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Featuring Fine Hand Crafted West African Musical Instruments

Biographical Info

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.

Jeff playing a newly made kora

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 internal.

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 first instrument.

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.