Home Institution

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Publication Date

Spring 2010

Program Name

Mali: Health, Gender, and Community Empowerment


“The kora is what they play in heaven” a friend once told me. I agreed with him, easily. Ever since I first heard the kora played in the United States, my interest in it and the culture that produced it has deepened. Being able to carry out research on it has been a blessing and a pleasure.

All of my fieldwork was done in Bamako, the capital of Mali between April 15th and May 7th 2010. I spent most of my time in the company of the venerable jeli and korafola Dialy Mady Sissoko, who more or less adopted me for a month without me moving in. We worked on koras together, played together, and went to the market to shop for kora components. I went to INA (L’Institut National des Arts) almost every day to meet music students, play with them, and see what they were doing and how they were doing it. Dialy Mady took me to the homes of famous kora players and gave me a glimpse of the wonderful interrelated world that I was working in. I conducted interviews with male and female kora students and professional kora musicians, and I attended as many events with kora players as possible. Near the end of my fieldwork, all the above seemed to morph into one interconnected network, with informants becoming friends, students becoming teachers, and myself playing kora for my homestay family and classmates. All this was supplemented with books by various ethnomusicologists, internet research, and written works by graduates of INA.

This paper seeks to give a glimpse into the life and experience of the kora and those who play it. I will discuss where the kora comes from, how to make a traditional one, and how it’s tuned and played. Then I will talk about who plays the kora and why, and what songs are important. Next, I will show how the kora has developed in the past 50 years and what that has meant for the art of the kora. Finally, I will discuss gender roles and the experience of women who play the kora.


Music Practice | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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