It takes more of courage and a great sense of vision to make a difference and in fact establish a position in a trade that is highly competitive and challenging in nature. This becomes even more challenging especially if one is a woman, given the widely held superiority perceptions that have pervaded the minds of many a man. For many centuries, Kora playing has been viewed as an exclusive affair for men, in that it is a strong hereditary entity that is exclusively handed down to a son by the father.
The Kora, a 21-stringed African harp, is one of the most important instruments belonging to the Manding peoples of West Africa. It can be found in The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. The Kora, along with a handful of other instruments, belongs exclusively to the griot families of West Africa. Only those who are born into one of these families have the exclusive right to take up these instruments professionally. It has since been a male-dominated affair, a situation that has left women born to the griot families to respect that strong culture.
However, Gambian-British, Sona Jobarteh, became the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a West African griot family. Breaking away from tradition, she is a modern day pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated hereditary tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries. Born into one of the five principal West African griot families, Sona has become the first in her long family line to break from tradition by taking up this instrument professionally as a female.
Her family carries a reputation for producing renowned Kora masters, one being her grandfather, Amadou Bansang Jobarteh (ABJ) who was a master griot and remains a leading icon in The Gambia’s cultural and musical history. Her cousin, Toumani Diabaté is also known worldwide for his mastery of the Kora. Taught to play the Kora at the age of four by her elder brother Tunde Jegede, Sona started her musical journey at a very young age.
The years spent working as a musician in the UK training in classical institutions such as the Royal College of Music and Purcell School of Music, as well as being a permanent member of her brother’s internationally acclaimed ACM Ensemble, allowed her to become immersed in a world of musical diversity many could only dream of. Sona was able to work alongside internationally acclaimed artistes such as Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Kasse Mady Diabate and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These many influences have come together to form one of most exciting new talents from the West African Griot tradition to hit the stage in recent years.
Sona has an effortless ability to blend different musical styles, not just between the West and Africa, but also between West African musical genres. She uses her innovative stance to talk about issues to do with cultural identity, gender, love and respect whilst still referencing and rooting herself firmly in her traditional cultural heritage. She represents her tradition in a way that is easily accessible to her audiences from around the world, who are drawn in by her captivating voice, strong rhythms and catchy melodies.
One of Sona’s most captivating qualities is her voice. Although only taking up her ability to sing very recently, she has since fast been gaining a reputation for her voice alone. Most recently her voice has landed her the big role of vocalist in the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” to be released in the United Kingdom in January 2014.
Over the past four years the Kora maestro has been carefully piecing together her band. Forming a UK-based band that is both sympathetic and sensitive to the subtle idioms of the Kora repertoire has not been an easy task, but Sona has now put together a group of inspiring musicians from different parts of Africa who manage to render her music beautifully onstage, whilst still embodying each of their own diverse musical identities. Whether the full band or a smaller acoustic ensemble, this group of musicians never fail to bring a rich, revitalising energy to the stage.
She describes her latest album, released in 2011 entitled, “Fasiya” as a landmark not only in her musical journey, but in the continuously evolving tradition that she is a product of. Into this album Sona has poured not only her abilities as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, but also her competence as a keen producer. Working in both The Gambia and the UK, Sona pieced together the many elements she needed to produce a work of art that would reflect her unique position in this tradition as both a preserver and innovator.
I caught up with her in a marathon online interview recently and she tells us her story as it is.
GN: Thank you so much Sona for accepting this interview and I am happy to indeed host you. Since this is your maiden appearance on this column, who is Sona?
Sona: My name is Sona Jobarteh; I am an international Kora player, musician, composer and producer whose family originates from The Gambia and the United Kingdom.
GN: Sona you are the only female Kora player the country has produced so far. Your story is indeed interesting in that kora playing was seen as a male-dominated hereditary that has been exclusively handed down from father to son. But you have managed to break that culture? Tell us how it all started for you?
Sona: This started with my brother teaching me to play. When I was very young, my brother Tunde Jegede was studying the Kora with my grandfather Amadou Bansang Jobarteh as well as with my father Sanjally Jobarteh. So as a consequence he started to teach me to play as well. When he was at home practicing I would be sitting alongside him learning to play the basics. Later in life when my playing was more developed I then started to study with my father Sanjally Jobarteh.
GN: Sona let me take you back to your 2011 visit to The Gambia where you launched your album. How meaningful was that experience?
Sona: This experience was very meaningful indeed. This was the first time I was coming to The Gambia to perform. Unbelievably I have been to The Gambia so many times spending time with the family but after all these years of performing around the world I had never taken to the stage in The Gambia – the place where it all started! So this was a very momentous occasion for me. Also it was a dream that I had for many years, to be joined on stage with so many members of my own family all at one time. I had my father Sanjally on the Kora, my uncle Sankung Jobarteh on the guitars, and my young cousin Musafily Jobarteh on djimbe.
GN: During the said launch at the Alliance Franco, I remember when you played the song titled ‘Musso’; your entire Gambian family came on the stage singing. What was special about that song?
Sona: This song is about women, and I wrote it in dedication to women because of being inspired by playing the Kora professionally as a female myself. It highlights the importance of female strength, courage and independence.
GN: How much has Amadou Bansang inspired you?
Sona: Amadou is know by so man, not just in The Gambia but internationally. He was one of the leading kora masters of his generation. The legacy that Amadou left for the entire family inspires me greatly. In fact it was because of this that I first started to think seriously about recording my own album, as well as being one of the inspirations for the title of the album, “Fasiya”. I feel so fortunate to be one of his descendants and I hope that my career will in some way contribute to the lineage that has been passed down to me.
GN: How about your father, Sanjally Jobarteh? What does he do and how inspirational has he been to you?
Sona: My father is himself a leading Kora player internationally, and has toured Europe as well as Africa. I feel that he is currently the one carrying the torch for the repertoire of the Kora that was passed on to him by his father. He spent most of his childhood and adolescence studying and playing Kora with his father, and so has taken so much knowledge of the Kora from him. This is why I started to study with my father so that I could start to learn some of the real roots of the instrument and some of the old repertoire that many people do not play anymore. Studying with my father actually helped me to find my voice on the Kora. This is something that I will always be developing, but the first step was the most important one.
GN: Sona there seem to be a decline in terms of interest among Kora players in preserving this prestigious heritage. What do you think could be attributed to this and what do you think can be done to preserve this for generations yet unborn?
Sona: There are of course a lot of other influences coming into the country from other parts of the world (especially America). I do not think this is a negative thing, but I always say that it is just as important for people to continue to learn and preserve their own traditions. Working with people in Europe, I think it is often such irony because many people in Europe are amazed and envious of the traditions they find in West Africa, but meanwhile those in West Africa are often more interested in what Europe has to offer than the richness and strength of the traditions they already have. But to be fair, when I look around I do see a lot of young people in The Gambia who are very talented players not just on the Kora but on other instruments too. So I think this is very encouraging. I think that the support for these musicians in The Gambia needs to be raised to a higher level in order to continue to encourage people to take up their traditional instruments. I love change, innovation and collaboration, but it is just as important to retain the roots, otherwise we will be left with nothing.
GN: As a Kora player, I am sure a lot is already on your mind in terms of preserving this heritage. But if I may ask, do you plan to establish a Kora school in The Gambia? If yes, how do you intend to go about it?
Sona: My father has been working on setting up such a school for many years, and I too have plans to assist in this enterprise. But for this to be realised on my part, I myself need to be residing in The Gambia. I will be returning to The Gambia at the end of next year and will continue to pursue these initiatives then, as well as sourcing out funding to support some of the objectives.
GN: I also believe that one way of promoting the preservation of the Kora is for Gambian Kora players both at home and abroad to team up and stage a major Kora festival in The Gambia at least once a year. Has this ever been on your mind, and if yes, how do you think this can be achieved?
Sona: To my knowledge there was supposed to be a Kora Festival in The Gambia in Brikama last year proposed by Oko Drammeh and I had planned to attend it but unfortunately it did not hold. I am certainly keen to support festivals such as this to gain even more attention to the international community. Meanwhile I am looking forward to attending it once it comes up.
GN: Well some are with the belief that the Kora in fact originated from The Gambia. Do you share this widely held belief among Gambians?
Sona: Old written texts written by a number of historians and ancient travelers during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as oral tradition as told by my grandfather and other well-established griots all agree on the origins of the Kora. It dates back to the time of the Kabu Empire and is attributed to the griot Jeli Mady Wuleng. Of course, during the time of the Kabu Empire the colonial borders of The Gambia as we know it today were not in existence. But the Empire of Kabu centered in modern-day Guinea Bissau and extended up into Cassamance. This information along with other studies about African culture and history is very important to be taught to the young generation in Africa. Knowledge of history is one of the most powerful tools for liberation, pride and independence. Too often I find that Europeans study more about African history than Africans themselves. This needs to change.
GN: Which Kora player has inspired you and why?
Sona: There are many Kora players that have inspired me over the years! I lose count… But just to name some of the major ones – my brother, my father and my grandfather. Also Ballaké Cissoko, Jeli Moussa Cissoko, Toumani Diabaté, Sidiki Diabaté, Bouly Cissoko. There are many more and I am sure over the years many more will come! All of these players have touched me in some way and I think to become a great player you must learn something from all of your role models and then come up with something new that is also a tribute to them all.
GN: What do you think of Jaliba Kuyateh?
Sona: I would love to meet Jaliba when I am next in The Gambia! I hear so much about him, but still I have not met him as yet. He is one of the few Gambian players that have gained a lot of success internationally, so I have a huge amount of respect for him not just as a Kora player but also as a musician, singer and ambassador for The Gambia.
GN: Sona since you have broken off the record to become the only female Kora player of our time by taking up this instrument professionally, what have been your achievements as well as challenges? Tell us more about your journey?
Sona: I think the biggest challenge is always trying to live up to my own expectations because there is such mastery of music in my family line. I feel that I have a lot to live up to. But I feel very humbled that I am having the opportunity to perform around the world and that my music is being welcomed so positively in so many different countries. It has shown me firsthand what powerful tool music can be in crossing both cultures and languages. The journey to where I am now has been a life-long one, but I have learnt so much along the way from so many diverse places and am continuing to learn all the time. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to share the stage with some top musicians such as Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Kasse Mady Diabate and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra from the UK. My most recent success has been featuring as a vocalist on the forthcoming Hollywood blockbuster movie Mandella: Long Walk to Freedom, which has been privately screened to some of the top people in the world such as the Mandela family in South Africa and President Obama in the US. Also I have recently secured funding from the British Council to travel with my band to Tanzania to perform at one of East Africa’s largest music festivals called “Busara” next year.
GN: Tell us how elated you were when selected to sing on the Hollywood blockbuster movie on Mandela: “Long Walk to Freedom”?
Sona: I was so honoured to be asked to sing on the movie. I sang on the previous film made by this director, Justin Chadwick, two years ago, and the track that I sang on won the award at the International Film Soundtrack Awards held in Belgium. So it was amazing to be asked back again to sing on his next film, in addition to this film being such a milestone in history.
GN: How did you and all the rest react to the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela on the very day his movie was being screened in London?
Sona: It was the strangest experience. Mandela actually passed away during the screening of the film, so no one knew that it had happened. When the film finished Idris Elba and the producers came to the stage to announce that he had passed away while we had been watching. The daughters of Mandela who were also at the screening had asked for the screening not to be stopped, and instead for the news to be broken to the audience once the film had finished. When the producer told us the news the audience all gasped, and people started weeping and crying, and others stood frozen in shock, others had to be escorted out who were uncontrollable with grief. No one moved from their positions for a long time – no one could believe the timing of it. Everyone present felt that this was not a coincidence – it was like a huge chapter in life closing – as if he was saying that his job on this earth was done, and it was now time for him to leave his message behind. We are now left with the task of honoring his name by striving to uphold the convictions of this man – to fight for equality for all human beings on this earth, because it is a basic human right for all people to live free from poverty and racism. We are still very far from reaching this.
GN: Musafilly Jobarteh is your cousin and no doubt an inspiring teenage Gambian drummer. What can you comment on his talent?
Sona: This is the prime example of the much needed support of young rising talent. He carries the griot music in his bones and he was a born musician. One of the best things also is that he stands as an inspiration and role model to other youngsters to take up their instruments and study them to the highest level, just as he has done. All of us now have a duty to support and nourish this talent. The future of Musa is so bright and I have been working hard to promote and spread the word about him wherever I have been going internationally. I would really love to do some work with him when I come to the Gambia next year. The world needs to see this amazing talent!
GN: Before taking leave of you, what would be your last words to fellow female griots about taking the Kora professionally?
Sona: I would say that it is not an easy journey, and the Kora must always be respected as a male instrument (I will need a separate interview to fully explain that comment before people think I’m being sexist!) But very briefly, every instrument has its own character, just like a human being. So to really play that instrument you must first try to understand the character of the instrument you are learning to play, and also to try to embody some of it for yourself – if you are a female this may not come naturally. So it is a fine balance between your musicianship and your femininity. But in conclusion I will always encourage women to pursue whatever path it is that they most desire, as long as it is true to themselves. And you must always give whatever you do in life 100%!
GN: Any final words?
Sona: I’m very happy to say that I will be coming to The Gambia quite a lot over the next year. I really look forward to it, and also at working with some new artists with regards to production. I have just finished producing a new single for The Gambian artist Kumba Kuyateh which will be released very soon, and I plan to be doing more work with artists when I come.