Senegalese monks bring the Kora back to life.

The sunrise is still slowly filtering into the monastery church as the melodic twang of two harp-like instruments fills the air, combining with the voices of two-dozen singing monks. The music rises up the white walls of the church and out the open-air latticework near the roof. Lyrical, looping melodies filled out by warm bass notes undergird the worshippers voices, delivering a simultaneously tranquil, yet energetic, buzz 

The kora is a bit like a combination between a harp and a banjo, and played like an upright bass. It’s been played across centuries, from West Africa’s pre-colonial singing historians to modern jazz and rock groups today. But the kora was little known in Senegal outside of the minority Mandinka ethnic group before the monks of Keur Moussa monastery started using it. On the heels of Vatican II, when the Roman Catholic church was modernizing and just after Senegal had shaken off French colonial rule, the monks at Keur Moussa embraced the instrument, morphing their Gregorian chants into the songlike prayers that accompany the kora today. 

“It was work – it didn’t just happen,” says Brother Marie Firmin Wade, who crafts the instruments at the monastery’s workshop. “That’s what has created all the liturgical richness of Keur Moussa. Because Keur Moussa has taken a bit from everywhere.”

The monks’ embrace of the kora – and their subsequent steady stream of award-winning albums – helped popularize the instrument in Senegal. But while the monks’ worship was transformed by the kora, they also transformed the instrument itself, adding pegs in place of the leather straps that once made turning koras an extremely time-intensive affair. It was an essential for the monks who pray six times a day. It’s also proved popular among West African rock and pop musicians whose bands trot koras on tour across Europe and Africa. 

“It’s an instrument, that when you listen to it, it takes you,” says Hélène Ngom, walking out of a recent Saturday mass at Keur Moussa, which she traveled 30 miles to attend. “When I listen to the kora, I rise, divinely. It brings me closer to God – not [literally] in the clouds, but voila.”