Passing on tradition : Sona Jobarteh

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.

Africa OyeAlthough 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.


Gypsy Heartbeats

On Thursday Joe Boyd hosted a session at Womex 15 on Nationalism and Traditional Music. It’s such a fascinating subject. In the Soviet Union there was a systematic attempt to discredit folk music which was portrayed as backward peasant music. State sponsored folk ensembles were meant to represent the values and ideals of collectivism. Of course the Soviet Union may have had other less noble motives, not dissimilar to those that we see in action today in China where expressions of ethnic identity are routinely suppressed. The rulers were afraid that performances of ethnic music could be the thin end of the wedge : next thing minority groups could be demanding rights to speak their own language and run their own schools, and this could give rise in turn to nationalist movements that challenged state power.

We know what happened in the USSR : when nationalist movements took to the streets the state fell apart. It happened so quickly, there wasn’t time for a full-blown culture of liberation to develop, but as people in Eastern Europe and former Soviet States rushed to independence, interest was reviving in traditional folk music and national culture.

Today, perhaps more than at any time in human history, we live in a world where the national state is taken to define our identity. And most nation states have latched on to the fact that promoting traditional culture is a very powerful tool for strengthening national identity. The danger is that traditional culture is perceived as something exclusive when it should be inclusive. Womex 15 was held in Hungary where there is currently a lot of anti-Roma and anti-refugee sentiment. But the Roma and other national minorities all have special contributions to make to the national culture. Bartok, the father of Hungarian folk music, would have understood this. He recorded folk song wherever he found it, changing ideas about what Hungarian identity really meant. Traditional songs and dances generally have a specific origin (even if this has been lost in the mist of time) – communities, ethnic groups and regions, rather than whole countries. Acknowledging and respecting these differences is a vital first step to creating a national culture that is inclusive, that unites people rather than dividing them.

So I was very pleased to see that the Hungarian hosts of Womex 15 put on an opening showcase concert with the theme of ‘Gypsy Heartbeats’. Here’s a taste of it.





through the letter box

A very special delivery just came through my letterbox : Moonlight Leta, a CD of Marshall Islands music, purchased direct from the Bikini Atoll online shop. 17 “string band classics” from the radio station archives as well as 6 ukelele boys band selections as heard on the Moonlight Awa weekly radio program. To put this into perspective : the Marshall Islands have a population of 50,000. This is to the best of my knowledge the only digital recording of its string band music that’s commercially available, and it only exists thanks to the diligent work of an American born man who lives in Majuro atoll, Scott Stege, and to the support that he managed to get for this non-profit project.  And tracking down a copy was no easy matter.  Once I’d finally paid my $25, the customs declaration was completed on 31st August, so it’s taken over 3 weeks since then, during which I denied myself the joy of anticipation in case the CD failed to complete its journey round the world.

Here’s a track from the CD. Laura Settlers was a popular band formed by Longbad Erakrik, a Laura Elementary School teacher, and made up of some of his students.

Laura Settlers – Money Ej Okran Nana

The live test

Wherever in the world you roam, there’s one test for good music that you can generally rely on. One of the most important things I look for when I go to a festival is, how does a live audience respond ? Great music should capture and hold an audience’s attention, and it should get a strong response, whether the audience dance, sing, hold their breath, cry, jump in the air, or punch the sky. If the audience don’t seem that engaged, that’s a sign to me that maybe the music isn’t as good as I thought it was.

So as someone who’s gotten into the habit of listening top bands first online, getting to festivals is invaluable, I learn so much just by watching the artists perform. Because this project isn’t about finding those artists who tick the right boxes : yes I want to represent different cultures, but what’s more essential is that the music should inspire me, and be able to inspire others.

Below are the Mahotella Queens, who were the first band I saw at Womad this year. It’s over 50 years since the band was formed, and they’ve been through a few changes, but they still have that joy and energy which is why audiences love them.

Next month I’ll be at Womex in Budapest : if you’re going too, please get in touch.




One world

This is the title track from the album One created a few years ago by Yuval Ron. It’s an extraordinary piece of music combining Jerusalem’s three great faiths. We hear an Egyptian Muslim, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, calling out an Islamic call to prayer; a Moroccan born Jew, Rabbi Haim Louk, responding with a line of Hebrew prayer; and the sound of the Armenian duduk representing Christian tradition. Yuval Ron was born in Israel and although his ancestors are from Poland he feels most attuned to Middle Eastern music. When I interviewed him yesterday he gave a fascinating account of how he came to make the album. Yuval and Omar Faruk had just collaborated on two soundtracks, for an Israeli film and for an Egyptian film, Yuval is passionate about projects that break down the tensions and the barriers that divide people, and it occurred to him that by combining the two soundtracks he could make a powerful and symbolic statement. Among the musicians he recruited for the project was the Israeli peace campaigner Yair Dalal, and he took Yair to the Sinai desert to record some music for the album. This place had special meaning for both of them : they’d each spent time there studying the music of Bedouin tribes, they knew that for the Bedouin this land was not part of Israel or Egypt, so while they embraced the spirituality of the location, for them it also carried personal memories (it was where Yuval had learned to play the oud) and denoted a place where different cultures could co-exist on equal terms.

Yuval dreams of a progressive Israel that can overcome feelings of mistrust and hatred and help to bring about a just settlement for the Palestinian people. “We always hope,” he says,  “that our music keeps that vision alive, and energises people who are not musicians”.



music from the wilderness

Sometimes real life stories can inspire. And sometimes human courage and resilience can be so extraordinary that it just leaves you feeling humbled.

The overwhelming majority of musicians and artists in Cambodia were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Even their musical instruments were destroyed. Arn Chorn-Pond was just a young kid at the time of the genocide. In the prison camp where people were being killed every day he survived by playing the flute. Eventually, much later, he escaped and spent months in the jungle living on his wits. Miraculously, he made it to a refugee camp in Thailand where he met the Reverend Peter Pond. He was one of several orphans who Pond adopted and brought to the United States. Twenty years later he returned to Cambodia to found Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), a non-profit organisation aimed at reviving performing arts in the country.  One of CLA’s star pupils was a young singer called Phoeun Srey Pov, an expert in the ancient art of Buddhist smot singing which requires very highly trained technique. Unfortunately no cds of her are available, but she does have a Youtube channel, so here’s a sample track.


Progress update

It’s been a long time since my last post here – but the book is still progressing. It’s such a large project that the only way I can complete it is to keep going, set myself targets, and try to research and write about a different country every week. It’s working : the writing’s coming along and I’m encountering more and more amazing music and fascinating stories. But as a result I’ve not been able to give so much attention to this site. So I’ve decided on a slight change of approach. From now on I will be posting here on a regular basis, but unless there’s significant news to report the posts will be brief, mostly sharing interesting videos or streamed songs.

This video’s from Rajasthan in the west of India. The beautifully crafted instrument that Mustafa Ali Jat is playing is a surando, and it’s carved from a single piece of wood. His percussionists use a big earthen pot (ghada) and ankle bells (ghunghroos). I like the way that the camera pans out at the end of the video.



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