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From West Africa to Western Pennsylvania: Harpist brings unique instrument to local libraries

Patrick Varine
| Tuesday, June 5, 2018, 6:24 p.m.
Sean Gaskell of Asheville, N.C., will play several performances at local libraries featuring the west African harp called the kora.
Submitted photo
Sean Gaskell of Asheville, N.C., will play several performances at local libraries featuring the west African harp called the kora.
Sean Gaskell of Asheville, N.C., will play several performances at local libraries featuring the west African harp called the kora.
Submitted photo
Sean Gaskell of Asheville, N.C., will play several performances at local libraries featuring the west African harp called the kora.

Sean Gaskell was at a folk music festival in his hometown of Olympia, Wash., when he saw a man performing beautiful music on a very odd-looking stringed instrument.

It turned out to be a kora, a 21-string harp that originated with the Mande people of west African countries like Mali, Guinea Bissau and Senegal.

"I fell in love with it immediately and I decided to learn how to play," Gaskell said.

He took lessons from the man he saw playing, Kane Mathis , for a year-and-a-half, and has traveled to west Africa in 2008, 2012 and 2017 to study with musicians who have mastered the instrument.

Gaskell will bring what he has learned to libraries all over western Pennsylvania during the week of June 25.

"Of all the instruments I've picked up, it's been the most challenging," said Gaskell, 34, of Ashville, N.C. "You're working with so many strings, and getting it to sound well at a high level is something I strive for even today, and I've been playing for 12 years."

The kora itself is about 800 years old, Gaskell said, and its music goes hand-in-hand with the oral storytelling tradition of west African griot families.

That strong tradition means there is a wealth of traditional songs to be played.

"I would say about 90 percent of the songs I perform are traditional songs I learned from my teachers," Gaskell said. "In the past two or three years, I've focused on more original compositions, but those are also based on the traditional styles I've learned."

Gaskell has studied intensively under the instruction of master kora players Malamini Jobarteh and Moriba Kuyateh of The Gambia, and Mathis, who lives in Brooklyn.

All of his teachers prodded him to find his own musical path.

"The kora is kind of like a jazz instrument," Gaskell said. "The players in Africa encourage people to find their own flavor with it, to make a sound unique to you."

And even with a dozen years under his belt, Gaskell still felt he had a long way to go.

"There's always a lot of room for improvement, whether it's little nuances with the melody, or the personal improvisation you can do," he said.

Gaskell's local performances will kick off at 1 p.m. at the Scottdale Public Library, and 6:30 p.m. at the Penn Area Library (see breakout box for a full list of performances).

For more, see SeanGaskell.com .

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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