02 April 2011

Children of Jaliya: Teaching and Learning Kora in West Africa

"From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali according to the principles which our ancestors have bequeathed to us."
The youthful prince Sundiata heard these words as the reigning king of 13th century Mali presented him with a customary gift. Sundiata was about to receive his own personal jali, who was called Balla Fasseke (Niane 1965:17). The jali (also known as "griot") is an oral historian and master musician who presents his knowledge in the form of song. Balla Fasseke inherited his art, known as jaliya, from his father who was the king's jali. Prince Sundiata was heir to the kingdom, and Jali Balla Fasseke, was heir to its knowledge, wisdom and music.

Musicians, artisans and craftsmen alike pass their knowledge on to their sons and apprentices. It is a way of learning in Africa, with no books or formal courses of study. Learn through observation, learn by doing--these are the ways that traditions of West Africa have been kept alive. We will examine the learning process for the musical art of jaliya. Particular attention will be given to learning the kora, which is the preferred instrument of jaliya. When and how is the child introduced to the music? How does learning progress and what are the criteria for success? How has jaliya changed in recent years? What can we learn from this time honored tradition? Before answering these questions, we will turn to the tradition itself.

What is Jaliya?
In the times of the great West African empires, jalis were often attached to prominent figures in society, including kings, warriors, members of the nobility or other gentry. The jalis and their families were well cared for by wealthy patrons in exchange for their musical services. After the decline of kingship and the rise of colonial rule, this exclusive arrangement became rare. The modern jali makes a living from a variety of patrons and will often travel among a network of several. Sometimes the jali will work for a politician:
"Some of the politicians still follow in the footsteps of our forefathers. Wherever they are going, they go with you because you are the person who can talk about them. Nobody is going to talk about himself. If you go in the street and say, 'oh I'm this and I'm that,' people say, 'oh he's gone crazy, oh he's drunk.' But somebody must talk on your behalf."[1] 
The jali may earn a living as a wandering praise singer, perhaps being hired as a "go-between" in a business transaction. Camara Laye recollects with wonderment a childhood scene in his father's blacksmith shop. A female customer has hired a jali to sing praise of Camara's father, in the hope that he would be persuaded to interrupt his current work to make a golden trinket for her (1954:23).
"The go-between installed himself in the workshop, tuned up his kora, which is our harp, and began to sing my father's praises. This was always a great event for me. I heard recalled the lofty deeds of my father's ancestors and their names from the earliest times. As the couplets were reeled off it was like watching the growth of a great genealogical tree that spread its branches far and wide and flourished its boughs before my mind's eye. The harp played an accompaniment to this vast utterance of names, expanding it with notes that were now soft, now shrill."   
Many jalis are called upon to provide entertainment. Occasions for which they will frequently contribute services include marriage and child naming ceremonies. The jali may also be invited over for a special visit known as sumungo, which is an evening of chamber music for a wealthy patron and invited audience. Other jalis find work with dance troupes or as performers on Radio Gambia  (Knight 1984a:54-55). The traditional repertoire has expanded to suit these varied occasions, and now includes popular music such as highlife songs from Ghana and songs about everyday people and events. Children frequently accompany their parents to local performances, and it is not uncommon to see a mother cradling her infant as she sings.

There are four primary elements to jaliya, two vocal and two instrumental. The basic instrumental framework of jaliya is a short ostinato known as kumbengo. The jali varies the kumbengo by inserting improvisations known as birimintingo. The traditional vocal melody is known as the donkilo and improvised variations on that are known as sataroSataro consists of praise, prose and proverb and the accomplished jali will make frequent use of extemporization (for more on the vocal aspects of jaliya see Knight 1984b).  The instrumental and vocal melodies are diatonic, and the rhythms are often found in 12 and 16 pulse groupings. The musical elements of jaliya are not fixed and notation is completely foreign to the tradition. Each element is subject to the free interpretation of the individual jali.

What About the Kora?
In addition to mastering the vocal art, the jali will also learn an instrument with which to accompany his singing. The kora is the instrument of choice for many jalis. It is a 21 string bridge-harp (or harp-lute) made from a large half calabash (gourd) with a wooden neck affixed through it and a hide stretched over it. The strings were at one time made from leather but nylon fishing line is now the preferred medium, owing to its durability and brighter tone quality.

The origins of the kora are difficult to trace. During his travels throughout the Gambia River region in 1623, Richard Jobson (1968:134) observed an instrument played with the fingers:
"...that which is most common in use, is made of a great gourd, and neck thereunto fastened, resembling, in some sort, our Bandora; but they have no manner of fret, and the strings they are either such as the place yields or their invention can attaine to make, being very unapt to yeeld a sweete and musical sound, notwithstanding with pinnes they winde and bring to agree in tunable notes, having not above six strings on their greatest instrument."  
Jobson may be referring to the six string simbing or other early Mandinka instrument. It has been shown that the kora developed from a lineage of similar harp-like instruments (Huchard 1985:chart). Mungo Park noticed an 18-string instrument--he called it "korro"--during his travels in West Africa in 1795 (1893:258). The current 21-string version has been in use for the past century, although modern jalis are experimenting with adding additional strings.

Some jalis claim that the kora in its present form is older than our written accounts show it to be, and legends abound as to its origins. One version tells of a hunter who was given the kora, as well as knowledge of its construction and playing technique, by a jinn or spirit (Pevar 1974:9). The hunter was Jali Madi Wuleng, who, with his pupil Koriying Musa Suso, popularized the kora. Kelefa Saane was a 19th century king and patron of Koriying Musa Suso. The song "Kelefa Baa" was composed in his honor. It is thought to be the first kora song and it is the first song that many beginning kora players learn (Duran 1977:755). There is another popular story which is often told to children. The following version is related by Foday Musa Suso (in Aning 1982:164):
"...a musician who played the one string moro met on the bank of the Gambia river a strange musician who played a 21-stringed instrument, and who expressed the wish to exchange it for the one-string instrument because he liked the sound. As part of the bargain the stranger undertook to teach the Gambian to play the new instrument. It is said that they met daily at midday to practice at the river bank. Later the stranger musician wanted to take his instrument back, but the Gambian musician refused. He overpowered him and took the kora, the 21-string instrument home. When he told his wife what had happened, she advised him to cover the instrument with his trousers when he went to sleep so that the stranger might not find it if he came 'in spirit' to recover his instrument. This has become a common practice among present day kora players: they cover their instruments with their trousers at night as an antidote to evil thoughts and machinations of rival kora players."
Regardless of its actual origins, it is an instrument unique to West Africa and a high concentration of kora jalis can be found in the Gambia.

The jali uses thumbs and forefingers of both hands to pluck, strum and stop the kora's 21 strings, which are arranged in two parallel rows. Four traditional heptatonic tunings are used, as well as several modal variations and a few modern alterations (for more on tuning the kora see Knight 1971, King 1972 and Aning 1982). The instrumental technique is characterized by independence between the forefingers and thumbs. Many kumbengo patterns require the fingers to play contrary to one another, and this independence is one of the most difficult aspects of kora technique to master. One sign of an accomplished kora jali is the ability to play a variation of the kumbengo with the thumbs while simultaneously playing birimintingo with the forefingers. Another technique is to weave in and out of an established time frame, often called the "metronome sense." This weaving has been described as "apart playing," which is an integral part of many African musics (for a discussion of African rhythm see Chernoff 1979).
How Are These Things Learned?
Social stratification is not as prevalent as in the past, but it is still very much adhered to in parts of West Africa. The traditional hierarchy distinguishes between nobles, artisans and slaves. Strict endogamy centers specific traditions within particular families and social orders (Schaeffer 1980:62). In the past, a male child born into an artisan family would immediately begin training for that profession. Whatever the particular specialty, be it music, tanning, blacksmithing or religion (usually Islam), the passing of knowledge from father to son is a time honored process "...and all the children they have, are nourished and bred up, unto the ceremonies of their fathers" (Jobson 1968:97).

The art of jaliya is traditionally passed along a musical family's genealogy. The Susso (or Suso) family is particularly known for a long lineage of kora players. Some of the Sussos credit the instrument's invention or development to ancestors. Others families known for their kora lineages are the Diabate (or Jebateh) and Kouyate (or Kuyateh) families. When a male child is born into such a family he has the opportunity to pursue the tradition. It is believed that learning should begin at an early age. Papa Susso offers an explanation:
"We the Sussos, most of us start at the age of five, some at six or seven years. It depends, but we believe when starting from five, learning might move faster than waiting for an older age. You see, because then you don't think of women, and there's not much problem on you. But now if you wait until ten, fifteen, sixteen years, when you start playing then a girlfriends call you!"
The learning process is informal and consists of observation and imitation. There are no books, lesson plans, practice routines or any other popular Western conceptions of teaching instrumental skills. The teacher is usually a recognized master. Many jalis feel that "studying away from home was a better experience for them--stricter and therefore producing longer-lasting results" (Knight 1973:84-85). In such a case the child will travel, sometimes many kilometers, to his teacher. This practice "is meant to harden the young instrumentalist" and "may also be interpreted as a means of preventing musical stylistic stagnation and in-breading" (Aning 1982:165). In other instances the father or other close relative teaches jaliya. Papa Susso, for example, recalls that children in his family are not permitted to study kora with someone outside the Sussos.

In most cases learning follows a similar pattern. The child will accompany the jali to local performances. He will sit close and tap konkondiro on the back of the kora. This is a rhythmic beating using a large iron repair needle (about 8 inches long and used for restringing the kora). Each kumbengo is paired with one of four somewhat standard konkondiro patterns (Knight 1984b:25). The tapping serves an important musical function and is similar to the clave beat in Latin music. There is another reason for tapping konkondiro. It gives the student a participatory insight into the structure of the kumbengo. As he taps he feels the music and sings along softly with the jali. He is carefully watching the subtle finger movements required for kora playing. The music begins to slowly enter into the child's hands, eyes and mind. He is able to absorb all the subtle participatory discrepancies unencumbered by notation and quantization. Papa Susso recalls his own learning experience:  
"While you are beating [konkondiro] here, your mind is at the same time looking at the fingers. You see, so you start picking up one by one, one by one. Also singing along with him. That way you can get all the stories, the history. So when he's finished, you take the kora and go to the corner. This is the way we learn. If you don't understand something, then you go to him and say look, what is this, then he will show you."
After a period of observation, the young apprentice may use his master's kora. He will take the instrument aside and try to work out the kumbengo from what he remembers about participating in and watching the performance. He may ask the master for assistance in this, but any actual one-on-one instruction is limited to the kumbengo. As the beginner masters each kumbengo, he will gradually add his own birimintingo, which is not taught but rather developed by the individual from mastery and variation of the kumbengo. The child also begins to memorize a vast amount of historical information, including family genealogies and numerous well-known Mandinka proverbs, the importance of the latter noted by Niane (1965:29):
"Men's wisdom is contained in proverbs and when children wield proverbs it is a sign that they have profited from adult company."
In this way jaliya enters the student as he benefits from close proximity to the master jali.

After two or three years of observation and participation through singing and tapping konkondiro, the budding jali may begin to perform on a miniature kora built by his master and accompany him in duets. They will sing and play together for family, friends and patrons. The apprentice can practice kora in an actual performance setting. He can play along on the donkilo and listen as the jali extemporizes sataro passages to the audience at hand. It is through this interactive, participatory process that the student learns the kora repertoire. Recent research centering on African children and their relationship to their environment shows this to be a practical way of learning in many parts of Africa, in which observation and imitation lead to assimilation and accommodation (Ohuche and Otaala 1981:3). In learning jaliya, the child uses techniques as they are acquired, and gradually learns to tailor his performance to accommodate all musical situations.

In many provinces tradition is still strictly adhered to, and the apprentice is totally subservient to his master. He is expected to work on his master's farm and has very few privileges. He runs errands and handles many chores. Park (1895:291), in 1795, described apprentices as being employed by their master:
"...for being considered during their scholarship as the domestic slaves of the master, they were employed in planting corn, bringing firewood, and other servile offices through the day."
The apprentice may be punished for not learning quickly enough, and the proverbial rap on the knuckles is not uncommon. Papa Susso remembers one such experience:
"One day my dad got upset with me. He was showing me this thing called 'Mamiya.'  OK, 'Mamiya' is difficult to play. He showed me many times, but I still could not catch on to anything. So he got angry with me and gave me a slap. I remember when he gave me a slap it didn't take me too many more tries to start catching up. I couldn't catch on to anything, but after a slap I started picking it up."   
This harsh treatment of the young musician serves a purpose, by "impressing upon the student the gravity of his undertaking and the respect he owed his teacher for it" (Knight 1973:85). Punishment for slow learning is applied in other disciplines, such as religion, and it is an accepted practice that dates back to the times of the great West African empires. The Arab traveler Ibn Battuta (1969:330) observed Muslim holy men during his visit to the Malian Empire of 1353:
"They put their children in chains if they show any backwardness in memorizing it [the Qur'an], and they are not set free until they have it by heart. I visited the qadi [Islamic judge] in his house on the day of the festival. His children were chained up, so I said to him, 'Will you not let them loose?' He replied, 'I shall not do so until they learn the Qur'an by heart'."  
The study of kora is reserved strictly for males, but females do participate in jaliya. The learning process for girls, who study singing, is not as rigid. Instruction is provided by the mother or close female relatives, and the young female jali, the jali musa, will not leave home until married. After marriage, her husband becomes her instructor. In addition to singing, girls learn to accompany themselves on a percussive iron tube known as neo. Women are regarded as having the best singing voices among the Mandinko. If a man has a less than adequate singing voice he may seek to marry a jali musa and form a duet with her: she singing and playing neo, he accompanying on kora (Knight 1973).

During the period of study, which can last from five to seven years, the kora apprentice will learn to build his own full sized instrument. This is an art in itself. Many jalis are master instrument builders, capable of constructing fine instruments (for more on the construction of the kora, see King 1973, Pevar 1978, and Aning 1982). One such jali was Bai Konte. During the 1970's he and his family lived on a compound in Brikama, the Gambia, where he trained many apprentices. Some were his sons and others were sent from different families to live on the compound. Under his tutelage they learned jaliya and the fine art of kora construction. A typical evening on the compound is described by Susan Gunn Pevar (1977:16):
"Bai Konte's sons and apprentices went troubadoring through the village in the evening, stopping at one household after another where friends would pay them in money and/or goods for a few minutes of music and praise."
An accomplished master will often surround himself with his sons and apprentices. Again, we can see this in an historical context as noted by Ibn Battuta in 1353 (1969:328),
"He plays on an instrument... and chants a poem in praise of the sultan, recalling his battle and deeds of valor. The women and girls sing along with him and play with bows. Accompanying them are about thirty youths... each of them has his drum slung from his shoulder and beats it. Afterwards come his boy pupils who play and turn wheels in the air..."  
and by Jobson (1968:97), as he refers to this practice among the marabouts, or holy men, of 17th century Gambia:
"...going in whole families together, and carrying along their books, and manuscripts, and their boys or younger race with them, whom they teach and instruct in any place they rest..."
One can see a pattern beginning to emerge, a pattern of learning that is applied to many skills. The practice is age old and effective.

There is an interesting quirk to the kora learning process. For the duration of his apprenticeship, the student will not be taught how to tune his kora. Even the advanced apprentice will rely on his master to tune the instrument for him (Knight 1984:76). In traditional situations, tuning "secrets" simply do not enter into the learning process, until the very end. The young musician concentrates on gaining manual dexterity with the kora. The process involves training the fingers and thumbs of both hands to be independent and to execute the often complex cross rhythms. Can he coordinate his fingers to strike the proper combination of strings? Can he sing at the same time? Or perhaps tuning "is kept from him before this [late in the jali's training] to assure that he does not become too headstrong and venture off on his own before his teacher has released him"  (Knight 1973:86).

The learning process is completed with an elaborate ceremony, which is termed a "marriage." The apprentice is presented with a new full-sized kora, built by his master, and takes it as his "first wife."  Papa Susso describes his "first wedding":
"When you qualify, then he builds a big kora for you. That is when you are graduating, and people are invited. All of the family and relatives come to you. That is what we call your 'first wedding.' The first kora is your first wife, showing people that you are qualified and able to be on your own."
The jali-to-be sits with his kora before a group of experienced jalis. They randomly call out questions and musical requests, challenging the young musician's vocal and instrumental skill and testing his knowledge of the repertoire. He is expected to answer all questions and perform each selection as requested. This continues until all of the jalis are satisfied with the level of proficiency the student has attained. The success of the apprentice is a direct reflection on his master, who would not announce the ceremony unless he was absolutely certain that his young pupil was ready. Very few, if any, fail.

How Has the Learning Process Changed? 
In the past it was assumed that a child of a musical family would devote himself solely to learning jaliya, but lately many parents opt to send their children to Western-style elementary schools. This is especially so in urban areas. Papa Susso, who has had the benefit of both experiences, reflects on his father's decision:
"When my father was teaching me, he also decided to send me to school. But my mother was angered by this. We are Muslim by religion, and she had the feeling that if you send your child to a white man's school he might change to a Catholic, Christian or so on. So she was worried about this. Then my dad said, 'Look, no problem, things are changing, we are now in politics. You can never tell what will happen next. So let him know all. Then if he feels, he himself could decide what to do.' I am teaching my son with the same way that my dad taught me, so that when he grows up he can decide."
In elementary school, the child studies the basic subjects, as well as the Qur'an, Arabic and English. In high school French may be added. The study of jaliya is pursued in addition to attending school, or many times after school has been completed. In some cases the study of jaliya will not be undertaken until the child reaches his teens (Duran 1977:755). Another modern trend is to "pick up" jaliya from peers. Many young players forego the vocal aspects altogether, instead focusing on flashy instrumental technique with plenty of birimintingo. The role of jaliya itself has shifted from oral history to instrumental entertainment.
"In the past, jaliya was hereditary, that is, it was handed down from father to son. But now whoever wants to become a jali can learn to play an instrument... when he's mastered it he can call himself a jali."[2] 
In urban areas a child can learn by attending a kora school, where instructional manuals and formal classes have been developed. Kora schools instruct all types of pupils, not just hereditary musicians. Some schools in Senegal, for example, have undertaken the teaching of kora to blind students so as to increase their chances of providing a means of livelihood (Dalby 1972:43). Some young kora players are performing in ensembles with drums and other instruments, and many use amplifiers with electronic sound modification devices to add new sonorities to their playing styles.

In the provinces an apprentice works on a jali's farm as a form of payment, but in the city he must pay cash. The idea of select apprenticeship has given way to commodification. There is also a tendency toward children being formally educated and migrating to the cities in search of work (Ohuche and Otaala 1981:16). Musicians have altogether moved out of some provinces in the south (Schaffer 1980:67), and there is also a diminishing number of patrons who appreciate the traditional ways. Amadu Bansang Jebateh laments:
"Jaliya today is very different from jaliya in the past. There is a great difference between them. There are very few who practice jaliya as dictated by tradition. Patrons as well as jalis have forsaken our tradition.  And anyone who does so for money is betraying what we have inherited from our predecessors. A good jali, however, is always in tune with tradition."[3]
Couple the aforementioned factors and the outlook appears bleak. But despite this, jaliya still remains vibrant, owing largely to its strength as a musical tradition, albeit a tradition in transition.

What Can We Learn From All This?
Here are some observations on learning jaliya and kora: children are not handled with "kid gloves"; individuality is stressed from the outset; there are no grades, degrees or certificates of achievement: the music does the talking; there are no syllabi with their implied impersonality and interchangeability; there is little failure. Christopher Small feels that adherence to a syllabus through directed learning is not the natural way (1980:187-88). Children in modern schooling frequently ask, "Why am I learning this?" They may not see the end result until the end, if at all. In learning jaliya the child sees the end result from the beginning and can also be a vital participant. By tapping konkondiro the young jali is directly contributing to the performance, and in doing so shows the he has the "feel" for the music. Perhaps our difference is "knowledge without experience" (Small 1980:192). Are we too obsessed with technical matters and theoretical perfection? Why not train by participation in actual situations? Not just music, but other skills. Bring masters from various fields into schools and initiate self-perpetuating oral traditions. Eliminate some of the cyclical failure of typographic illiteracy by allowing success through exerting orality. Older students can pass knowledge and skills on to younger students, and all can participate in a vibrant learning experience.

Western ways have enticed Africans, and many other peoples, into abandoning long held traditions. This is evident in the modern way of learning jaliya, with its emphasis on quantization, formalization and commodification of instruction. The results of these adapted methods are pure instrumental kora virtuosity, which is not necessarily bad in and of itself unless it leads to the relinquishment of the core of jaliya as oral art with kora accompaniment. Africans truly appreciate the oral aspects of music; it is Westerners who often look toward instrumental skill and command as a measure of artistry. Will we soon see kora orchestras, yoked to score and conductor? Probably not, but let's hope that the traditional ways will stand up in the modern age.

The solution for us may be a simple matter of recognizing the difference between product and process. Think not so much of future virtuosity and fame (i.e. power), but of simple present experience. Learning can be an intensified experience of life rather than a mere preparation for life.

[1] From an interview with Gambian kora jali Papa Bunka Susso conducted by the author in New York City on 23 November 1988. All quotations from Papa Susso in this article are from the same interview. Special thanks are extended for his kind assistance and to those who made his visit to NYC possible. Photos 2 and 3 above were taken by the author at the interview.
[2] Mamadu Suso, from the film Born Musicians: Traditional Music of the Gambia (1984). This quote and the next one from the same film were not in the original article as the film was not available for viewing at the time of publication. Photos 1, 4, 5 and 6 are screenshots from the film, which is available online here.
[3] Amadu Bansang Jebateh, a kora jali interviewed in Born Musicians. He appears in photo 6 above.

References Cited
Aning, B.A.
1982 Tuning the Kora: A Case Study of the Norms of a Gambian Musician. Journal of African Studies IX/3:164-175.

Battuta, Ibn
1969 Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354. Translated by H.A.R. Gibb. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers.

Chernoff, John Miller
1979 African Rhythm and African Sensibility. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Dalby, Winifred
1972 Music. In Guy Atkins, Manding Art and Civilisation. London: Studio International.

Duran, Lucy
1978 The Mandinka Kora. Recorded Sound 69:754-757.

Huchard, Ousmane Sow
1985 La kora, objet temoin de la civilisation mandingue: essai d'analyse organologique d'une harpe-luth negro-africaine.  Ph.D. Thesis, Montreal University.

Jobson, Richard
1968 The Golden Trade. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall.

King, Anthony
1972 The Construction and Tuning of the Kora. African Language Studies 13:113-136.
1974 Musical Tradition in Modern Africa. Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 123, December, pp. 15-23.

Knight, Roderic
1971 Towards a Notation and Tablature for the Kora. Journal of African Music V/1:23-36.
1973 Mandinka Jaliya:  Professional Music of the Gambia. Ph.D Thesis, University of California at Los Angeles.
1984a The Style of Mandinka Music: A Study in Extracting Theory from Practice. In Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology, Volume V: African Music Studies. University of California Los Angeles.
1984b African Music: The Manding Context. In Gerard Behague Performance Practice: Ethnomusicological Perspectives. Westport CT and London: Greenwood Press.

Laye, Camara
1959 The African Child. Translated by James Kirkup. London: Collins Fontana Books.

Niane, D.T.
1965 Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Translated by G.D. Picket. London: Longman Group Limited.

Ohuche, R. Ogbonna and Otaala, Barnabas
1981 The African Child and His Environment. United Nations Environment Progamme, Volume 3. London: Pergamon Press.

Park, Mungo
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Pevar, Susan Gunn
1974 Liner Notes for the Sound Recording Alhaji Bai Konte: Kora Melodies from the Republic of the Gambia, West Africa. Rounder Records 5001.
1977 Teach In: The Gambian Kora. Sing Out, 25 March/April:15-17.
1978 The Construction of a Kora. African Arts 11/4:66-72.

Schaffer, Matt and Cooper, Christine
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Small, Christopher
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[Originally appearing in Echology (Vol. 2, 1989, pp. 75-89), a journal edited by Charlie Keil of the Department of American Studies, State University of New York at Buffalo, this was my first published research paper. At the time, I was learning to play the kora. The paper has been slightly edited, updated and reformatted for reprinting here. For me, it represents a very different experience of research. I still recall the joy and wonderment I felt as a student ferreting out the various printed sources from the SUNY Buffalo library's old-style card catalogues and paper bound journal indices and hunting them down from the book stacks in those bygone days of pre-internet research.]

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