Saturday, February 19, 2011

Grammy winner's surprising monastic past


Kora master Toumani Diabaté won a Grammy for his new album recorded with the late Malian blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure and there is a surprising link between the photo above and his award winning Ali and Toumani CD. I took all the photos accompanying this article at the Dominican Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort in Brittany, France and in the centre of the photo above is a kora. But the kora is not there for a concert, it is an integral part of the liturgy celebrated at Beaufort by the Dominican Sisters.


There is a tradition of the kora accompanying the Holy Offices of the Catholic Church which dates back to 1963. In that year the Abbey of Solesmes in France, which is a centre of Gregorian chant scholarship, founded the sister Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa in Sénégal in west Africa. In the absence of the usual organ and in the light of Vatican II's contemporaneous exhortation to embrace the vernacular, the kora was introduced to accompany the liturgy at Keur Moussa and the monastery's choir master Brother Dominique Catta became the first Westerner to compose for the instrument.


The kora became an indispensable part of the liturgy at Keur Moussa and to make it more practical for everyday use the traditional leather tuning rings were first replaced by wooden pegs and then by metal guitar style tensioners as can be seen in this article. Instruments using the wooden tuning pegs are known as Keur Moussa koras and Toumani Diabaté is seen playing one on the cover of his best selling Mandé Variations CD, while the kora seen in my header photo at Notre-Dame de Beaufort is the more modern version using guitar mechanisms. Others have continued to update the traditional griot instrument and there is even an electric kora developed by Foday Musa Suso whose collaborators include Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock and the Kronos Quartet.


There are some excellent musical resources on the Keur Moussa French website including details of CDs and many audio samples which can be heard by clicking on the CD covers and there is a wonderful video here. The Monastery of Notre-Dame de Beaufort also has kora resources in French and own label CDs with audio samples again accessed by clicking on the album covers. Jacques Burtin, who studied with Brother Dominique Catta of Keur Moussa, is a notable French composer for the kora who has written dance and theatre pieces for the instrument and can be seen and heard in this video. His compositions, which number St John of the Cross and Hermann Hesse among their influences, embrace the spiritual and therapeutic and his contemplative 3 CD set Le Jour de Merveilles (Day of Miracles) is recommended.


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