Etikettarkiv: Sona Jobarteh

Sona Jobarteh headlines Brave Festival as curator, makes breathtaking performances

In spite of the many successes registered by the Kora Queen this summer, one of the greatest projects she accomplished in this 2015 tour cycle was in Poland. As artistic director and curator for the Brave Festival, the celebrated musician diligently and successfully delivered a mouthwatering event that left the organisers and music experts lip-smacking.

It was hard not to be impressed by her effective planning, coordination, and arrangement of the activities of the festival. All these, coupled with her performances including the duet with her father, were what made her headline a festival of this quality. The Brave Festival takes place every year in Poland. This well-established festival (which took place from the 10th-17th July) had this year dedicated its theme to that of the griot, and music from West Africa. As overseer, the Gambian-UK singer made a careful selection of artistes from various countries who represented diverse aspects of the tradition.

The singer, aided by her indefatigable band members, opened the festival with a spectacular night performance to a theatre audience of 700. “This was one of my greatest projects this year. My night performance, opening the festival was an amazing experience. I performed with my full band and it was a brilliant show”, she says.

Sona Jobarteh at brave festival - Photo: Sohna Jobarteh
Sona Jobarteh at Brave Festival – Photo: Sona Jobarteh

Last shots of new video at the festival
What was iconic for her with that show was the fact that they finished filming the much anticipated culturally and traditionally-inspired “The Gambia” music video during the performance. The idea was to capture some footages of the live performance of The Gambia song on foreign soil for foreign audiences. “I was actually struck how well we were able to mobilise them sing along with us; it came very well. We had the whole theatre up on their feet echoing the movements of the dance we got in the village of Kembujeh village in The Gambia. It was actually breathtaking and they were just singing so loud. I had told the audience before that I was going to finish this official video at the Brave Festival and they were so amazed that we actually chose that festival to finish the video. So we had five cameramen around the stage, at the sides and at the back catching that wonderful show. So we got some amazing footages to go into this video,” she says.

Curator of the Festival
Sona considers her role as curator of the festival as a profound honour and a giant leap forward that can only add greater value to her already internationally recognised artistic status. After her nomination by the director of the festival, she was handed the responsibility of, among other things, choosing and innovating the whole festival; who came? what artiste came on board? how they would fit together in terms of the story line of the festival. “I had been working on it for the past six months and seeing it came to fruition during the festival was amazing. I chose some of my favourite artistes, not just favourite but artistes I felt best represent some of the key areas of the griot tradition. This is because this year’s festival was dedicated to the griots. So I was trying to map out the history of the griot tradition through artiste performing. So I had Abou Diarra – Malian – from France come over to perform. I had Kasamadi, Lansana Kuyateh, Bala K. Sissoho, Bala Kuyateh, one of the leading balafong players in Mali and so on. So basically I was presenting the whole festival,” she says. It was Sona’s exclusive role to make a presentation about every artiste that was performing; why she had chosen them as well as explaining their relevance in the tradition and what they are doing today. She describes such a responsibility as a massive honour to be presenting artistes of this caliber to audiences she had never seen before.

Reunion at the festival
One of the memories of this festival was the reunion of two Malian brothers – from the same mum and dad – who had hitherto not seen each other for a decade. Kasamadi, who was performing didn’t realise his brother, in Bala’s band, was watching. Realising that it would have been difficult for them to meet without this kind of festival given their different international schedules, they could only be grateful to Sona for inviting them unknowingly. “Kasamadi’s brother came to me crying to thank me for this opportunity to meet again,” she recalls.

Sona Jobarteh performing. Photo:
Sona Jobarteh performing. Photo: Sona Jobarteh

Duet with Abou Diarra
“I also performed with Abou Diarra, who is somebody that I have followed for so many years. He is an incredible talent. So for me it was breathtaking to perform with him because he invited me to join his show for us to do a duet together”.

Daughter-Father Performance at the festival
Sona closed the festival with an exclusive duet kora performance with her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, a master kora player, well acclaimed for his unique skills. Being the first time Sona and her father had performed a full length recital, it was a historic moment for both of them.“To be closing the festival with that was amazing. Again the impact on Polish audiences was great; the response was just another level,” she says. All in all, Brave Festival 2015 will surely go down in the archives of Sona. “So think it was a turning point in my career because it is something that is a hell of responsibility. The director as he said in the closing ceremony, “This festival has been a treat for me because this has been a time where I have just been able to step back and let somebody else do the work”. But as it was going, he was seeing and knowing it was working. I am always going to be grateful to him because he saw something in me that I was sort of not seeing,” Sona Jobarteh concludes.

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera

Sona Jobarteh prepares for global tour

After successful engagements in The Gambia where she pushed her music project, Artiste Sona Jobarteh has been preparing for her annual tour that is taking her to many amazing places in Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.

Sona Jobarteh - Foto: Arkivbild
Sona Jobarteh – Foto: Arkivbild

Coming hard on the heels of an amazing show at the Fifth Edition of the l’Emoi du Jazz Festival in Ivory Coast, the tour will see the artiste thrill her global fan-base in diverse platforms, expected to be well attended.

The tour kick-off was set on 2nd July with a visit to the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar, Germany before moving to TFF Rudolstadt, Germany, from the 3rd to 4th of the same month.

From the 10th – 17th July, Sona visited Poland to attend the Brave Festival. She was appointed Artistic Director and Curator for this Festival.

This well-established festival is dedicating this year’s theme to that of the griot, and music from West Africa.

Other line up concerts include WOMAD Festival in UK, August 1st; Emancipation Celebrations, Trinidad, on 7th August; Rainforest Festival, Malaysia, 24th Sept; and Gera Muzika Gyvai, Lithuania, 24th Sept.

 

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera

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

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera

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

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.

 

sona 5Af: 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!

 

sona jobartehAf: 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.

 

Sona Jobarteh
Sona Jobarteh

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.

Sona’s website

ABJ School Website

Erase Foundation

 

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera

Kora star Sona Jobarteh braces up for London performance

Gambian-British born Sona Jobarteh, who became the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a West African griot family, is set for a grand concert in the heart of London, United Kingdom, to raise fund for her pet project in The Gambia – the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music – Gambia’s first Manding music school.

The long-awaited UK appearance will see Sona with her full band on Thursday, July 17th at the Forge in London for this exclusive event that is expected to attract many of her fans. As an ardent advocator of tradition, Sona has been working on establishing this school over the past year which is dedicated to cultivating knowledge and expertise in traditional music and culture amongst the next generation of young Gambians. Named after her grandfather Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Sona’s intent is for the success of this school to stand as an enduring testament to the invaluable legacy he left behind.

In a recent interview with TheGambia.nu, Sona spoke passionately about the idea of putting in place such a great initiative that will create the opportunity for harnessing and unlocking the potentials of youngsters to take on future music careers. “It’s a kind of like an interesting origin because myself I have always been in education – teaching children in UK and Europe generally. I have been a teacher for about nine years in different universities in UK. It has been part of me and I had always thought that one day I am going to have school in The Gambia for musicians,” Sona explained the genesis of how the school idea came about.

“The topic came up with my dad one day when I was about 18 and then he
was like well exactly the same thing was in my head. We never talked
about it before and when it came up, we had exactly the same plan
about what I wanted to do in terms of the legacy we have. So that was
basically how it became stronger in my head – it’s like my dad was
planning the same thing. So I want the curriculum to grow on my dad’s
knowledge because he has a lot of valuable knowledge about the old
tradition. I want to institutionalised some of these knowledge he has,
start to put into curriculum that can be given to children here in The
Gambia and ultimately to Europe”.

Coming from a legendary griot family, Kora Player Sona Jobarteh, who released an acclaimed album “Fasiya” in 2010 and in December featured as a solo vocalist in the Hollywood movie ‘Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom’ is well aware that catching the talents of kids young through her initiative is perhaps the best contribution she could make to the development of The Gambia’s young music industry that continues wrestle with enormous challenges.

 

Sona Jobarteh
Sona Jobarteh

About Sona
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.

About the Kora
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.

 

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera

A chat with Gambia’s only female kora player

Sona 3 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.

sona 5The 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.

Before about Sona Jobarteh in thegambia.nu

Hatab Fadera
Hatab Fadera