First professional kora player, Sona Jobarteh shakes up traditions

First professional kora player, Sona Jobarteh shakes up traditions
First professional kora player, Sona Jobarteh shakes up traditions

Invited to the Anoumabo Urban Music Festival (Femua) which ends on Sunday in Abidjan, Sona Jobarteh took the stage with confidence, accompanied by percussionists, a balafonist, a guitarist and a bassist.

In an elegant wax ensemble, with braided hair and some jewelry, her fingers virtuously ran through the metal strings of her kora, stretched from the top of a wooden handle to the flat part of a decorated calabash. They create captivating melodies through their melancholy and the repetition of certain rhythms.

“The process of learning the kora was different for me than it was for the men in the family,” she told AFP.

“The kora is a social instrument that we learn within a community,” but as a woman “it was difficult for me to be accepted,” she says.

“It had become a personal journey”, something “very unusual compared to the normal path of learning the kora as a family”.

Sona Jobarteh comes from a Gambian family of griots, transmitters of history transmitted orally, with a highly respected social status, including her grandfather, the kora master Amadu Bansang Jobarteh. She is also the cousin of Malian prodigy Toumani Diabaté.

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“I don’t know what it was” but “I was always attracted” to the kora “and I started playing when I was young,” she remembers.

“It was really when I was about 17 that I started to take it as something that I wanted to make my profession out of,” she says: “I started studying a lot with my father, with the goal to be as good as I could be with this instrument.

Her perseverance, her international success – such as her hit “Gambia” – and her collaborations with renowned artists, have paved the way for young girls.

“At the moment, it’s hard to say what level of impact I’ve had on the tradition,” she comments.


When she sees young “girls playing the kora”, like the students of the academy she created in Gambia, “it is always, even for me, who am a woman (…) unusual” but also “incredibly inspiring”, she rejoices.

“I feel like something very special is happening when I attend these classes (…) this is the change we are starting to see,” she says.

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Sona Jobarteh “demystified this instrument which was once reserved only for men, and today she was able to show that a woman can excel. She has become a model for all of us,” assures Assétou Baguian, student at the National Higher Institute of Arts and Cultural Action (Insaac), in Abidjan.

Astar – his stage name – began studying this instrument in 2022.

“It has become a great passion. At first I sang but now the kora has taken over,” she says.

When she plays, Astar feels “super good”, “it soothes my soul”, she expresses, dreaming of herself as a “great korafola” (kora player) on “big stages”.

“In those around me, I didn’t have any negative criticism” when “I chose the kora” because “I followed in the footsteps of other women,” she analyzes.

But according to Sona Jobarteh, the problem “is not just being a woman, it is also about the issues linked to being from a family of griots or not”. If this is not the case for a musician, there is “one more step” to take.

Despite the obstacles she has overcome, she believes her status as a pioneer is “almost accidental.”

The musician has been touring internationally for several years: if this avant-garde artist has broken tradition, it is to better promote it.

By Le360 Africa (with AFP)

05/19/2024 at 7:16 a.m.



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