/ 29 May 2024

Player adds a string to women’s bows

Sona Jobarteh Performs At Symphony Space
British-Gambian musician, singer, and griot Sona Jobarteh plays kora (a 21-string, West African Mandingo harp-lute) during a World Music Institute concert at Symphony Space, New York, New York, June 23, 2019. Jobarteh is the first female from a griot/jali family to perform publicly on the kora. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

For Sona Jobarteh, Africa’s first woman to play the sacred kora professionally, breaking with tradition has not been easy.

At Abidjan’s Femua urban music festival, last weekend in the Ivorian city, Jobarteh went on stage with percussionists, guitarists and a balafon player. In her hands, the 21 strings of the kora — an instrument shaped like a lute and plucked like a harp — were used to create captivating melodies over repeated rhythms.

“The process of getting to learn the kora was different for me than it was for male members of the family,” she said. “The kora is the social instrument that you learn in a community … but being different to everybody else it became difficult for me to be someone that is accepted,” she said.

“It became a very private journey for me, which is very different … to the normal way of learning kora in a family context.”

Jobarteh comes from a family of Gambian griots, respected musical storytellers who pass on West African traditions. Her grandfather Amadu Bansang Jobarteh was a kora master. Her Malian cousin Toumani Diabate was another kora star.

“I don’t know what it was but I do know that I was always attracted to it from a young age and I started playing from a young age,” Jobarteh said.

“Later, it was really when I was around 17, that I started to really take it as ‘this is something that I want to be my profession’ as opposed to just something that I can do.

“So that’s when I really started to study very hard with my dad, as with an aim and a goal of becoming as good as I could on the instrument.”

Her perseverance paid off with international success, working with famous artists as well as a hit with the song Gambia.

“It’s difficult to tell the level of impact that I’ve had on the tradition in terms of other women being able to come through,” she continued.

“Even for me, being a female … it’s still unusual to see and it’s incredibly inspiring for me.

“I feel that something very special is happening when I’m witnessing these classes going on” at her music academy in The Gambia. 

“Wow, this is the change that we are starting to see.” — AFP