Concert Review: The Kora Band at Empty Sea

This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.

The Kora Band

(left to right) Andrew Oliver, Kane Mathis, Brady Millard-Kish, and Chad McCullough

Friday, October 26th — 6:00 PM

Two hours before showtime, the studio was already a buzz of activity:  staff engineer Jordan Cunningham unwound cables and set up mics while camera operators chatted busily over tripods and readied video equipment.  Meanwhile, The Kora Band had just arrived to prepare for a live concert and webcast from Empty Sea.

After a tour of West Africa with the U.S. State Department’s Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program, Portland’s Andrew Oliver founded The Kora Band, which blends West African music and jazz.  An accomplished jazz musician who had led many jazz groups around the NW, Andrew was changed by his West African tour:  “I’ve always loved rhythm and specifically the kind of cyclical rhythmic and 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.

Kane Mathis and Brady Millard-Kish

Kane Mathis (l) and Brady Millard-Kish (r)

When he got back to the United States, Andrew teamed up with Kane Mathis, a well-respected American kora player, to create The Kora Band.  Completing the band are Chad McCullough on trumpet, Brady Millard-Kish on acoustic and electric bass, and Mark DiFlorio on drums and percussion.

The Kora Band has unusual instrumentation for either the United States or West Africa: a classic jazz rhythm section with piano, bass, and drums; a trumpet playing melody lines and solos; and the kora itself.  The 21-string harp is the favored instrument of Mali, The Gambia, and Senegal’s griots – the bard-like musicians who compile and maintain West Africa’s oral history through song.  In The Kora Band, the kora’s repetitive, rolling grooves serve as a launching point for the rest of the ensemble, creating a base for improvisation and interplay.

Mark DiFlorio

Mark DiFlorio plays the calabash

Even the classic jazz instruments in the group are often different than one might expect: Mark DiFlorio plays a modified drum kit that includes a djembe and also a calabash, a gourd drum Andrew describes as “the other half of the kora.”  Resembling a half-sphere, the calabash can be slapped, pounded, and hit to create many different sounds.  Chad McCullough augments his trumpet playing with occasional uses of the pocket trumpet, a comically small version of the instrument which provides a complimentary tone color.

Though the band played many instrumental pieces, a number of tunes featured Kane singing in Gambian Mandinka, one of the official languages of The Gambia. As an American-born musician performing to American audiences, Kane has been asked at times to translate and sing in English.  But he explains that the connection between Mandinka and West Africa’s traditional music allows the audience a greater understanding of the musical tradition than if he sang in English.  Speaking after the show, Kane said that singing in Mandinka allows him to “share the sonic experience of language.”  The specific textures and sounds of Mandinka are linked to the music, augmenting the sound of the kora.



In a constantly shrinking world, The Kora Band believes that the ideas of tradition and change are not contradictory.  “I think it’s mainly a western convention to separate a tradition from its modern encounters,” says Kane. “One way traditions really shine is in the keeping of their vocabularies and transmission of their compelling elements in new environments.”

This entire concert is available on demand in HD on Empty Sea Television.

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