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Traditional instruments

The Kora

The kora is a West African stringed instrument, related to but very different from the harp and lute. Most koras have 21 strings, but the Southern Senegalese version that Seckou uses can have as many as 25 strings. His own instruments has 22 strings.

There are four basic traditional tunings which are linked to the different regions in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali where the kora is played. Each region has its own distinct tuning and usually a kora player only works with his own regional tunings. But that is slowly changing now. Seckou learnt all 4 tunings quite early on and felt at home with them.

The first time he experimented was by accident when recording his debut album on the song Tamala. He was looking after his daughter and made a mistake in the tuning of the song…  And it just felt right so he adjusted and developed it till it sounded right. He continued developing new tunings. HIs approach has been to put all 4 tunings together in the same instrument, so while still rooted in tradition, the sound is quite different to what people are used to hearing, and the range of material he can perform is greatly extended.

With the new tunings, he is able to take songs from all the main traditions and play them all on the same instrument. He can also more easily tune up or down, and modify the sound while playing. This is necessary when playing in a more improvised way, responding to other musicians around you, as he does in the band. He uses the traditional kora to create new material, so it’s important that he stays rooted in the traditions, but can put his own interpretation into them.

The kora is traditionally tuned by tightening rings of leather and animal skin rather than with the pegs commonly used for guitars, but he uses two very different instruments in performance, a traditional ‘ring’ version that tends to drift out of tune a lot. Constantly adjusting the tuning becomes part of the performance. But it has an amazing sound. He also uses a modified, updated version that is tuned with pegs. Nowadays, many kora players use pegs as it just makes the performance easier and allows you to concentrate on the songs rather than the tuning!

In 2003 he asked his cousin Aliou Gassama, who makes the most extraordinary koras, to create a double neck one for him to see if he could push things even further… And he did! He created the first ever most beautiful double kora which Seckou uses in his concerts whenever possible (i.e. when it is possible to travel with such a large instrument!).  he has created a few songs on this one including Chelima. Aliou has been asked to make a few other double koras since Seckou's!

"If you are interested in having a kora made for you, I would strongly recommend my cousin." You can contact him here.

The Djembe

The djembe is a Mande drum, one of the most common instruments found across West Africa. It’s widely believed that the djembe has its origins with a class of Mandinka/Susu blacksmiths known as Numu. Its thought that the spread of the djembe in West Africa may be due to Numu migrations dating from the first millennium A.D. Despite these associations, there do not appear to be any hereditary restrictions on who can play the djembe, as does occur with some other African instruments.


The djembe first made an impact outside West Africa in 1940s Paris. Through the 50s and 60s,  interest in African drumming grew across Europe, as the idea of a ‘national ballet’ developed. Traditional African dance and drumming was being adapted to the western stage with huge success. ‘Les Ballets Africains’ featuring a young Papa Ladji Camara and led by Fodeba Keita of Guinea was part of this movement. The djembe soon became very popular in drum circles all around the world.


In its proper context, the djembe is played in an ensemble along with the “dunun” drum (dununba, sangban, kenkeni), and bells. Individuals play different parts that lace together intricately to weave a delicate rhythmic tapestry. Djembe and dunun drummers often accompany dancers; a lead djembe player, or soloist, plays rhythms which align with the dancer’s movements as they make them, and their playing will signal changes in the dance steps, as well as the beginning and end of a piece.

Traditionally crafted djembe drums are carved in one single piece from hollowed out hardwood trees. Specific types of wood depend upon the forests accessible to the drum makers. Some West African hardwoods used for musician quality instruments (carved in Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Ivory Coast) include dimba (bush mango), lenge, bois rouge, acajou, iroko, hare or khadi, and dugura.

Master drummers such as Mamady Keita and Famodou Konate have substancially contributed to make djembe rhythms known and popular around the world.




A Dunun (also known as dundun, doundoun, or djun-djun) is the generic name for a family of West African bass drums that developed alongside the djembe in the Mande drum ensemble.


The dunun is a double-headed, cylindrical drum typically with a wooden shell (although metal and fibreglass shells exist) and cowhide heads (although, some have goat-skin heads). The heads are held on with rope and often steel rings.


There are two primary playing styles for dunduns. The traditional style has each player using a single drum resting on its side, either on the floor or on a stand, and striking the head with one stick and a bell mounted on top with the other. A melody is created across the interplay of the three dununs. For the other style, known as ballet style as it is used in the National Ballets, one player has command of the three dununs standing on the floor. Playing like this allows a more complex arrangement for the dance.


Methods of playing the dunun vary across West Africa. In Mali it is sometimes played with just one dunun and a bell held in the hand. In some regions of Guinea it’s played with no bells at all or two dununs are played. In Hamanah they play three dununs and bells. The influence of Mamady Keïta, Famoudou Konaté, Mohamed Diaby, Bolokada Conde, and others from Guinea have contributed to the spreading of the three dunun style of playing.

Note: some text borrowed from Wilkipedia here!




The Tama or talking drum is a West African drum whose pitch can be regulated to the extent that it is said the drum “talks”. The player puts the drum under one arm and beats the instrument with a stick. A talking drum player raises or lowers the pitch by squeezing or releasing the drum’s strings with the upper arm. This can produce highly informative sounds to convey complicated messages. The ability to change the drum’s pitch is analogous to the language tonality of some African languages


Talking drums are one the oldest instruments used by West African griots and their history can be traced back to the ancient empire in Ghana. The Hausa people (and by influence, the Yoruba people of southern Nigeria and Benin and the Dagomba of northern Ghana) have developed a highly sophisticated genre of griot music centering on the talking drum.


In the 20th century the talking drum became a part of popular music in West Africa. It is used in playing the Mbalax music of Senegal and in Fuji and Jùjú music of Nigeria (where it known as a dundun, not to be confused with the dundun bass drum of the Mandé peoples.) Among the Wolof people of Senegal, the talking drum (known as a tama) is an hour-glass shaped drum with two heads of goat, lizard, iguana or fish skin, tuned by tightening the strings that connect one end of the drum to the other.


Note: some text borrowed from Wilkipedia here!




The calabash is a vine grown for its fruit, which can either be harvested young and used as a vegetable or harvested mature, dried, and used as a bottle, utensil, or pipe. For this reason, one of the calabash sub-species is known as the bottle gourd. The fresh fruit has a light green smooth skin and a white flesh and was one of the first cultivated plants in the world, grown not for food but as a container.


Hollowed out and dried calabashes are a typical utensil in households across West Africa. They are used to clean rice, carry water and also just as a food container. Smaller sizes are used as bowls to drink palm-wine. Calabashes are used by some musicians in making the kora (a harp-lute), xalam (a lute), and the goje (a traditional fiddle). They also serve as resonators on the balafon (West African marimba). The calabash is also used in making the Shegureh (Women’s Rattle) and Balangi (a Sierra Leonean type of balafon) musical instruments. Sometimes, large calabashes are simply hollowed, dried and used as percussion instruments, especially by Fulani, Songhai, Gur-speaking and Hausa peoples.


Seckou started using Calabash drum in his music in 2004. Surahata Susso has developed a unique style of playing and complement this incredible deep drum sound with hi-hat, cympbals, bongo.

Note: some text borrowed from Wilkipedia here!




The sabar is a traditional drum from Senegal. It is generally played with one hand and a stick. Among its most renowned exponents is the Senegalese musician Doudou N’Diaye Rose. It has also been made popular with Mbalax rhythms from pop music in Senegal, notably with musician like Youssou N’Dour or Omar Pene. The Sabar is usually played with the Tchol, which has a deep base sound and the Tama.


The Sabar was originally used as a way to transmit messages from one village to another. The different rhythms correspond to phrases and could be heard for over 15 kilometers.





The Seourouba is a set of 3 drums and is very specific to certain part of the Mande Culture. It is a very popular drum in Casamance where Seckou isfrom. Similar to Sabar, it is played using your hand and a stick and also using a wistle.

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