My kora journey, part one: Jarabi

My kora journey, part one: Jarabi

Jarabi is a traditional love song of the Mandinka people of West Africa. It was the first song I learnt to play on the kora, and the one that got me hooked. Here’s how I got started on my journey in learning to play this beautiful instrument...

It was a wet and windy Sunday afternoon at Shambala festival in 2015. I was sheltered in my van, looking through the programme for which acts to go and see that evening. I saw a listing for a kora-playing workshop over on the other side of the festival in the healing fields. It started in only 20 minutes. Something inside me clicked and I knew I had to be there. It must have been the memories of being obsessed with Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra album a few years previously. Or perhaps it was listening to Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch at Shambala the year or two before. I grabbed my coat and boots, and quickly walked down to the workshop tent, arriving just in time to get a spot.

The workshop was being led by Josh Doughty. He showed us the basic thumb accompaniment pattern to Jarabi. It felt instantly familiar. I’d heard and played a similar rhythm many times in my explorations of Spanish and Latin music. The instrument was so comfortable to play and I felt right at home. Within five minutes I knew I had to learn to play this instrument properly. Josh told me his dad makes koras, and if I was quick he may be able to make me one before he left Europe to spend the Winter in Senegal. I placed my order the next day.

It took around 6 weeks for my new instrument to arrive, in which time I’d redicovered my obsession with Toumani's kora playing, as well as discovering many other amazing kora players around the world. Through a combination of skype lessons and catching Josh on an occasional Bristol visit, I learnt a few variations of the Jarabi theme and obsessively practiced until I could play the patterns smoothly. It took me back to my early days of playing guitar when I’d spend hours on end practicing at every opportunity.

This video is my best version of Jarabi after 4 years of playing. I’ll continue to improve it in the future as it will always be a very special song for me. Huge credit to Josh for showing me most of these patterns, and to Toumani Diabaté for inspiring both of us with his playing.

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