The Kora Instrument

Mandinkan Kora

Mandinkan Kora ca. 1960. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, NY, USA.

In recent decades, much information has been published on the Mandinkan kora instrument. We have drawn on Wikipedia and several other sources and edited the content in accordance with our own research and understanding. The Mandinka are one ethnic group within the larger linguistic family of the Mandé peoples. To avoid the confusion that we suffered, when first researching the subject, it should be noted that the name Mandinka, may also be referred to as Mandenka, Mandinko, Mandingo, Manding, Maninka and Malinké. When used to describe an instrument or cultural connections, the usage will depend on the region.

The kora is a stringed instrument built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator with a long hardwood neck. The skin is supported by two handles that run under it. It supports a notched double free-standing bridge. It doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments, but rather several, and must be classified as a “double-bridge-harp-lute”. The strings run in two divided ranks, making it a double harp. They do not end in a soundboard but are held in notches on a bridge, making it a bridge harp. They originate from a string arm or neck and cross a bridge directly supported by a resonating chamber, making it a lute too. The sound of a kora resembles that of a harp. The player uses only the thumb and index finger of both hands to pluck the strings in polyrhythmic patterns (using the remaining fingers to secure the instrument by holding the hand posts on either side of the strings). Ostinato riffs called kumbengo and improvised solo runs called birimintingo are played at the same time by skilled players.

Traditional koras feature 21 strings, eleven played by the left hand and ten by the right. Some modern koras made in the Casamance region of southern Senegal sometimes feature additional bass strings, adding up to four strings to the traditional 21. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example antelope skin – now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings. By moving leather tuning rings up and down the neck, a kora player can retune the instrument into one of four seven-note scales. These scales are close in tuning to western major, minor and Lydian mode.

Kora Maker Alieu Suso, The Gambia.

Many koras are now made with guitar-type tuning heads instead of the traditional leather rings. The advantage is that they are much easier to tune. The disadvantage is that this design limits the pitch of the instrument because string lengths are more fixed and lighter strings are needed to lift it much more than a tone. Wooden pegs and harp pegs are also used, but both can still cause tuning problems in damper climates unless made with great skill. Learning and tuning a traditional kora is difficult. An accessory used in the past was the nyenyemo, made from a thin leaf-shaped sheet metal plate with wire rings attached to holes around the edge. Clamped to the bridge, it produces sympathetic sounds, serving as an amplifier so that the sound carries well in the open air.  With today’s electronic recordings and environment, where players may use an electric pickup, this accessory is usually not seen.

The 25-string models of the kora mentioned above have only been adopted by a few players, primarily in the region of Casamance, in southern Senegal. Also some kora players from that region, such as Seckou Keita, may play double-necked koras, allowing them to switch rapidly from one tuning to another and giving them increased flexibility.


The name Mandinka kora is indicative of the people who originally created it and still play it. The Mandinka are a West African ethnic group with an estimated global population of eleven million. They are the descendants of the Mali Empire, which rose to power in the 13th century under the rule of the Mandinka king Sundiata Keita and stretched across West Africa.This ethnic group are part of the larger linguistic family of the Mandé peoples, who account for more than twenty million people. Today in Mali the Mandinka, together with the Bambara Mandé people, comprise the largest part of the population. There are also major populations in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and Senegal.

A traditional kora player is called a korafola and comes from the Jali caste, who are traditional oral historians, genealogists and storytellers, similar to bards. They pass their skills on to their descendants. The term jali or jeli  may also be spelled djeli or djéli,  with the latter spellings more common, where French is spoken.  The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia. One Mandinka oral tradition suggests that the origins of the kora may be linked with Jali Mady Fouling Cissoko, some time after the founding of Kaabu in the 16th century. Other sources suggest that it had its origins with the Jalis, who were in the Mali Empire as early as the 14th century CE. The first description of the kora published in the West was by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park in his book: Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, published in 1799, where he referred to “the korro, a large harp, with 18 strings”.

Kora Instrument

Last updated: 2018-02-09 @ 16:24:31