Interpreting Kora Music

In the western classical tradition, the idea of the composer has changed over time, but it has usually involved some form of written score that is then interpreted by the performer. Today there are many composers whose works are never committed to paper: songwriters, electronic musicians, world musicians, jazz musicians. We sometimes say they improvise or play traditional music, but when it comes to assigning performing rights, we talk about them as having composed the music they perform and record. So the realm of composition is one that has greatly enlarged, and this recital seeks to do this too, to enlarge the ideas of what makes up a composition and what defines a composer.  

Classical musicians are primarily interpreters. They take a given text and find a way to bring it to life in sound. There are many different approaches, academic or personal. But this art of interpretation, which is the core of classical music, has not always taken into account today’s enlarged realm of the composer. There have been many successful collaborations across the musical divides, for example Kronos Quartet’s recent collaboration with Malian Trio da Kali, a recent recording of works composed by griots living an aural/oral tradition, collaborating with a classically trained string arranger and a string quartet reading scores. But it is rare that a work from a composer outside of the classical discipline of written composition is interpreted by a classically trained musician. There is almost always some sort of intermediary or arranger involved. The barriers are many, from both sides, but it is mostly a problem of translation.   

In 2011, I started writing down the kora compositions of Toumani Diabaté, famed virtuoso of the 21-string harp called the kora. I managed to find a way to play these scores on the guitar, creating a means to begin interpreting his works on an entirely different instrument. When I began to play and record Toumani Diabaté’s music, I was a non-griot playing the music usually learned and played by griots. I was also a guitarist playing music originally meant for the kora, a guitarist suddenly stumbling upon an entirely new repertoire, an African repertoire previously unavailable to classical guitarists. To have done this inside of the aural/oral tradition, I would have needed a lengthy apprenticeship with a griot, in person. But as a classical musician and a guitarist, I was able to use my skills by changing my idea of Toumani and his role in the music. I had to see him as a composer, and his recordings as his “scores.” When I had made this conceptual shift, my musical world expanded and it was just a simple problem of translation from one medium to another.  

In the beginning I was treating Toumani Diabaté’s recordings as set compositions, and this is how I first recorded them in One Night on Earth in 2012. It was important to do this to make the point that, from the perspective of a classical musician, Toumani Diabaté was a great African composer, even while he was a musician from a traditional lineage and a griot. But as time went on, I started understanding the language, perhaps you could say more as a first-language speaker, or a more fluent second-language speaker. As time went on, things began to develop further, with my relationship to the “compositions” shifting from one of interpreter to one of co-composer.  

In 2016 I had the opportunity to actually visit Mali after being invited by Toumani Diabaté himself. Here I could finally experience how Malian musicians approached this same act of translation, interpretation, and co-composition. I discovered that these pieces, passed as they are from father to son and mother to daughter, are somewhere between improvisation and interpretation. On one hand, the original is very much present; on the other hand, the reading is very loose and creative. So that was the first change I made in my performances, straying further from the “text” and creating interpretations that were somewhat different from the originals. The beginning of these more improvisatory readings can be heard on Libraries on Fire, my recording from 2016. 

More recently the idea of composition has undergone a further change in my kora interpretations, a change of the word’s meaning, especially as it relates to African music. The act of composition is very different in African music. A new song by Salif Keita, or a new bow piece by South African musician Madosini, is often based on something older, a piece from a repertoire handed down from previous generations. The changes made in the act of composition are sometimes incremental, small, and subtle, yet the new work is still considered an original composition. This reflects a sociological difference: the musician does not stand alone but is part of a wider social and musical context, and this is reflected in the music. This differs from the Western notion, or even myth, of a composer being a lone creator, a myth that feeds into the idea of improvisation that has grown out of jazz, and is very much a factor in popular music, a myth that has been the cornerstone of music from at least the nineteenth century (musicians like John Cage challenged this notion by including the audience, spontaneity, and chance in the process of composition and performance).  

Within the Western context of the single creator, the influences on a particular work are closely scrutinized, and something too close to another piece is considered plagiarism. An example is Led Zeppelin’s quotations and appropriations of older American blues. While this practice may or may not constitute plagiarism, cultural appropriation, or a clear case of copyright infringement, this type of creative music marketing is not frowned upon in the African context. A good example among many is the song “Lam Toro” by Baaba Maal, which uses the melody, note for note, from an older griot song called “Massane Cissé” recorded by many musicians. Maal’s version changes the accompaniment and the words, but the melody is intact.  

Looking more deeply into these factors of composition and improvisation within the context of performing kora music (and other music) has had the result that my more recent music includes more elements of my own composition and improvisation than were evident my earlier recordings. The new compositions are often based on something in my repertoire, a piece by Egberto Gismonti or Bach, or a traditional kora piece, or a kora piece by a contemporary player like Toumani Diabaté, but this seed could be completely altered or hidden or could simply be a point of departure that is discarded in the final piece. I think this practice is consistent with the approach to performance in African music, the only change being that the application of this approach is to a wider repertoire outside of the music of griots.  

The works I draw on are by the Malian and Gambian kora players Toumani Diabaté, Ballaké Sissoko, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Sekou Batourou Kouyaté, and Sidiki Diabaté; songwriters Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, and Fanta Sacko; Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti; South African bow player Madosini; and of course J. S. Bach.