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by Bob Grawi

(This article appeared April 1988 in "Experimental Musical Instruments" available from: EMI, P.O.Box 784, Nicasio, CA 94946, Web Site - )

One of the most beautiful of African instruments is the kora, played in Gambia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau and neighboring countries. A distinctive, sometimes virtuosic musical style has evolved in connection with the kora; it has a fluid, tripping quality in which rapid, lightly syncopated scatterings of individual notes converge to form glittering melodic passages. The instrument is shaped like a large lute, with a cylindrical neck and a big round gourd resonator covered by a leather soundtable. The arrangement of the strings and the playing technique, however, are harp-like. Two rows of strings, with ten and eleven strings respectively, are set in approximately parallel planes. One row can be played by each hand. The tuning is diatonic, with the pitches of the scale distributed in an irregular pattern between the two sides. A unique feature is a pair of handles, one alongside each set of strings, on which the player anchors three fingers while plucking the strings with index fingers and thumbs. Robert Grawi, author of the article that follows, has taken the kora as the starting point for the design of an instrument he calls the Gravikord. While the Gravikord is modern in construction and far removed from its traditional mentor in many aspects of design, it borrows from the kora a special musical quality arising from the playing technique and the characteristically African divided diatonic layout of pitches. In this article the instrument's maker describes the Gravikord, its music and the circumstances that led to its creation. -- Bart Hopkin, Editor - Experimental Musical Instruments

What comes first - the instrument or the music? New musical concepts lead to new instruments, new instruments expand our technique and capabilities, leading to new music. This is exactly what happened with the development of the Gravikord. I was always fascinated by the unexpected rhythms in random and free improvisational tribal type music and enjoyed playing the kalimba or thumb piano. Its divided heptatonic structure somehow struck me at a very deep level. It automatically separated the most dissonant intervals in our traditional scales to spatially opposite sides of the instrument.

As I was understanding the beauty of the kalimba, I was simultaneously being attracted to the purity of the sound of a friend's koto and other non-fretted, plucked string instruments such as those of the harp family. I decided to build a harp and picked up a wooden column from a ruined porch to use as the harp column. The I happened to see an interesting UN film on Africa that influenced the rest of my life. In the movie I saw the kora, an African double-strung harp-lute and I was hooked. I immediately realized it was a harp - with the tonal arrangement of a kalimba!

All my techniques on the kalimba would directly transfer to this instrument with many more possibilities. I put aside my plans to build a traditional harp, and for the next decade I set out to invent a "better" kora - which I did - called the Gravikord.

The real truth is I didn't start out to invent anything. I just thought having a kora would be great. The kora, unfortunately, was a little known instrument, part of the folk-griot society of western Africa. It was just what I was looking for, but try to find a good one, or one that is easy to tune, or one that doesn't not go soggy on a humid day. When I looked, all I saw were "tourist instrument" - things that looked kind of musical but were just made to hang on your wall.

But I wanted to see a real kora - how it was made I knew about the musical instrument collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I went thinking I could see one. The collection is very broad and contains instruments from all over the world from different historical periods. This is a great resource for anyone interested in instruments of other periods and cultures. You can imagine my surprise when I could find no kora on display. I couldn't believe they didn't have one. I personally asked the curator if they had a kora and he said:

"Yes, but we keep it stored in the basement."

"Well, couldn't I see it?"

" No, I'm sorry - you're not doing official academic research."

I explained my serious interest but the answer was still negative. So I did the one thing I could - I built my own.

The kora is built around half of a gigantic calabash gourd about the size of a large pumpkin. Apparently these are common in western Africa, but not in New York City! They tend to be imported as carved art objects with correspondingly inflated prices. For my first model, all I wanted was a gourd in the rough. The solution I came up with was to use a cheap Chinese woven basked as the resonator. This, after applying fiberglass mesh and resin to the inside, became a beautiful gourd-like resonator. Another innovation in my original instrument was an open inverted triangular bridge with metal kalimba keys incorporated across the top. This truly "bridged" the gap between the kalimba-kora-Gravikord - an evolutionary missing link.

After experimenting for several more years, I finally arrived at the instrument that I play today. The current model is no longer the kora - but a descendant. To create the Gravikord, I added more strings. For a while I played a 25 string instrument, but the current Gravikord I made for sale has 24 strings, which I find full and sufficient to span a 3 1/2 octave range by my method of tuning. I find it essential to go to the third above the root in the treble, and in the bass to have one note, the 5th of the scale, below the root. In between there are three full diatonic octaves. The kora is tuned by moving thongs, to which the strings are fastened, up and down the hardwood neck. I installed modern metal tuning machines in a tuning block assembly at the base of the neck, in a convenient position on the instrument. This also results in a perfect weight balance of the instrument at the player's hands. The tuning machines are protected by the "U" tube extension of the handles. The hands hold the handles in a more normal fashion than on the kora. Resting on the large beads, one hand on each handle, the base of the instrument between the player's legs, this is the natural sitting position, with arms slightly elevated. The handles are raised and shortened relative to those of the kora, and the bridge has been radically redesigned. The idea was to "ergonomically" redesign the instrument in such a way that it would "disappear" as much as possible. In other words, I tried to removed as much awkwardness as I could.

The structure evolved from bamboo to wood and aluminum and I finally settled on a light welded stainless steel frame. Stainless is strong, lightweight and beautiful. This frame is basically indestructible - it is all stainless - not a plated metal, so any surface damages are easily refinished. The new bridge went through many refinements before a lively treble and bass response was achieved. It had to be designed to maximize internal vibrations while standing on a stationary platform. I learned that tall bridges like the one I was working on and those on violins, cellos and basses can be thought of as complex systems of wooden "springs" and inertial masses. By subtly adjusting the design of the "springs" and the size of the inertial masses the vibrational response can be manipulated. This is complex and really could be the subject of a separate article. The inter-string spacing on the Gravikord has been reduced to about one-half the spacing on a kora. This facilities more fluid strumming although it makes fingernails essential. A piezo-electric pickup is incorporated in the bridge design and the vibrations are sent to a separate amplifier.

Well, that's the basic Gravikord that I am making and playing in public. As you can see, I basically redesigned the whole thing.

"The GRAVIKORD" is a patented invention and registered trade mark of White Bear Enterprises. All rights reservered.

Once I made the decision to "go electric" and make a bare bones instrument as light, small and simplified as possible, new additions and variations suggested themselves. Why not add a dampening bar controlled by the player similar in effect to a sustain pedal on a piano? Could a variable pitch model by constructed? Why not soprano - tenor - bass Gravikords? At present I've constructed prototypes of a variable pitch Gravikord in which the bridge is mounted on ball bearings and a lever system so that it can be raised while being played; a small soprano variable pitch instrument; and several different tone control bridge dampening devices. I've also designed quick retuning devices which clamp on the neck similar in effect to the levers on some harps. As you can see, it was a fruitful vein.

Run your fingers through a large random cluster of bells and try to imagine producing the same rhythms and melodies with a totally conscious effort. If you continue with the right attitude - an attitude of conscious-unconscious cooperation - the amount of control-noncontrol you can develop will approach the magical.

It was experiences and desires like these, simple techniques leading to complex unexpected results that led to the development of the instrument. It's also the way I perceive the music I play on the Gravikord. In most of our traditional instruments there is no place for the irrational non-conscious mind until fluid mastery over difficult techniques are developed through years and years of training. The "non-musician" is denied access to this satisfying level of experience. Our instruments are linear left brain structures.

But I was not satisfied with a jumble of bells. I wanted a pure beautiful harp-like sound. A harp yet not a harp. A harp, like a piano, is a "linear, Euclidean instrument." Mostly one hand plays bass and the other, the treble, so one hand is devoted to melody and the other to accompanying harmony. If they attempt to cross over, watch out! Because of the special configuration of the strings, the Gravikord is a "spatial, random access" instrument. Each hand is able to play the bass and treble notes independently with no danger of simultaneously trying to play the same note. Your hands can play over under around and through each other! With each hand playing a simple plucking technique, the melodic and rhythmic results can be complex, intricate and unexpected.

Also, basic chords like a I chord (root, 3rd, 5th) are already separated out and lie on adjacent strings, which are always in pleasing intervals. For example, in the key of C: the B-C and E-F intervals are not right next to each other as they are on the piano, but are actually as far apart as possible on different sides of the instrument. I use several tunings on the instrument myself and do not wish to dogmatically pronounce what is the "correct" tuning. As a basic tuning, I recommend the following diatonic tuning in ascending order for the Gravikord, as string length, gauge and tension have been designed for this range.

Left hand:
D (2 D's below middle C), C,E,G,B,D,F#,A,C,E,G,B.

Right hand:
G (2 G's below middle C),B,D,F#, A,C,E,G,B,D,F#,A.

Note: This is not a kora tuning.

A normal diatonic scale on the Gravikord is arranged as below:

Octave spacing is constant up and down the instrument. Songs are imbued with a spatial content and individual symmetry analogous to using a push button phone versus a rotary dial. In the players mind, the musical compositions come with an additional geometric dimension. In improvisations the patterns suggested can be quite liberating. Often times, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing - but the ears don't care and integrate it all into a musical whole. It's like holding on and letting go at the same time. The more you play, the deeper and more natural becomes your understanding of this. Listen to the Gravikord - it will lead you on. With it more than with any other instrument, you can be your own teacher.

I began playing in public and strangers came with cameras in hand taking close-ups. After ten years of development on my own, I decided to get a patent so I wouldn't have to worry who was taking pictures while I was playing in public. Two patents later, with others still pending, my company, White Bear Enterprises, is starting to market both the instrument and the music.

And what is the music like? sounding like an electric harp with a built-in bass, the Gravikord has a sweet acoustic quality made deeper and richer by the sympathetic vibrations of the unplayed strings. I've come to believe that there will be as many different styles of playing the instrument as there are individuals playing. My own style evolved from the kalimba and therefore it contains a lot of the polyrhythmic qualities. I like to refer to it as a new kind of American ragtime and I play a lot of traditional folk and improvised melodies.

We are surrounded by rhythms - within and outside of us they flow over and through us all. I like to play with the rhythms of nature in the music... a river flowing to me ocean, thunder clapping, or snow falling under a streetlight. I try to capture a small portion and mix it up with our culture and let it out musically. For me, with the Gravikord it's easy. I don't play music with a capital M, but maybe that's why so many different people respond. Young and old, classical violinists and rock musicians - even people who tell me they've never been musical - are all drawn to the instrument and my music. It is always a great joy for me to see a "non-musician" attracted to and playing the Gravikord for the first time. It's Christmas for us both.

I have been an artist and a builder but I have found nothing more satisfying than making this musical instrument. After it's finished, it's really just begun. I loved polyrhythmic music and was able to create the Gravikord and to make its design as beautiful as the music.

I'm involved with the Gravikord for life - for better or worse. It doesn't matter to me how successful an enterprise it becomes; it's a part of me. Its magical and mysterious qualities are an end in themselves.

When I first picked up the Gravikord, there were no teachers it was like learning to walk and every step took me to a new place. Even now, after many years, when I sit down to play, it's still a mystery, it's still magical.

For reprints of the original article including four photographs not seen here send $2.50 to:

White Bear Enterprises
P.O. Box 106
Florida, NY 10921

The Gravikord is a patented invention and a registered trademark of White Bear Enterprises, all rights reserved.

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