Senegal kora players keep ancient tradition alive
By Rose Skelton
ZIGUINCHOR, Senegal (Reuters) – Beneath the rustling leaves
of a majestic mango tree, Aliou Gassama teases a tune from an
ancient African harp. Concentration chiseled across his face,
he deftly navigates the 21 strings.
Gassama is one of a young generation of kora players
dedicated to the art of building the instruments and playing
their ancestors’ 600-year-old songs.
“When I first started to learn, I wouldn’t sleep. I would
play until 2 or 3 in the morning then wake again at 5 to play,”
he said, his fingers plucking a melody that mingled with the
distant cries of women greeting one another in Ziguinchor, a
sandy town in Senegal’s Casamance region.
Gassama, 28, still rises at 5 a.m. but now it is to work on
the koras that he builds for Senegalese and European patrons,
who have been enchanted by the instrument’s soothing sound.
With his young helper Papis by his side, Gassama begins the
intricate work of sourcing, measuring and cutting the perfect
gourd — the dried shell of a hollow fruit.
He soaks cow skin then slowly tightens it over the gourd
until it forms the resonating body of the kora.
Each instrument takes a month to prepare but for friends
and family — most of his clients — they will sell for just
The kora is the instrument of the griot, an oral historian
and praise-singer originating from the Manding empire, which
once covered much of West Africa.
Griots come from a caste of musicians within the Manding
ethnic group. They are believed to wield special powers with
the ability to build or destroy careers with words and music.
The title is hereditary: Only sons of griots may take up
the kora, and only their daughters may sing the songs that
speak of the ancient Manding kingdom, now carved into several
states including Senegal, Mali, Niger, Guinea and Gambia.
Gassama does not have a griot’s surname because he was
adopted at the age of 3 by Jali Messin Cissokho, a griot from
Ziguinchor who played a kora with 28 strings, making it one of
the most complex versions of the instrument ever made.
“Messin took me to his house and he educated me, he did
everything for me,” Gassama said as he tuned his kora, sweat
running down his lean torso and onto the string of leather
talismans he wears for spiritual protection around his waist.
Gassama grew up watching his teacher play the songs he
would later play himself. He also helped him build koras until
one day, when he was 18, Gassama said he could do it himself.
“The day I made my own kora, Messin said: ‘I’m not going to
touch the skin anymore, you do it better than me now,’ and
since then, I’ve really loved the kora.”
Before Senegal’s colonization by France, the griot was not
just an entertainer but also a diplomat, translator, even peace
broker between warring families.
Today, he is foremost a musician and the kora has been
incorporated into many contemporary music styles that have
found their way into the clubs of Europe and America.
But the Manding tradition is strong and griot families
still put their sons through elaborate training, not just to
learn the music but also to initiate them into griot mysticism.
Eduard Manga, a skilled kora player from the Joola ethnic
group, said that even he, as a non-griot, could not fully grasp
the kora’s mysteries despite studying for seven years at the
School of Music, Dance and Dramatic Arts in the capital Dakar.
“My teacher was a griot and he spoke of the mystery of the
griot tradition, but I could never understand it because I am
Joola, not Manding,” he said.
The nature of this training will rarely be disclosed to
those outside a griot family, although many Africans and others
have taken up the instrument that takes a lifetime to master.
“No one can play the kora like those griots,” says Zacharia
Diatta, a Senegalese guitarist who recently toured in Europe
with a group of griots from Ziguinchor.
“So perhaps it is the mysticism that makes them special.”
When Gassama’s adoptive father Cissokho died in 2004, he
was left with a small house and a group of children who had
been housed by the griot and who looked to Gassama to replace
Gassama remembers when he started to teach Papis to play.
“One day I called Papis, I showed him a song and I told
him, ‘Go inside, and when you can play it, come out.’ He was
very angry, he went inside and after two hours he came out and
he could play it just like I showed him.”
Papis, who has the same respectful manner as his mentor,
now makes djembe drums better than many in the city, despite
being only 16. Gassama says he will no longer make the drums,
because Papis can do it better than he can.
In this way, the craftsmanship of traditional instruments
continues, passed on from father to son, or in this case, from
elder to younger, regardless of actual blood ties.
“I have never been to Europe,” said Gassama softly,
although every one of his kora-playing cousins is now settled
there. “If I have enough work, I prefer to stay in Ziguinchor.
I am satisfied here because I am doing something that I really