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Sidikiba's Kora Lesson
Skinner, Ryan Thomas; Sidikiba's Kora Lesson. Edina, Minnesota: Beaver Pond Press, 2008. $25.00, ISBN 1592982425.

Note: "Ten-year-old Sidikiba is about to be initiated into the world of the kora, a twenty-one stringed West African harp performed by his family for seventy generations. To become a kora player, like his father and grandfather before him, Sidikiba must honor and respect the wisdom of his elders, trust in the mystical secrets of his community, and above all else, be patient and practice hard."-


Sidikiba's Kora Lesson provides a fictionalized account of how a young contemporary boy in Mali learns to play the kora, a 21 stringed musical instrument played in many West African countries. The story is illustrated by the author, Ryan Thomas Skinner, a musician and ethnomusicologist who has been researching music in Mali. The book comes with a CD of recordings played by Sidibi Diabaté, the musician who is the inspiration for the story. While this reviewer has some issues with the emphasis of the story, it is a worthwhile introduction to the important role of music in Mande societies of West Africa.

The book consists of three parts. The two-page "Preface" is dedicated to the description of the kora and its historical context in Mande culture (pp. iii- iv). Fifty-three pages, divided equally between text and color illustrations, are devoted to the story. A large type summary is provided for some of the story segments, making it accessible to younger readers. When actual musical pieces are described, a number references the track on the CD (in a plastic sleeve on the inside of the back cover) where that particular musical segment can be heard. And finally, a three-page "Glossary" provides definitions for twenty-two terms cited in the book.

In the opening pages of the story, we learn that ten-year old Sidibika is the son of a famous Mande kora player. He and his extended family live on the outskirts of Bamako, Mali in a house of stone and concrete with a spacious courtyard where family and friends gather for conversations and leisure and where chores are done. Sidibika goes to school, plays with his friends and does his homework. He is especially keen to improve his French, the official language of Mali. He wonders when he will learn to the play the kora, as his father, grandfather and others did before them, for seventy generations.

As the story unfolds, Sidibika quite unexpectedly receives a small kora as a gift from his father, who declares it is now time for him to learn to play the kora. Sidibika's uncle, a kora maker who made Sidikiba's instrument, teaches him how to tune and play it. We meet Sidikiba's grandfather, another famous player who recites a traditional prayer and introduces Sidibika to the first piece of music he has to learn. A marabout uses his esoteric knowledge to predict Sidikiba's future as fine kora player -- provided he practices. To assure Sidikiba's success, the marabout gives him a small protective charm to place inside his kora. Sidikiba's cousin, Amadu, a nimble kora player, impresses him with fast finger action. Sidibika learns that Amadu owes his skill to the teachings of his grandfather a kora maker and musician known to everyone as Nfa, a Bamana word meaning "my father." (Bamana is a major language spoken by some Mande groups). Nfa places incense on a pot of burning coals and instructs Sidibika to place his hands in the fragrant smoke. Nfa then recites traditional healing prayers, touches the kora and Sidikiba's hands. With practice, Sidibika improves and plays recognizable tunes. His elated mother accompanies him with her singing. The story ends with family and friends praising Sidikiba's accomplishment. Everyone joins in a celebration with an evening of music making and dance.

The two strongest features of this book are the interweaving of cultural context about the kora into the story and the music CD. The author ably conveys the process required to play the kora in Mande culture and he emphasizes the familial ties and musical knowledge passed down from generation to generation. The CD introduces young audiences to actual kora music through six selections that include historical as well as contemporary works.

There are several ways the book could have been improved. While the CD provides an important (and delightful) audio component, the story does not provide as much depth about the music itself, the technical aspects of playing the kora in mastering fingering, rhythms, harmonies, pacing, and innovations of becoming a master kora player. Clarification about the term "jeli" is also needed. "Jeli" is explained in the glossary but the author never introduces the term, "griot" which might be better known to American audiences. The story could have been further strengthened by developing the important historical role of the griot/jeli as performer and historian, dating to the origins of the Mali empire (ca. AD 800 - 1500) and by emphasizing the relevance of kora playing and its historic and cultural role in the Mali empire. Additionally, the marabout as part of West Africa's Islamic history, could have been woven into the story.

The kora is a uniquely West African instrument with its own tonalities and scales. The preface provides some descriptive, contextual and historical information about the instrument but it is scant. Moreover, when the author begins his discussion of the kora with "It is believed," he casts its history (and the Mali empire) within the realm of legend/myth, not unlike "once upon a time." There is enough research that can frame this discussion within a stronger historical context. The author might have provided a small diagram of the various parts of the kora and how the parts are played and manipulated. The map (iv) attempts to show the distribution and diffusion of the kora but it is not as effective as it could be. It should highlight the kora in Mali (past and present) rather than showing so much of the Sahara. Also the Kaabu kingdom, not empire, was part of the larger Mali empire, not independent of it.

The "Glossary" could have been expanded to include the alternative spellings of "Jeli" (Jali or Djele). Equally, "Sunjata," is also variously spelled as "Sundjata", "Sundiata" and "Son Jara." "Marabout" should be expanded to an understanding of this important figure as an Islamic scholar and teacher rather than simply "West African religious healer."

Given the current interest in World Music, references to the international status of kora players would have been beneficial. For example, Papa Susso, originally from the Gambia performed in the U.S. as did the late Djimo Kouyate, originally from Senegal. Foday Musa Suso from Gambia collaborated with Philip Glass to provide the music for Jean Genet's the Screens, the French playwright's last work. Web references for the curious reader to pursue would have been helpful. The Smithsonian, for example, provides sound tracks an extensive music archive at http://www.smithsonianglobalsound.org

Author Ryan Thomas Skinner provided all the illustrations for the book, including the black and white drawing within the drawing on page 17. They are colorful and rich in detail especially in handling textiles (frontispiece drawing), details of the kora, clothing worn by the characters in the story, architecture, furniture and the myriad objects found in the market and maraabout's room. However, the author's handling of some facial expressions, especially of Sidibika (ex. p. 13, 29, 51) and some postures ( ex. p. 25) are problematic. Although one can assume the author was illustrating surprise, concentration or delight, their rendering is flawed. The figures on page 53 verge on being caricatures.

Despite its flaws and omissions, Sidikiba's Kora Lesson is recommended. It a unique resource on the kora. The reviewer wishes to thank Dr. Tierno Bah, for his helpful and insightful comments.

Copyright ©2009 by Africa Access, all rights reserved. Africa Access permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and Africa Access Review. For any other proposed use, contact AfricaAccess@aol.com

Rating: HR Grade: P / E / M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Veronika Jenke

Subject: Mali / West Africa / Kora