Playing the complex West African instrument called the kora – 60 Minutes

Described as a cross between the harp, the flute, and the guitar, the kora is part of a musical tradition that dates back to the 13th century Mali Empire, which spread across West Africa. The tradition has been passed down from father to son – man to man – in a special group of families ever since.

Until now.

Singer Sona Jobarteh he was born into one of those five families, called a magriot. The daughter of a Gambian father and a British mother, she is the first female griot to play the kora professionally. It is hard to believe, seeing this musical pioneer able to play an instrument, that according to the rules made over the centuries, he was not supposed to play.

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Instead, Jobarteh is one of the best collar players in the country.

“He’s amazing,” said Banning Eyre, music legend and executive producer of the radio show Afropop Worldwide. “He’s amazing. His skills are second to none. The flow, the speed – there’s nothing to compare to him. He’s up there with the best.”

Jobarteh’s mastery of the collar is an even more impressive feat when you consider the complexity of the instrument.

Made from a type of gourd called calabash, koras usually have 21 strings. The strings can be difficult to sustain, especially when the instrument, which is usually played in warm climates in Africa, is exposed to cold weather. To combat this temperature problem and to be able to bring the collar around the world, Jobarteh improved the way he makes the neck of the instrument. Instead of using traditional leather rings to hold his strings in place, Jobarteh uses metal heads.

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The strings themselves are played with just the thumb and finger, a technique that requires considerable skill. The fingers play the bass, do something as part of the rhythm, and the fingers play the melody.

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Although he has studied the instrument for years and is now playing around the world, Jobarteh said he still does not feel that he has “mastered” the kora.

“I want to say what my grandfather said, ‘I wish you to die as a student,’ so that you never get to say, ‘I know it,’ or, ‘I have mastered it.’ ‘” said Jobath. “But you’re always learning. And that’s what I like to think about.”

The video above was created by Shari Finkelstein, Brit McCandless Farmer, and Will Croxton. Edited by Will Croxton.

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