Rounding the corner of St. Peter onto Chartres, you can hear the sound of harps emanating from the face of St. Louis’ basilica. To me, it sounds like the evangelists on Bourbon Street were right. The angels are here, and they’re about to kick some sinner ass.
The source of that heavenly noise is Jonah Tobias Groppar and his Malian kora, traditionally a 21-stringed harp-lute fashioned from a gourd.
Jonah, 31, is a New Englander by birth and a New Orleanian by choice — or divine providence. If you’re lucky enough to hear and see him play, you can decide for yourself.
ZACH JONES: Did you have a musical childhood?
JONAH TOBIAS: I’ve always loved music. My dad played harmonica in his studio. My mom played tapes in her car, and we sang along to Phantom of the Opera and 10,000 Maniacs.
ZJ: What was the first instrument you learned to play?
JT: I started playing the drums in 5th grade, guitar in middle school, piano in college, violin, mandolin, banjo and harmonica some time later… and I stunk at them all. I was just a dabbler. Loved music, but admired it more than created it.
ZJ: How did you discover the kora?
JT: I discovered the kora at The Mystic Garden Gathering in Lake Selmac, Oregon, about six years ago. There was a kora player onstage named Youssoupha Sidibe. It was overwhelming, obliterating and elevating all at the same time. That same day, I borrowed $1300 from a friend and bought a kora from a luthier set up at the festival. And I’ve been playing ever since. A couple years in, I started craving more bass in my sound, so I started using thicker, longer strings and rebuilding parts of the kora to achieve that, which set off a long journey in building and rebuilding my own 25-string bass versions of the instrument, all in pursuit of that perfect tone.
ZJ: Out of curiosity, what key do you tune your instrument to?
JT: The traditional kora can be tuned in a lot of different ways. A lot of modern players tune to the Key of F. I dropped mine five whole steps to the Key of A major, so F# then is my relative minor. The strings alternate from left to right hand up and down the scale across three and a half octaves, with the thumbs playing the bass line and the fore fingers plucking out the melodies and rhythm. I also added Harp levers to the neck so that I can choose which strings are “fretted” a half step to change the key.
ZJ: What’s the hardest thing about playing the instrument?
JT: To put it simply, the kora is hard. And it’s really temperamental. The best sound often exists somewhere within that perfect balance of tension and strength.
Jonah’s mystical solo album, “In the Belly of the Whale,” is available for download on iTunes.