Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Kora Lessons - 2000

As many of you may know, I have purchased a Kora (a harp-lute type instrument fashioned from taught leather stretched over a large calabash, and 21 strings emanating from a tall pole) and have begun taking lessons. Last Monday would have been my first lesson, but my hand was still bandaged up tightly and very sensitive. This Monday was my first lesson, with the next one being tonight. Our instructor (another teacher and I are taking lessons) is a griot, the caste family group which is responsible for music, genealogy, recording and passing on information. He also is the one who made our instruments.
The first lesson was quite challenging. Instead of starting off with simple notes or even melodies, we immediately began working on a song, one that dealt with the issue of loyalty. There was no written music, and the melody/harmony was very much unlike what I was used to. Just like Jelimady (jeli means griot in Bambara) instructed (my French is minimal, so much is done through observation), I used my thumbs and index finger to begin repeating what he had just played. It took great concentration and still I fumbled up at times. He was very patient with both of us though and took his position as teacher very seriously. Knowing that our still-new koras were not mature and go out of tune quite quickly, he offered to return on Wednesday for free, so he could tune the koras and make sure we could play the parts we had just learned. Jelimady's "quick" review was so generous. He stayed over 3 and a half hours, instructing us and then answering some questions we had about griots and the Malian culture.
So very friendly and humble. Even though the kora is well known as a very difficult instrument, we both are even more determined to do well - and please our wonderful instructor.
Indeed, what a wonderful opportunity we have here.

More Than Just Music Lessons
Hopefully you have had a chance to read my entry regarding beginning kora lessons. While the kora lesson tonight was quite fulfilling onto itself, it is what happened after the lesson which I'll be writing about now.
Diane (the other teacher) had already finished her kora lesson and was busy learning french from an outside professor. After playing a tune, Jelimady stayed sitting down and the four of us began a most interesting conversation. So much was said (and I missed some of it, as most of the conversing was done in french), but I'll try to tell you what I remember and understood.
Although griots are not the highest cast group, they are one of the most respected. From little on, children of a griot family are taught proper behavior, how to listen, and of course music. They are taught that information revealed to them by others is strictly confidential and that it is much better to listen. Therefore, griots are confided upon quite regularly, including life-long matters such as choosing a mate. All information passed down to and from the griot is verbal - no written records are kept. Therefore, griots must have great memories and be very attentive. Traditionally, people marry within their own casts. For griots, that means marrying within the griot caste. While you are born into a griot family, you can lose the qualification of griot if you fail to keep things confidential, talk more than listening, etc.

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