Sona Jobarteh is the first female kora virtuoso to come from a West African Griot family
Gambia’s Kora Quuen Sona Jobarteh is currently working on her second album following the release of her first, Fasiya, in 2011.
Jobarteh told The Daily Gazette that she will use her new album to talk about host of issue affecting the country especially on the area of gender.
Sona is the first professional female kora player to have come from the Gambia. Several years ago, she opened a small school of 21 students in The Gambia to teach children the kora and traditional music.
She’s working to build an academy to be able to teach even more students, starting construction in the next few weeks. Jobarteh is also working on her second album, following her 2011 album “Fasiya.”
Here, she talks to The Daily Gazette about learning the kora (along with the cello, piano, guitar and other instruments), why she wanted to teach others and why she’s embracing her reputation.
Q: Obviously, music runs in your family. Did you grow up playing music together?
A: Yeah, since it’s a family tradition you’re kind of around everyone playing. So mainly my older brother was the one playing but my father, my grandfather, [and] so on were all musicians. Music is pretty much going through the day and night. My brother started to teach me the kora around the age of 4 or 5. Then as I got older I started to want to do it as a profession.
Q: Did you grow up in London or in [Gambia]?
A: It was between The Gambia and the U.K. at the age of 13 or 14, [I started] school in the U.K, it was [a music school] outside of London. I was there for two years and then another music school for two years and then I went to university.
Q: How was that transition [from The Gambia to the U.K.]?
A: It wasn’t easy because the school was outside of London. London is cosmopolitan and very mixed and where I was in school wasn’t at all. There [were] not even any other people of African descent at all. I always felt different so it wasn’t easy. But it was in those times that music became such an important thing for me to keep my sense of identity.
Q: How do you feel like your music has grown in the past decade [since your first album came out]?
A: It has grown a lot. I would say that there’s particularly more growth in the last sort of three to four years as I’ve started to work much more intensively on my projects in The Gambia. That has really affected my music and the direction that I’m taking in terms of [the] music that I write, as far as what [its purpose is]. For me, music is about communication. It’s about having that opportunity to communicate and since it gives you that opportunity to communicate in so many different environments. It’s about trying to make sure that you have something to say. Something that can make a difference, something that is positive. So this is really something I’ve been focused on in the last few years and with the new album.
Q: What was the turning point [in] the last few years?
A: I would say the time that it really moved quickly was when I set up my school in The Gambia. That’s really when things changed a lot in [terms of] the way I look at things. Although, all the seeds for making me want to set up a school in the first place were all in inspired by the same thing. But it becomes so much more heightened when you’re dealing with real people and real children who go through so much. When you experience it first hand it’s a different level of experience.
Q: What led to the decision to open the school?
A: That started mainly in my university years. I started teaching in university. [My] postgraduate students have obligations at the end of their courses to go and study in Africa for a certain period. So I set up ways to get the students to be able to spend a month or two months in The Gambia with certain members of my family to study. That’s where the seed really started [for the school]. We don’t have institutions [in The Gambia] that actually represent our traditions in the same way that our institutions represent our traditions in Europe. That’s a big discrepancy because it means that Africans who want to get qualifications and study the history and context of our traditions end up coming to Europe to get those qualifications. That’s something that was a problem for me. I wanted to see more countries start to develop institutions because society is changing a lot now. We used to rely on our families and our elders to pass the traditions on. Now, because society is globalized a lot of those elders have moved abroad to earn a living in the rest of the world as professional musicians and not as village musicians. So we don’t have our elders the same way. We see a big gap developing in our communities in the expertise and in the level of knowledge of the next generation just because they are getting incomplete teachings. We have to try to protect the traditions [not only] for our own students but also those students coming from abroad. So that [was] the original motivation. But I knew I couldn’t start by setting up a university. I decided to start with a school with just 21 children that I would sponsor myself just to prove what’s possible if you take a group of students and educate them for a couple of years. Those students have done so well now. They’ve been on national TV, they’ve performed at all the state events in the country. They’ve done amazingly well just in that two year period. So in 2019, we are on the move to expand into an academy. The team is pretty big now.
Q: You’re [called] the first female kora virtuoso. What do you think that means to your students?
A: It says a lot. This is something I’ve actually grown into. I would love to say to you that I wanted to be the first female kora player. But that’s really not how it happened. I was lucky to have this instrument in my hands at a basic level. My decision to take it to that professional level was something I wanted to do only because the kora relates to me, unlike any other instrument. I was always quite resistant in my 20s and late teens to be labeled as this female kora player. I didn’t like it, in fact, I kept saying ‘I’m not a female kora player. I’m just a kora player.’ But as I started to work with girls and young women in The Gambia, that’s when my perspective changed. I realized only through the reflection of them and the way that they relate to me, I realized how much it means to them, which I never really fully appreciated until I saw the way it made them feel and how much inspiration it gave them. So it’s something I’ve learned to embrace over the years.
Q: Earlier this year, you were awarded Artist of the Year [at the Africa Festival]. What was that experience like?
A: It was amazing, totally unexpected. It meant a lot to me because I’ve really just kept my head down. I’ve had so many times where I’ve wanted to quit because the work has just been too much. You start [thinking] ‘you know, I’m a human and I have to sleep at some point in my life.’ You’re putting so much in and you may not see so much out of it because every day is a challenge especially in The Gambia. We have so [many basic things to struggle with from just having electricity to water and a roof over our heads. It’s at the point where having this recognition allowed me to suddenly step back and say ‘Wow. This is coming together.’
Q: You’re working on a new album. What are some of the things that inspired you?
A: There are issues that relate to the work I’m doing on the ground. There’s so much that I want to talk about; I just can’t wait to talk about it and this album is the perfect platform so I’m actually structuring this as 12 campaigns. Each of these [is] related to problems we have in The Gambia and I know other countries can relate to, especially around gender issues. There are certain taboos we have culturally and music is a way to actually bring this out and put it in the public eye. Hopefully, that’s the starting point.
Q: When you come to Proctors, are you going to be [playing] a mix of new songs and songs from your debut album?
A: No. I’m going to be [performing songs] from my previous album. Mainly because it has been a slow and painful process to get it to where it needs to be but as I keep telling all the business people around me and the agents, my album is for life. For [them], it’s just for however long [they] have a contract with me. But my album is for life so you know I have to do it right so I’m going to take my time. I come from a history and a tradition that is very old and I see this album just like my last album as my contribution to the tradition that I’m part of. In light of it being 700 years old, I think a couple of years late is not a big deal.