Out of Africa: GSO musician takes up the kora

by Daniel Bayer

Most musicians can remember the first time they heard the tunes and melodies that would become their life’s passion. For many it’s the beginning of a journey that leads them to seek out the roots of the music that turned them on: attending jazz, blues or ethnic music festivals; searching out obscure recordings by unknown pioneers or tracking down the same model of instrument used by their heroes. For Greensboro resident Will Ridenour the moment that journey began remains crystal clear seven years later.

‘“I used to work at Talking Drums [on Spring Garden Street], owned by Sandy Blocker,’” says the 29-year-old Ridenour. ‘“He had brought a kora back from West Africa. He played it for a while and then he put it down and it started collecting dust in his office. I was over there one day and started plucking around on it and I thought it was really beautiful. I remember everything about that moment. That was probably in 1999. It just struck me as the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.’”

The kora is a 21-string, harp-like instrument from West Africa. It’s constructed from a large gourd, or calabash, that’s cut in half, hollowed out and left to harden. A wet cowhide is then stretched across it, held in place with upholstery tacks and allowed to dry. A limb serves as a neck with the strings held in place by leather bands. The musician plays it by plucking the strings with his fingers and thumbs.

‘“I’ve been playing a drum set for about thirteen years,’” says Ridenour, who plays drums with Greensboro indie rock band Dawn Chorus, as well as the samba-based percussion group Cakalak Thunder. ‘“That’s been my main thing. I’ve fiddled around with guitar a little bit, but I decided not to take it up. I felt like I had a melodic voice that needed to be expressed, and when I was introduced to the kora I knew that would be the voice.’”

After initially taking kora lessons from African immigrants in Greensboro, Ridenour went to where the instrument originated to learn more.

‘“I went to Africa for six weeks in January, February and March of 2003,’” says Ridenour. ‘“The first three weeks I spent in Senegal, the second three weeks I spent in Mali, so I learned two different styles. When I was there I took private lessons from teachers I found or were found by a friend of mine for me. I learned more there than I learned in the previous four years before that.’”

In Africa the kora is more than just a musical instrument, says Ridenour.

‘“It’s played by a caste of people called jelis, or jalis. The French had a term for it: griot. Those three terms mean the same thing, depending on where you’re from. The people are born into it, and they take on the responsibility of passing knowledge from generation to generation, whether it be about your family’s history, or your ancestors, or a great story about something somebody did somewhere.

‘“The people who play this instrument are like walking libraries,’” says Ridenour. ‘“They’re oral historians and musicians and storytellers. They have a very important role in society. They don’t work for anybody; they don’t have a paycheck coming in. They go to parties, play and sing for the people there, and get paid in cash.’”

In Africa, most kora players sing, or accompany someone who does. Ridenour, however, performs as an instrumentalist.

‘“I don’t really sing because I don’t think of myself as a singer. I can sing the songs that I play [on the kora], but I don’t really perform as a singer. I’d like to get better before I subject people to that,’” he says, chuckling.

Ridenour’s experiences in Africa included more than just learning how to play the kora.

‘“I also studied the djembe, which is a specific drum from West Africa. I learned how to make food and tea. Just being there you learn a lot, even if you don’t have a specific focus.

‘“In Senegal I lived with a family outside of the capital, Dakar. There are a lot of stereotypes that aren’t true about West Africa. The people I met were amazingly nice, amazingly hospitable,’” says Ridenour. ‘“They took care of themselves very well. Everybody I met had a lot more hardships than I do in life and it made me realize how privileged I am. It made me think about a lot of things that I take for granted about my life here in America. People there are just trying to eat and be happy, just like what people here are doing. They’re doing the same thing over there, just trying to do it in a different way.’”

Ridenour recently recorded a CD of kora music at a friend’s studio.

‘“I wanted something to give to places to help me get gigs. People have just been asking for recordings ever since I began playing out [on the kora]. I don’t play out that much so I wanted to have something for them,’” he says.

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