African harp “kora” returns to Empire


By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

It’s a long way from Empire to Africa. Metaphorically speaking, it’s also a long way from clarinet to the 21-string African harp called the kora. Sean Gaskell has taken both journeys, and he will return to the Glen Lake Community Library on Monday, May 15, where he’ll play the kora, sing and tell stories in the tradition of the griots (kora masters).

Gaskell’s first exposure to the exotic sound of the kora came when he saw a performance in his then-home state of Washington 17 years ago. “I fell in love with the sound,” he said. This was after he’d been playing clarinet for years. He was turned on to the new instrument and vowed to learn it, but it turned out the kora was a completely different beast. “I didn’t know how challenging it would be.”

He took lessons from the performer he saw in Seattle, and grew so enthralled he decided to do whatever it took to become proficient on the instrument. “At 23, I (decided I) was going to learn it. If it takes going to Africa, that’s what I’ll do.” And it did. His initial trip in 2008 found him living and learning in Gambia for three and a half months, working toward a musicology degree.

Two further shorter trips in the years since have further expanded his knowledge and musical horizons. Stateside he relocated to North Carolina, and from there he now tours the country. His shows are a mix of performance and pedagogy, singing, playing and telling stories. That is roughly the format established by the griots, the master players and storytellers in Gambia. “Between songs I talk about the history of the kora, the people who play it—the griots—they’re the bards of the Mandinka people. There’s a song where I sing in the Mandinka language.”

This will be the third time he’ll perform in Empire, following shows in 2016 and 2018. The program will begin at 7 p.m. “Libraries are my venue of choice,” he said, though he notes he is looking to expand into other settings. “I do want to branch out more, do music venues and festivals. I want to keep the newness.”

Next up, following his tour, is a return to Africa. This time he’ll travel to Mali, which he said has a very different approach to and repertoire for the kora. “It has a different history, the style is different, the tunes are very different. In Gambia it’s up-tempo, in Mali it’s slower, more laid back.”

Gaskell has seen changes in the music in the relatively brief time he has played the kora. What was once a solo instrument that helped tell stories and disseminate the culture of its homeland has begun to branch out into other areas. “Historically it’s been solo, but it’s now featured with other instruments—drums, keyboards, guitar. Kora bands have become a thing,” he said.

It has also opened up in the culture. What was traditionally a male role is gradually becoming less gender-specific. “There are more females (playing) traditional Mandinka instruments,” he said, including not only kora but also balafon, a wooden xylophone, and ngoni, a guitar-like instrument. The balafon dates to the 1200s, while the ngoni came to prominence in the 1500s. The kora is a youngster by comparison, dating to the 1700s.

Gaskell believes the music reaches across cultures and across the thousands of miles separating Gambia from America. And he personally loves the timbre and the music of the kora. “For me, it’s the sweet sound of the instrument. And all the history, all the meaning. Some go back 800 years. That I’m able to convey it brings me joy.” As does the positive response from those hearing the music. “To see the audience respond, that means I’m touching people.”

He has made it his life’s work. But what about that clarinet? Seems the kora has completely displaced it in Gaskell’s world. “I gave the clarinet away,” he said.