Sona Jobarteh, the first female kora virtuosa from a legendary jali (griot) family is set to perform at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, North Caroilina. Sona is the granddaughter of influential Gambian kora master Amadu Bansang Jobarteh.
Born in London and classically trained at the Royal College of Music and the Purcell School, Sona Jobarteh is a member of the Jobartehs (also kown as Diabates in other countries), one of the five major kora-playing jali families from West Africa and the first female member of such a family to rise to fame on this instrument. The kora is a 21-stringed African harp and is one of the most important instruments belonging to the Manding peoples of West Africa (Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau). The kora is traditionally a hereditary musical instrument performed by griot families.
The kora was solely passed down from father to son. Sona Jobarteh has become the first woman to take up this instrument professionally in a male tradition that dates back over seven centuries.
Sona is a skilled multi-instrumentalist, with an idiosyncratic vocal style and charismatic on stage.
She has quickly risen to international fame in the world music scene after the release of her much-admired album Fasiya (Heritage), released in 2011. In recent years, Sona has headlined major festivals around the world in Brazil, India, South Korea, Ghana, Mexico, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Lithuania, Poland and Malaysia, including a recent performance at the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greensboro.
In addition to her work as performing artists, Sona composed the music for the documentary film Motherland in 2009, constructing a unique mix of European and African sounds, and even going so far as to invent a new instrument, the nkoni (a cross between the kora and the donso ngoni). She teaches the kora in London, and worked with her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, in building a formal music school in the Gambia named after her famous grandfather Amadu Bansang Jobarteh.
The ArtsCenter is located at 300-G E. Main Street in Carrboro. For more information go to artscenterlive.org.
Sherrifo Konteh is the son of Alhaji Bai Konte and the brother of Dembo Konte, Sherrifo learned from both and has become an outstanding musician in his own right.
He was born in Brikama, the Gambia, where he still lives. Sherrifo comes from one the most famous of the jali families from a town that is the home of many jalis families. As most jalis, he was introduced to music at an early age. His father taught him how to play the kora at the age of six.
Sherrifo went from playing traditional songs to composing his own pieces with a traditional feel. In his early twenties he joined a band called Kangbeng that got relevant radio airplay, but he was never paid for his work. He now makes a living the traditional jali way, by playing at naming ceremonies, weddings, birthday parties, and other celebrations.
All his life Sherrifo has been steeped in this rich tradition. As most jalis, he makes his own instruments. He has a highly developed and inventive technique playing the kora which scintillates and sparkles and compliments his commanding singing. Some of his songs reflect the long tradition that he is a continuing part of others comment on contemporary social mores. He performs them all with a passion and commitment that make them truly engaging listening.
Seikou was born in 1964 in Sukuta Nanie in The Gambia. He is directly descended from a long line of jalis. As a boy he followed his father Jaliba Denbo Susso in the family tradition of learning to sing and play Kora as a jali. As a small boy Seikou would accompany his father on all his jali outings performing music and poetry.
His early musical training was learned sitting beside his father. Seikou was encouraged to keep time with the music by tapping on the calabash – the gourd which makes up the back body of the instrument. His mother is also from a jali family the “Kuyatehs. Her name is Hagar Jal-fill Kuyateh. Seikou has a brother and sister. His sister Debar Susso, is a well known singer in West Africa.
As a young man Seiko’s skill as a performer took him to many places. He performed in tourist hotels, gatherings of elders and community events such as marriages and naming ceremonies. Seiko represented his country at festivals and to promote tourism for his country in Helsinki and in Vienna.
In 1991, he arrived to England and has worked with musicians of many other cultures. Seikou finds this experience very stimulating. He’s adapted his music to play with other instruments such as piano, violins, harp, cello and keyboard.
Seikou teaches workshops, including kora workshops one to one or group sessions, solo kora performance, kora and bass guitar duo, and children’s storytelling with Kora.
Born into a family of traditional African jalis (musician-historians), Salieu Suso began training on the 21-stringed kora at the age of 8, and began his professional career by the age of fifteen. He has performed widely throughout the U.S., Africa and Europe, and is known for his diverse range of musical collaborations.
In 2003 he ventured into an exciting exploration of African and Afro-Cuban rhythms with three master percussionists: Benny Arocho (bata, bugarabu, Thai klong yaw); Olympia Ward (chekere, conga, jembe); and John Ward (jembe).
One of Salieu Suso’s songs, “Sidi Yellah” was featured on the album Badenya: Manden Jaliya in New York City, a compilation of Manden and Mandinka Music by musicians in New York City (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2001)
Salieu composed Tootie’s Last Suit, the soundtrack to a documentary film.
Papa Susso is a master kora (African harp/lute) player and jali (oral historian, also known as griot) from The Gambia, West Africa. He hails from a long line of jalis from the Mandinka people.
Taught by his father, he has played kora since the age of five. The kora, a 21 stringed harp-lute, evolved from earlier hunter harps used by the Mandinka people. It is said that the Susso family invented the kora.
Today, Papa Susso, based both in the Bronx (New York City) and Gambia, is considered a goodwill ambassador, traveling throughout the world to share his culture with others.
Malamini Jobarteh was a jali and one of Gambia’s greatest musical and cultural icons. In the late 1970s Alhaji Bai Konte and Malamini Jobarteh toured Europe and North America. Malamini Jobarteh later recorded with Dembo Konte, Alhaji Bai’s son.
Malamini Jobarteh resided in Jobarteh Kunda, the Jobarteh family compound. There, he ran the Teramang Traditional Music School.
Malamini Jobarteh died July 31 in Brikama, Gambia.
For more than twenty years the Gambian roots band Ifang Bondi (‘be yourself’) had a leading role within West African popular music. It was one of the first groups that decided to return to its African roots by playing traditional Manding music.
To talk about an influential band such as Ifang Bondi, one needs to know how its origins came about. It was the year 1970. The auditorium of Legon University in Accra (Ghana) was filled to capacity. There was an environment of restless expectation awaiting the arrival on stage of the Super Eagles of The Gambia. The devastating performance of highlife, soul, Cuban music, reggae and western pop songs which followed, faultlessly delivered by the men in sharp suits, revealed why this band from The Gambia had become West Africa’s number one superstar attraction. West Africa had just completed its first decade of independence and was in the throes of anticolonialist sentiment, pan-Africanism and ‘Say it loud, I am Black and Proud’. This was to be the last time most people saw the Super Eagles, leaving only the legacy of their all-time classic album ‘Viva Super Eagles’.
Unknown to their thousands of fans, this was not the end of the story, but just the end of the first chapter in one of the longest-running sagas in African musical history. The truth is that the founders of the band, leader Badou Jobe and vocalist Paps Touray had taken a deliberate decision to end Super Eagles at the height of their popularity. Being true revolutionary pan Africanists and musical pioneers, they had become increasingly disturbed by the music they were playing and the image they presented. Despite the greater fame and fortune that was theirs for the taking. They radically gave it all up to go back to square one, back to the roots, to create something African for Africans, to challenge the cultural imperialism of the west which still gripped the continent. They went into the rural areas to sit at the feet of the jelis – the master drummers and the old maestros of the kora, xalam, and bala – the guardians of a thousand years of culture and tradition.
After two years of exhaustive research and hard practice, Badou Jobe and the few musicians like Paps Touray and Ali Harb, who had felt inspired to join, came back with unique new music, born from their amazingly rich heritage. To their modern electric outfit, including the novelty of an electric organ, they had added traditional drums, which, next to the drum kit’s chromium sheen and the fancy sunburst of the guitars, looked like alien objects from another planet. The new repertoire, painstakingly composed according to the rules of the jali teachers, had meant a struggle with unfamiliar scales and mind-boggling rhythm structures. They proudly coined their music the Afro Manding Sound after the legendary Manding empire, cradle of their West African culture.
By 1973 the group reappeared as Ifang Bondi (‘Be yourself). The band’s first public performances were greeted with dismay and disbelief by their devoted fans, who were outraged by the ‘bush’ sound of mbalax and jambadongo rhythms, although the musicians had been careful to hide the sabar (drums) under the British flag. At that time this type of music was considered to be played only at weddings and family-gatherings and not for big audiences. But bandleader Badou Jobe, veteran of an earlier bade against caste taboos to become a musician in the first place, was firmly committed. The only support at this time came from fellow musicians, later to form Toure Kunda and Super Diamono, who appreciated the Afro Manding Sound for the momentum it was bound to give African music. Gradually, their revolutionary ideas got accepted, and this was the birth of the popular West African modern music that has since catapulted Toure Kunda, Youssou N’dour, Mory Kante, and Baaba Maal onto the world stage.
The role of Ifang Bondi was essential by rehabilitating the traditional musicians they made people aware of their own heritage, and they offered new dimensions to African artists in search of an authentic sound. To rigorously deprive a devoted public of their pop idols, the ultimate symbol of modern western culture to induce them to set their own cultural values and to get rid of the inferiority complex, a lingering legacy of colonialism, had not been a venture for the faint-hearted. But in the end the effort proved to be worthwhile. Ifang Bondi have achieved their goal: to create something African for Africans, beyond expectations.
Badou Jobe’s innovative ideas, based on a vast musical knowledge, crystallized into a comprehensive artistic concept that created also the inimitable sound, Ifang Bondi’s trademark. Throughout the years, Ifang Bondi continued to develop its unique music which reflects the enormous variety and richness of authentic styles, be it Wolof, Manding, Fula, Jola or other. The band’s line-up showed a similar ethnic diversity. They put fresh blood into musical traditions, not only by a prolific output of original material but also by organizing festivals in which they invited pop, jazz and reggae musicians from as far as the US and Jamaica to play with traditional performers.
From the beginning, Ifang Bondi acted as a true academy of music from which many great artists have graduated. Outside West Africa Ifang Bondi has always had a solid cult following. The infrequency of record releases, all sought after collector’s items, plus the enigmatic personality of its bandleader, who seems quite happy to stay out of the limelight, “I once opened the door to the hell of stardom, had a good look around, and slammed it shut again“, has only enhanced the mystique surrounding this group. Badou Jobe received the prestigious Kora All Africa Music Award, also known as the African Grammy Award, in 1989.
Amadu Bansang Jobarteh (kora, voice) was a jali: an oral historian and hereditary praise singer from among the Mandinka people of Gambia, West Africa. Amadu’s family background clearly illustrates the hereditary nature of jalis in West African society. In the late 1800s, and at the request of a Gambian chief, Amadu’s father Jali Fili Jobarteh emigrated from Mali and settled with his family in the town of Bansang. Although the father played koni, his children learned the kora, which was the favored instrument in that area of Gambia.
Amadu first learned kora from his elder brother Bala, whose son Sidiki Diabate is one of the most accomplished jalis in all of Mali. Sidiki’s son, Toumani Diabate, is well known in the West, and has numerous recordings to his credit. Amadu Bansang Jobarteh embodied the wisdom and maturity of a grand master. He performed around the world and taught in Europe and the United States.
Amadu Jobarteh passed away in April of 2001.
Master of the Kora (Eavadisc, 1978) Tabara (Music of the World, 1994)
Gambia for the People (The Orchard, 2001)
Maya Sona Jobarteh was born in London in 1983. She is the first professional female kora player. Sona is part of the Jobarteh/Diabaté family of jelis (griots), one of the five major kora-playing jeli families from West Africa.
She is the granddaughter of the master jeli musician Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, who migrated from Mali to the Gambia. Her cousin is the well-known, celebrated Kora player Toumani Diabaté. Her mother is English.
A virtuoso kora player, Sona Jobarteh is a modern day pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated hereditary tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries. The British-Gambian artist has modernized the presentation of kora music and brings a rhythmic approach to her compositions that fits with her remarkable voice.
All too often kora music evokes the image of lacy traditional African tunes that fall into the elegant or quaint category, but Gambian kora player and composer Dawda Jobarteh firmly pulls out the rug under that notion on his second release on the Sterns Music label entitled Transitional Times, following up on his 2011 release of Northern Light Gambian Night.
Continuing the esteemed Gambian musical tradition of his grandfather Alhaji Bai Konte and father Amadou Basang, Mr. Jobarteh has stepped up and out to conjure up a first class recording by way of Transitional Times by incorporating his traditional roots to mold and bend the boundaries of the kora.
Often sleek and sophisticated, Mr. Jobarteh’s compositions and kora work dip into subtle jazz sensibilities or the sharp edges found in expressive jams that leave the listener breathless, but still returns and immerses music fans into that wonderful kaleidoscope of lacy notes of traditional kora, a pleasing diversion for both old and new fans.
Opening with the solo kora track “Winter Trees Stand Sleeping,” Mr. Jobarteh dazzles listeners with this artful, neat composition. But Transitional Times doesn’t waste any time before turning the mood with the stylishly expressive “Our Time in Tanjeh” with fellow musicians Preben Carlsen on guitar and Salieu Dibba on percussion.
The recording just gets better with the addition of the sadly soulful “Efo” with Mr. Jobarteh on kora, electric kora, vocals and tama drum backed by Mr. Carlsen on acoustic guitar, Nana Osibio on bass and Niclas Campagnol on drums. Transitional Times throws in the infectiously pleasing traditional tune “Kaira,” arranged by Mr. Jobarteh.
Wonderful things happen on the John Coltrane composition “Transition” as Mr. Jobarteh is joined by Etienne M’Bappe on bass, Jakob Dinesen on saxophone and Mr. Campagnol on drums. Equally wonderful sounds are evoked in a track about the perils of discrimination called “All One,” where joined by Alain Perez on bass, Mr. Campagnol on drums and Mr. Dibba on percussion, Mr. Jobarteh’s composition and vocals come out as almost a hymn like prayer surrounded by subtle jazz edges.
“Jamming in the Fifth Dimension” is explosively keen edged with just electric kora and percussion. Add into the mix the sweetly jazzy “Lullaby Med Jullie” with vocals provided by Julie Hjetland Jensen and Transitional Times is everything its title promises to be.
Mr. Jobarteh continues to dazzle with rich tracks like the traditional “Mama Sawo,” the percussive wonder “Kanoo” and the graceful tracks “Presenting the King” and “Dalua.”
Listening to Transitional Times find its depth of vision by way of Mr. Jobarteh’s willingness to step into other genres and across traditional paths is a delight. Transitional Times is one of those must have kora CDs.
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