Sona Jobarteh, the first female Kora virtuoso has become a celebrated performer not only in her native Gambia but globally. Raji Rafiq caught up with her for this exclusive.
Maya Sona Jobarteh, who was born in London to an English mother, Galina Chester. She is the granddaughter of the Master Griot, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh. Her brother Tunde Jagede is an accomplished player and her cousin is the celebrated Kora player Toumani Diabaté.
The kora skills are usually passed from father to son so Sona’s accomplishments are unique for this form of music.
She has studied the Kora since the age of three, attended the Royal College of Music in London where she studied cello, piano and harpsichord and later the Purcell School of Music in the UK to study composition. She also completed a degree at SOAS, University of London.
The proceeding interview was conducted when Jobarteh was in Boston for a lectureship and performance mentorship at the Berklee College of Music in the US.
What is your view of contemporary African music?
I think there is space for every innovation and new music types that can be borne out of the continent of Africa. And I think it is particularly good if Africa can successfully develop its own popular music genre that promotes African cultures as well. So, I think it is a positive thing.
My only reservation is to appeal to artistes in this genre to try to make sure that content is effective. Content has value and what it promotes is something that we should hope to be, something that is constructive and beneficial to our cultural identity.
Are you tempted sometimes to break with tradition to appeal to a wider audience?
I am always encouraging tradition to be innovative and to be made relevant and kept modern. That doesn’t mean that we go away from tradition. There is a difference between innovating and maintaining. And there is a difference between that and actually abandoning tradition all together and going into completely different genres that may not be rooted in the culture of whatever country you happen to be from.
Does it bother you that Western audiences are perhaps the backbone of your craft?
I am not sure I agree that ‘Western audiences are the backbone of my craft’. But I think that perhaps there is the point that there is a huge Western audience following for traditional West African music.
Again, I like to be specific in talking about African music. Obviously, I am only representing one tradition, one culture within a ridiculously huge number of traditions from the continent.
But I would say that in the Manding tradition, which is the tradition I belong to, there is a huge Western audience that appreciates this tradition and follows it. But it in no way replaces the audiences that celebrate their own culture and traditions from inside the continent.
This is not limited to the countries that they belong to and there are also increasing numbers of people from other parts of the continent. It has been a very interesting experience being able to relate to so many other different cultures within the continent of Africa.
There is the issue that financially, the Western audiences do create a stronger industry for particularly, Manding music outside of Africa. And it is in many ways because of a lot of the industry support and so on from other parts of the world that there has been an impact and a growth in the music.
How did you manage to get yourself taken seriously as a female kora artiste?
I think the honest truth is I am just me. I am not trying to convince people of anything. But I very confident with what I do. I would say that at the heart of it was that from the beginning, I just wanted to be a good kora player. I was never really aspiring to be a female kora player or become known as a female kora player.
I just wanted to be a kora player. I didn’t see myself any different from any other of my peer groups, who were obviously men. I didn’t learn in the context of other males learning this tradition. It would have been very difficult for me to do that. So, kora studying was a private affair for me. And I spent time with my father Sanjally Jobarteh. But again very much one-to-one.
My father always told me: ‘make sure you just focus on being a good kora player, don’t try to be this or that female; just be good at what you do’. So, that was very much my motivation and I decided, at a point when I felt I was ready to launch myself in the professional sphere. And that was all encompassing. The story unfolded after the release of my first album.
How do you think female genital mutilation (FGM) can be stopped?
FGM is one of the areas which I find very important in what I am doing in terms of socio-cultural development back home. How does music have the power to impact our communities? How does it have a power to actually make change?
On the album that I am writing at the moment, there is a song which is centred on this issue of FGM. This is an issue which I am bringing to the fore with music because I feel like the only way to uproot a cultural practice is to challenge it through a cultural medium.
So, to challenge it with approaches that are foreign to a culture, ways that are considered as outside a culture is very difficult because this practice is very deeply culturally rooted.
It is therefore something that can only be changed or questioned when you use the tools that are also very deeply culturally rooted. And I believe, and many people agree, that music is one of the most powerful cultural markers in any community, in any corner of this world. Music does represent a huge percentage of a people’s culture.
Beyond music, the arts in general also represent a huge portion of culture. So I feel we have to collectively start to look at cultural tools and use them in structured ways to challenge these practices from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
If you are asking how it can be stopped, I think it is something that again must be challenged from inside the communities at the root of what we hold as an integral part of our culture.
Do you plan to go into politics in The Gambia?
[Chuckles] .A lot of people ask me this question. I’m not able to detach my ambitions from the development goals that I envisage for the country. Talking about The Gambia, yes, I cannot detach my ambitions from what I am doing from that ultimate development aspect.
Of course, development must also encompass politics in a lot of way because politics is what governs development strategies within a country. So I see myself as somebody that would be always crossing the political boundaries, challenging politics, challenging approaches and strategies for development within the country.
But as for me becoming a politician, it is not something that I am planning to do because I do not want to become removed from what I am doing – what I represent as a cultural ambassador, as an artistic ambassador, as a representative of that aspect of society.
Would you say your resilience in staying true to the roots of your music is paying off?
Yes, I would. When I first started I thought I was making a mistake because I could have gone into any other genre of music that is considered more globally recognised and gain a following over a shorter period of time.
However, It was always my ambition to ensure that I would succeed in the genre which I believe is owned by us. This is something that I wanted to promote. And yes, I believe the resilience is paying off. But I believe the story is not yet done. It is only just on the path to where I can see that I want to go. So, I’m not there yet but I’m seeing now that the direction is coming into play.
Kora playing is steeped in tradition. Performers come from long established families that are historians, genealogists and storytellers who pass their skills on to their descendants. They are referred to as jali or griot which is a French term.
The kora is a 21-stringed instrument and the sound it produces is similar to a combination of the harp and the guitar. The instrument is played in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and The Gambia.