Strings and Modes

the "classic" Kora

bridge with 21 strings

The most important strings have names on their own. The tonal step where the string is placed in the scale is given in parentheses: i.e. VI3 = 6th step in the third octave. For a Kora tuned to C major this would be A3, but usually the Kora is tuned to F major, so this means the note D3.

(remark: the octaves are numbered from 2 to 5, because there are Koras with an additional bass string in octave 1, see below).

The Kora is tuned heptatonically, this means the octave is divided into 7 notes (steps I-II-III-IV-V-VI-VII), like C major or the white keys on the keyboard.

The Kora has a tonal range of more than 3 octaves.
This is shown here in F major, the standard tuning for the Kora called Silaba, scale F-G-A-B-C-D-E, see Scales and Tunings:

the deep octave 2 (bass range) is incomplete (F-C-A-B),
the lower middle octave 3 is complete (F-G-A-B-C-D-E),
the upper middle octave 4 is complete (f-g-a-b-c-d-e),
the high octave 5 (discant range) is incomplete (f-g-e).

another important tuning is called Sauta which corresponds to F lydian mode with all B's augmented by one halftone to H's, scale F-G-A-H-C-D-E, see Scales and Tunings

(remark: here we use German notation for B-flat = B and B-natural = H)

The placement of the strings is in diatonical order for the two middle octaves.
This means the ascending scale is played zigzag right (F) - left (G) - right (A) - left (B) from the deepest to the highest string using the thumbs in the lower range (uppercase letters) and the forefingers (lowercase letters) in the upper range.
The bass range is played with the left thumb and the discant range is played with the right forefinger.
The note (x) is also played with the right forefinger, but this is a percussion effect executed by knocking on the wooden handle - see Bulukondingo Podi.

the strings and their harmonic function

The deepest string at the right side (step I in octave 3) is named Timbango. In most music pieces this is the tonal base of the music.

Two strings - one fifth - above the Timbango there is the Timbango a Jingkandango, the "answerer" of the Timbango (step V). In many pieces specially in the Tiliji-repertoire (West of Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau), this string is played as counterbass, alternating with the Timbango that constitutes the tonal base for the Kora tuned in major. Kelefaba and N Teri Jato are wellknown songs played in this common F major - C7 or ionian mode, creating a tonica (step I) - dominant (step V) feeling similar to western harmonies. The scale is F-G-A-B-C-D-E.

N Teri Jato
listen to N Teri Jato MP3

The deepest string at the left side (step I in octave 2) is one octave below the tonal base. It is named Timbamba (in Gambia) oder Bakumba (in Casamance). Its function is to reinforce and contrast the Timbango as tonal base.

The second deepest string on the left side (step V), that is the fifth above the Bakumba, respectively one octave below the Jingkandango is called the Dibong. It has the same function as the Jingkandango - "answering" the Timbango.

The third string on the left side (step VI), one sixth above the Bakumba is called Alla la ke, named after the wellknown song where this string dominates the harmonic oscillation of the tonal base between step I (major or lydian mode) and step VI. This is D minor, the parallel minor to F major. It is called aeolian mode, scale D-E-F-G-A-B-C when the Kora is tuned Silaba or dorian mode, scale D-E-F-G-A-H-C when the Kora is tuned to Sauta, see Scales and Tunings). Many pieces of the Tilibo-repertoire (East of Gambia and Senegal, Mali) like Douga are in D minor mode.

listen to Douga MP3

String number four on the left side is one seventh (step VII) above the Bakumba. Together with string number two on the right side (step III) which is one third above the Timbango they are called Kumare. This interval constitutes the harmonic base for many pieces from Casamance and Guinea Bissau, like Cheddo or Abdou N'Diaye. They are played with step III as tonal base which corresponds to the phrygian mode, scale A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

listen to Cheddo MP3

Only these bass string have special names. All higher strings which are octaves of the named strings are simply called Kara la dingo - small strings.

The highest three strings on the right side (the double octave of the Timbango, its second and third - step I, II, II, are called Lenglong. They are frequently played together as a chord in rhythmic and percussive accentuation like a clave ostinato pattern (see chord playing technique Sariro).

All strings with an interval relation ship of an octave or a fifth (like F - C - f - c) are called Kumbengo, which denotes also the correct tuning that is always checked by controling the octaves and fifths of the tonal base first.
Remark: this term also stands for the basic ostinato pattern of the music piece.

the Casamance Kora

bridge with 23 strings

Here we have an additional bass string in the deep octave 2 on either side. On the right side this is step IV, on the left side it is step II. Additionally the third string on the left side may be tuned down from step VI to step III.

In the Casamance Koras with more than 21 strings are frequently played. There are Koras with 22, 23, 25 and even 28 strings (source for this tuning system: Jali Meseng Cissokho, Ziguinchor). The additional strings fill gaps in the bass range, double other strings for special effects and extend the tonal spectrum. They allow the musician to play in another mode without retuning the instrument.

22-string Koras are also found in Gambia and Guinea Bissau. The additional string is mounted as the deepest one on the right side, the fourth above the Bakumba (step IV), called Panchang. One wellknown piece that uses the Panchang as tonal base is the Gambian version of Kaira, because this song is supposed to be played in the lydian mode. In the tuning Silaba this is the scale B-C-D-E-F-G-A. For the normal (Mali) version of the song the Kora would be be tuned to Sauta, lydian mode as well, but scale F-G-A-H-C-D-E, see Scales and Tunings. Also modern, afrocarribean compositions or adaptations ("Guantanamera") need the Panchang for the Western I - IV - V - IV harmonies.

listen to Kaira MP3

The 23rd string will be mounted on the left side, its name is Linyang. It may be tuned either to the second (step II) or to the third (step III) above the Bakumba. Tuned to step III and in combination with the Kumare-strings this is the tonal base for pieces in phrygian mode, scale A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Yayang is a wellknown song played in this mode.

listen to Yayang MP3

When tuned to step II the Linyang serves as counterbass to the Dibong (step V), which is the tonal base for pieces in mixolydian mode, scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B, like Mama Manneh.

Mama Manneh
listen to Mama Manneh MP3

Additionally up to three strings are mounted in a middle row of strings. The first one runs over a notch on the upper edge of the bridge. The other ones run through holes in the bridge. They are called Temajulo kiling, fula, saba (inner strings 1, 2, 3). Temajulo kiling is the lowest string of all and is tuned to the octave below the Dibong (step V in octave 1) and thus assists this step as tonal base. Temajulo fula is a double of the Alla la ke (the sixth, step VI above the Bakumba) and Temajulo saba is a double of the second (step II above the Timbango. These strings are mainly used for the Casamance typical repertoire of pieces in the mixolydian mode with the Dibong as tonal base.

bridge with 28 strings

Here we find added the 3 inner Temajulo-strings, one bass string at the left side (Alla la ke) and 2 high Lenglong-strings at left (double of step V in octave 4) and right (step V in octave 5).

Anyway, it is possible to play the Casamance repertoire (somewhat limited) on a 21-string Kora:
in this case a string not needed for the piece to play - usually the 3rd on the left side (Alla la ke, the sixth/step VI above the Bakumba) will be tuned to the Panchang (fourth/step IV above the Bakumba) or to the Linyang (either second/step II or third/step III above the Bakumba). For a 22-string Kora the Panchang is already there. The pieces in phrygian and mixolydian mode are profiting from the added bass string, because the Panchang can harmonically lead to the Linyang and to the Dibong.

The Software Kora Jaliya supports 21-string, "classic" Kora, as well as a 23-string Casamance Kora, replacing Alla la ke by Linyang step III with added Panchang and Linyang step II, thus enabling phrygian and mixolydian mode.

modal relationships

For the 21-string, "classic" Kora the deepest strings on the right and left side have the function of a "natural" tonal base for Kora music. But many pieces assign this prominent harmonic role to another string. Depending on the tuning used this leads into an other mode and therefore to another harmonic character of the music.

The following overview shows the modal relationships in F major depending on tuning and tonal base. The modes listed are the ones that are used most in the repertoire of Kora music.

(remark: here we use German notation for B-flat = B and B-natural = H)

Tunings Silaba, Hardino, Tomora Ba
(they correspond widely to the F major scale):

tonal base scala mode typical piece
Timbango F F G A B C D E f major/ionian Kelefaba
Linyang A A B C D E F G a phrygian Cheddo
Panchang Bb B C D E F G A B lydian Kaira
Dibong C C D E F G A B C mixolydian Dandan Nyarya
Allalake D D E F G A B C d aeolian Sakhadougou

Tuning Sauta (major scale with augmented fourth):

tonal base scala mode typical piece
Timbango F F G A H C D E f lydian Lambang
Linyang A A H C D E F G a aeolian Asumka
Allalake D D E F G A H C d dorian Douga

Tuning Tomora Mesengo (regionally differing scale, similar to minor):

tonal base scala mode typical piece
Timbango F F G Ab Bb C D Eb f dorian Tara
Linyang Ab Ab Bb C D Eb F G Ab lydian Mamadou Bitiki

unusual tunings are used additionally to the traditional ones, like this one called "Espagnol":

tonal base scala mode typical piece
Timbango F F G A Bb C D Eb f mixolydian no common example

Copyright 1997-2003 Harald Loquenz. All rights reserved