Sona Jobarteh is one that resonates in international music across many continents being the first professional international female Kora vocalist and instrumentalist.
Described as the ‘Kora Queen’, Sona is a modern day pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries in the Griot Family from West Africa.
A Gambian with European lineage, the singer, composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist has travelled the mile since age three impacting the world with her very traditional Manding music.
The Manding music played by five principal families (Griot) originates from the Gambia, Mali, and Guinea.
“These five families have the right to play such music and I was born into one of them. My father played. My grandfather played. Significantly, it’s a male tradition even though the females are involved in the vocals”, she stated.
But breaking free from the norm, Sona is both a vocalist and an instrumentalist playing not just the Kora but also the guitar, bass, calabash, cello and an instrument called the Nkoni which she invented herself for use in many of her compositions for films in order to capture unique sounds.
Interestingly, Sona, has also learnt to build some of the musical instruments including the Kora, which she uses for her performances.
When Showbiz caught up with her at her residence in Accra, she did not hesitate to give a repertoire of one of her favourite songs, Mamamuso, off her first album, Fasiya which contains 11 songs.
Mamamuso recalls the influence of her late grandma on her music career as a child, and appreciates the woman for supporting her destiny in music which was at that time unknown to her.
“It means a lot to me not because of the song itself but what I put into it emotionally. When I was very young, she was always encouraging me to sit with the instrument when my grandfather or father was playing.
“At that time, I always resented it because I just wanted to play my football and run around and I was not going to sit around for hours waiting for the music to stop”, she recalled.
“The significance of her insistence means a lot to me today and yet she is not around to see what transformation she gave me so the song is to say thank you”, she added.
A family orientation
Sona was first taught the Kora by her brother, Tunde Jegede from a very young age, then later went on to study with her father Sanjally Jobarteh as a teenager.
Coming to terms
Until recently, Sona spent more of her energy into helping produce music for others but spending more time with her father helped her to rediscover herself, hence her recent release.
She had attempted to blend her traditional music with Western classical music but then she decided to do purely traditional African music, and “the acceptance of my music is humbling”.
Ghanaian music lovers may not understand the lyrics but the melody is refreshing, soothing, and relaxing.
Journey so far
Sona made her debut as a film composer in 2009 when she was commissioned to create the soundtrack to a unique documentary on Africa entitled Motherland.
In 2002, she travelled to Vienna to perform with the renowned jazz vocalist Cleveland Watkiss. She has also collaborated with musicians from around the world, including Oumou Sangare,Toumani Diabaté, Kasse Made Diabaté and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
She has been a regular member of her brother’s African Classical Music Ensemble, which has toured England, Ireland, Africa and parts of the Caribbean.
Sona performed at the 2014 Festival Internacional Cervantino in Mexico.
Last year, she performed at the Millenium Excellence Awards in Kumasi as well as one of the top world music festivals in Malaysia.
Since the release of her album Fasiya in 2012 she has been touring extensively worldwide with her group, performing in numerous countries including Tanzania, Germany, Poland, Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia and Korea.
Sona is establishing the Gambia’s first specialist school for traditional music which is named after her late grandfather, The Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music.
It is a full-time institution which not only teaches traditional music but also delivers a new, high level of education to its students.
Currently, the school gives places to children between the ages of 8 and 12.
However, as the school has been receiving increasing exposure and support it will continue to expand and offer places for students up to the age of 18.