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In the Beginning

Early Music of Western Africa

Tuesday, November 12th
The Bernie Wohl Center
647 Columbus Avenue
New York City

co-presented by Afro Roots Tuesdays, Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, Artistic Director

Ensemble Longbor Mor

Dawn Padmore, soprano
Yacouba Sissoko, kora
Olusegun Ajayi, percussion
Kevin Nathaniel Hylton, mbira & percussion
Adedeji Ayansola, talking drum

What's in a Name?

Longbor Mor (“LON-BOR-MOR”): This is a Vai term, which translates to “People Singing”. Vai is a language spoken in Liberia and is one of the Mande languages. Dawn's maternal grandmother, Mai, was of Vai roots.

In the tradition of Vai music, the group consists of singers and musical instruments. Dancers are always available in the audience and musicians are all always ready to dance and add life to any gathering.

Is "Early Music" only about Europe?

Thriving for centuries before and surviving four centuries after, persisting in a hostile foreign land long after the first ship bearing human cargo arrived in 1619, the chants and dances of Western Africa pre-date by centuries any music that we currently refer to as "early.”

Come hear some of the oldest music known to us today – music that survived a harrowing ocean journey, flickering in the shadows of the Land of the Free, pulsing with enduring power through the amplified soundscape of modern American popular song.

Acclaimed Liberian soprano Dawn Padmore and kora master Yacouba Sissoko join Afro Roots Artistic Director, percussion virtuoso and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Nathaniel and an ensemble of West African virtuosi in a thrilling performance of traditional Western African music from lands now known to us as Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Our New York season opens with music from the beginning. Don't miss this very special evening, co-presented by our friends at Afro Roots Tuesdays.

About the Instruments


Known as “thumb piano” in the West, the mbira is among the most well known traditional musical instruments from Africa, consisting of a wooden board with attached metal tines, played by holding the instrument in the hands and plucking the tines with the thumbs. It comes in different shapes and sizes; some with attached resonance cases such as calabash or wooden box, some without. The instrument is found under different names such as sanza, likembe, zanzu, okeme, etc. in many parts of Africa, including East, Central, South, and West Africa. It is also known as kalimba outside of the African continent. Tuning of the mbira varies by region, since various ethnic groups use different scales.


The Kora is without a doubt the most famous string instrument in Africa. Played by the Jalis of the Mande, it originated in the area that includes the Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mali. It is a 21 stringed calabash bridge-harp that is plucked simultaneously with both hands, made from a large calabash cut in half and covered with goat or young cow skin stretched using leather laces. The skin is perforated to create two handles for the player to hold the kora, and a long hardwood neck runs through the calabash across the middle of the skin perpendicular to the bridge and the two handles. The strings are arranged with eleven strings in the left hand and ten in the right. This musical instrument has a range of over three octaves, its music multi-layered and melodic.

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The Djembe is one of West Africa’s best-known instruments. It is a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum played with bare hands. Its origin is associated with the Mandinka caste of blacksmiths known as Numu. The traditional distribution of the djembe is associated with the Mali Empire, which date back to 1230 AD and included parts of the modern-day countries of Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gambia, and Senegal. It is one of the loudest drums, covering a wide range of sounds, from the deepest bass to the high-pitch.


Talking Drum
The concept of “talking drum” is very common throughout Africa. Depending on the region, certain drums and percussion instruments are used as means of communication. In West Africa, it is the hourglass-shaped drum, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. It has two heads connected by leather tension cords, allowing the player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between their arm and ribs. The head is struck with a crooked wooden stick. The drum is known as Dundun, Dondo, Odondo, Tamanin, Lunna, Donno, Kalangu, Igba, or Tama, depending on the area and the ethnic group. Hourglass-shaped talking drums are some of the oldest instruments used by West African griots, and their history can be traced back to the Yoruba people, the Ghana Empire, and the Hausa people.


Saa Saa/ Shekere
The Shekere is an instrument from West Africa consisting of a dried gourd with beads woven into a net covering the gourd. There are similar gourd/bead or gourd/seed percussion instruments throughout Africa. Some are the lilolo, axatse (Ghana), djabara (Guinea), ushàkà, chequere and saa saa (Liberia). The instrument is used in most traditional and even popular music styles. It is shaken and/or hit against the hands.


The human voice is the first natural musical instrument for human kind, especially in Africa. Everything else, including hand clapping, stumping, and various musical instruments are meant to accompany or accentuate the message carried in the voice. Singing is very important, since the human voice accompanies life from birth to death. Thus, the rich repertoire of African songs ranges from lullabies to funeral dirges, through many other ceremonies and functions. With or without musical instruments, singing happens most of the time with the intended effects because of the power of language.

Notes on instruments by Anicet Munundu, Performer & Scholar of African music, Asst Professor, University of Pittsburgh.
Thanks to Catherine Khasu for notes on Longbor Mor


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