The Mandinka kora is a unique instrument with a harp-like appearance and a notched bridge similar to that of a lute or guitar. It sounds somewhat like a harp, but its intricate playing style can be closer to flamenco guitar.
The first known reference to the kora comes from Mungo Park in his 1799 book, Travels in Interior Districts of Africa. He describes it as "a large harp with 18 strings."
The kora's body is made from a calabash gourd cut in half and partially covered with cow skin. Traditionally, there are twenty-one playing strings plucked by the thumb and forefinger of each hand. The remaining fingers grip the two vertical hand posts. For strings, players use fishing line which provides a brilliant tone and is easily obtained at the local market. Twenty-one anchor strings attach the playing strings to an iron ring bored through the base of the kora's hardwood neck. The player tunes the kora by moving the leather rings to achieve the appropriate tension on each string. Kora players use a variety of tunings.
The Gambia has more kora players than Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Here English is spoken along with Manding, Wolof and other local dialects. In the neighboring francophone West Africn countries, you will sometimes see kora with it's French spelling cora.