It was a successful career for The Gambian-UK born international kora sensation, who today, is still one of very few widely known female player of the 21-string to have made a name for herself at the international scene.
Gambian-British, Sona Jobarteh, who became the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a West African griot family, continued to expand her global audience after she explored new frontiers in the preceded year.
The year saw the kora star and her band of experienced artistes touring three continents selling her genre of music to audiences she was meeting for the first time. The tours in South Korea in Asia; Italy and Portugal in Europe and Mexico in the Latin American had crowned Singer Jobarteh’s 2014 success stories.
But the year also was a big time deal for her dear project, which she is jointly developing with her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, a renowned master kora player himself. She devoted much energy and resources into this project – the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music, located at the cultural town of Kembujeh, just a few minutes’ drive from West Coast Region’s commercial city of Brikama. She used her band and influence to raise some funds for the school, which has since enrolled some students that are currently undergoing various stages of musical education.
In this one-on-one exclusive, Sona Jobarteh tells us her career and other related developments registered in 2014. But first, a brief look at her biography.
Breaking away from tradition, Sona 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. Sona was able to work alongside internationally acclaimed artistes such as Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Kasse Mady Diabate and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Af: Thanks Sona for the interview once again. To begin with, I’m sure a lot of developments have taken place since the last time you were featured on this medium. Would you mind to share with us some of the steps in your career?
Sona: Thank you for the invitation to come once again to feature on this platform. Indeed a lot has happened since the last time. This year has focused on touring with my band around the world and we have had some amazing experiences. Also we held the first fundraiser event in London for the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music which was a great success and managed to raise the funds to cover the next project which will be starting in January 2015.
Af: October was a busy month for you having successfully toured countries in South America, Mexico to be precise, Italy and Portugal in Europe and South Korea in Asia. How was it like having to tour all these countries for performance in just one month?
Sona: It was a very challenging schedule, but an amazing success. The reception we had in Mexico and South Korea was phenomenal, and these were audiences that very rarely get to see African Music played live and for many it was actually the first time. So we felt so proud to be representing The Gambia so far afield and to give people an experience that they will remember.
Af: Tell us more about your experience in Mexico? First time I guess!
Sona: Yes, the first time in Mexico for us to perform. We had a string of shows in the major cities across Mexico. Again many of the audiences had not had the opportunity to come and listen to African music live so they were so excited very passionate about us. We had people follow us from one city to another just to see us performing a second time. It was amazing having thousands of people singing along with the music – in a language they didn’t understand but felt so connected to. Bannaya and Musow were definitely the favourite songs among the Mexican audiences.
Af: One of the amazing pictures to have come from your Mexico tour was the scramble by your fans for your signature. What was the feeling like having to be approached by fans you were meeting for the first time?
Sona: This was a crazy experience and at times quite scary as so many people were fighting to get their cds signed and I could not possibly manage to do it for everyone who wanted it. I would go into the dressing rooms to wait for the audience to leave but they would just stay there chanting “Sona… Sona…” until I would come back out. It was very touching for me, as I know many of these people have heard my music for the first time at my performance and are expressing the way they feel about the music. The fans in Mexico showed us so much love, it was a very humbling experience, and makes you understand the real power music has to cross borders and speak to anyone anywhere in the world.
Af: How was the experience in South Korea? What was the general reaction to your music in these countries?
Sona: In Korea the audiences were so different to those of Mexico. The Mexicans are very outgoing, relaxed and expressive, but the Koreans by contrast are very reserved people. I knew this before going out on stage to perform to them, and for me it was my mission to do what I was told was the impossible – to get the Korean audience dancing on their feet. And we managed it – we had the whole audience up on their feet dancing and singing back the words of Musow to us. It was brilliant!
Af: Performing in these kinds of great shows requires a team of dedicated band members. What’s the composition of your band and what’s the experience like in playing for people with totally different cultures?
Sona: I’m definitely lucky to have a great band full of very experienced musicians. I have band members from Ghana, Tanzania, Jamaica and Senegal and the band is made up of guitars, percussion, drum kit, and bass in addition to my Kora and vocals. I think the fact that are diverse gives us an edge which audiences from different cultures can relate to. But most importantly I think it’s the expertise of the individuals I have in the band that gives us a powerful lineup that makes us equipped to play to people from anywhere in the world.
Af: Sona let’s talking about your school in The Gambia, which is also moving step by step. What are the latest developments and what does the future for it looks like?
Sona: The Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music is Gambia’s first international Manding music school. It is dedicated to delivering a high level of music education to children from The Gambia and also running courses for international students. The latest developments is that we have had our first sizeable donation from a UK based charity called the Erase Foundation which specializes in providing furniture and equipment for schools in The Gambia. It is an amazing charity which is very progressive in supporting education in The Gambia and I’m very honoured to have received a massive amount of equipment from them for the school. Now we are in the final stages of securing a larger piece of land to accommodate for the school expanding in the way that it needs to. The next project at the school is starting in January 2015 and will be the re-enactment of part of the Sundiata epic and will feature students on the Balafon, dance, drumming, and singing.
Af: How much do you want this school to be supported by everyone both within and outside?
Sona: The school’s success depends largely on the support we hope to receive from both the Gambian and international community. I am very confident in its aim, and it will be an institution that is one of its kind in The Gambia, and indeed even beyond the border of The Gambia.
Af: I’m also aware that you are organizing a music seminar that you are working so hard to stage. What is the level of preparation?
Sona: This seminar will be held sometime in March 2015 and is aimed at addressing some of the issues Gambia has with its music industry. I will be bringing some music industry experts from overseas to share some of their knowledge and also to run some tailor made workshops with bands in The Gambia. This is aimed at helping bands develop in a way that will aid them to reach outside of The Gambia to audiences from around the world. There are specific things which we can develop in the music industry in The Gambia that will help facilitate this. The seminar will also mark the launch of the department at the school which will specialize in music business, management and industry. This is a facility that I’m very keen to offer not only for students at the school but for any Gambians who feel they need help and guidance in these areas.
Af: Sona let’s talk about your album project. What’s the stage?
Sona: I have now started work on my next album which is to be released next year. I will also be releasing a single in The Gambia in February which will also give a taster of the album to come. So at the moment I’m focusing on getting that finalized.
Af: How different do you want to make this album from the previous hit album, which is still a choice for most pundits?
Sona: This next album is stepping things up again for me. I’m basing it much for the band formation so that the songs can be taken seamlessly from the studio to the stage. The sonic is very acoustic, but at the same time with a lot more punch and arrangements, and will feature the kora much more than the previous album. Importantly above all of that, this album is for The Gambia – dedicated to The Gambia and The Gambian people. It’s a message to say that I’m proud to be a part of Gambia and I’m proud to be representing the country around the world in the work that I do. I want people as far away as Japan, Mexico, India and USA to be singing about The Gambia. This will be the single that I want to release in The Gambia first, before anywhere else in the world. It will be due out in February.
Af: That does it for this interview, but before taking leave of you, what would be your last comments for this interview?
Sona: Just to thank all the people that have supported the work that I do and my music, and especially also to thank you Hatab for your continued support over the years. I look forward to being back in Gambia after the New Year.