This past March, my friends and I road tripped on down to New Orleans, Louisiana to get a taste of the South. While meandering Jackson Square in the center of historic New Orleans, we looked around at all the beautiful and raw art that people painted or sculpted and were now selling. Inevitably we stumbled upon some street performers, all of whom played a serious range of instruments from accordions to banjos to washboards.
But my favorite performer of our whole trip was Jonah Tobias, a guy who was playing a kora, or an African bass harp.
The kora has got to be one of the most lovely instruments I’ve ever heard – and I hadn’t even heard it until that afternoon, which was entirely a coincidence. It’s delicate, like a harp, but mysterious and enchanting like a violin. His band, Buku Broux, played drums, a bass, a saxophone, and a violin a various points during their set. Their performance stuck with me all day – bluesy and improvisational, just like New Orleans’ music, but more legato sounding than a lot of the harsher jazz. The band prides themselves on being a fusion of New Orleans jazz and African world music, which I think is definitely something to be proud of.
Tobias did a wonderful job, not only playing his instrument of choice, but also informing the onlookers about his African bass harp. The kora, as explained by Britannica.com, is a long-necked lute harp that comes from West Africa. It has a long hardwood neck that passes through a calabash gourd resonator and covered by a leather soundboard. It has twenty-one strings and is played with two hands. In the image above, you can see Tobias picking the strings with his thumbs – so it’s not like a guitar where one hand holds down the upper strings to form the notes and the other strums. Instead, all three octaves of notes are played with just thumbs and forefingers, while all the other fingers hold onto handles on either side of the instrument.
Brittanica.com goes on to state that “it is traditionally associated with royalty, the ruling classes, or religious practices. The kora is used by male musicians mainly to accompany narrations, recitations, and songs in honour of a patron.” Buku Broux played strictly instrumentally – I wonder what the kora would sound like in a traditional setting? What kind of stories or songs are sung alongside this powerfully moving instrument?
Seeing these guys brought such calm and wonder to an already perfect day – maybe they will to yours, too. If you ever get the chance to visit New Orleans, you’ll more than likely run into them on the square. Just keep your eyes and ears open.
Read about Tobias’s travels in his book, Journeys in Africa, published a year ago!
What strange instruments do YOU love? Let us know @theMoshery!
Corinne Pachl is a recent graduate from Truman State University whose heart will always lie in the depths of Kansas City, MO. Since studying abroad in Europe, she just wants to travel and eat food from all over the world. Until her next adventure, she aspires to find happiness and understanding in the soundtrack of everyday life.