Jali Fily Cissokho - colloquially known as Fily - is one of the most renowned kora players to emerge from Senegal. He comes from a blood line of Mandinka griots, a social group who use music to ensure that the cultural history of the Mande people is passed on to the next generation. I saw him play last weekend atWychwood Music Festival.
After several minutes of plucking each string, turning the corresponding key on the neck of his kora and then re-plucking (sometimes he turns to the keyboard player for an assisting note), Jali Fily Cissokho's tuning session evolves into a song. The drummer, bassist and keyboard player are now passive observers. I am amazed by the speed of Fily's thumbs. His kora is nestled between his crossed legs, fingers spread motionless over the central calabash. His thumbs, however, seem to posses an impossible level of agility. When he sings he does so in a beautiful, soaring voice that meets the pitch of his instrument. Elevated in a beam of light from the high roof of the festival tent, Fily looks and sounds just like an angel.
"The kora is very popular in West Africa," says Fily afterwards. We're sitting backstage, accompanied by two members of the Coute Diomboulou Band: Alioune Samb (keyboards) and Ame Diange (drums). "It's the one instrument that everybody loves. It's like an African equivalent of a harp, but with 22 strings."
"…Although the way we play it, rhythmically, it's more of an accompaniment," adds Diange. "The harp is more mellow."
"It has a long traditional history in West Africa," says Samb.
So this is a griot family tradition?
Fily : Yes. kora griot music is unique to my family. The kora provides the bass, the beat and the rhythm all in one, and we provide music for baptisms, weddings and birthday parties. My father would play for the king or president with a kora. It was my father's job to do this, and my father's father before him.
Do you have to be a musician in the griot family?
Samb : I believe so. It's in our blood.
Fily : The whole family are musicians. The sisters they are singing; sometimes they also play the kora.
And if you're not griot? Can you still have a social role as a musician?
Diange : Anyone can play the kora, but the way you play it comes naturally. If you're born with it - from your parents and your family playing the instrument- then it comes very easily because it's in your blood.
I noticed how long it took to tune before every song.
Fili : Yes, and I have to apologise to the crowd sometimes because the tuning takes so long! It's very complicated to tune 22 strings. The weather affects how it sounds also … when it rains it gets very confusing. The kora I was playing earlier is not a traditional one though - it has keys [on the neck] to make the tuning easier. I have a picture of a traditional one:
(Fily gets out his phone and shows me a picture)
All this [the base] is cow skin, and the calabash is lined with cow skin also. This is an original one, so you have to push these [a series of leather rings at the top of the neck] up and down to tune. Up down, up down; it's often very slippery, and this makes tuning very difficult. The strings here are made from fishing line. My ancestors would use cow skin for the string also, but now everything is changing. The kora is becoming well known outside of Senegal, and this is changing how the instruments are manufactured.
And the new album?
Fily : The new album is a mixture of old and new songs. Some are traditional but with my personal compositions, and others incorporate Western style drums and keyboards.
Diange : The drums on the album are a mixture of traditional African rhythms - mostly using djembe and talking drum - so it's a bit different. Not quite a western style drumkit.
Jali Fily Cissokho's music - both as a solo artist and with the Coute Diomboulou Band - is available to buy and download atKaira Arts. Last year he collaborated with the Bollywood composer Ar Rahman for the film Raavan.