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Gardner, James Anthony (2023) The Course of the Hand: Formulas, Creativity, and Processes of ‘Improvisation’ in Mande Kora Music. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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It has become commonplace today to invoke the word improvisation when discussing the soloistic melodic dimensions of the music of the kora, the twenty-one-string bridge harp of the Mande people of West Africa. Typically, the term is used to denote the declamatory and often highly ornate passages known as birimintingo (Mandinka) or bolomaboli (Maninka), which play an especially prominent role in modern instrumental styles of kora playing. Yet, despite the kora being one of the most visible emblems of African melodicism and improvisational virtuosity on the international stage, our understanding of the organizing principles that underlie the art of birimintingo-bolomaboli ‘composition in performance’ remains at a preliminary stage relative to corresponding phenomena in other equally high-profile improvisatory traditions worldwide. This thesis presents a culturally informed analytical study of creative recomposition in Mande kora music, focusing on birimintingo-bolomaboli passages and exploring elements of contemporary jeliya repertory and performance practice not previously addressed in the literature. By adopting an analytical framework distilled from a recently theorized, cross-disciplinary and comparative model of improvisation, it attempts to broaden the scope of previous research, to provide a more comprehensive and up-to-date understanding of this undertheorized musical phenomenon. The investigation begins with a close formulaic analysis of metered birimintingobolomaboli passages, which extends previous work by combining established analytical methods with fresh ethnographic insights to reveal hitherto undocumented melodic vocabulary. The analysis then moves beyond earlier research to examine the key compositional procedures used by the present generation of transnational kora 4 players to creatively rework this recurring thematic-motivic material in performance. These findings are explored further in a case-study analysis of an increasingly significant but largely overlooked form of non-metrical, preludial improvisation, before the enquiry concludes with a search for the kinds of foundational materials and organizing structures that are considered a hallmark of improvisational musical systems.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Angela Impey, Lucy Duran and Ilana Webster-Kogen
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 07 Sep 2023 09:41
Funders: Other

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