My most recent release with Yacouba Sissoko, KoraNYC was a intense journey of doubt, fears, and listening — to the complexities of this rich melodic instrument, the Kora. This production got to a point where I was ready to give up. This is my experience with working with this historic instrument, my struggles with the production, and the tools I used to solve them.
Since my introduction to the rich and ancient history of the Kora and it’s vital role among Malian society, I’ve always wanted to work with this beautiful instrument. I have been blessed to work with Yacouba Sissoko, a Malian musician who’s musical heritage is apart of a well-known djely family. “Djelys are the musical storytellers in West Africa, a position that is inherited through a family bloodline. For centuries they have been the keepers of the factual history and the fictional fables of past rulers, nobles, social groups and families. Highly respected within their communities, djelys are responsible for keeping stories of the past alive and applicable to contemporary audiences. The kora was the traditional instrument that djelys played as the accompaniment to their songs” (yacoubasissoko.com.)
Of my many musical friends I’ve shared this vision with, one of them was Lamin Fofana, former member of Dutty Artz and co-founder of techno label, Sci-fi and Fantasy. Lamin, a native of Sierra Leon, warned me that this project may not be as easy as I imagined. Little did I know the challenges I was going to face.
The Kora in a traditional sense, where it is performed solo or with voice, plays a central role. It has the ability to occupy bass, harmony and melody almost simultaneously. Prior to recording the kora, I’ve listened to this instrument from a distance, just taking in its beauty and not really thinking about whats happening musically. It wasn’t until I incorporated it into a four on the floorish rhythm with a big boomy sub-bass that this instrument started to unravel some very challenging obstacles. Through these challenges I began to really understand this instrument and realize that, at least from my experience, I was forcing this instrument into an area that clashes a bit; 120-125bpm, dense rhythm that doesn’t have that much space.
The melodic nature of the kora was fighting the busy beat I created, so I had to turn to the audio effect known as the gate, which is a fantastic tool for reshaping the rhythm of any element according to a drum pattern. In the first track off the EP “Soubaro Maloya”, I wanted the kora to be tighter with the beat. During the recording session with Yacouba, we did several takes with me asking him to hug the beat more, by playing more staccato/short, however, after 3-4 takes I realized this was not going to happen. I think part of the failure to achieving this bond between the kora and my rhythm had to do with the nature of the kora, and suddenly I was forcing it into a space that it shouldn’t be in. If you listen closely to “Soubaro Maloya” you will notice the kora is very tight with the drum beat. Prior to using the gate, in which I placed on the kora and routed the sidehain to my drum beat, the kora was sitting on top of the rhythm unnaturally. This helped tuck the kora in to the mix and make it more playful with the beat.
When it came to the second track off the EP, “Auto Rail”, we have a bit more space, which is why the kora can speak freely as its meant to be. The issue here was the clashing of Yacouba’s beautiful bass accompainment to his melodic performance. His bass line was so tight, and at first I had a hard time really hearing it because of how married the bass was to his melodic performance. At first his bass was clashing with my bass, of course the simple solution is just throwing on a hi-pass filter and scooping out the lows. But to finally settle on this simple solution, I had to explore all possibilities. I really wanted to keep his rich bass line that so naturally follows his melody, to the point that I had Yacouba come back for another session just to record the bass; I wanted it isolated for mixing purposes. Once I started to highlight his bass more, it started to change the nature of the track. It took it in a direction I did not want to take it in. Music is like a puzzle, once you start changing one piece everything then needs to be reshaped around this piece.
The initial inspiration for the bass in this track was to keep a very simple, sub kick role, where its more of a feeling rather than playing a central role. After hearing Yacouaba’s bass, which was more complex, I tried to incorporate it into the piece, but it changed the nature of the track. Switching back to the original bass line I battled with trying to make it more complex, explored different tonalities of filter square waves to subtle FM sounds. At the end I returned to the simple bass line I originally had. Even Yacouba suggested keeping it during the second recording session where I wanted to just record his bass part. My recapping of this struggle does no justice to the reality of this emotional journey. The amount of doubt and fear this created, to the point where I wanted to give up. The moral of the story, as most, keeping shit simple usually is the way to go. Regardless of my struggle, doubt and fear, I decided to move forward with the track, scooped out his bass part in order to shine light on just the melodic aspect.
Creating music is an emotional journey, sometimes music just does not make any sense, especially when you over work a track. Yes, there are times you just need to let go of a track, and there are times you need to just give some space. These two tracks pushed me to the edge where I thought they were garbage, to a point where I was going to deny their entry to the world. It was tough. Those close to me were their to take on that energy and saw my struggle. Even though I was close to letting go, I decided not to, my last straw was sending them over to Boima to here his thoughts. His response helped attenuate my doubts. I am so grateful for this experience, for this journey, for working with Yacouba, and gaining a new preparative on this beautiful instrument that is rooted in centuries of tradition. It’s quite possible that the nature of this instrument is what lead to these challenges. Trying to take something so ancient, and work with in a contemporary way. I know there is a large repotoire of the kora being incorporated in jazz, reggae, classical, pop, rock…. This was my experience trying to take this instrument and mix into a contemporary electronic style of music.