Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tricky Beats: Polyrhythm, Part 3

Alhaji Bai Konte: Alla L‘aa Ke


When I finished Polyrhythm, Part 2, I wasn’t intending to do a part 3. But, since then, a thought has nagged at me. I left out what may be the most remarkable example of polyrhythmic music in all of Africa. And that is the music of the kora.

The kora is often described as an African harp because of its sound, but it is played differently. The player uses the thumb and forefinger of each hand to pluck the strings, while the other fingers adjust the tuning by moving iron rings up or down the strings. There are traditionally twenty-one strings, with ten played by the right hand and eleven played by the left. What makes kora music a remarkable example of polyrhythmic music is the fact that each hand plays a different rhythm. So, unlike the Yoruba music we heard in part 1, in kora music, the overlapping rhythms are played by only one musician, with no overdubs.

The example heard here is by Alhaji Bai Konte, a griot of the Mandinka tribe. A griot is a traditional praise singer, analogous to the minstrel in medieval Europe. The role of the griot is passed on from father to son. Alhaji Bai Konte died in 1983, but his son Dembe Konte follows in his footsteps to this day.

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