Sona Jobarteh’s forward-looking vision of the kora

The Gambian musician’s work is deeply rooted in the griot tradition of West Africa, but she has her eyes on the future

Mamadou Sarr and Sona Jobarteh perform during the 2023 Savannah Music Festival, Georgia. Photo by R. Diamond/Getty Images
Mamadou Sarr and Sona Jobarteh perform during the 2023 Savannah Music Festival, Georgia. Photo by R. Diamond/Getty Images

“Being modern is often associated with becoming western,” says kora virtuoso and vocalist Sona Jobarteh. “What I’m trying to bring to attention is that there is such a thing as being modern and African at the same time. You don’t have to abandon your own culture and traditions to have a voice.”

Jobarteh, 40, has spent the past 15 years establishing her own distinctly modern take on Gambian musical traditions. She is descended from a family of West African griots — musical storytellers employed to counsel kings and pass on oral histories — whose lineage can be traced back to the 12th century. 

Jobarteh’s ancestors passed down musical knowledge from father to son and focused their talents on the kora, a 21-stringed harp-like instrument made from a calabash gourd. With the release of her debut album Fasiya in 2011, Jobarteh announced herself as the first female practitioner of this centuries-old tradition.   

Across 11 tracks, Faisya reimagined the traditional folk repertoire for the kora, deploying electric guitar, kit drums, fulani flute and other traditional instruments such as the balafon. On her latest release, 2022’s Badinyaa Kumoo, Jobarteh pushes those ideas further, incorporating a range of African and diasporic influences, including the intricate polyrhythms of Senegalese mbalax on Kambengwo, propulsive Afrobeat drumming on Fondinkeeya and bluesy jazz fusion with a guest appearance by the US saxophonist Kirk Whalum on Nna Mooya. 

Jobarteh is now on an expansive North American and European tour in support of the album, arriving in London to play the Barbican on 11 May. Dialling in from the US after a show in Asheville, North Carolina, during her sixth week on the road, she shows few signs of fatigue and is enthusiastic about her mission. 

“Touring is exhausting but I’m very happy to be here and to spread my message through the music,” she says. “For many parts of the world it feels like Africa is a museum piece, where people go to see history. That means the younger generation there feel like they have to engage with western music that does not belong to them to have a sense of relevance. Badinyaa Kumoo is directly challenging that.”

Jobarteh did not take up the kora seriously until she was in her teens. Born in London to her griot father Sanjally Jobarteh and visual artist mother Galina Chester, she initially played cello and gleaned the basics of the kora from impromptu lessons given by her older brother Tunde. 

Moving back and forth between London and the Gambia, Jobarteh focused on classical music and, at 14, enrolled as a boarder at the Purcell School for Young Musicians in Hertfordshire, where she found herself one of the few pupils of colour. 

“It was a massive culture shock and one of the most challenging periods of my life because I felt so foreign and so different,” she says.

One evening while studying in the library, Jobarteh noticed an ornamental kora hanging from the wall. She took it down when no one was looking and immediately felt a need to restore the instrument so it could be played. She began tinkering without asking permission from her teachers or the school’s staff.

“It became this really comforting project to try and bring the kora back to life each night in the library,” she says. “It was a reminder of home.”

Eventually, one of the school’s night custodians noticed Jobarteh and whispered that she should sneak the kora back to her room where she could repair it in peace. Once there, she decided to learn to play properly. 

“You’re meant to learn the kora in social environments, but every time I would play it back home, I felt under scrutiny for being a woman,” she says. “I realised the only way I was going to learn would be in the western sense, shut away with a teacher where I could grow on my own terms.”

At 17, Jobarteh travelled to Norway where her father was living, and challenged him to teach her. He agreed and they embarked upon a four-year journey of intensive study. Increasingly passionate about pursuing a career in music, Jobarteh was still uncertain about where she would fit into the industry. 

“I didn’t want to be seen as different and I felt overpowered by the presence of pop music,” she says. “I just thought it’s not possible to bring out a traditional, funny-looking instrument and start singing in foreign languages. I was producing with hip-hop artists, playing reggae and exploring a lot of different musical forms instead.”

It wasn’t until she played her first show in the Gambia at 28 that Jobarteh found her confidence. 

“My dad performed with me and publicly endorsed me, and that gave me so much reassurance,” she says. “I decided the music just needs to be what it is, that I would rather do something that feels true to myself and have 10 people in the audience than have 10,000 people watching something I don’t feel is me.”

Jobarteh has spent the intervening years playing exactly as she pleases to thousands of people. In addition to Fasiya and Badinyaa Kumoo, she has released a musical score for the 2010 documentary Motherland and has been inspired outside of music to focus her efforts on encouraging the next generation. 

In 2015, she founded the Gambia Academy, an educational institute in the coastal village of Kartong that teaches music, post-colonial history and cultural studies alongside vocational skills. Now the Academy has 21 full-time students aged 10 to 18 and Jobarteh hopes to expand its ethos and curriculum to other schools across the country.  

“We have continuous forced migration in the Gambia because we’ve given students qualifications that have zero use to them,” she says. “This is really about bridging the huge chasm between the education system and what the country actually needs from its citizens.”

That powerful message of embracing and celebrating a modern vision of African identity  runs through every aspect of Jobarteh’s work. It is also infectious. On tour, thousands of miles from home, she delights in creating moments of profound connection with audiences that often know little of her heritage or experience. 

“Here in the US, people know a lot less about the kora and this tradition but they are moved by it,” she says. “Every night I’m having a musical conversation with the audience, inventing something new that never stops pushing this centuries-old expression forwards.” 

Sona Jobarteh performs at the Barbican, London on 11 May.

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