FEATURE/INTERVIEW: The Kora Band

The Kora Band

Andrew Oliver, founder of The Kora Band, talks to Rob Adams about his band and their new release, New Cities.

In 2007, Andrew Oliver returned home to Portland, Oregon from a US State Department-sponsored tour of West Africa. While playing straight ahead jazz in a club in Senegal, Oliver had had a vision. Each of the local arts authorities had invited musicians to sit in with Oliver’s band and one of these players in particular had made an impression.

Where, though, would Oliver find a kora player in Portland? The answer was: he wouldn’t. The kora, a 21-string African harp, was not unknown in the US and, before he went to Africa on the State Department’s Rhythm Road project, Oliver had experienced some kora music. He just wasn’t expecting to be so completely seduced by the sound and the impact of working with the instrument on stage.

As luck would have it, the band's drummer on the tour was getting married around this time and he had booked a kora player from Seattle to play at the wedding. Oliver and the kora player got chatting and it turned out that the man Oliver really needed to speak to was the kora player’s teacher, Kane Mathis. A guitarist who had first incorporated African music into his guitar playing then gone on to study kora in the instrument’s birthplace, The Gambia, with one of the country’s most prominent musical families, Mathis had the chops Oliver needed to integrate the kora into his own music. And so the Kora Band was born.

“It was odd in a way how it all came about,” says Oliver, who these days is kept busy on the London scene, playing swing, whilst also keeping the Kora Band ball in the air. “There I was, playing in Africa with a saxophonist I’d met while studying in New Orleans, Devin Phillips, when this kora player arrived and sat in with us. I knew what a kora was but the sound wasn’t what I expected. That was the initial attraction, an amazing and unique sonic experience. But then there’s also how it works rhythmically. It’s so contrapuntal, with all these independent lines that interlock. I thought, if we could find a way of integrating this instrument into our music in a more substantial way, it would be really interesting.”

Meeting Mathis’s student, he says, was some sort of sign that his idea was possible. To begin with, he and Mathis played together as a duo and Oliver was able to learn how the kora worked as a solo instrument before developing a way of playing piano that complemented and chimed with the kora’s interlocking textures.

“We tried a few different things. I tried playing piano like a balafon (the African xylophone), but that ended up sounding bizarre,” says Oliver. “Then, because I’d been working with a Serbian brass band, we tried playing Balkan rhythms. Some of the things I wrote worked, others didn’t; but once we had the band together, we’d work traditional songs into the set and it really just developed by trial and error. Audiences in Seattle – I’d commute for gigs because Kane was established there – liked what we were doing and the first two albums, Just 4 U and Cascades, were well received.”

Indeed, Cascades, released in 2010, won Earshot Jazz’s award for ‘Northwest Jazz Album of the Year’ and also made a strong impression on the US world music radio charts. The plan was working. Then Mathis moved to New York and Oliver’s wife was offered a job in London. Undeterred, the band went ahead and recorded a third album, New Cities, with the help of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant. The album was released on Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings in October, and marked by a UK tour to introduce them over here; and despite now being a transatlantic operation (trumpeter Chad McCullough being based in Chicago is another detail to deal with), the band is continuing to build momentum.

“When my wife and I moved to London in 2013, we weren’t sure how long we’d stay, but that’s going well and I have plenty of work here,” says Oliver. “From the band’s point of view, it’s a question of working in more concentrated periods in the States. I also tour Canada every year with a Canadian-American collective called Tunnel Six and we can add on Kora Band dates when I’m over.” There are plans for a second UK tour next autumn and, beyond that, another album which, this time, would highlight the band’s inherent grooves.

“Being the result of a composing grant, New Cities was quite intricate and featured the compositional goals I wanted to achieve,” says Oliver. “We’re not looking at recording again, yet but the groove aspect is an important feature that we’d like to focus on. We’ve never claimed to be white American guys playing African music perfectly, but I listen to a lot of African music across a wide variety of styles and Kane studied in Gambia for fifteen seasons. So, while trying to avoid the appropriation vibe, we are pursuing a path between two genres that works.”

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