The kora, a 21-stringed, calabash-bodied stringed instrument from West Africa now ubiquitous as a sonic marker of many West African musical traditions, wasn’t always so common on the global stage as it is now. Now, members of long lines of jali (the Mandinka word corresponding to the French griot) grace international festival stages.
It’s hardly new to the Western ear, though, and by the time Smithsonian Folkways released Gambian Griot Kora Duets in 1977, the delicate, harp-like sounds of the kora were already resonating with the American public. As the album’s original liner notes point out, not only had the kora already featured prominently in the Folkways catalog, but also “on American concert stages, in university classrooms, and even on national television, notably in the final episode of Alex Haley’s Roots II“.
As part of a series of vinyl reissues, Gambian Griot Kora Duets is now back in record form. It’s a compilation of long, luscious tracks performed by Alhaji Bai Konte, Dembo Konte, and Ma Lamini Jobate, a close-knit and masterful trio. Dembo Konte is Alhaji Bai Konte’s son. Jobate, who joins Dembo on the last track of each side, “regards Bai Konte as his father”. Each lengthy track sees them collaborate and, at times, with subsets of their respective wives. The singing is jubilant, the strings a crystalline dream, and the overall album masterful. At the same time, the sense of field recording permeates the mix. Hints of background sound and minimal post-production polish add to the feeling of presence in that sweet spot between the spontaneity of a live concert album and the more meticulous planning of a studio recording.
Swaying energy permeates the album, always steady and never overwhelming even as it builds into an unstoppable groove on opening medley “Sutukung Kumbu Sora/Solo” or thickly textured frenzy on highlife track “Jembasengo”. Lighter and more blissful is the ancient tune “Tutu Jara”, in which the sounds of twilight nature add softer shades to the soundscape. Later, Bai Konte’s original composition “Darisalami Amad Fal” features three wives joining Bai Konte and Dembo Konte as they sing and strum a commemorative track detailing the life history of Amad Fal, a man of some religious and local significance as detailed in the liner notes. The final track, “Yeyengo”, is another highlife tune, this one clocking in at almost 11 minutes long and shaped into a praise song by Dembo Konte and Jobate.
I mean it in the best possible way when I say that Gambian Griot Kora Duets is an obvious and wise choice for the Smithsonian Folkways Vinyl Reissue series. Lovely, exciting, and well-contextualized, it is familiar enough to a wide audience to attract attention and different enough from contemporary, globally popular uses of the kora to hold said attention. This music strikes impressive balances: virtuosic and folkloric, intense, and soothing. As a reissue, it signals a promising return for old Folkways releases, and as a standalone album, it simply delights.