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Kane Mathis: Kora Meets Jazz

By Published: September 22, 2010

The Trek To Africa

As Mathis explains, his guitar style fit the music that he was to discover: "I was a sophomore in high school and I started to listening to South American music to look for some rhythmic inspiration in my guitar playing. I was tracing a lot of the influences of that back to Africa and was listening to some music from Ghana, and shortly after checking that [I] discovered the pitched instruments of Mandinka, [of] West Africa, and when I heard the kora it really captivated me because I was trying to do a lot of these kinds of things in my solo finger style playing, like playing a lot of different rhythmic variations in different registers at the same time, and I'd always had much more of a rhythmic approach to guitar playing. Even though I'd always played tonal instruments my inspiration in structure was always based in rhythm.

Mathis and friend Malayn Diabate

"So when I heard kora it was essentially like a twenty-two piece drum kit to me, the way it was played. It really resonated with my musical sensibility. So I spent a lot of time just listening to Mandinka music and how it was put together. (I) started making trips in Africa in about 1996. I stayed in a village with a group of hereditary musicians. I was going back every year for a while, staying two-and-a-half or three months with the Jobarteh family in a village called Brikama. The Jobarteh family is a very well-known family of herd musicians. Some of the best-known musicians in West Africa are Jobartehs. This particular family is every interesting as they have a lot of the key players in Gambia's music scene. My teacher, for example, was the adopted son of Alhadji Bai Konte, who is one the greatest musical exponents Gambia has ever produced. And he was touring all over the world in the early '70s."

Eventually Mathis was playing for the Gambian President. He says, "It was about my fourth trip there and one of my friends in the compound told me there was festival the Gambian President was throwing. We played at the first annual Gambian heritage festival with my group Tirmakang Ensemble, in the president's village of Kanilai. He said, 'Well they're inviting groups, we should take our group.' Which was two koras and our teacher's daughter singing. [So] we signed up and went to the festival. The festival lasted ten days and we slept outside on a patron's porch and just dialogued and spoke with other musicians and we got to play a couple of times for the president." The band played as the President was walking through the crowd, and then at the band's concert at the festival.

The kora is analogous to the piano in Western music. It is the string-like, harp-like foundation of the area's music. Mathis says, "I would say so, because in the kora you have the lower register which can have accent schemes that come from the drumming styles of Gambia. You have high note variations that can come from the ngoni styles. You have the middle voices that can come from balafon or vocals themselves. And so I would say that that's an appropriate analogy because kora has so many colors [that] the aspects of Mandinka musicality can come out in it.

It's like the piano is kind of an orchestra in a box, so to speak."

The kora has already been featured in jazz, for example, by the late Don Cherry
Don Cherry
Don Cherry
1936 - 1995
. Mathis: "Don Cherry played with kora players for sure. He also himself played the hunter's harp, the ngoni, which is a relative of the kora. My teacher definitely remembers meeting Don Cherry when he went there. His aptitude on the instrument from a point of view of wanting to achieve a traditional vocabulary on it [was not great], but the fact that he was using it and the fact that it was African I think really did make an impact on people."

Mathis is also an expert at the oud, the middle Eastern guitar-like instrument of Turkey. He describes how he discovered the oud: "In the music conservatory I went to I had a Turkish girlfriend who was in the guitar department with me, and she and I were together for a really long time. When I was checking out music from other places and Africa, I heard a lot of the North African music from Algeria, Tunisia Morocco, places like that where they had oud. Even the Sudan and Egypt.

So I'd heard oud and experienced it as an African instrument, but I'd also heard a little bit of Indian classical music in Chicago. But I was always interested in musical traditions that had a single melodic line and no harmony and which also used microtones. I had a chance to go to Istanbul in '98 and '99 and study with Mutlu Torun at the ITU Conservatory in Istanbul, and then I did a five and a half year apprenticeship for oud study with the oud recitalist Munir Nurttin Beken. I have spent most of my time up until recently just dealing strictly with the traditional ways of playing them, and I haven't yet adapted the instruments to modern contexts until recently, just to make sure my traditional vocabulary in both of them was really, really solid and well-rooted."

Mathis has been writing music for both kora and oud for non-band contexts: "I'm composing some dance music for Catherine Cabeen, who's danced with Martha and Bill T Jones, and we're adapting the way the kora is played for some of the stuff that we've been working on, and the way the oud is played. And in general I'm starting to do it more and more, using traditional forms but using contemporary choices within those forms—choices of notes and behavior of certain scales and changing them a little bit from their traditional contexts, and using other instruments as well."

Mathis says the time he allocates to African music, as compared to Turkish, is about 50/50: "It's pretty even right now. I do a lot of Turkish and Greek music on the oud as well as contemporary stuff. I just finished a (summer term) residency on Turkish music at the University of Washington School of Music, and that took up a lot of my time. Now we're going to focus on this album with The Kora Band. So it goes back and forth."

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