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Symphony Of Koras- Sunjata

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Uploaded on Oct 21, 2010

Ashkenaz presents the East Bay premiere of Symphony of Koras, featuring an "orchestra" of musicians playing the kora, the 21-stringed West African harp. It is the only known kora orchestra in the United States, and its only previous concert was at small Mill Valley theater last year. The orchestra -- seven international kora players who live in the Bay Area -- includes Senegalese singer-dancer Ousseynou Kouyate in a two-part show, the first half a concert for listening, followed by the orchestra playing music for dancing.

The kora is traditionally a solo instrument played by a griot, and even in Africa groups of kora players are usually assembled only for large family or state events. Although several of the Symphony of Koras players have performed at Ashkenaz in various African and world groupings, they've never played in an all-kora ensemble.

Anthropologist, kora player, and director of the Symphony of Koras Suzanne Chevalier explains: "I had a djembe (drum) player from Africa here some years ago, and I wanted another instrument for accompaniment. I invited Daniel Berkman to play kora. When I returned to Gambia (Chevalier studies elephants there, and has also devoted time to collecting African sacred music), I began taking kora lessons." Three years ago at a local concert, Senegal native Solo Cissokho asked Chevalier to assemble an orchestra of the instruments for his next Bay Area visit. That led to the Mill Valley concert, where the audience gave an enthused standing ovation. And now, the Symphony of Koras plays at Ashkenaz.

The kora has a thousand-year history, beginning in the kingdom of Mali as the accompanying instrument for griots, musicians who preserve and sing the histories of their people. It is a classical instrument with a classical repertoire. There are 150 pieces that all kora players learn, and selections from that repertoire are what Symphony of Koras play together.

Ousseynou Kouyate was a member of the National Ballet of Senegal for seven years before moving to Berkeley with his twin brother Assane and starting their colorful music/dance band Djialy Kunda Kouyate (now known as Sekhou Senegal), using such indigenous instruments as the kora and balafon. Kouyate is a descendant of griots who carries on age-old traditions. He has performed in various world music collaborations at Ashkenaz with such musicians as fellow African star Solo Cissokho and Cajun-zydeco fiddler Tom Rigney. Last year he was featured in the African world dance band Makuru. www.sekhousenegal.com

Born in Gambia, raised in Mali, singer and kora master Karamo Susso grew up in a compound of griots, next door to Toumani Diabate. His uncle was Ballake Cissoko. Susso was playing kora and performing before he was big enough to hold the instrument. He has since gone on to perform with many of Africa's top stars. www.myspace.com/karamosusso

On her own, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and acupuncturist Unity Nguyen blends ancient Vietnamese and African folk traditions, interweaving them with jazz, funk, and other global influences. She specializes in the kora and the Vietnamese dan tranh (16-string zither). www.unityhealinghands.com

San Franciscan Daniel Berkman studied kora while a member of Djialy Kunda Kouyate and began exploring the use of electronics with the instrument to create what he calls "21st century Ambient African Kora." Steve Pile is an American-folk-blues singer-songwriter and guitarist who has also worked with and recorded kora players here and in Gambia. Gordon Hellegers studied with Madou Sidike Diabate and accompanies him in concerts. He built his own kora while traveling in Mali. Joshua Caraco is the newest convert to playing kora.

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