In this article we are going to learn a little bit of West African music played on guitar.
The music from this part of Africa is played by the Jalis, also known as griots, although between you and me, they prefer to be referred as Jalis.
The Jalis are a type of people belonging to the Mandinka. They are and have always been the musicians and historians of their land. Yes, they are responsable for keeping the oral history of West Africa.
Jalis play many different instruments but the most well known and our reference when translating this music for the guitar is the kora.
The kora is a string instrument. Its sound is pretty much harp-like. Many ringing open strings kind of thing. Hence the best way to evoke this sound is by using guitar open tunings. And the best choices are E (EBEG#BE) or D (DADF#AD) open tuning.
E open tuning sounds best and even better when adding a capo on the first fret of your guitar. Many times Kora players tune their instruments to F hence the use of the E tuning with a capo.
Now not all guitars can put up with this tuning. It adds lots of tension to the neck which is not very good for some guitars but it also can make the guitar quite uncomfortable to play. This is due to the extra tension on the strings which makes it harder to fret.
So to be in the safe side and for everyone to be able to play the next exercises we are going to use the D tuning (DADF#AD) which is exactly the same as the E but a whole step lower.
If your guitar can not put up with the E tuning and you need to play with West African musicians playing in F you can always put a capo on the third fret using the D tuning.
You can hear plenty of examples of Kora music performed on guitar in my CD “Guitar & Music of West Africa”. There you will find many examples playing guitar in the African style for Jali singers, instrumentals, along with local traditional instruments like Kora, Balafon, Djembe, etc.
PLAYING WEST AFRICAN MUSIC ON GUITAR
The first example we are going to see is how to play the West African Tomora scale on guitar. Its name sounds very exotic even though we are only talking about a Dorian scale. But it is not what it is but what we make of it. This means that how we play these group of notes is what gives the right flavour when trying to sound West African on the guitar.
In many different world music traditions we can find the same scale or group of notes. The amazing thing is that many times it sounds very different when it is played by let’s say a West African Jali than by a North Indian Sitarwala.
Let’s see the notes of the Tomora scale. When plucking the notes try to use only thumb and index finger on your right hand. This will give more of a Kora flavor on the guitar since they only use these two fingers when plucking the strings on the Kora.
PARTS IN WEST AFRICAN MUSIC REVEALED FOR GUITAR
Now that you have your scale going on let’s see a few important parts when playing West African music on guitar.
Most of the music in this style has two main parts Kumbengo and Brimintingo.
Kumbengo is something like the bass line or an ostinato part that repeats over and over creating the base for melodies, improvisations, etc. On the guitar we will played always on the bass strings.
Let’s see a nice Kumbengo applied to guitar using the notes from the West African Tomora scale.
To this Kumbengo we just need to add a second part called Brimintingo. This Brimintingo can be a full melody, only a few notes and at times part of a full improvisation.
The Brimintingo we are playing now on guitar here is super simple, only three notes, but together with the Kumbengo becomes really funky, African style that is to say.
HOW TO PLAY A WEST AFRICAN TUNE ON GUITAR
And now let’s play on the guitar the beginning of a piece in Tomora scale called Fatoudiop.
Notice how we stablish the groove and after we start adding some extra melodic lines.
In this case it is a short phrase. You can try your own variations.
To these phrases we can add the melody or even full improvisations.
You can watch a short guitar version of Fatoudiop in this video, the full one is available in the CD “Guitar & Music of West Africa”.
If you would like to learn on guitar the full song or many West African songs, tricks, techniques, etc, all of it is available on my instructional book “LEARN GUITAR & MUSIC OF WEST AFRICA”.