A Notation for Malian Music

Vihuela Tablature

The model for the kind of tablature I use is early renaissance vihuela tablature. This type of tablature continued to be used for fretted instruments up until about the 1800’s. The tablature leaves a lot to the musician’s own choice: the fingering, the emphasis of the melodic line over the accompaniment…all of this is interpreted according to individual taste and stylistic norms.



Guitarists used to having a clearly defined melody part may find these scores perplexing. If so, think of the score as a guided improvisation: there is no right and no wrong. Just go with what sounds best to you. This way your interpretation will be unique. It is especially good to remember that when we play this kora music on the guitar we are starting a new tradition of music-making. There are no rules yet (and let us hope there never will be!).

I think that once you get used to this way of reading guitar music you will find it rather liberating, and a very rich way of notating music as a motive for musical activity rather than as a set of directions from an all-knowing composer…Give it a try.



The kora scores are intended as a guide to improvisation. In some scores like Jarabi the sections are divided into B (Birimintingo – improvisation) and K (Kumbengo – cycle) which refers to the traditional terms used in kora playing. Each of these themes or cycles can be used in any place – the order in the score is simply how Toumani played it in the recording, but I change the order and bring in themes more than once or add new ones…improvise…

In scores such as Tubaka I use a double barline to delineate sections which can be seen as individual entities. These are of varying lengths.

One could attempt to memorise these scores as through-composed pieces, but I think this is unnecessary; you would miss out on some of the more enjoyable creative possibilities. But who knows…


Some pointers to notational devices in the kora scores:

 The basic notation of rhythm in a simple piece looks as follows:


Since the use of divisions bigger than a quarter or crotchet is not possible (unless the rhythmic notation is unconnected to the number as in vihuela music) the notation of held notes looks like this:


The duration of the different voices is not specified as this is controlled, on the most part, by the left hand and the rhythmic notation of mTablature is completely concentrated on the right hand. The bass part will simply be indicated as it occurs, but its duration left to the player as follows:


The focus is on notating the basic rhythmic pulse, so smaller subdivisions are notated as follows and will be interpreted in different ways by different musicians.


Syncopation will often be shown in terms for the usual divisions of the beat so that these may be used as a reference as follows (the preceding note is always held until the next note is played. If this is not desired then a rest or articulation can be used):


The “swung” duplet is notated using a custom feature which I call “the Mali triplet.” It is essentially a pair played as 2+1. This would usually be notated as a quarter and eight note under a triplet bracket (crotchet and quaver under a triplet bracket), but the Mali triplet notation allows the player to refer to the straight rhythm and to change between straight and swung duplets.


In certain scores, like Tubaka and Jarabi, it is left to the player’s discretion where to swing the duplets and where to play them straight. This variance allows for a lot of individual input to the score. Of course it would have been possible for me to have notated it in parts with the “Mali tripet” notation, and in other parts without, alternating between swing and straight rhythm, but this would have ben my own interpretation, and since this changes from performance to performance, this would have been misleading and robbed other guitarists of the opportunity to make their own versions as I have done.


Derek Gripper