“Sona Jobarteh: Breaking Tradition to Master the Kora and Preserve African Music”

By | August 7, 2023

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Sona Jobarteh, a musician from West Africa, has become the first woman to master the centuries-old instrument called the kora. Breaking tradition, Sona is keeping the musical tradition alive by playing the kora and performing around the world. She believes that traditions must evolve to be relevant to society. Sona is also advocating for a new model of African education through her school, the Gambia Academy. Lesley Stahl reported

This is an updated version of a story that was initially published on Dec. 25, 2022. The story introduces Sona Jobarteh, a musician who has mastered the kora, a centuries-old string instrument from West Africa. The kora has been traditionally passed down from father to son in specific griot families. Sona Jobarteh, the daughter of a Gambian father and a British mother, is the first woman to break this tradition and become a master kora player. She believes in keeping the tradition alive by breaking it and has been performing worldwide to showcase the beauty and significance of the kora.

The kora is a unique instrument with 21 strings that are played using four fingers, two on each hand. Sona Jobarteh compares it to nothing else because it is normal for her, and she compares other things to the kora instead. She performed a traditional love song called “Jarabi” for the interview, which is sung in the Mandinka language. This song and the kora itself are part of the musical tradition that originated in the 13th-century Mali Empire in West Africa.

In the Mali Empire, the griots, who were primarily men, were the musicians and storytellers who advised kings, resolved conflicts, and passed down legends orally. Women in griot families were singers, but only men were allowed to play the instruments. Sona Jobarteh, however, has broken this tradition and has become one of the world’s leading kora players. She performs with her band across Europe, West Africa, and the United States.

Sona Jobarteh believes that traditions must evolve and adapt to remain relevant to society. She sees herself as a catalyst for change and an important adaptation in the griot tradition. Sona Jobarteh comes from a griot family, with her father being the son of a legendary Gambian kora player. She grew up in both the United Kingdom and the Gambia, and her grandmother, who wanted her to embrace her griot heritage, encouraged her to sing. However, she was drawn to the kora instead, and with the permission of a late-night worker at her school, she started learning and playing the kora.

In addition to her musical pursuits, Sona Jobarteh studied classical cello in the UK and excelled in it. She faced challenges as one of the few biracial students at her music boarding school and was often shy and unhappy. However, she found solace in the kora, and it became her calling. At the age of 17, she approached her father and asked him to teach her the kora, breaking the tradition of passing it down only to sons. Her father immediately agreed, saying that it didn’t matter if the player was a man or a woman.

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Sona Jobarteh worked hard and started performing with her father and later with her own band. She gained acceptance in Europe first and then in the Gambia with a song and video that became the unofficial national anthem of the country. She is now using her name and heritage to advocate for African education and has founded a school called the Gambia Academy. The school focuses on teaching traditional arts such as dance, drumming, kora, and the balafon, another griot instrument. Sona Jobarteh believes that music gets the most attention but aims to create a new model of African education through her school..