Sona Jobarteh: “I wanted to get recognition for playing the Kora not for being a woman”
Sona Jobarteh, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, highly appreciated.
You first performed live aged just four, and at the London at Jazz Café with fellow family members. What’s your first ever musical memory?
My first memory is playing or learning the Kora from my brother, learning simple, plain bass lines. It’s quite hard to remember those times actually as this is so long ago.
Given this early start with music, did any other career ever seem like an option?
That’s difficult to answer. I don’t think I can say … perhaps football. (laughs)
That was something I wanted to do, I was very serious about food ball when I was under the age of 14, I was really dedicated to football. Other than that I don`t think I had any path in life – and I can`t even say that I even thought like criticly about towards becoming a musician. I was lucky cause I was in a musical family, music was an everyday part of life. So I did not really think much about what I want to do in the future, it was just what I was doing at that time.
So, I wouldn`t say there was anything else that I was dedicated to at that level from a young age.
You are a practitioner of griot, a West African tradition of singers and poets and musicians that combine story telling and composition in their work. What does griot mean to you personally?
Well, for me to say personally is difficult, because it is such a cultural concept and I don’t know if I can separate its cultural meaning from my personal interpretation of it– so I think I have to answer for both.
Griot has been such an important part of social structure and formation of culture and so on in the part of West Africa that the tradition belongs to. You can’t really take that part out of the fabric of the tradition. It is something that has a huge meaning, even today when society has changed so much. Its formative influence on the growth of culture and the direction of history for that part of West Africa is very important – so we have to continue to reinterpretate what the griot means in todays modern society to make sure that we continue to innovative it in ways that is relevant to our current situations and our current challenges and our current society. We are in danger, when we allow those traditions to be left in the past and don´t look critically on them and innovate them. We are telling these stories in a modern way to make sure that we retain these traditions and come away from the idea of them being in a contrast to what is called modern or traditional or old. What is old was new at some point, there is no such thing as modernizing the tradition as far as I am concerned – as long as you are sustaining the tradition.
I think this is tradition itself, modernity is just a part of the journey rather than a change, it is part of the journey we are making for the past hundred years. This is where my place in the tradition comes and that I feel there is importance what other and I do. We are doing what we are doing to keep the tradition alive and innovate it and make sure it has still got cultural relevance to the society.
How do you enter the tradition of griot? Did you learn mostly from your father Sanjally Jobarteh and your brother Tunde Jegede?
Those are the two people that physically told me how to play the Kora, my elder brother first, because he was a student of my father at that time and then my father. Of course I learned much from my grandfather Amadu Bansang Jobarteh but he was not directly tutoring me. I have told myself a lot of songs played by him. At the time I was old enough to really study Kora in a way where I know what I want to do with the instrument he already had left us – he died when I was 10 or 11. I was at an early stage of my development when he passed away, so I had unfortunately not the chance. But I grew up – like hundred of people of my generation – using his recordings as master class. Of course I studied his recordings very much, although he lived in a different country – his family split time between Mali and Gambia –, I visited him but I never lived there. So I never really had the time to study with him.
The growing process of me as an artist was an interesting one.
How do you feel about the balance between words and instrumental sounds, are both possible starting points or do you have the tendency to start mostly with one or another?
For me it is very easy: I start always with the instrumental. Most of all I am an instrumentalist, that´s how I started from day one on. I’ve been with instruments my whole life, singing came much later, not until I was in my 20s. It never crossed my mind earlier. And I did actually not enjoy it.
I am an instrumentalist and my starting point is by that always always the instrument, the sounds.
There aren’t so many female griot artists, obviously this is something people observe about when they write about you. Is your role as a woman in the tradition important to you?
Most of my life it hasn’t been a topic for me. Let’s say I have always been into things that seem to be more dominated by men. When I referred to football earlier – we know women football is there, but it is mostly a sport dominated by men. Especially if you grow up playing football with other people – in Africa but also in Europe –, you mostly play with boys.
I grew up doing things where I did not see myself as a female trying to do something men are doing, I actually saw myself as someone trying to do something with the best of my ability. I think with the Kora it is a similar thing, this is something I wanted to do with the best of my ability.
What I felt when I started to be spoken of as a female Kora player? I felt I was given special treatment for something I did not do – I did not make myself female, but I did make myself play the Kora. So: I wanted to get recognition for playing the Kora not for being a woman. That was something I was really struggling with for some time. But since I’ve come to maturity and since I have been through so many other social experiences in my live, especially getting into education, this other side of it has become a friend. Almost now not just a friend, it starts to have its own meaning of empowerment. Because I have seen the impact it has on other women and men. We often forget to talk of the men when we talk of the female. The men are as important to talk about in that process, it does have an huge impact on them when someone does something which has not been encouraged before. Now I embrace it and actually even advocate it – which I could never have seen happening when I was younger cause I was in a different place and just wanted recognition for what I have done and not just for being a girl.
Did you realise you had a special talent when you were growing up?
I grew up in a musical family and so everybody was pretty special in their own way. I would say: no. I felt very much that I had a lot to give up. I felt that I was surrounded by extremely talented people, so the bare was set very high. It was more a matter of looking up to people and thinking, “one day I will be like them!”
Do you feel like you are a role model for other women?
Yes, in recent years very much. This is something I now want to advocate, especially to younger girls, girls under the age of 18, who are still in their formative years and are looking into things they can do – and society might still be prescribing in some way what they can’t do instead of what they can do. So it is important, not by what I say but by who I am. If they see me it gives them in some way an encouragement: “Yes, it is possible!” In that sense it is very important for me, I can inspire them with who I am much more than with what I say.
Do you get a lot of feedback from others?
Generally yes, the feedback is positive. Now we are in a time where we mostly look into ways to preserve the tradition. If I can be seen as somebody that is assisting and contributing to that preservation in some way then this is something that is considered positive in the community and the society.
Is the meaning of a woman griot different to a man?
I think it is impossible to say “no”. The narrative of a female in any context is different from that of a man. I don’t think I can say “no” to that. But what I wonder: can I say that it is different in any specific way that relates specifically to griot? Of course there is a huge difference in the fact that it is not something that is seen by people often.
But you have to be careful to say female griot – because female griot … you can be a man or a woman to be a griot in the tradition, no problem, what is specific is a female Kora player. Women are singers, so in fact they take much more often a lead role in griot than men. The singers take front of stage, they are those who take all the money. Females do very well in the tradition of griot – if they are successful.
But what is specific here: female Kora players, because the women are not instrumentalists in the tradition, they are singer.
So if we change the question in that sense: of course, there is a different attention, a different light given to you, one that I resented when I was younger, but one that I embrace now, because I can see the change and the positive impact it can have on other people. I value now where I am. But it is difficult starting out. And I am sure other women will face similar difficulties where they may get singled out in a way for choosing something that is not considered a female role. It is difficult, people are rather spectating you than listening to you. You are a novelty. People are not so much interested in what you are playing but seeing a girl playing the Kora in you. Thats something to overcome. Which I do not have so much now, they know what they are coming to see. But for the women starting out, this is a hurdle to overcome, to be strong enough not to take any criticism or discouragement for doing that or for not fulfilling their role as a female. Women and girls have to make sure they are strong enough to withstand those criticism that will come their way. For them seeing somebody making it successful is a huge encouragement to keep going and to get there.
You play the Kora – but also studied cello, piano, guitar and harp. But as I understand, the Kora is your favorite instrument of them all. Why so? Whats the magic of it to you?
I taught myself to play guitar, I studied the others.
The Kora is the one I started with, the first instrument that I played, the music that I was exposed to. So in that sense it has the ability to express my emotion, my feeling, my musical spirit more than the other instruments. That does not mean I value the other instruments not expressive – the guitar to me comes very close to the Kora in terms to be able to voice my sounds. Maybe the way I play it is as close to the style I play the Kora as possible. The Koreas a unique sound, a unique feeling to play it.
Why? I like chocolate and can’t say why. It tastes good I guess. I think it is the same, the Kora just feels good to play, that’s all that matters.
This year, Covid-19 has brought a lot of restrictions to all of us and has hit artists particularly hard. What’s been your experience?
First of all it was crazily unusual like for everybody. But it actually gave me the window opportunity to focus on trying to finalize the new album – which was already one year late. To be honest, if it had not be for Covid-19 I would not have been able to finish that album or get to fines it this year. So it has allowed me in a positive note to really focus on the other work that I am doing, especially in the academy that I ran in Gambia. We are keeping the innovation going on for the next term that is now soon starting.
A follow-up… You have both the European and the African perspectives, how do you see the pandemic affecting the continents’ cultures differently?
It is quite difficult to talk about that as we are still in an ongoing, unfolding situation and certainly to come through the eye of the storme yet. We are still in the early stages with people getting sick and the way of losing people, especially in Africa – and particular in Gambia where we do not have basic equipment to even hope to help people who get seriously ill –, the long term impact on the economy of both continents is going to be huge. I do worry about the impact on the creative industries especially. Because they were even before underrepresented and now with what is happening it will increase.
The reality of it in Africa is too broad, every different country in the continent has a slightly different relationship to the effects of Covid-19 – which I am not fully aware of. But with Gambia specifically, we are in a really bad condition if the virus really takes a hold. We are just hoping that we manage to come out of this with a serious impact. As said, we do not have the facilities to take care of people, even isolation is a very challenging thing to do – you can see yourself isolate in Europe, you can´t do that in Gambia, people live in compounds, the society is communalistic from the ground on. We do not have separate housing, separate rooms, all these practical infrastructures that may allow to isolate that does exit as a reality in Gambia, and in fact I think this is cultural relevant in a lot of parts of Africa. So its a different reality we face. I am concerned definitely about the future. But still we do not know.
Your music was featured on the movie soundtrack to „Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom“ – what did this mean to you?
Yeah, it was a great experience, because it was my not my first time but one of the first times I was working on a soundtrack as a vocalist. So it was still a significant time to be recognized and selected as a vocalist for me, really strange. It was something new to be hired as a singer and not instrumentalist and work on such a big production. It means a lot. It changed the way I approached vocalizing my voice, it had an impact on my self esteem to see myself as a vocalist. That was the most important contribution working on that soundtrack did for me.
To me one of the major goals of this year is to promote the work and artistic output of so many artists as possible, to shine a light on their work. In terms of contemporary music from West Africa – are there any artists you love yourself and want to share with our readers?
I have not so much knowledge about the younger generation coming out of West Africa right now. They are really taking over so much of the music scene in a totally different way, which is great to see, they are popularizing it in their own way.
In some way I can say I am slightly old fashion. My top artist have to be the likes of Habib Koité, Toumani Diabate and Salif Keïta.
A lot of them are from Mali I would say. Oh, of course: Sekouba “Bambino” Diabaté – I would give him a special flag up, because he the ones that inspired me mostly as a vocalist. From the traditionalist vocalist from West Africa he is my favorite one.
Is there one piece of music which is your holy music, the one you always play when you are down?
There is this one album I play a lot when I am down, it puts me on my deep mood and connects with me eternally. For every other music there needs to be a special time, but this album for some reason it does not matter which frame of mind I am in or where on the planet I am it always put me on pulse. Its an album from 1979 by the Brazilian musician Egberto Gismonti named “Solo”. It has an amazing depth, an album you listen to 1000 times and each time you find new layers. It has a new meaning every time.
Thanks for your time, Sona Jobarteh, highly appreciated.
On 10th of October Sona Jobarteh will perform at Enjoy Jazz Festival in Mannheim.