The Kora Trail

It all started yesterday with a comment from philipjohnwright on the NPR Music app post, "My particular favourites are the Tiny Desk concerts where you get pared back performances from a very eclectic range of artists." Which reminded me of the wonderful Tiny Desk Concert featuring Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal (do yourself a favor and click that arrow, sit back, and enjoy). Which led me to look for it in download form (no success but that's OK since I own the LP) but I did find another interesting record featuring Ballaké Sissoko and Stranded Horse called Thee. Which led me to post on Facebook, a rare occurrence, "Is there such a thing as bad kora music?".

One of my friends, and its a real friend as in I know JC and saw him most recently in Munich, commented, "well, i say yes. the french, heavily produced stuff, with chorus effect and way too much reverb. yes... smarmy..." and "you know, while musicians from mali are better known, i think gambia and senegal has a lot of authentic stuff. many people know mansour seck, because of baaba maal's popularity in france. but there are many others. foday musa suso is amazing." Which led to a search for "foday musa suso".

And finally to this wonderful recording from 1976 from Smithsonian Folkways. I love it when this happens and it really drives home just how fortunate we are, living in a world of musical abundance at our fingertips.

You can join the trail and download this lovely Kora Music from Gambia by Foday Musa Suso, who is amazing just like JC said, in FLAC format from the Smithsonian Folkways site.

Azteca X's picture

My goodness, what a gorgeous video.  Thanks for sharing, Michael.  I'll be looking into those albums.  I can't say I've ever knowingly heard kora before.

I should also mention that Folkways offering their albums in FLAC is the best!  I've bought a few albums.  They have almost anything you can think of.

Zakir's picture

You should definitely check out Ballake Sissoko's legendary album, "Ancient New Strings" (Rykodisc 1999), in duo with Toumani Diabate. They both count as todays greatest Kora virtuosos, and the mentioned album is a great and valuable recording for various reasons.
First of all, "New ANcient String" is a response to the first recording of Kora solo repertoire ever released, "Ancient Strings" (1979), which features Ballake's and Toumani's fathers, Djelimadi and Sidiki - respectively -, and which were the greatest Kora virtuosos of their generation.
Ballake's and Toumani's duo performance represents a milestone of what has been achieved with the 21 string malian harp.
The recording itself is also unique, as it was made by engineer Nick Parker (in Bamako on September 22nd 1997, Mali's independence day, in the then newly built marble rooms of the Congressional Palace) using omnidirectional microphones feeding high resolution 20bit recorders, in a completely natural acoustic setting and without any artificial reverberation, and in one single take without rehearsal.
In other words, the recording captures the natural relationship between sound and space, and this renders a natural soundstage and imaging that conventional studio albums get no way near of offering. Anyone familiar with MA recordings and the work of Todd Garfinkle, knows exactly what I'm talking about. Needless to say, this is one of my most treasured albums, both musically and as a recording.
The album was produced by musicologist Lucy Duran, whose legendary program for the BBC, World Routes, is an incredible resource - with a rich online archive - to be enjoyed by everyone.
"New Ancient Strings", and two of Ballake Sissoko's fantastic ensemble recordings with french label LabelBleu, "Tomora" and "Deli", as well as his latest album "At Peace", are available at Qobuz. I also highly recommend Iranian Tombak trio Chemirani Trio's album "invite" (on the great Accords Croises label), which among other great musicians you should give a chance, features Ballake Sissoko.
You can also find Toumani Diabate's discography at Qobuz, and I highly recommend "Kaira" (1987) and "Djelika" (1993), both also from Ryko Hannibal records and produced by Lucy Duran.
Two other great Kora players worth mentioning are Djeli Moussa Diawara and Mamadou Diabate (not to be confused with the great balafon player of the same name). Diawara's work with the Kora Jazz Trio is widely known, but you should also dig into his two solo albums. The recordings of both artists are available at Qobuz.
Check it out!

Here also two full concerts with Vincent Segal and Ballake Sissoko:


Michael Lavorgna's picture

...for all those recommendations. I tried to purchase Ballake Sissoko's "At Peace" from Qobuz but since I'm in the USA, no go. I looked for it other sites but no luck. I'll seek out the others you've mentioned. I have "Kaira" on vinyl.

Zakir's picture

I have run into the same problem at Qobuz with several other albums. I wrote to them and was told they are working on fixing this by signing copyright agreements that will allow them to sell the music everywhere. No Format is a small but really intersting label, but only two releases are available at Qobuz, hope they fix this too.

The only place I was able to locate "At Peace" in the US, was at Barnes & Noble. Luckily a friend bought the album for me while on a trip to Europe. It's really sad that music is still far away from being accessible globally, and that artists have to see their work limited geographically due to copyright regulations. This clearly goes against the very nature of music and artistic expression.

The Kora duo album with Toumani Diabate, "New Ancient Strings", is available at J&R, and apparently they still have copies in stock. And it's worth having this little gem on your shelf as well as on your computer.

There's another Kora player that has recorded with ACT music, Soriba Kouyate. I'm not very fond of his music, but some might find it worth checking him out as well.

Keep sharing those good music tips and that so much needed musical openness.


jim tavegia's picture

A few shorft years ago something this simple and beautiful could not have been made so easily and for all to see.  Remarkable stuff.