While darting one morning from New Orleans’ Treme District into the French Quarter, a shimmering strain of strings caught my attention. The melody cascaded over light percussion and drifted down Pirate’s Alley like an uplifting scent of courtyard jasmine. From there, it reverberated off the walls of the Cabildo. I zig-zagged, veered off track and pursued of the sound until I landed in the heart of Jackson Square, where I discovered the music of Buku Broux. Jonah Tobias, who plays the kora using pedal effects, was performing with one of his other band mates, Brazilian percussionist Fernando Lima.
In case you’ve not ever encountered the kora before, it is an unusual-looking 21-string, long-necked, lute-harp type of instrument that originates from West Africa. Its skinny neck is attached to a large body made from a bottle gourd and the body is covered with a taut leather soundboard. Similar to a guitar, the strings pass over a notched bridge. Unlike a guitar, its performer anchors a couple fingertips around stick-shaped grips affixed to the top the gourd and then uses his thumbs and forefingers to pluck the strings to deliver a uniquely ethereal sound. Two of its most well known players are Toumani Diabate and the French film composer and kora pedagogue, Jacques Burtin. I haven’t ever seen anyone using a kora wired with effects pedals before. Here’s the low-res iphone video taken that morning, one that compelled me to track down Tobias to learn more about his eclectic group.
“The other day I was playing Phil a new song with my harp levers tuned to a blues scale, and he improvised a mysterious moody middle eastern kind of riff out of nowhere. Like Fernando, he demonstrates straight creativity and he hits it in the same register as the kora. Our instruments are like cousins, harmonious. Now it’s different with our violinist, Adrian Jusdanis,” Tobias says.
“In fact, it was Adrian who got me into using effects pedals,” Tobias says. “Trying to keep up with him is not an easy thing to do. Adrian plays violin using both looping and effects. Because the kora inherently allows you to play multiple parts at once, I focused exclusively on developing the sound effects.
“When I play on songs that Adrian has written, I use a Digitech Whammy Pedal and a Voodoo Lab Wahzoo. The Voodoo Labs Wahzoo was the only wah-pedal I found that wouldn’t buzz. I’ll also mess around with a B9 and a Line 6 delay and an OCD for distortion On my own music, there are really only three pedals I use consistently and feel like telling the world about,” Tobias says. “The first two are Strymon. More than half of my effects come from the Big Sky reverb pedal. Its so special. It has a big beautiful rich sound that’s almost an oceanic version of distortion for how it thickens and trails my notes and adds to the fullness of sound. I use it for the rising action and climax of a melody. First I start with a clean signal, then I add just a bit of that thickening sound. From there, I punch it up much higher, and it’s like calling in the ocean of reverb to pound my notes into the stratosphere. Its beautiful. Nothing else compares. I also use the Strymon Timeline and Harmonix Superego. I use it to freeze a chord like a ringing organ and it can either add emphasis or wash out the rhythm with a fulsome sustain.
Tobias, who is originally from Rhode Island, spent some time living in Florida and California before he settled in New Orleans. “I have felt so different in each place I’ve lived and it feels as if the me, who I currently am, has lived only in New Orleans,” he says.
Tobias fell into playing the kora after first hearing the instrument in 2009, at a music festival in Oregon called “The Mystic Garden Party.”
“It was kind of a magical story,” he says. “I was in a transitional, explorative period of my life at the time, traveling with some friends after a big group collective project I’d participated in had fallen apart. That morning I dropped by a luthier’s booth to try out some interesting guitars, steels and resonators. I was fiddling around with one and the builder asked me if I played. I told him I did, sort of, but it never felt exactly right for me.
‘Go listen to the guy onstage,’ he told me. I had walked by the stage already and had initially dismissed the music because it sounded kind of New Age and foofy. But the luthier was insistent so I made the effort to push my way up to the front. The performer was Youssoupha Sidibe, a kora player from Senegal, who plays with Charles Neville at times.
“Its hard for me to describe what it was like being at that concert. It tore me up completely and overwhelmed me,” Tobias says. “The music he was playing just seemed so much bigger than anything I’d ever heard. And I realized it then and there how incredibly strange this was, because it felt like a scene from a movie or some old story unfolding. This instrument was calling to me to play it. I had no doubt about that. It was a strange, amazingly beautiful moment and I felt exceedingly lucky.”
“I sneaked backstage to find Youssoupha and asked to be the Karate Kid to his master, Miyagi. He told me that he only played true, “Every note I play, I mean.” I returned to the luthier afterward and–wouldn’t you know it—he turned out to be Michael Schraud, one of only a handful of kora builders in the country. The very next day I convinced a friend to lend me $1,300 and I began to learn how to play a kora.”
It wasn’t long before Tobias saved up enough money to take an inspired, eight-month long trip to West Africa to learn more about the instrument. “I thought about creating a second home there,” Tobias says, “but I quickly discovered that the greatest African musicians move to Europe anyway. During my eight months there, I winged. I studied up on some French and initially got hooked up with a place to stay in Dakar through a friend of a friend of a friend. I spent about four months between Senegal and Gambia and another four months traveling from Mali to Burkina Faso to Ghana to Benin to Togo, the Cote D’Ivoire and back.
“It was a beautiful adventure for me to search out kora players and be invited to their family compounds, where I studied with them and drank tea with the families at night. I visited waterfalls, rainforests, deserts and the largest mosque in Africa on a holy day with over one million pilgrims. I made friends and came close a few times to falling in love. I danced at ludicrously fun dance parties, attended Voodoo festivals and got struck by masked spirits with their machetes, learned some original languages and spent more than a few terrible, unending days on overpacked African broken down buses. I got hustled, befriended, robbed, lied to, welcomed, proposed to and saw the relics of slavery and the refinements of modern cities. I wrestled before the King of the Casamance and an entire village and even won my first fight before losing the following seven. It was the experience of a lifetime,” Tobias says.
“I was living my life there, on my own, seeking out the culture and also enjoying myself and the music. Africa has a bountiful spirit that just makes you feel good. In America, New Orleans is definitely its closest relative. In fact, when I came home, I was worried about the culture shock and losing that feeling of spiritual fullness. But when I came home to New Orleans, I realized it wasn’t so very different.
“Over the years I’ve learned how to modify and build my instrument. I traveled to West Africa and studied under traditional players and I learned from them how to stretch the skin over the gourd and built my own. Then I modified my kora because I wanted more of a bass sound. To achieve that, I used thicker strings and built the neck longer to reach those extra bass notes. When I was in Senegal, I visited a church where they add harp levers that can be engaged to fret each string a half step higher, which would to allow me to change keys. This is important because the kora is more like a harp than a guitar, for being plucked not fretted. That’s also why I need 25 strings! Its been a long process of trial and error and I’m grateful to be a part of it.” Tobias says.
“Everything about my kora is pretty much customized and atypical. Most players use nylon strings, whether they’re from fishing line or ones made for harps. As far as I know, I’m the only player using a special brand of Savarez strings, called the KF series. They’re synthetic gut. They last longer than real gut strings, which fray very easily from the sweat on my fingers after a day of playing in New Orleans’ heat. The sound is also so much richer than just nylon.
Tobias shares that Youssoupha Sidibe’s Sacred Sound is the album that furthered his love for the kora. “It’s spiritual, deep, beautiful and sincere music,” he says. “Every time I listen to it, I marvel over what a fanatic this man is, to feel so deeply in his playing. I admire that. I would also recommend listening to the most popular kora player, Toumani Diabete, and his collaborations with Ali Farke Toure, in an album called In The Heart of the Moon. Whoever you are, you’re very likely to love the music. If you want to check something out on YouTube though, I would look up both Sona Jobarteh and Djarabi online. For most of history, the kora has been passed down traditionally to sons. I stayed and studied with the Jobarteh family in Gambia. As a woman, Sona brings something special to the kora and her singing is raw and beautiful.
“Not many westerners have adopted the kora but every year it seems there more and more of us. For one, the kora is a difficult instrument. I play every day, pretty much all day, and at times I still hit wrong notes. The trick is, you’ve just got to repeat them! Because the kora is tuned to a diatonic scale, it’s more difficult to be flexible and play along with other bands. Also, it has a softer, less abrasive sound that can get lost in the mix if it’s not positioned right out front. The kora is a kind of a diva instrument for how it demands that it be right out front. A band with a kora in it is pretty much going to be a kora band.
“Toubab Krewe is the only exception I can think of as their African guitar stylings are prominent. For all these reasons and more, the kora is not an instrument to simply add to an existing type of music. However, it can be done. I’ve seen kora players playing jazz and funk and rock ‘n roll and, in the end, the sound is so beautiful that it is just worth the trouble.”
Tobias has been featured in two films, Black or White with Kevin Costner, and Self/Less with Ryan Reynolds. However, in Self/less, his scene was cut. “How we landed on set of Self/less is actually funny story,” he says. “We used to play outside on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis, kitty-corner from the historical Napoleon House. The manager of Napoleon House was always telling us to turn down, which I understand, of course, but then we hated to be out there just playing to ourselves. We wound up having a tense relationship and I’m sure the manager there would have liked nothing better than to see us run out of town. The film director Tarsem Singh noticed us, though, while he was eating dinner in the restaurant. The next thing we knew, the restaurant was closed off to the public for filming and our band was walked through the front doors in true, VIP fashion. And of course, the manager was right there on hand to see it all. That was a great day.
“We mimed along to our song while the actors shot a scene at the bar. Reynolds uttered a line, ‘Man, this band is funky,’ or something like that. The pay was great and we flirted with the actresses on set while eating from the enormous Hollywood buffet they provide for the cast and crew. Months later, my mom, who was excited to see the film, reported back that the film cut the scene from us standing outside the restaurant to Ryan Reynolds jumping into bed with some girl. But the bar scene?! Gone! Pure travesty!” Tobias says.
“In Black and White with Kevin Costner, I’m just in the background with like seven kids all under 15, playing music. And then there’s me, hopping up and down with my kora. This scene was in the previews for the film so a lot of people saw it. In the movie, the scene is over within a blink. I couldn’t help but think, why was I even in that scene? But I actually know why. The director saw me playing and loved the sound of the kora.
“I’ve cajoled more than a few people into the street performance life. I can’t recommend it enough. Whether its art or music or typing out poems or performing magic, street performers put so much time actually doing their craft that they become better so fast. You just got to do what you love and put the time into it,” Tobias says. “You don’t need a plan B. Anyone who says you can’t be a working artist or musician today just isn’t willing to make the changes necessary. Find the town and the routine that makes it possible. Because it is. And truth is, my income is really good. I’m even surprised.”
Buku Broux has produced three CDs: one solo album, one live band album and one studio album. “Each album has a different feel and we’re proud of each one,” Tobias says. “We feel that our band’s soul is probably best captured on Live from Jackson Square.”
Tobias relays that Buku Broux’s next album is likely to be a duo of himself playing the kora with Fernando Lima playing percussion. “When you pair the drums and their rhythm and drive with the kora, to me that is my ‘all day’ kind of music. I do not think of the kora as a particularly exotic or strange instrument. It’s not even overtly mystic or spiritual except in the way that all of life is spiritual. It’s my ‘all day’ music. So kora and drums. That’s the next album you can expect.”
For more details, please visit: bukubroux.com
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