What is a Kora? Tuning The Kora Hear The Kora The Gambia, kora photo gallery
A traditional kora has 21 strings arranged in two parallel planes, with 11 strings for the left hand and 10 for the right. To play a scale you alternately pluck the left and right strings. The approach allows for the fast, scalewise runs characteristic of kora music. A great player like Alhaji Bai Konte incorporates rippling rhythms, elevating this technique to virtuoso levels. By moving the leather rings, up or down the kora's wooden neck, the player puts the instrument into one of four traditional tunings. Each tuning uses a heptatonic (7-note) scale, three of which approximate modes used in Western music--major, minor and lydian--and one that's reminiscent of the blues scale.
The music notation below shows where the strings are tuned in the key of C. The number beside each note (pitch) places it within one of the kora's three octaves. The first two strings played by the thumbs on the left and right sides are tuned to the tonic (key's center). The actual pitch center for an individual kora depends on the musician's taste; typically the kora is tuned considerably higher, an A being pretty much the upper limit. Most musicians tune their kora around "F" (first string on left and the octave above on the right side.) Remember the higher you tune, the more likely your strings are going to break.
Musicians in Gambia and in the Casamance--Senegal's region--have added extra bass strings. It is not uncommon to see a kora with as many as 23 strings there. In this close-up photo of the kora's bridge, note the two extra strings riding over the top of the bridge.