Tell me about the origin of the kora.
We understand from historians that it was a big row. Some players mentioned that they were the inventors, like Jali Madi Wuleng and Karounke Toumani. But historians, of late, all came to believe that it was Koriyang Musa, who invented the kora. It was sort of a spiritual thing. He went to have his prayers at Sannehmentereng in Brufut here. That was where he went to. Some people believed that he was talking to the spirits there. Well, I don’t know how true this is. But I know he spent time in Sannehmentereng where he got the building of this instrument in mind when he came out. But he travelled down to Guinea and Guinea Bissau. For Mali, there were players who travelled from here to Mali. Sidiki Jobarteh travelled from here to Mali. He got his son, Toumani Diabaté, who is presently the champion in Mali. So, all those families originated from Gambia, from Bansang. So, this is what we believe and in all those countries you ask about the kora and they will tell you go to The Gambia, that’s where the roots are.
So Koriyang Musa did not emerge from Sannehmenterng with the physical instrument, it was just an idea?
Yes. He copied from simbi, a six-string instrument played by Mandingos and Jolas. It was from Sannehmenetering that he started to put together the items that make up the kora.
What period was this?
Our forefathers were basing their ideas on what we call remembered history. They were not writing these things down. But we believe that the kora is about 350 years old.
Koriyang Musa is said to be a student of Jali Madi Wuleng. If so, how is it possible that he, not Jali Madi, invented the kora?
I don’t believe this. Koriyang Musa was a gifted somebody.
But he was a student of Jali Madi Wuleng, wasn’t he?
No, no, no! It was after Koriyang Musa that Jali Madi Wuleng and Karounka Touray all came. I just sat down one day and complained that ‘I did everything in kora. I tried everything and I have nothing. I am disturbed. I hate this instrument’. This man, a historian, was from Casamance. He told me: ”Jaliba, you are too young. You’re a small chap. And you found hundreds of people playing this instrument but you are the most renowned. Can’t you still thank God? That’s one. Two, when the kora was invented, even if you combine all the players together, their talents and composition, you alone, your composition surpasses theirs. Can’t you still thank God? Third, when the kora was invented to date, what you’ve achieved, materialwise, is more than anybody since the kora started. Can’t you still thank God. And, when the kora was invented to date, you’re the sixth gifted person. It was Korinyang Musa who invented it, then Jali Madi Wulen, then Karounka Toumani, Wandifeng Jali, who was the master for Lalo Keba Dramé who then came on the throne. After Lalo, it was you. During their periods, you have other players but there’s one who is destined for the throne. There are hundreds who can play the kora better than me. But I am the most renowned. That’s a gift from God. When Lalo was on the throne, there were bigger players like Babou Jobarteh, Abdoulie Suso.” He told me all these things. From that day I believed, well, this is it. May be from The Gambia, the next champion may come from Senegal, Guinea or even Mali. Some Gambians don’t know what we have.
But still on the history, one of the first pieces on the kora is said to be ‘Kuruntu Kelefa’ and Jali Madi was said to be the griot for Kelefa. Perhaps we still need clarification?
Koriyang Musa came up with those things. During their time, they had Kuruntu Kelefa, Sundiata, et cetera. I got this history not only from one historian. And even historian nowadays, like Alagie Mbye and others, they all believe this fact. When Jali Madi Wuleng was on it, I think he was doing the repetition of these things. Just like Lalo Kebba. When you hear Kuruntu Kelefa, Nteri Jato, you’ll say oh, ‘Lalo’s Nteri Jato when Lalo did not compose a single song. Wandifeng Jali composed Nteri Jato. But you heard it from Lalo. He was the one most renowned. During Wandifeng Jali’s time there were no tapes. Jimbasengno is from Jali Wali from Sadio. Even Kurang Mbisan was there before.
Who should play the kora?
During the time of our forefathers, people who were born in the jali families were the only ones qualified to play the kora. When I was young we had this belief that if you are not from the griot family, when you merely touch the kora, your hands will get swollen. It was a taboo for anyone not from the griot family to touch or play the kora. These things are changing. Today, there are some people playing who are not Kuyateh, Suso or Jobateh. I have seen surnames like Cham, Camara and Drammeh. Those are not griot surnames. So, anybody can play it now.
Tell me about the ABC of the kora?
The ABC of the kora as you have first said is Kuruntu Kelefa. But they break this into bits. The ABC is the Timbang, the second and the third to it. You’re asked to strum those before they give you any other thing. Those together will be Kuruntu Kelefa or Kelefaba. But I think Kelefa is even recent. Jankey Wali came before. And Jankey Wali’s griot was Jali Wali, who was the composer of Chedo. That was precolonial days. I think Kelefa is more recent than that. This was why he [Jali Madi] cannot be the inventor of kora.
Who listens to the kora?
In ancient days, it was not for every Lamin, Buba and Samba. It was only for great griots and kings that kora players visit. When you want to listen to the kora, you have to go near those people. But now, everybody can listen to it. You can go when Jaliba is playing, get your ticket and get in and listen to the kora.
Which means the role it plays in the socio-cultural life of the people concerned with it has also changed?
It has slightly changed though we are still on that trend. For instance, we are the helpers when there are marriage ceremonies. As the most vocal in society, we give information, we try to settle disputes and promote government’s development information to society through our songs.
If you are to choose between playing kora at the commercial level you are doing today or playing it to the mansolu like it used to be done, which one will you take?
They are all respectful. When that trend faded out, it was no more respected. In fact, that was why I deviated to take the commercial trend. Anyone who wants can come and pay I will play for you. The kora players were no longer respected in society. They were looked low upon then.
What led to this?
People think certain cultures are no longer good in their generation. So, they change.
Some believe religion and colonialism also contributed, what do you think?
One can say colonialism. In religion, we are helpers. When I was taken to school, my father cried. He said: “No! They told me this boy would be somebody famous, you take him to school, you have spoil it! According to our norms, you must take him as an Arabic school so that as he played, he would be giving some preaching.” Former players were doing it that way.
What does the future hold for the kora?
It’s very promising. It’s going to be better. We have laid the foundation. Even white people are now coming to the country to learn the kora.
Some criticised that you could punch beyond your current weight like build a studio and a kora institute. How do you respond?
I have a studio already. They are cushioning the place. To have the institute, I think, I have to be encouraged in a way. If I am not, I am going to go at any time with all the knowledge I have. I should be given a place, a set-up. When Youssou N’Dour was starting, the government of Senegal gave him everything he needed. It’s only through that you can have the country sold out quickly.
In the absence of such help, what can you do as far as having an institute is concerned?
Some people have already started. They have got land here. The only difficult thing is that now all the other players that are following this style, most of them are school dropouts. So, that will make it difficult. If you want to have a school situation, you have to be well-informed. You have to combine the knowledge you have in kora with reading and writing in English.
Your critics say you, if I may use the term, have ‘Ndaganised’ the music. Is it so?
Well, I think they’re not listening properly. It’s a pity the others that are following me, there’s no other musical band in The Gambia except Jaliba whose performances are not all in Ndaga. Any other band you listen to is Ndaga. Except the rap. That’s what I cannot understand. I play lenjengo, I play musouba julo but I think the young ones don’t know those rhythms, they are not aware of them. On very rare cases, I play Ndaga. In 2012, there was only one Ndaga rhythm I played. That’s Balla Gaye II.
How many albums have you put together?
From Radio Kankang,19.
Which one is your favourite?
Before all the others, Terreto used to be. The melody on it was very great. I came up with Etele Taamounti. That was another very great one that moves me. And recently Kano. Now, I like whatever I do.
You often pay tribute to love. What inspires those songs?
The generation we are in, if you don’t talk about love, you are not admired. In fact, all the other musicians will sing about love, love and love. I put at least one love song in each album.]]>