The Calabash : An Indispensable Fruit/Tree in African Culture

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The calabash tree (Le calebassier) under the African sun

Have you ever eaten out of a calabash? It seems the food has a particular taste, and that eating out of the calabash adds an extra ‘mmph‘ to the food. In the old days, and even to this day we used homemade utensils such as calabash, especially when eating fufu (yummy)… Well, I recently stumbled upon the tree from which the calabash bowl is made out of, and found the fruits hanging down from the tree. The tree is cultivated not only for its fruits but also for the utensils, and for making amazing musical instruments. I love the idea that everything is used and nothing is thrown out: from the fruit, the meat inside the fruit, and its shell. The calabashes are hollowed-out and dried, and used to cook, carry water, and food. The smaller sized ones are used as bowls to drink palm wine: the white wine made in Africa (Le Vin de Palme: Vin Blanc Made in Africa).

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The calabash fruit

Calabashes are used in making the West African kora (a harp-lute), xalam/ngoni (a lute) and the goje (a traditional fiddle). They also serve as resonators underneath the balafon (West African marimba). The calabash is also used in making the shekere / shegureh (a Sierra Leonean women’s rattle) and balangi (a Sierra Leonean type of balafon) musical instruments. Sometimes, large calabashes are simply hollowed out, dried, and used as percussion instruments, especially by FulaniSonghaiGur-speaking and Hausa peoples. In Nigeria, the calabash has been used to meet a law requiring the wearing of a helmet on a motorcycle. In South Africa, it is commonly used as a drinking vessel and a vessel for carrying food by all people across the continent. In Ethiopia, children from the Erbore tribe wear hats made from calabashes to protect themselves from the sun.

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The calabash all dried up… almost ready to be made into a bowl

For the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the Soccer City stadium which hosted the tournament in Johannesburg was made in the shape of a calabash on cooking fire.

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FNB Stadium also known as Soccer City Stadium or The Calabash in Johannesburg, South Africa

Mory Kante : So long to an Electrifying Griot

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Mory Kante with his kora (Source: RadioKing.com)

I remember dancing to the tunes of “Yé ké yé ké” as a child… I also have fond memories of seeing Mory Kante play his kora, and being amazed by his dexterity, finesse, and charisma. Every note transported me to different horizons. It did not matter that I did not understand his language, I could feel the emotions he conveyed with his voice and kora… it was like magic: one could travel all the way to Guinea and back within the confines of one’s room.

On May 22, 2020, an honorable member of the Griot (Djeli) family, Mory Kante, moved to the land of his ancestors. In reality, he just changed dimensions, and left us with the electricity of his music. Born in 1950 in a small town near Kissidougou in Guinea, Mory Kante came from a long family tradition of griots (Djeli). Both of his parents were griots, his father was from Guinea and his mother from Mali  Mory absorbed the singing of his parents and as a child learned to play the balafon. As a child, his family sent him to Mali to study the kora and other griot traditions. 

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Mory Kante with some of the instruments he played including the balafon, kora, and djembe (Source: Express.co.uk)

Mory Kante is often known as the “electronic griot” because he modernized local traditional instruments such as his kora which he electrified, and fused African music with styles and instruments from Western pop. Kante’s 1987 single “Ye Ke Ye Ke” was a hit, first in Africa and then across Europe. It became the first African single to sell more than a million copies and has been licensed frequently for commercials and film soundtracks. It has even been reworked by other musicians into German techno, Bollywood film music and Chinese Cantopop.

If you ever come across a kora, or listen to Ye Ke Ye Ke remember this great man who modernized the ancient ways to share with us his love of the music of his forefathers. His music has inspired countless singers from the new generation. The New York Times , BBC, and Guardian have written articles about this great man.