Since my early teens I have had a strong interest in Africa. As the
likely origin place of our species, it has always seemed to me that
there I could find some essential wisdom about the nature of being
human. One might say that it’s the longest running model of humans
learning to live together and survive in relative harmony.
The first musical instrument I fell in love with at age 13 was the 5
string banjo. At the time I had no idea that it was connected
directly back to West Africa. In 1988 I was playing bodhran(Irish frame
drum) a bit when I was introduced to the drums and percussion music of
Africa and the Carribean; a gift for which I am deeply grateful.
It is actually one of the things that helped save my life a few years
later. The musician in me had found a voice. I bought instruments. I
found teachers. I went to workshops and camps. I practiced, performed.
Having been “caught” by the drums and wanting to follow into
the depth of the culture, I started to build my own instruments. I began
with carving djembe, then building the various cylinder drums, making
shekere, rattles, bells and finally balafon and kora. It is my doorway
into the culture.
In my explorations of the various musical traditions of the many
peoples of the world, the strongest magical resonance for me lies in the
music of the Mande peoples of West Africa.It contains grief without
sentimentality, and also expresses enormous joy and exuberance.
It has a depth and timelessness that eclipses fad while remaining
ever fresh. It offers an indigenous balm for the ceaseless cacauphonous
insults of industrial life. The path that I have followed from that
doorway has led to places previously unimaginable, both geographic and
My first kora was junk, tourist “collectables”, and utterly
untuneable. I discovered that some of the players in my area
didn’t play very much because it is so difficult to keep even a
well made traditional kora tuned in this maritime climate.
The man who introduced me to the kora in my living room was Mamadou
Diabate from Guinee.He showed me a picture of his peg neck kora. About a
year later I saw Djimo Kouyate at the NW folklife festival and he had a
totally funky handmade peg neck kora. I came to the the conclusion
that peg neck koras are now traditional!
The Kora is an instrument of the desert/sahel. It is an awesome
expression of spirit adapting to its place. Water is not generally a
friend of the kora, which is an interesting conundrum considering that
the spirits associated with the kora are reputed to be encountered near
water. The konso tuning system works well in its indigenous habitat and
culture, but I had been called to by those same spirits and I needed an
instrument that I could tune and learn to play.
At that time, I had been prescision working with wood for about 17
years so I decided to build one for myself. Through a friend of Djimo, I
found my way to a kora builder in Oregon named Fred Field-Eaton (a
former student of Amadou Bansang Jobarteh) who gifted me a
calabash (courtesy of Rod Knight) and guided me through the assembly of my
In 1994 I met Morikeba Kouyate in Calif. And became his student. Once
I got some understanding of the mechanics of the instrument, and
desiring to stay as close as possible to the traditional sound, I
decided to do some engineering experimentation to develop an instrument
that is easy to change tunings, sounds excellent, and stays in tune.
Ultimately it’s about Bonya (respect); For the soul of the
instrument, for the djeli, and for the djeliya.The desire to give my
best to a music, a culture a heritage that has brought much healing and
solace to my life and so many others. It’s also about the wisdom
that lives in the stories, stories many centuries old that continue to
inform us about the problems we face today and that can help us live in
a better way tomorrow.