In the middle of the British summer hundreds of people fended off the rain yesterday with brollies and plastic macs in Liverpool’s Sefton Park to listen to Sona Jobarteh play the kora at the Africa Oyé free festival.
Although Sona was born in England, she’s a Gambian griot, an inheritor of a musical tradition that has run in her family for hundreds of years. Her grandfather, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, was a fabulous kora player, an inspiration to a whole generation of musicians. Sona hasn’t done too badly herself : her 2011 solo album Fasiya gave her an international profile and invites to perform around the world. Her website proudly proclaims that she’s “the first female Kora virtuoso”. But when I caught up with her after the show she told me that the praise she got from her father a couple of years ago recognising that she’d become a master of her instrument mattered more to her than any number of rave reviews.
Even more important to her though than any form of personal reward is her teaching. Sona has a strong sense of responsibility : if she can plant seeds among the next generation then she’ll have achieved something really durable. In Gambia now, she says, there is a gap : the old griot families have broken up, the family compounds where tradition was once taught have mostly fallen silent. On the positive side though, there is still a thirst for traditional music. After several years work by Sona and her father Sanjally, the Amadu Bansang Jobarteh School of Music, the first specialist music school of its type in Gambia, opened its doors to its first full time students in early 2016. This is now Sona’s main focus when she is not touring, and what all the tour proceeds go towards : the school needs to raise funds so that it can offer scholarships to students of poor backgrounds. I told her that I’d be more than happy to help publicise the project, so this link will take you to the school’s website where you can donate money by credit card.