construction of the instrument

The materials needed to make a Kora have a mythological symbolic:

gourd = earth

wood = plants

hide = animals

iron = magic

The musicians usually make their instruments themselves. The materials needed are available at every Westafrican market or in the neighborhood. However, there is one Kora maker - Alieu Suso in Bakau, Gambia - whose instruments are very estimated in all of Gambia and beyond.

The sounding corpus is made of the half of a calabash gourd covered with untanned hide of sheep, cows or antelopes. A sound hole and holes for the neck are cut in the calabash. The wet, depilated skin is pulled over the open half of the calabash and shrinks when drying thus fitting very tightly like a drum skin and then is attached at the edge with nails. Those nails are also driven in the corpus in decorative patterns (for example the Koras of Alieu Suso can be recognized by a double spiral pattern).

A round stick made of Keno wood (African rosewood, free of knots) - the neck, where the strings will be mounted - is inserted vertically through the calabash. For each string a wet strip of skin is braided around the stick. After drying this tuning ring (called Konso) holds the string, it fits so tightly to the stick that it can be moved upwards and downwards but does not slip by the tension of the tuned string. Two other, thinner sticks are inserted vertically in the hide at the edge of the calabash and serve as handgrips, a crossbar is inserted horizontally.

The bridge stands upright on a wooden cushion covered with cloth, lying on the hide and transmitting the vibrations of the strings.

The strings are made of different strength of nylon fishing line (in former times twisted strips of hide). The thicker bass strings are sometimes made by twisting thinner ones until they have 2/3/4 times the strength.

The 21 strings run in two parallel planes laterally in notches over the narrow sides of the bridge and are knotted behind with the string holders. 10 strings are plucked on the right side and 11 are plucked on the left side with the thumbs for the bass strings and the forefingers for the higher pitches while the other fingers hold the handgrips. There are also (especially in the Casamance / South Senegal) 22 and 23 string Kora variants with additional bass strings.

One end of the string is strung in 6-8 loops round the tuning ring and the other end is knotted in the string holder. The string holders are made of double nylon lines and they are anchored at the iron ring that is attached at the lower end of the stick.

The gauge of the nylon strings from deep to high in mm

deep octave
F: 2.5
C: 1.6
D: 1.4
E: 1.3 or 1.2
F: 1.0 or 1.1

next 2 octaves
G to f: from 0.9 to 0.7

highest 3 strings
f,g,a: 0.6

The inside of the calabash of some instruments is decorated with magic formulas.
The Marabu - Qur'an scholar - is specialized in such spirituel, magic rituals.

The neccessary accessories are stored inside the Kora: Nylon fishing line as spare strings, Loyo - a nail to pull the strings for tuning and Nyenyemo - a "buzzer", like the ones used by Djembe players.

The Nyenyemo is mounted on the bridge and causes a buzzing sound when the bass strings are plucked. They use it only when playing outside to amplify the sound.

Copyright 1997-2003 Harald Loquenz. All rights reserved