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A famous virtuoso on an instrument she wasn’t supposed to play

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MANCHESTER, England – The ethereal sound of the kora, a centuries-old West African instrument, echoed as Sona Jobarteh, a virtuoso from one of Gambia’s most famous musical families, plucked her strings with her index and thumbs.

Under the purple lights of the Manchester International Festival stage in July – her first performance since the start of the pandemic – Ms Jobarteh added her velvet voice to the crisp sound of the kora, a 21-string instrument that combines the qualities of ‘a lute and a harp. She sings in Mandingo, a language spoken by one of Gambia’s many ethnic groups, and the words fell like rain on audiences across northern England.

Like her father and her relatives of several generations, Ms. Jobarteh is a griot – a musician or a poet whose tradition is preserved by the family line. And in West Africa, the griot fulfills a much larger role: not only as master of kora, but also as historian, genealogist, mediator, teacher and guardian of cultural history.

“The griot is someone who is a pillar of society, to whom people turn for advice, advice, wisdom,” said Ms. Jobarteh, 37.

Until Mrs. Jobarteh, kora masters had another notable characteristic: they were always men. Traditionally, the game of kora is passed from father to son, but for many years Ms. Jobarteh was her father’s only child. “Whatever I do, it’s always in the uncomfortable box,” she laughed.

She initially avoided the label of the first female master of kora, preferring to be appreciated for her abilities rather than her gender. “I hated him with a passion,” she said. “I felt like no one would listen to what I was playing, that all they would do was observe what I am.”

But she came to embrace that status, in part because her accomplishments inspired young female students. “It’s much more important than talking about me,” she said. “It’s about instilling this seed of inspiration in girls.”

The kora was also what brought his parents together.

In 1982, a year before Ms Jobarteh was born, her mother, Galina Chester, who is English and had never left Britain, flew to Senegal. She was traveling with Ms Jobarteh’s half-brother, Tunde Jegede, an Anglo-Nigerian who is now a multi-instrumentalist and composer, to connect him to his African heritage.

With a piece of paper scribbled with the name of a kora master, Mrs Chester drove through the desert to Gambia, where there was no airport at the time, to the house of Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, whose influence was so broad that he served as advisor to the first Gambian president.

There she met the son of the kora master and elementary school student, Sanjally – who would become Ms. Jobarteh’s father. “This is how she met my father and how my story began,” Ms. Jobarteh said.

Ms. Jobarteh’s childhood straddles two worlds: Great Britain, where she was born, and Kembujeh, her grandfather’s village in The Gambia, where, enveloped by the warmth of her extended family, she found her “home. cultural “.

Women griots usually learn to sing, but her grandmother Kumunaa encouraged her to sit with her grandfather and listen to the kora.

A few years ago, Ms Jobarteh’s mother shared letters with her daughter in which Kumunaa predicted that the daughter would become a griot and pleaded for her lineage to be nurtured.

“I just wish she was alive so I would ask her what was on her mind,” Ms Jobarteh said. “She knew I was a girl. She knew it was not acceptable.

Ms. Jobarteh’s first kora teacher was Mr. Jegede, her half-brother, with whom she started playing the instrument at the age of 3. (Although Mr. Jegede is a virtuoso in his own right, he is not a griot, coming from the outside lineage.)

Later, she became determined to make her way into classical music. At 14, she took composition lessons at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, near London. However, its original instrument remained in its periphery: the school library exhibited a kora that Tunde had given there as a student. Attracted by it, she tuned it in and played it, and the school finally gave it to her.

A year later, she enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where she learned cello, harpsichord and piano. But his personal musical heritage was not welcome. One instructor called the kora an “ethnic thing,” she said, and another said of the instrument: “If you want to be successful, this is not one of them.

After three years of studying there, Ms. Jobarteh deliberately failed her annual piano and cello assessment. “I was shaking,” she said. “It was so bad, but I just knew, ‘I can’t do this to myself anymore. “”

The college declined to comment for this article.

Ms. Jobarteh instead asked her father to officially teach her to play the kora and trained with him for several years. He told her: “I have a duty to give you what is mine,” she recalls.

Some families say that the instrument dates from the establishment of the griot tradition in the Mandingo Empire in the 13th century. The first written account of the kora, by Scottish explorer Mungo Park, appeared in 1797, according to Lucy Durán, professor of music at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Its popular origin story, Ms. Jobarteh said, is that it was stolen from a jinn, a supernatural being mentioned in Islam.

Mandingos and griots sparked great interest after writer Alex Haley traced his ancestors to a Gambian village in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Roots”. But their ancient melodies had crossed the Atlantic centuries earlier, aboard ships carrying African slaves, and turned into the first American blues.

The kora, with its improvised oral tradition, can take decades to master. “You learn with your ears, not with your hands,” Ms. Jobarteh said.

For years she was reluctant to perform in The Gambia, where a professional female kora virtuoso had never been seen on stage. But her stage debut with her family in 2011 was greeted with adulation.

The release of her debut album that year was also a leap of faith, as Ms Jobarteh sang in Mandinka rather than English, which could achieve more commercial success. “I was like, ‘This is it. I just put my life in the bottleneck, ”she recalls.

The album propelled Ms. Jobarteh’s music across the world, from the United States to New Zealand. And it gave him something much more significant than the royalties.

“It makes Africans feel something to see that someone is respected for singing in their own language, dressing in their own clothes, playing their own music,” she said. “It’s a message not just for Gambians – it’s for the whole African continent.”

Although preserving her heritage is Ms Jobarteh’s passion, she says her real goal is educational reform in The Gambia – a broader mission that fits her role as a griot.

In 2015, she opened the Gambia Academy in Kartong, a coastal town, in part to avoid a brain drain of young people looking for better prospects abroad. “I don’t want the next generation to have to do this,” she said, “where you have to have the privilege of having European connections or titles to be able to be successful in your own company.”

With a curriculum focused on West African traditions, the school now has 32 students, including her 14-year-old son Sidiki and 9-year-old daughter Saadio. It also helped her pass on her family tradition, and on stage in Manchester, Sidiki played xylophone-type balafon and Saadio percussion.

They learn the griots’ repertoire, not from their father, but from their mother, guardian of seven centuries of tradition.

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