Sona Jobarteh, first professional kora player

Sona Jobarteh, first professional kora player
Sona Jobarteh, first professional kora player

Virtuoso of the kora, a West African stringed instrument, Gambian Sona Jobarteh became the first woman to play it professionally: an affront to tradition which reserves this practice for griot men, transmitters of oral history, to preserve the mysteries of this sacred object.

Invited to the Anoumabo Urban Music Festival (Femua) which ended 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 explains to AFP. “The kora is a social instrument that we learn within a community, but as a woman, it was difficult to be accepted”she says.

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.

“I have always been attracted to the kora and I started playing it when I was youngshe remembers. When I was around 17, I wanted to make it my professionshe says. I started studying a lot with my father, with the goal of being as good as I could be on 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.

Inspiration

When she sees “Young Girls Playing the Kora”like the students of the academy she created in Gambia, “it’s always, even for me, who I am a woman […] unusual, but also incredibly inspiring”she rejoices.

“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 us all”, 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 “very good”, “it soothes my soul”she expresses, dreaming “large korafola” (kora player) on “big scenes”. “In those around me, I did not have 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 “It’s not just about being a woman, it’s 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 step closer” to do.

Despite the obstacles she has faced, 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. (AFP)

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