THE GAMBIA/UK: Fasiya - Sona Jobarteh
A celebration of the kora and Gambian music in general, Jobarteh manages to keep true to tradition while also managing to adapt the music for the times
The Gambia is mainland Africa’s smallest nation. Shaped snake-like, as if acting as a buffer for the Gambia River, this tiny country nonetheless has a distinct culture, yet one inevitably closely linked to the country that surrounds it at all sides, except where it borders the Atlantic Ocean – Senegal. Among many, one thing the two countries share culturally is something that is widespread across Western Africa, and that is the griot culture. Griots are musicians, storytellers, poets, oral historians, whom have a proud place in the culture of their regions, and the history often goes back centuries often passed down a familial line. Youssou N’Dour is from a griot family, as are the Malian dynasty of Diabaté kora players, who are Sona Jobarteh's cousins. She is from such a dynasty, with her griot lineage running back seven centuries. However, even considering the astounding amount of history and music behind her, she is a trailblazer due to her being the first female professional kora player. Usually, the knowledge of how to play this 21-stringed instrument was passed down from father to son, and that was the case until her brother, Tunde Jegede, himself a renowned kora player, began teaching a young Jobarteh from the age of three. From there, she took to the instrument, eventually challenging gender roles to become the first Gambian woman to play the kora professionally. She also uses her position as a social activist. Passionate about educational reform in The Gambia, she founded The Gambia Academy, a place for children to learn about the, history, traditions and music of their country and continent.
“It all works nicely, and demonstrates the delicate beauty of the wonderful instrument that is the kora, as well as Jobarteh’s soft yet powerful voice and her song-writing abilities.”
Fasiya is full of songs that demonstrate Jobarteh’s mastery of her instrument. The kora is often likened to a western harp, though that is to somewhat downplay the vitality of the instrument. Harps can often be characterised with a slower, more glacial style – that said, the Paraguayan harp playing tradition often uses it to play lively Latin rhythms – and the kora is anything but glacial. Formed out of a round calabash, a neck is attached along with the many strings, which allows it to be more portable, and the closeness of the strings allow for fast finger-picking that creates a uniquely West African sound. Jarabi and the song that immediately follows it, Mamamuso, show both sides to this extraordinary instrument. Jarabi is a quicker song, using the kora in a banjo-esque manner, whereas Mamamuso is slower, and uses the kora more like the aforementioned harp, and it is this diversity of sound that makes the instrument worthy of having an album showcase, as well as the fact that Jobarteh plays it excellently and has a wonderful voice that carries you through the songs. The sound of the album is, on the whole, very traditional, yet that does not hold it back. Jobarteh infuses traditional rhythms and sounds with an almost pop sensibility, making it accessible to listeners like myself who may not be used to music such as this (though, it must be said, after over six months of scouring the world’s music, I’m used to everything by now). Some songs use bass guitars and a light sprinkling of electric guitar, like on the poppiest number on the album, Musow, perhaps as a concerted effort to appeal to a slightly wider audience, but also it could be a possible expression of her life in both Africa and Europe, and nonetheless it keeps to the core of the music.
It is also to Jobarteh’s credit that the album doesn’t just sound like a platform for her to show off her musical skills on the kora; each song is well sung and well crafted to the extent that it all flows nicely as a piece of music. If I had to nit-pick, I would say that there are no outstanding songs that get stuck in your head and you hum for days after listening, but equally, there’s no bad ones either. It all works nicely, and demonstrates the delicate beauty of the wonderful instrument that is the kora, as well as Jobarteh’s soft yet powerful voice and her song-writing abilities. It is consistently good, and that is an achievement. It is also refreshing to hear music that does not necessarily fuse African traditional sounds with modern Western pop, but rather uses those traditions and expands on them, while still allowing for it to be accessible. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fusion of African music and Western music, of course, but there is, comparatively, a lot of it, and so to hear Jobarteh’s take on the genre and to deliver something that is true to its roots but also forward-looking, was a lovely thing to find.