I caught a late train recently, sharing a carriage with a guy who couldn’t help himself gently pluck the strange looking musical instrument he carried. The soft, etherial but welcoming sound caught my ear with a familiar ring: it reminded me of an album I’d copied (stolen) from the office music server at a company I worked at years ago. I’d never learned the name of the instrument or even the album because the MP3s weren’t correctly tagged, but it had captured my imagination and I loved listening to it.

Emilio playing the kora

I sat nearby so I could listen to him casually play, for himself rather than his fellow travellers, and eventually struck up conversation with the player, Emilio. He was playing a Kora, he revealed, a kind of West African harp. Traditionally the music associated with it features melodic riffs & variations under lead melodies, trills and improvisations. The instrument has a about 20 strings in more-or-less fixed-key tuning arranged so they can be played with thumb and index finger of both hands. Melodies and chords often cross from left to right hand. The resonating gourd causes notes to linger & fade into one another, creating a soft evolving bed of resonating sound beneath the plucked arpeggios and melodies. It’s beguiling, restful and meditative; both pleasing wallpaper or an ocean to get lost in depending on how attentively you listen.

Emilio played a riff I recognised from that badly tagged album and said he’d learned it listening to a legend of the kora, one of his inspirations for taking up the instrument, Toumani Diabate. Hearinging this was like having a small puzzle completed for me!

Emilio also plays melodica, guitar and charango with folk/world/reggae band Melodica, Melody & Me. They’re playing most of the smaller UK festivals through the summer.