We refer to ourselves as the kora specialists because we deal solely with the kora.
We have developed and changed our koras since the first official Kora Workshop one we made in 2007. Since then they have evolved using different woods and finishes, improved string spacings, a variety of skins and sources, advanced building techniques and subtle refinements. We have dedicated years to producing the very best instruments and are justifiably proud of their quality and of our reputation.
Our range of koras are now priced from 800 to over 2000 euros. However, we have always tried to ensure that good quality affordable koras are available. As the cost of our own koras has risen due to the level of time and expertise dedicated to each one, we have searched for a way to produce an entry-level kora for lower budgets. To achieve this we are starting the Project Kora 200 which is a completely separate co-operative business, with members in Senegal, France and the UK.
Below is information about the materials we use, a little of our kora-making history and future developments
We use four types of timber, though have accepted commissions to make koras from other woods, eg. Ash . We will only work with timber that we believe to be from a sustainable source.
Sapele has for a long time been the basis of our standard koras. It is a good, sustainable and readily available hardwood. It works well and with the right finish, it is beautiful. All timbers vary from tree to tree in terms of grain and colour and Sapele is no exception.
Walnut is a relatively new timber for us but we are keen to use more of it as it works and finishes beautifully. It is a good local-sourced alternative to Sapele as it is plentiful at our French base, in the Midi-Pyrénées. The colour varies very widely from a light coffee brown through to a dark chocolate. When we find particularly darker pieces or pieces with especially good figuring, we reserve them, making them available for the Dark Walnut Kora. In terms of sound quality, we’re really pleased with the tone; it provides a good step up from the Standard Kora without the expense and weight of Bubinga.
Bubinga is a harder and heavier wood than either of the above and is more difficult to buy from sources where the origins are known. Its beauty lies in the cross-graining as well as it’s colour, but it is much harder to work with as it blunts blades easily, hence it is more expensive. The rewards are certainly worth it, as the combination of Bubinga with a UK fresh deerskin is not only aesthetically beautiful, but for a long time produced our best-sounding koras (now Keno, see below). It is hard to describe why, apart from the tone itself, which subtly has more complexity and richness. These koras seem to play back to the player, making it feel easier to play for longer periods and on some level, more enjoyable. Of course this is coming from people who literally live and breathe kora, hearing and playing it every day so we do notice minute differences…
Keno is a Mandinka name, and it is a traditional ‘tone wood’ of West Africa. It produces a beautifully complex sound, of a similar quality to that of our Bubinga koras, but perhaps a good description would be as lighter and finer tone. It has striking graining and with a colour that varies even within the same tree giving each kora a very different character. Our Keno koras are the pinnacle of Adam’s skill as a kora maker and we are very proud of them.
Keno is the wood traditionally used for koras in West Africa but it is not grown commercially, or as far as we know, imported to Europe. We only import it ourselves directly because we know the source. It is plentiful and easily identified when flowering by it’s profusion of yellow flowers, much loved by bees. The tree often seems to be humming to itself. We have very many keno trees on our land in Kafountine, Senegal (about 16 visible from our rooftop garden alone) and we are nurturing them to ensure we have a plentiful supply for the future. In the rainy season of 2014 a very large keno came down on our land and we have been able to follow from tree through to instrument. This makes them very special and we are currently using this limited stock.
Most of our koras are made using fresh deer skins from Manor Farm in Brockley, south of Bristol in the UK. We have worked with Julian Ridge for several years now and use all the deerskins he produces (we can also recommend the venison!). Adam soaks the skin for days and de-hairs them himself, so we are completely in control of the process. We also use skins from a specialist supplier in France.
The Project Kora 200 uses a strong European goat skin. This is very different from the goat skin used in West Africa which are definitely only suitable for drum heads. We have been delighted with the quality of these skins, and as they available in larger quantities ready-prepared, it is making it possible for these koras to be produced in larger numbers and at a more affordable price.
This part of the kora body has always presented us with a challenge as you’ll tell from the history below. Fortunately we now have found David Thille of La Case a Gourdes in France. He works with a wide range of growers across the world and we are able to go and choose our calabashes from a wide selection as well as work with him to ensure he knows what we are looking for in a calabash. David is just as obsessed with gourds in all their forms as we are with koras.
Adam began repairing koras many years ago, making small koras with his children when they were young, and generally exploring the instrument from every angle.
Initially when making The Kora Workshop koras, we bought the bodies from our friend and colleague Aliou Gassama in Ziguinchor, Senegal. We and others believe him to one of the best kora makers in West Africa. Adam and Aliou have worked together for many years, supporting each other and teaching other different skills. This culminated in a project with the WOMAD Foundation in 2014 when Aliou came to the UK to work, touring schools with us and making a kora on site at the WOMAD festival.
Although many decades ago, koras in West Africa would have been made using bushbuck; fortunately for its diminishing population, cow skin became more available as the society changed and kora makers switched. As our business developed and orders increased, the limited supply of good quality cow-skins in Senegal became a problem and it was difficult to meet our demand. So Adam started to experiment with deerskin in the UK, as from bitter experience he knows that using cow skins in the UK was not a pleasant or feasible option for quality kora bodies.
When we started making our own kora bodies in the UK, sourcing calabashes proved to be rather difficult to put it mildly. Aliou initially sourced us wonderful, large calabashes he hand-picked himself in the market in Ziguinchor, once the large ones came in each year from Mali. But getting to the UK was not an easy ride, and we once received a parcel of 10 beautiful calabashes sent direct from Ziguinchor, only 1 of which was unscathed, the rest either completely in pieces or severely cracked.
For a few years our guardian and gardener in Kafountine used to return to his family in Mali and come back with a batch of 40 large calabashes. We then had to filter out the ones that were not suitable (he was a gardener, not a kora maker!) which sadly tended to be over a quarter of them. Then we had to face the challenge again of getting them to the UK, with some coming back with us on the plane (if anyone spotted people at Gatwick with what looked like giant green foam tomatoes, it was us) and some by sea in a shared container to London.
Now life is a little simpler, and when we are in France we are able to choose from a large selection and drive them back to the workshop, though we do still find ourselves with strange packages, such as blocks of frozen deer skins in the boot!
The Kora Workshop is constantly looking at ways of developing and making more accessible, this amazing instrument. The kora is not yet recognised as one of the greatest achievements in the music world, which indeed it is. It is a fantastic piece of ergonomic design which allows even beginners to sit and play comfortably for ours on end. Any future design developments would need to incorporate those same elements; it should not be necessary for a kora player’s style or playing position to change in any way to accommodate any new ‘improvements’. These were fundamental considerations when designing the Solid Bodied Electric Kora, and would also essential during the development of a true midi-kora – an expensive project that will need backing or sponsorship to be able to proceed – any offers?!