griot tradition. Learning to play the tama, the doundoun and djembe drums expertly as a young boy in Boudefo, the former heart of the Malian Empire, Tounkara embraced his role as a griot from an early age. The mountainous, agricultural town located in the state of Kita is revered as the spiritual epicenter of griot culture, an element that Tounkara fully appreciates. "Boudefo is one family," says Tounkara, "I learned the tradition. That's who I am."
Upon leaving Boudefo for Mali's capital city of Bamako, Tounkara was able to sneak in time with his grandfather's kora, and his persistence eventually gained him the tutelage of his grandfather and mentor. Extremely in tune with his surroundings, Tounkara was naturally inclined to integrate his thoughts on life, spirituality, and culture into the music he would soon master. Such complexity and depth can be felt in Tounkara's instrumental renditions here, as the kora master dexterously layers a bass line, rhythm and melody simultaneously. The result is nothing less than hypnotic.
Known for his generous heart, Tounkara is proud that his music has spread from the now-ailing village of Boudefo to streets of Bamako, and indeed the rest of the world. An active ambassador for traditional African music, Tounkara's ongoing charity, and an appreciation for the simple things in life have raised his profile from that of a local jeli to that of global griot. His dedication to tradition and his truly magical spirit assure that the ancient musical treasures of Mali will continue to reverberate for generations to come.