AUGUSTA — One of the University of Maine at Augusta’s first academic research publications, and an example of the instrument it explores, have arrived in Maine via a roundabout route: through the Ivory Coast and Germany.
UMA has published a manuscript written, and music performed, by Margit Cronmueller Smith on the kora, a 21-string bridge-harp that is central to the culture of the Mandé people of western Africa. Smith’s former husband, Hadley Smith, presented the research and recordings to UMA on Oct. 29, along with a kora that will be displayed on campus.
Hadley Smith, who taught economics at UMA in the late 1960s and now lives in Palmyra, worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Ivory Coast. While living there, Margit Smith became intrigued by the kora and its role in Mandé culture.
Smith, who passed away in her native Germany in 2004, was a classically trained pianist who had taught at the Mozarteum School of Music and Dramatic Arts in Salzburg, Austria.
She began taking lessons in 1980 with a master player of the kora, which is made from goatskin and a large gourd called a calabash.
“She managed to learn how to play this thing after four or five years,” said Tom Abbott, dean of libraries and distance learning at UMA. “It’s not easy to play something with 21 strings, and she became a master player who was accepted among the other master players, who were all men.”
In Mandé culture, music includes the art forms of literature, poetry and dance, and history and other knowledge is transmitted orally by kora players, known as “jeli.” The art has been passed down from fathers to sons for generations, and jeli serve as storytellers, entertainers and advisors to the powerful, from kings in past centuries to government officials and businessmen today.
Smith’s 207-page manuscript features interviews with several jeli and an essay titled “The Mandé Kora: A West African System of Thought.”
“I must admit that during my apprenticeship, I was frequently discouraged, impatient, rough, hot-tempered and lost,” Smith wrote. “I actually damned the ‘shortcomings’ of the kora.”
She later realized that the “shortcomings” of the instrument are valuable because they deter “superficial” musicians who would not honor Mandé tradition.
The manuscript and more than 20 hours of recordings are available on UMA’s website and have been published through Creative Commons, which allows for anyone to use them.
Abbott said that as a sociologist, he has been fascinated to learn about the people in an unfamiliar part of the world.
“It gave me a window on a culture that I probably never ever would have contact with,” Abbott said.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645