From The Mouth Of The Gambia

Discovering the art of the kora, the lute-harp of West Africa.

Black Crowned Night Heron at the river Gambia, by Charlie Jackson. Cropped. Creative Commons.

      By Simon Brackenborough

In 1795, the 23-year-old Mungo Park set sail from Portsmouth. The young Scottish physician had offered his services to the African Association – a British society set up to fund expeditions into Africa, with a view to opening opportunities for trade.

Park joined the brig Endeavour, which set out to trade in beeswax and ivory at the Gambia, the great river flowing out of Africa into the Atlantic. An established meeting point between African and European merchants, the Gambia not only enabled the transport of goods, but also enslaved Africans, to be sold and shipped to the Americas.

Of particular interest to the Association were two features of West African geography which held a near-legendary status: the river Niger, whose precise course was unknown, and the ancient city of Timbuktu, rumoured for its wealth.

Mungo Park portrait, Wikimedia Commons.

Landing at the Gambia and heading upstream to a British trading station, Park stayed for several months to learn the local Mandinka language, before setting out with guides on his journey inland.

It was two years before Park arrived back in Britain. He brought news that he had found the Niger, but had been yet unable to reach Timbuktu. In 1799 his published account of his adventures, Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa, thrilled the public and became a bestseller.

The book’s success is easy to understand – it is an often breathless narrative of a genuinely exciting story. Park being an educated man with an eye for detail, his keenly observed descriptions of unfamiliar cultures and landscapes stimulated the public’s imagination.

In one passage he summarises the African musical instruments he had seen, and he mentions a korro, ‘a large harp with eighteen strings’.

This seems to be the first ever written description of what is today called a kora, a West African lute-harp with twenty-one strings. The kora is a traditional instrument of the Mandinka people, one ethnic group within the larger group of Mande people.


In the 1980s, the American ethnomusicologist Eric Charry made his own trip to West Africa. Here he spent several years studying the wide variety of music of the Mande. Charry’s book Mande Music is a deep, authoritative analysis of a rich musical culture.

The Mande are descendants of the Mali Empire, which at its height in the fourteenth century commanded a vast swathe of land from the Atlantic coast into the centre of West Africa. Today, populations of Mandinka people are found with particularly high concentrations in the former western Mande territories, such as The Gambia, Mali, and Guinea.

Constructed from local materials, the kora is distinctive for its large round resonating chamber made from a calabash gourd. It is one of several instruments performed by Mandinka artisan musicians known as Jalis.

Jalis have equivalents across the Mande peoples, and are referred to more generally as Griots. But music is only part of their role – Jalis are also oral historians, story-tellers, and public speakers. The essence of their art, in Charry’s words, is ‘instilling in the listeners pride and strength derived from the example of the deeds of their ancestors’. Lineage is key – Jalis are born Jalis, and through a limited number of families they trace their ancestry for this role as far back as the thirteenth century.

The kora is not the only instrument belonging to their tradition, but with its striking look and beautiful sound, it has become perhaps the most well known outside Africa. Kora technique is based around polyrhythms, with the two thumbs and forefingers creating a pattern of interweaving parts. Players also specialise in dazzlingly fast improvised solo runs, a technique with the wonderfully onomatopoeic name birimintingo, or ‘rolling’.


When Mungo Park finally set eyes upon the Niger, he had been travelling from the Gambia for seven months. He had survived sickness, thirst, robbery, and even imprisonment to get this far.

One of them called out, geo ajffilli (see the water); and looking forwards, I saw with infinite pleasure the great object of my mission; the long sought for majestic Niger, glittering to the morning sun, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, and flowing slowly to the eastward. I hastened to the brink, and, having drank of the water, lifted up my fervent thanks in prayer, to the Great Ruler of all things, for having thus far crowned my endeavours with success. 

While Park observed that the river flowed east, he did not know that its course is in fact a colossal boomerang. Rising in the Guinea Highlands, the impetuous young river charges directly inland, where it forms a wide delta. It then continues almost as far north as the Sahara, before turning to sweep down in an immense arc to the Gulf of Guinea.

Map of the River Niger, Wikimedia Commons.

Geologists now believe that this bizarre shape resulted from what were once two separate rivers, with the original upper Niger emptying into a large long-lost lake. This would mean that the river Mungo Park found was a descendent of something even more elusive: an ancient river entirely trapped by a continent. Never trading its waters with the world, but spreading out wide to vanish in the hot African sun.


The height of the Mali Empire coincided with the reign of Mansa Musa. He is thought be one of the richest people to have ever lived, and news of his wealth spread far enough for him to be depicted holding a gold coin in the Catalan Atlas of 1375. A devout Muslim, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324; one chronicler recorded that his lavish gifts of gold along the way single-handedly deflated the metal’s price in Cairo.

Mansa Musa on the Catalan Atlas, Wikimedia Commons.

During Musa’s reign the Mali Empire annexed Timbuktu. Situated between the Niger and the southern edge of the Sahara, this was an important destination for the trading caravans coming across the desert. In the following centuries control of Timbuktu changed hands several times, while the city went through a golden age as a centre of learning, with several Madrasas (Islamic universities) and a bustling trade in Arabic manuscripts. When the Andalusi diplomat Leo Africanus visited in the sixteenth century, he was struck to discover that the city had ‘more profit made from this commerce than from all other merchandise’.

Reports of Timbuktu’s wealth intrigued Europeans, and its remote location beyond the vast Sahara lent it a mystique – even today, its name is a byword for a near-mythical place. By Park’s time, the city’s fortunes were in decline, but its heritage of Islamic scholarship remains a powerful symbol of the propagation of the religion across the African continent.

Sankore Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, cropped. Creative Commons.

Political power comes and goes, but ideas can cling on with much greater tenacity. Today the Mandinka people are predominantly Muslim. While the role of Jalis is not religious, quotations from the Quran are common in their songs and speeches. Charry also suggests that their tradition of monophonic singing (without harmony) and the melodic ornamentation of birimintingo may have some connection with this spiritual drift – ‘the musical aesthetics carried in the recitation of the Koran that is bound up in Islam wherever it travels’.


‘They say that when a Griot dies, it’s like a library burning down’, explains the kora player Tunde Jegede, in the 1995 BBC film Africa I Remember.

Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Jegede was not descended from Mande lineage. But as a child he heard a kora player at the Keskidee Centre, an arts hub for London’s black community. He was so taken by the kora that his mother took him to The Gambia to learn the instrument with a Griot.

Jegede also studied cello in London, and his training in both the European and West African classical traditions has given him a diverse career, in which he has collaborated widely as instrumentalist and composer. He describes an affinity between the Baroque music of Bach and Scarlatti to the polyphonic textures of the kora.

Jegede’s Kora Concerto was commissioned by the Psappha Ensemble. Here the delicate, silvery sound of the instrument integrates into a chamber orchestra of just thirteen players. Far from any awkward incongruity, the intimacy of this musical fusion seems to speak of an intimacy of understanding – a deep appreciation of two traditions that Jegede has been in the unusual position to acquire from a young age.


In 1805 Mungo Park embarked on a second journey to the Gambia, sponsored by the British Government. He would return to the river Niger with a simple intent: to ‘set sail for the east with the fixed resolution to discover the termination […] or perish in the attempt’.

Park was never to return. The only report of his fate comes via Amadi Fatouma, an African guide who accompanied him nearly to his end. Though much depleted by deaths through sickness, the party had navigated the river past Timbuktu, and far into its southbound section. But they had been repeatedly troubled by hostile local forces. When passing through the rapids at Bussa, in modern-day Nigeria, they were ambushed. Facing volleys of arrows and stones, they fled their boat in a desperate attempt to swim to safety. But Park and the remaining British men drowned.

The mighty Niger, whose glittering waters Park had drunk from ten years previously, was the end of him. He was just 34.

Park may have failed in his mission. But through his writings he revealed a continent rich in natural wonder and human life. He is notable for his self-effacing approach – he does not cast himself as a swashbuckling hero, and he recorded the invaluable kindness shown to him by Africans on his journey, commenting that ‘whatever difference there is between the Negro and European […] there is none in the genuine sympathies and characteristic feelings of our common nature’.

Nonetheless, some uncomfortable facts remain. On the first expedition, his route back to the Gambia was secured with the help of a slave trader, and his return to Britain came via a slave ship to Antigua. He wrote with unflinching frankness, and sometimes sorrow, at seeing both the types of servitude practiced among Africans, and the transatlantic trade. On board the slave ship he gave medical assistance, and was able to converse with some slaves in Mandinka. ‘They had in truth need of every consolation in my power to bestow’, he remarked grimly.

A year after his death, Britain passed the 1807 Slave Trade Act, which abolished the trade of slaves (but not yet slavery itself). Over the following decades, the mouth of the Gambia was bolstered with a gun battery and a fort to enforce the law. But these buildings, like the work of the African Association, fit into a larger pattern of increasing European involvement in Africa, one that would lead to the near-total colonisation of the continent in the early twentieth century.

Today The Gambia, once the western edge of the Empire that brought immense wealth to Mansa Musa, is Africa’s smallest nation state. Its borders, negotiated between Britain and France in the late nineteenth century, track only a few miles each side of its precious river, slipping like a dagger into surrounding Senegal.


Boats on the Gambia, by tjabeljan. Cropped. Creative Commons.

Precisely 200 years after Park first landed at the Gambia, the BBC broadcast Africa I Remember. In the film, Jegede returns to visit the Griot who taught him as a child, only now with his sister Maya, who, breaking the tradition of the kora as a male domain, was learning to play it herself.

As the Griot goes into a recitative about Mandinka ancestry, Jegede notes that ‘this is what makes the history a living history. It’s not used in the past tense’. Today, Jegede is just one of many musicians who have brought this Griot tradition to international attention, while finding fresh streams for the sound of the kora in jazz, classical and folk music.

‘I think my quest for African classical music really stems back to the first journey I that made to The Gambia’, he says, ‘because it was there that I got an understanding of my inner self, or my inner voice. And it’s that voice I’ve followed which has led me to this idiom, and redefining it, and the need to redefine it. It’s almost like that’s my way of paying back what I’ve received’.

He tells of how the slave trade was made more real for him when he visited James Island, once the last stop for slaves before their departure from the Gambia. It has since been renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, after the protagonist of Roots, Alex Haley’s hugely popular novel centred on the Gambian slave trade. Park’s travelogue would not be the last bestselling story to emerge from this river.

Walking along the island beach, Jegede described how beads worn by enslaved Africans are still washed ashore to this day. On his first visit, he found one of these beads. Tourists would often take them home – artefacts of a cultural identity left behind, a humanity stripped away.

But Jegede could not. ‘I felt that since that was the last piece of them, if you like, to remain in Africa, the bead that I found I had to pass back into the sea’.

All my blog posts are powered by caffeine. A cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.

Eric Charry’s ‘Mande Music’ is available from University Of Chicago Press