Seattle's Kane Mathis is one of the world's leading performers on the kora, the distinctive (usually) 21-stringed West African harp instrument that is the major instrument of the Mandinka people of Mali; the Malian equivalent of the Western keyboard. Mathis has studied the instrument since the age of twenty, making several trips to The Gambia to learn from the hereditary musicians of the area. Now, he is the kora instrumentalist in Seattle's The Kora Band, a five piece jazz group that is integrating West African traditional sounds with jazz arrangements and instruments. The band is currently touring the West Coast, in support of Cascades (Origin, 2010).
Mathis played Brooklyn's famous Ninth Street jazz and world venue, Barbes, in July, with percussionist Timothy Quigley, and premiered a number or two from The Kora Band's then-forthcoming album.
The Kora Band's leader and co-arranger is pianist Andrew Oliver, of Portland, Oregon. The band used to be under Oliver's name, but Mathis says the name was leading to some confusion. He says, "It was the Andrew Oliver Kora Band, and now we've changed it to The Kora Band due to confusion about the title. People were thinking that it was an ensemble of koras or that the band leader Andrew Oliver's name was Andrew Oliver Kora. We're putting out an album [Cascades] in September, for Origin."
To set the record straight, the band is a jazz trumpet quartet with the melodious addition of the kora, and is is made up of Mathis, Oliver, trumpeter Chad McCullough, bassist Brady Millard-Kish, and drummer/percussionist Marc DiFlorio.
The Kora Band is not Mathis' only project. He also has a series of solo albums, featuring his kora alongside African musicians, as well as his electric bass/drum/percussion-driven Sahel Band: "All of my CDs are available at KaneMathis.bandcamp.com, and I've [also] got a solo CD. I have my electric ensemble, The Sahel Band, and I have an album called 2005 (Self Produced, 2005), which is a collection of live in the studio recordings, some of which I've done with Guinean musicians. It's kind of a hodgepodge of different ensembles for the kora, some solo and some live stuff. [With The Sahel Band] I play guitar and kora, then there's percussion, electric bass."
The Sahel Band is, in contrast to the wholly acoustic Kora Band, an electric band: in the world of the agrarian kora, it is an interesting aspect of West African music that both during and after the colonial era vanished (during and after the 1960s), many local African musicians went electric. The electric guitar provides a good approximation of traditional instruments.
Of The Kora Band, Mathis says: "Andrew arranges all of the music, and sometimes I arrange some of the music when there are traditional songs involved. But Andrew and I both contribute repertoire. Some of it is traditional and some of it is original compositions."
Trumpet is a lead instrument in the band. The instrument is often a good foil for solo vocalists as well: illustrations come freely from avant-garde jazz, and, even with the recent release by trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, which has vocalist Hilary Kole
on one track. The instrument is, of course, also a good substitute for voice, and, as Mathis will readily confirm, African music is strongly vocal. Mathis says, "I like trumpet a lot as a choice for that ensemble, because where we don't have vocals singing the main, strong melody lines, we have trumpet in that position. On some of the Congolese pieces we do, we have Andrew [the pianist] and Chad the trumpet player covering the harmonies that the two or three vocalists would play. So we can do essentially repertory versions of Cameroonian music and Congolese music, and all of the orchestration elements are intact because the trumpet can step in as that lead, strong melody, like a singer.
"A lot of arrangements center around the vocalists, like how many verses they sing, what kinds of verses they sing, the ways that the other instruments in the ensemble interact with that voice, [and these] are all choices that we're examining. [It's] our love of post-Colonial African pop records, essentially."
Much African music is vocal, and there is always a strong focus on melody. To the suggestion that all African music may be vocal, Mathis says, "I think it depends on the region, but certainly the Mandinka music and most of the music in Africa can be played with one vocalist and one or a few percussionists, because there is that strong melody and there's that strong rhythm that's associated with it, and in some cases in the kora repertoire the rhythm that the melody is played to is the only thing that distinguishes it from another song. Because it might have a similar melodic trajectory, but the rhythm will be different and the accent schemes will be different and that's how it's possible to differentiate one dance from another. And that's one of the interesting things about African music: there's not quite as much functional harmony as there are strong parts in a single melody.
"So in that way," Mathis continues, "a lot of the kora tunes can be reduced to a melodic line. And that melodic line is referenced in the tune's development in a very similar way to how that chord changes, and harmonies are a reference point of jazz standards and things like that.
"When you listen to a kora player play a version of a tune, the variations that they choose are extrapolations of single melody, and with kora players, when they're creating variations, they're always referring to a melody as opposed to chord changes. So, the development is how they bring that strong melody in and out of focus.
"In Mandinka music and kora performance, traditionally it depended on the singer's virtuosity with regard to the history associated with that particular piece. So if you were a Malian or Guinean radio singer, and you were on a radio program singing a history, you could easily sing a song for twenty or thirty minutes; by the time you go into all the families associated with the song, talking about how those seated in the region, the regions, all of the descendants of that family. That song could be really long.
"In another way, if you had to do a short version of the song, you could do a version of the song that only uses the main refrain, and that could be the most compact version of the song you could do. You could choose to do it either way.
The first track on the new album, "Sinyaro," features Mathis singing as well as playing kora: "That's me singing, yeah. That's a traditional song that's mainly praising a patron who is very generous to musicians, and that song is a distinctly western Mandinka tune. You see it a lot in Gambia and Senegal, you see it a lot in the Western territories. And that style of kora playing is not seen as much in Mali. It's more typical of Senegal.
"The kora is played in most of the territories that were the former Mandinka Empire, those countries being modern day Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and a little bit in northern Burkinafaso.
"[The Mandinka Empire] had its height in the thirteenth century. It was kind of downhill from there, 'cause there were a lot of other empires that were vying for influence. There was the Ghana Empire... and there's still a very strong presence of Mandinkas in the former Mandinka territories. Generally, you [can] see the emphasis on agriculture, and the fact that you see a lot of main villages around trade routes. [That is] a legacy of the strong Mandinka influence. The Mali Empire was from the middle of Mali to west, south of the Sahara."
Other ethnic groups focused on less agrarian economies: "The Fulani are known for raising cattle rather than farming. And the Wolof Empire was based more on commerce. But it's generally believed that the Mandinkas were the first people to really farm the lands that they settled west of Mali, because at the time those areas were thoroughly unsettled, to the extent that they would just name a town after the first thing that they saw, for example 'Bantamnyimma,' which means 'the beautiful tree,' and they would just keep going from there."
And so evolved the environment of the kora.
Mathis says, "Kora is definitely very unique. You see the other instruments that are the ngonis, the hunters' ngonis. Those hunters' ngonis are also played by Mandinka hunters.
"But the kora is a harp," he continues. "It is a harp that is twenty two strings [most koras have twenty-one strings but Mathis' has twenty-two and] is unique to the Mandinkas. It's unique to the Mandinka professional musicians, meaning musicians that play not for religious or incantatory purposes but actually for a wage."
In the context of jazz, the kora may, in its majestic forward moving sonic beauty, provide its own challenges to the attainment of more typical jazz legato-style solos. "That's interesting," says Mathis. "That style of soloing is quite free. That kind of solo is very Gambian, in idioms and (it's) very developmentalthat is, departing from the strong melody, a lot of upper pedal tones, a lot of rhythmic rather than melodic phrasing ideas, some right thumb pattern in the chord that goes I-V-I-I-V-I-V leaves a lot of room for the soloist to show their virtuosity. Gambian solo or 'birimintingo" styles tend to have phrasing derived more from a rhythmic arc rather that a melodic one. There is a lot of cross over between regions but generally speaking the tunes that are distinctly Gambian or 'Tilijii' region-specific have simpler melodic information in their accompaniment parts so solos tend to develop more freely. If you listen to any of the old style of Gambian musicians you'll hear that kind of soloing."
Kora music is quite extraordinary, when you consider the few digits employed in performance. Mathis: "It's thumbs and first fingers."
The kora could also be posited as providing a restriction on the conventional jazz instruments in a band, that is, in terms of the other instruments breaking free. Mathis says: "The kora is a diatonic harp limited by the range of keys that we can play songs in, and that's one of reasons that we use guitar on the new album. We experiment with new kora tunings. But each kora tuning allows for three main keys, so that gives us [some versatility], then the band would modulate and the kora would lay out. The kora will play a harmony that includes notes that the kora doesn't actually have. So I'll leave those notes out of the chord. Or I'll just play guitar on the song. But that hasn't actually been much of a problem because of Andrew's creative arrangement of tunes, but it's always the fact that the band is interested in that, working with the idioms of Mandinka music.
The Kora Band's album is evocatively named. Mathis explains: "[It's called] Cascades because the traditional solo lines, when the kora was first becoming a virtuosic solo instrument, were downward, they were moved mostly downward. Also The Cascades is a mountain range, which is really close to where we all live, and it's also the name of the train that takes Andrew from Portland to Seattle.
The musicians in the band are from the Northwest in general, but several have spent time in New Orleans. "Andrew's background is diverse," says Mathis. "He grew up in Portland and went to New Orleans to study jazz. In 2005 he left because of Hurricane Katrina. He and the whole rhythm section was in New Orleans togetherAndrew, Brady the bassist [who is from Michigan] and Mark DiFlorio as well. The trumpeter, Chad, has been based in Seattle for awhile now."
The band is touring in September, 2010. Mathis says, "The tour will be as far [south] as San Francisco and Sacremento. Then in Portland on the way back up."