The African and American musicians who play in Kora Konnection demonstrate, in music and method, the link between West Africa and New Orleans.
Kora Konnection features Morikeba Kouyate, a Senegalese master of the kora, an African harp, and Thierno Dioubate, a percussionist from Guinea who plays balafon (African marimba) and djembe (African drums).
The band’s Americans are Tim Green, a saxophonist who’s worked with Peter Gabriel, Phish, George Porter Jr. and many more; percussionist Jeff Klein; and six-string bassist Vince Mitchell.
Learning to play music that comes so naturally to Kouyate and Dioubate, Mitchell said, has been challenging.
A musician who’s studied classical music and performed gospel, rock and world music, Mitchell sees his pursuit of traditional African music as a never-ending journey.
“It’s almost like learning to speak another language,” he said. “But it’s effortless for Morikeba and Thierno.”
One immediate hurdle for American and European musicians who want to play African music is its approach to meter.
“African music,” Kouyate explained, “is not counted like music is counted here, in four or five or three (beats). African music is by the ear.”
There’s also the absence of a written score.
“There is nothing to read,” Kouyate said. “I just play the song and give them the part I want them to play. And if they want to write something, they can write it in their own way.”
Nevertheless, his American bandmates are catching on well.
“It was a challenge for them at first, but now they’re very good with it,” Kouyate said. “I’m happy to work with them.”
Kouyate is a seventh-generation kora player. He also sings in his native Mandinka language.
“It was no choice for me to say if I want to play kora or not,” he explained. “When you’re born into the Kouyate family, you have to play.”
An exotic instrument, the kora consists of a carved hardwood neck and a large resonating gourd covered by goat skin. Kouyate strings his 21-string instrument with fishing line.
Kouyate sees and hears cultural and musical similarities between Senegal, New Orleans and the American South.
“The dancing is very close to second line,” he said. “Kora music is similar to blues. Even though the style is not the same, what they’re talking about, the singing of people’s names and talking about things, is similar. Sometimes it’s not just what the singer says, but what he means. Kora songs are like that.”
Kouyate performed professionally in West Africa from the age of 14. He came to the United States in 1991, when the Chicago Cultural Center brought his Senegalese ensemble to the city. He subsequently performed through the Illinois Arts Council and later appeared at Disney World.
A performance at Xavier University brought Kouyate to New Orleans. A resident of the city since 2009, he spent Mardi Gras parading and playing drums.
“We’re marching from early morning to late at night,” he said. “I love it here. It’s a music town. So far I have not thought about moving from here to anywhere else.”
John Wirt is music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.