Tradition, Modernity, and Constant Change: The Kora Band

The Kora Band is playing this Friday at Empty Sea.  Click here for more information and to buy advance tickets.

We’re also streaming this show live in HD on Empty Sea Television.  Click here to learn more and purchase access.

The Kora BandAfter touring West Africa with the US State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad, Andrew Oliver was inspired to dive deeper into the relationship between jazz and West African music. His exploration eventually led to the founding of the Kora Band, featuring atypical instrumentation that highlights Kane Mathis on the 21-string Kora, a traditional harp from West Africa.

How did you begin playing music?  What were your initial inspirations and musical leanings?

Kane Mathis: I began with piano in the 2nd grade then moved to guitar in the 5th. I played for 5 years in blues clubs until conservatory and then 20 years of study of Africa and the Middle east.

Andrew Oliver: I started playing when I was about 3 years old on the piano in my parents house.  I was initially a huge classical music snob but in high school I began to discover early jazz and ragtime which then led me over the years into many forms of jazz and improvised music.  In the past 5 years I have also begun to investigate and incorporate elements of various world music traditions, specifically Mandinka music of West Africa and Tango into various projects.

Kane, how did you begin to play the kora?  What is your relationship to Africa and West African culture, and how has it changed in the time that you have been playing the kora?

Kane: I got into Kora because I was listening to a lot of music from South America and was tracing the roots back to sub-Saharan West Africa. Kora does a lot of things I was going for on solo acoustic guitar at the time. There was something about the Mandinka Musical tradition that really grabbed me. I felt as if I could contribute something to it, it made sense to my brain. in 1996 I got the chance to begin making trips to The Gambia to study and I have been going ever since. In 2011 I was recognized as a government sponsored musician by The Republic of The Gambia.

Andrew, what was your relationship to West African music initially and how did that change through your tour with the Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program?

Andrew: I have always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic / harmonic patterns that characterize much of West African music’s core.  However, I was not particularly knowledgeable or educated in the specifics of this music before the Rhythm Road trip.  I had a few CDs of famous kora players such as Toumani Diabate so I was excited when a kora player (El Hajj Cissokho) showed up at our sound check at this club in Dakar called Just 4 U.  He taught us a traditional song (Kaira, which we still play in the kora band) and we in turn taught him some jazz (a simple blues called Centerpiece).  This was an amazing experience and I was really quite surprised at the compatibility of the two styles and instruments.  When I got home I called up Kane (who I had met just before the trip through a lucky coincidence) and proposed a collaboration and we began the group at that point along with Mark (who was the drummer on the Rhythm Road trip) and Brady (a longtime collaborator of Mark).

How were the rest of you first drawn to West African music?  Did you have experience with it before this group?  How has your relationship with both West African music and jazz changed through playing with The Kora Band?

Brady:  I was initially drawn to music from South Africa (via Paul Simon’s “Graceland”), and Cameroon, (via Les Tete Brules) in high school.  Many years spent playing classical, jazz, R&B, and rock eventually lead me back to world music, several years later.  I had no prior experience playing this music before joining the Kora Band, but did have a great appreciation for it/interest in it.  As I evolve musically/personally, all of my influences meld together and inform my approach to music.

What does it mean to you to be mixing “traditional” West African music with jazz, a style that was born out of African music and is now seen by many people as “art music”?

Kane: It’s a cliché that, “the only constant is change”. It’s a very very good one, one of my favorites actually. I feel like the tradition of Kora and Mandinka music has adapted marvelously and it is almost useless to examine the cultures musical environment without taking into account all of the influences born upon it over the years. Mandinka music and the culture of Africa in general has been a picture of adaptation for its entire history. I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters, that is one way traditions really shine, in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments. Especially since there would be no existing tradition if it didn’t adapt in someway, generally . Musically speaking, In this regard, Africa has excelled. The Kora, for example, has a tuning named after an instrument that isn’t even a part of the Mandinka tradition. The vocal style came from aesthetic influences that were not even African at all initially. Many of my Gambian friends speak 5 languages, why? Because the more languages you speak the easier it is to trade with people from diverse regions thereby expanding your market. Those are 3 examples. The answer to this question being that ‘mixing’ kora music with jazz means to me that I am participating in the long tradition of having a conversation with a modern art form while maintaining the integrity of the traditional vocabulary without compromising what makes it compelling, regardless of context. I don’t feel like we’re bringing jazz “back to Africa” or whatever. The aesthetics have evolved separately enough that a lot of consideration has to go into how they merge. I’m not one of those people who feels like it’s, “All right there” with Africa, the blues, and Jazz and all one has to do is hold one next to the other and “voila!” I think that’s not true.

Andrew: I agree wholeheartedly with what Kane said above.  Certainly the status of jazz as a sort of “art music” in America is becoming further cemented every day and I am all for this, especially as it relates to performance, funding, and exposure opportunities for jazz and improvised music.  However, all music is born out of tradition and reflects the culture in which it is based so in that sense even “art music” is in some way “traditional.”  For me it is not a “colonialist” endeavor in any way to mix these traditions – as you noted they have a strong history and the fact that jazz was born out of west African music reflects how well they work together in this contemporary context.  In this day and age, genre boundaries are breaking down rapidly and cross-genre conversation is happening very fluidly all over the world.  Just as jazz was itself originally a mixture of musics from a variety of cultures (African, African-American, French Creole, European, Caribbean, etc), what we are doing is to me a natural extension of that sort of cultural mix updated for the 21st century.  We are not simply slapping the two musical styles together but are genuinely working to deal authentically with elements of both traditions and build a new hybrid style.

How would you describe your musical identity as a group?

Kane: The Kora Band is a multi-cultural ensemble whose musical products are pushing beyond the novelty of ‘the encounter’.

Andrew: The Kora Band draws on elements of jazz and west African traditional and contemporary music to create a new sound reflecting important elements of both musical traditions and the increasingly globalized world of the 21st century.

Who are some of your current inspirations?  Who are you listening to now?

Kane: I am mostly listening to Legowelt, Autechre and a bit of Dutch experimental electronica from around 1950 like Dick Raaijmakers.  As far as African music at the moment I am listening to Guelewar and Karantamba from Senegal/Gambia.

Andrew: I am listening to a lot of contemporary jazz at the moment, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Neil Cowley, Guillermo Klein.  Also old and new tango music ranging from Carlos Di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese from the 40′s and 50′s to contemporary groups.  In the African music realm, Guinean guitar hero Grand Papa Diabate is always on my playlist as well as the Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys and some more “raw” kora players such as Kausu Kouyate and Sundiolou Cissokho.

What are your hopes for this group?  What are your musical goals?

Kane: In my opinion the band has achieved all of the first round of its goals. I think we are retooling in terms of wanting to play as many shows as possible and tour all the time. For this kind of group there are more savvy and economical ways to get ‘out there’. I personally think it would be great if the band could have maximum fluidity between Jazz and World Music markets while simultaneously contributing to the state of new music in some way.

Andrew: We have recently received a commission from Chamber Music America for a new album-length suite of music.  I am very excited about getting to work writing and rehearsing this music which we will premiere next fall.  I plan to write a suite of tunes based very directly on specific traditional Mandinka tunes but rather than just “covering” those tunes to use elements from them as building blocks for new compositions.  I hope this will allow me to explore what makes the traditional music “tick” and how those elements can continue to create a very unique and individual sound for the group.  I hope that we can craft a style both in my compositions and in the group improvisational aesthetic that sounds fresh and new and contributes as Kane said to the state of new music.

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