Her instrument was the preserve of men for hundreds of years, but the Gambian musician wasn’t fazed. She explains why she ripped up the rules – and is now remodelling African education.
In west Africa’s griot tradition, it’s men who play instruments while women sing. But Sona Jobarteh was determined to change that and asked her father to teach her to play: today she is the first internationally successful female player of the kora.
As a girl, she “resented being a female – I didn’t want to be seen as a novelty, but to be accepted as an equal. I was majorly into football at the time and practised football even more than music. But I realised that even if you are the best, you are still on a women’s team, which – when I was young – was pretty rubbish. I thought, ‘there is no hope, you can’t be anything’. And the same with music. I didn’t want to be marginalised and told ‘you are good – for a woman’.”
At Norway’s adventurous Førde music festival in early July, Jobarteh, now 38, shows off how good she now is on a beefed-up version of the traditional song Kaira, her impressive kora playing backed – unusually for a kora player – by a full band of electric guitar, bass and two percussionists. During the track Gambia, a celebration of her homeland, she brings on her father, Sanjally, who lives in Norway. Like his daughter, he’s a griot from a line of hereditary singers and historians stretching back 700 years.
Jobarteh was 17 when she told Sanjally she wanted to learn kora, a kind of lute-harp hybrid: “He was very supportive.” She had always wanted to be a musician – she just didn’t know what kind. “I always wanted to create music on any instrument I could get my hands on,” says the spirited and talkative Jobarteh when we meet in a deserted hotel restaurant prior to soundcheck. She grew up in Gambia and the UK (her mother is English), where she studied western classical styles at the Purcell School for Young Musicians and then history and linguistics at Soas University of London. She didn’t need to take their music degree, she says: “Because the people at Soas learned from my family! So I decided to go to my dad and uncles – I had all the teachers I could dream of.” She practised during her Soas years while also playing guitar in her older brother Tunde Jagede’s band as they toured the world performing “mainstream music – R&B, reggae, hip-hop”. She had been confused about where her heart lay, then decided to follow her father’s tradition. “I’d prefer to have just one follower rather than do something that’s not me and have a thousand followers,” she says.
It wasn’t until Jobarteh was 28 that she felt ready to play kora in public – on a small international stage at the Alliance Français in Banjul, the Gambian capital, rather than at a traditional event such as a naming ceremony, where she might offend the male griots. “And it had to be with my dad, at his side,” she says. “That’s an affirmation for me and the family that I have his support.” By now she had also embraced singing – the Gambian griot Juldeh Camara (best known in the UK for his rousing work with Justin Adams in JuJu) convinced her she was good after hearing demos. While she was anxious, “it felt like a significant moment in my development”, she says.
Her 2011 album Fasiya proved that she was no novelty: her re-working of griot classics along with originals brought international success. And yet, remarkably, there has been no follow-up album until now: the brave and original Nna Taariko (which translates as Our History/My Story) is finally released in September, more on which later. The delay is partly a result of Jobarteh’s other passion: creating the template for a new African education system. In 2015 she founded the Gambia Academy, which teaches African languages, culture and history alongside mainstream subjects “because education in the Gambia is still a legacy of the colonial system,” she says. “Why should learning the kora or djembe be extra-curricular?”
Situated in the countryside near the Senegal border, the school currently has 26 students aged 11–19. She still struggles to persuade some parents to send their children to the Academy “because they are the product of [the] education system [we] are trying to undo!” When Jobarteh is in Gambia, she’s there every day. “I used to teach English and science but I can’t be pinned down to classes because my focus is on curriculum development – educating them in things they need to survive in their own country. We are doing poultry farming and agriculture and girls are learning construction.”
Even when Jobarteh was away on tour, she had to deal with school problems. “I would be in an airport and get a message that the school bus had broken down and I’d have to call a mechanic. Imagine doing that from Australia!” These days, luckily, she has a new deputy.
Education fits the griot tradition of advice-giving. Jobarteh describes the role that her ancestors used to play in the days of the Mandé empire when it was expected that they would provide “another voice, another viewpoint”, and suggests that this has fallen out of today’s practice. Why: political or commercial pressures? She replies tactfully. “It could be changes in society dictate those kind of things … This is something that has to be looked at”. It’s vital, she says, that the original role of the griot be revived. “Criticism has got to come back into the tradition,” she argues. “We have a whole generation of young people who are very talented but are having to go into hip-hop and R&B to express themselves and be relevant. Which is sad. We are losing talent from our own traditions which are stagnating and becoming museum pieces rather than active participants in our society and growth.”
A week after the Norwegian festival, I meet up with Jobarteh again, this time in a recording studio in Canning Town in London. She’s with her 15-year-old son Sidiki, who will be playing balafon in her band at the Womad festival, to oversee the final mix of her long-awaited new album. Her new compositions bring harmonica, saxophone, strings and other orchestration to the roots of traditional songs: the percussive djembes and calabash, along with, of course, the kora.
It was recorded around the world – at home in Gambia, in hotels, studios in Paris and Dakar, a bedsit in New York – and Jobarteh sings in Mandinka and plays percussion, bass, guitar, and cello as well as kora. “I pushed my own boundaries,” she says.
And it certainly brings criticism back to the griot tradition. When I arrive she is finalising a song that includes synthesisers and affirms the importance of music as communication. The message, she says, is: “Don’t be a conformist.” Then there’s a lament about war, forgiveness and children, with Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani; an mbalax-influenced anthem on African unity with Youssou N’Dour; an exquisite kora duet with Ballaké Sissoko; and percussive kora-driven songs dealing with the role and treatment of women, and questioning whether power should always be in the hands of the traditional elders or those who are younger and more able.
“I had a chance to be in contemporary music like R&B and hip-hop, and some people find it surprising that I wanted to do traditional music and imply that I’m going backwards,” she tells me as we listen. “I see what I am doing as going forwards.”
Sona Jobarteh performs at the Womad festival on 29 July. Nna Taariko is released on 23 September on African Guild.
Writing by Robin Denselow
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