The Gambian-British musician is the first professional woman kora player from one of the five principal kora-playing griot families from West Africa.
The kora, a harp-like instrument, has been passed down for centuries among West African musical storytelling families, called griots. For much of that time, West African custom only allowed men to be paid for playing the kora. Sona Jobarteh changed that tradition. She is the first professional woman kora player from one of the five principal kora-playing griot families from West Africa.
Jobarteh, whose father is Gambian and whose mother is British, first began playing the kora at age 3. She learned the instrument from her brother and received encouragement from her paternal grandmother. She later received more extensive instruction from her father, and studied cello, piano, and harpsichord at the Royal College of Music in London. She also sings and has used her skills to lead a band, compose an orchestral soundtrack, and to create the Gambia Academy, a school that prioritizes the teaching of African culture and history. Jobarteh’s music and her singing technique draws largely from West African traditional styles and often sounds ethereal, although she can increase the tempo, add more rhythm, and propel her vocal melodies with more power.
In 2010 she adeptly created classical African sonics to accompany the documentary Motherland, about the African continent, from Ancient Egypt to the present. On her documentary score, Jobarteh sings angelically and mournfully in Mandinka, and employs African and European instruments to envelope listeners in sound. On her 2011 album, Fasiya, Jobarteh instead creates a band-like approach with her own expertise on the kora, bass, ngoni, flute, guitar, and percussion. Utilizing chord patterns and melodies historically found in Gambian and southern Malian music, Jobarteh doesn’t completely break new musical ground. But she does passionately show the timelessness of the genre, and demonstrates that, of course, women too can pluck out exquisite, heavenly notes from the kora’s 21 strings. Sona Jobarteh performs at 7:30 p.m. on March 13 at City Winery, 1350 Okie St. NE. citywinery.com. Sold out. Waitlist available.