Sona: miracle of cultural multiplicity

Sona Jobarteh

Sona Jobarteh

For years since my two decades of survival on this troubled world began, my conviction as an African man grew in strength, so too my desire to unapologetically assert it.

I, however, found myself in a continent of the black world where beings are in an intense struggle to run away from themselves- discard  their cultures, their life-styles and their languages to,  perhaps, delight the white racists.

In this fervor to disown themselves, African woman has created a multi-mllion dollar wig industry for the America so did they in their pursuit to appear to be white using what they call skin lightening cream which is in fact self-destructive cream.

But not all is lost! This is not the first time Africa has had herself on the defensive battling to defend her culture, wealth and social, and political structures and we prevailed to the surprise of many- many times than I can recount.

But heros and heroins of such historical enterprises to save the continent’s culture and tradition are found in diverse people in diverse places on the continent—every country takes pride in theirs.

Gambia has hers—ours is Sona Jobarteh. Unique in her species, she has come to save our African tradition on a slide. Tradition that was almost consumed to its neck by Americas and Carribean music—not among the conscious-old but the rather among the unconsious-young.

She does the work with Kora.

The kora, a 21-stringed harp-like instrument, was a dominant musical tool in traditional West Africa—a dominance it enjoys even today despite the proliferation of modern tools in musical production in the region.

But that is far from being peculiar- what is new is the sight of a woman playing it in a way that equals or surpasses the talent of men who dominated the trade since time immemorial.

That sharp break from the past in the Kora music industry in The Gambia and by far, the region, was inflamed by Sona Jonbarteh.

Thus, she has become a modern day pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated hereditary tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries.
Largely seen as a miracle of cultural multiplicity, Sona Jobarteh was born in United Kingdom  in 1983 into one of the five principal Kora-playing Griot families from West Africa.

But her European descent would not interfere with her desire to identify herself with her roots, Africa and her family heritage, Kora.

That firm belief  in roots will manifest itself in a song she would write to mark The Gambia’s 50th Independentce anniversary, titled “Motherland”.

With the subtlety of a genius and the depth of an iconic wisdom reminiscent of post-slavery, virgin African culture free of the toxics of Western influence, Sona poured into the song an advice a typical African man would give to a son set to leave his motherland on a far-off journey.

“Your motherland is your biggest treasure—don’t forget to come home whenever you leave,” she says, as she cherished and glorified the beauty of The Gambia.

“I will celebrate the beauty of this country wherever I go.”

Even more startling about the video of the “Motherland” is how Sona managed to clutch diverse life-styles of Gambians in their diverse beautiful ethnicities in a five-minute package, thus it is dubbed “Gambia in five minutes” by lovers of the videos.

She blends different musical styles, from both the European and West African traditions.

However, unlike her contemporaries, she explores and expands on traditional African roots rather than trying to fuse them with contemporary hip-hop and jazz.

In addition to the kora, she also sings and plays the guitar which speaks of her strength as not just a vocalist or a kora player but a multi-instrumentalist and composer from The Gambia and the UK.

She is the granddaughter of the Master Griot of his generation, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, and cousin of the well-known, celebrated Kora player, Toumani Diabate and she is also the sister of the renowned Diaspora Kora player Tunde Jegede.

Sona started  her musical journey at a very young age after she has been  introduced to kora at the age of four by her elder brother Tunde Jegede, and later further developing her expertise under the tutorship of her father, Sanjally Jobarteh.

The years spent working as a musician in the UK training in Classical institutions such as the Royal College of Music and Purcell School of music, as well as being a permanent member of her brother’s internationally acclaimed ACM Ensemble allowed Sona to become immersed in a world of musical diversity many could only dream of.

Sona was able to work alongside internationally acclaimed artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, Kasse Mady Diabaté and The BBC Symphony Orchestra.

These many influences have fused together giving birth to one of the most exciting new talents from the West African Griot tradition to hit the stage in recent years.

Described by Black History Month Magazine as “One of the most recognizable daughters of the Griot Tradition”, one of Sona’s most captivating qualities, not subjected to questioning, is her voice.

Sona’s vocals were featured in the Hollywood blockbuster movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” which was released in the United Kingdom in January 2014.

In addition to this, the track Sona featured as solo vocalist in the film “The First Grader” directed by Justin Chadwick won the “Discovery of the Year Prize” at the Hollywood World Soundtrack Awards.

This saw Sona gain her first opportunity to perform as a solo vocalist at the awards ceremony live with an 80-piece orchestra.
In 2010, Sona composed the film score to the Multi-Award winning documentary film “The Motherland”, directed by Owen Alik Shahadah.

Notably for the accomplishment of this score, Sona invented a new instrument which she named the ‘Nkora’. Drawing on her skills as a classically trained composer, as well as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, this body of work sees Sona pioneering a new genre in Africa cinematic music.

Forming a UK-based band that is both sympathetic and sensitive to the subtle idioms of the Kora repertoire has not been an easy task, but Sona has now achieved the formation of a group  call African Guild Record.

An inspiring set of musicians from different parts of Africa who manage to render her music beautifully onstage, whilst still embodying each of their own diverse musical identities.

Whether the full band or a smaller acoustic ensemble, this group of musicians never fail to bring a rich, revitalising energy to the stage.

In 2011 Sona released her critically acclaimed album entitled “Fasiya” which was a landmark not only in her musical journey, but in the continuously evolving tradition that she is a product of.

Into this album Sona has poured not only her abilities as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, but also her competence as a keen producer.

The Afropop Worldwide described the album as “full of grace, warmth and passion…” much “Unlike any other kora album….”

Working in both Gambia and the UK Sona pieced together the many elements she needed to produce a work of art that would reflect her unique position in this tradition as both a preserver and innovator.

But the African traditional rope that gets hold of Sona and inflames her passion for kora, like any mundane love affair, tightens by day.

Sona becomes not only concern of the promotion of traditional African music, but its sustenance and preservation for generations to come.

Consequently, she has been working on setting up Gambia’s first manding music school over the past two years which is dedicated to cultivating knowledge and expertise in traditional music and culture amongst the next generation of young Gambians.

Named after her grandfather, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, and  informally set up by her father Sanjally Jobarteh, Sona’s intent is for the success of this school to stand as an enduring testament to the invaluable legacy her grandfather left behind as well as to inspire the next generation to stick with their traditional music and culture.

The school is expected to start operations next year  between January and April 2016”.

If anything, Sona has proven African ways are beautiful ways for we were, we are and we will continue to be the cradle of humanity despite our “myraids” of problems.

By Mustapha K Darboe


Africa guild website


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