Towards Leapfrogging Gambia’s Music Industry: Singer Jobarteh at Work

One might not need to prepare for a herculean task when faced with a question to catalogue the problems of Gambian music and its musicians. The answers are very explicit and anyone could easily guess to find the answer. But one thing that is greatly missing in the not-so-thriving industry is the absolute lack of strong, creative and innovative institutions that can grow talents from the grassroots.

For instance, the country currently lacks a standard music center/gallery for promoting and presenting innovation and experimentation in music, especially Gambian traditionally-inspired ones. Someone might argue that the country also lacks identification in music as has been the case in many neighbouring countries such as Senegal, Guinea, Mali and even Nigeria. Yet others in some quarters might just maintain the view that few Gambian artistes have gotten the requisite knowledge to back up their talents. Wherever the line of argument might fall, this void might soon be filled through an initiative by an acclaimed Gambian international singer and kora player.

Sona performs with her band at the Independence Golden Jubilee state banquet. Photo:
Sona performs with her band at the Independence Golden Jubilee state banquet. Photo: Sona Jobarteh

Sona Jobarteh, the only Gambian professional female kora player has long been working tirelessly to establishing a hub for the study of music in her ancestral land, The Gambia. Starting with the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh Manding School of Music, which was founded many years ago by her father Sanjally Jobarteh in his home, the female star appears to have the right prescriptions for the nation’s ‘static’ music industry. She hopes to expand to build a centre of excellence where music and education will be integrated given their indissoluble link.

“The main thing I wanted to start to see was an institution being established here which integrates the study of music into mainstream education because we are often challenged by having to make a choice between education and music,” she said in an interview with this author on Sunday. “This is something that I want to change and try to bridge the gap. People often tell their children you are doing music but make sure you do your studies. So for me this is a choice that shouldn’t have to be made; both music and education should go hand-in-hand. Where one does not cover, the other one does. In order to bring this to fruition we have to have an institution that can integrate both for the children and for young people. This has been my main target over the years and I want to see this come to fruition here in The Gambia”.

Components
The hub being under development is a multi-purpose institution that, upon completion, will host many facilities for Gambian communities. In essence, it is going to be a hub for the people.

She highlighted: “Just to highlight some of the things we are working on including into our facilities is to establish Gambia’s first library of African literature; which will also provide access to the national musical archives of the Gambia because that has never been done and it’s something I want to do. We will have a specialist film editing suite and in that we will have some people abroad to help set it up. Also very important to me is to put in place a professional recording studio. By that I mean an international standard professional studio. So that’s one personal major thing I can’t wait to see happen. Then we will have a music tech department for more general classes; a 400 seat concert theatre; facilities for professional rehearsal; proper duplication facilities so that artistes don’t have to go anywhere to get their music done to get the final product”.

Government support
The one-time winner of the BBC World Music Award is appreciative of the support and commitment of the government of The Gambia to the development of the country’s artistes and their initiatives. After successfully performing in a series of shows marking the country’s Gold Jubilee in February this year, the Kembujeh based artiste was rewarded a piece of land in Brusubi, purposely for the establishment of her music project.

Sona and officials inspect the proposed music project site allocated by government. Photo: Sona Jobarteh
Sona and officials inspect the proposed music project site allocated by government. Photo: Sona Jobarteh

She said: “Firstly, coming to The Gambia, I have seen that the government really supports cultural enterprises in the country. We are as inspired for its success as much as they are; so that’s the great side of it. We are now in the stage of trying to get logistics together to start building. So now there is not much in the way of getting this underway. The land is in a brilliant area; easily accessible”.

“In November last year I had a piece of land that I wanted to purchase for the building and expansion of the school. Obviously in trying to gather funds together, there were a lot of sacrifices I was going to have to make. I was ready to do it because I really believe in the importance of what we have to do. So that’s why I came in January; my challenge was to be able to pay for this piece of land. But since that major hurdle has come off my shoulders after this gift of land I have hardly been able to absorb what has happened. I could not believe it, it is really a dream come true. When you are working so hard to make something possible, whether you have support or not, you know that you are going to succeed; but this just means that you can actually make it come true sooner rather than later”.

She says the government’s intervention came at the right time and it could only be commended for this giant leap forward for the project. She considers the gesture as the single biggest push for the initiative thus far.

“If you don’t receive support from the right institutions at that right time, it can actually kill that passion in trying to achieve something that should not have taken so long. So for me I cannot thank enough for that support alone. If nothing ever comes again, that support is enough for me to get this project off the ground,” she said.

Lack of good management, branding
Further diagnosing the diseases that continue to plague Gambian music industry, Sona believes lack of professional management and marketing of artistes are derailing all efforts to leapfrogging the industry to be at par with other developed or developing industries. Observing the urgent need to address this state of affair, she offers to branch her UK-based company to The Gambia to manage her music project and artistes interested in its services.

“My company in UK, the ‘African Guild”, oversees artistes’ management, branding and design. It is very much concentrating on a high level of presentation, which is my motto; presentation has to be done very well. So the function of this company is to start to work with artistes from The Gambia, trying to work on a packaging deal where we take on artistes, record them, produce the album, brand the artistes, get their websites for presentation and pitch them at international record companies. That’s the target for the company here. So I want to start implementing that as soon as possible. It will also oversee the running of the school here,” she told me.

Imitation versus creativity
Imitative tendencies have long been a major problem affecting the industry with some musicians underestimating the power of self-innovation and creativity. Most often than not, this hinders the productivity of the artistes and chances for them to grow to stand up for the stiff competition.

“I think for me looking at a lot of the music that we potentially export from this country, it’s not innovative enough. A lot of it is imitative rather that innovative. So I want to see more innovative work and by that I don’t mean imitative but coming up with something that is purely yours,” she said.

Using this project, she is hopeful that this trend can be changed to usher in a situation where Gambian artistes, especially the next generation will not only hit the international market, but have their hard labour deservedly rewarded. But to attain that, she says, “Gambian tradition and identity has to be kept alive since it makes no sense reaching greater height in music on the backbone of someone else’s culture”.

“It’s not going to work,” she said. “We have to present what belongs to us. It’s high time we see that from The Gambia”.

Sona performs on stage at a state banquet for the Independence Golden Jubilee. Photo:
Sona performs on stage at a state banquet for the Independence Golden Jubilee. Photo: Sona Jobarteh

Sona, who was in 2013 featured as a solo vocalist in the Hollywood movie ‘Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom’, warned: “Sometimes people forget how much they have. There is no need to take anything from anywhere else. That is not the natural succession of where you actually come from. That doesn’t mean not modernising your people. Tradition never stays the same, it keeps renewing. As soon as it stops renewing, it is left behind and it becomes dead. So for me as soon as that change stops you get a situation which we are seeing a little bit now where people are no longer learning about our traditions because we haven’t successfully bridged the gap between old and new. So we have to accomplish this effectively and we cannot do that in the vacuum and just jump on someone else’s culture. Every people has their own journey to make. This is why there is real need for the work of the company I am trying to bring here because we really have the talent here. I have seen it; they have everything they need but the most important bit is missing, which is the production, the branding, the packaging; the kind of things that people don’t put enough emphasis on because of the fact that in The Gambia it doesn’t matter. But people forget we are not trying to sell to Gambians; Gambians are the obvious market. We have to try other people that don’t understand our language, our culture, our music and try to make them understand it, and thus we have to go the extra mile. I am 100 percent sure that it will be successful; it’s just a matter of implementing it”.

Teacher training
In order to build the basics for this center of excellence in music, Sona, an educationist herself and a firm believer in the quality of education, is currently spending time in investing in teacher training.

“The main reason I said that is because the quality of education is only as good as the teachers that teach it. There is something which I had issue with for many years; it’s my passion to get involved in creating a system for teachers to teach in a new way. It’s something that has been developed in different countries from around the world because a lot of resources and time has been put into it; and you see the effect that it has on the children. I have spent so long teaching, refining teaching programs in UK, researching methods of learning, apprenticeship and so on and for me it’s something I’m so passionate about. Now I want to start implementing some of the results of this experience and research at the school. Right now that’s even more important than the building because we can have an amazing building and yet nothing to put in it. So right now my emergency is we need to start this teacher training so that by the time the building is up, we are ready to start work at the right level,” she said.

Up and running
If all worked out, the artiste looks forward opening the institute’s doors to Gambians by September, 2016.

“Ironically when we first had a conversation (me and Sona), it was targeted for September this year. I knew very well that that was a very ambitious timeframe but there is nothing wrong with that because it pushes things to happen. But realistically we are talking about September next year. When I say that I mean the bulk of the school should be running on a full time basis,” she concluded.

Here you can read more of what Afropé have been writing previously about Sona Jobarteh

World music winner 2012

A chat with Gambia’s only female kora player

Why the need for a music school in Gambia

Kora star Sona Jobarteh braces up for London performance

Int’l female kora icon looks back at career in 2014

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Hatab Fadera

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