Sona Jobarteh is the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a west African Griot family. Breaking away from tradition, she 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 Kora is a 21 stringed African harp, and is one of the most important instruments belonging to the Manding peoples of West Africa. It can be found in Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. The kora, along with a handful of other instruments, belongs exclusively to the griot families of west Africa. Only those who are born into one of these families have the exclusive right to take up these instruments professionally. Sona, who was born into one of the five principal West African Griot families, has become the first in her long family line to break from tradition by taking up this instrument professionally as a female

Her family carries a heavy reputation for renowned Kora masters, one being her Grandfather, Amadu Bansang Joberteh who was a Master Griot and remains a leading icon in Gambia’s cultural and musical history. Her cousin Toumani Diabaté is also known worldwide for his mastery of the Kora. Taught to play the kora at the age of four by her elder brother Tunde Jegede, Sona started her musical journey at a very young age, later further developing her expertise under the tutorship of her father Sanjally Jobarteh.

The years spent working as a musician in the UK training in Classical institutions such as the Royal College of Music and Purcell School of music, as well as being a permanent member of her brother’s internationally acclaimed ACM Ensemble allowed Sona to become immersed in a world of musical diversity many could only dream of. Sona was able to work alongside internationally acclaimed artists such as Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, Kasse Mady Diabaté and The BBC Symphony Orchestra. These many influences have come together to form one of most exciting new talents from the West African Griot tradition to hit the stage in recent years.

Sona has an effortless ability to blend different musical styles, not just between the West and Africa, but also between West African musical genres. She uses her innovative stance to talk about issues to do with cultural identity, gender, love and respect whilst still referencing and rooting herself firmly in her traditional cultural heritage. Sona represents her tradition in a way that is easily accessible to her audiences from around the world, who are drawn in by her captivating voice, strong rhythms and catchy melodies.

One of Sona’s most captivating qualities is her voice. Although only pursuing her ability to sing later in life, she has fast been gaining a reputation for her voice alone. Most recently Sona’s vocals were featured in the Hollywood blockbuster movie “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” which was released in the United Kingdom in January 2014.

In 2010 Sona composed the film score to the Multi-Award winning documentary film “The Motherland”, directed by Owen Alik Shahadah.  For the accomplishment of this score Sona invented a new instrument which she named the ‘Nkora’. Drawing on her skills as a producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist this body of work sees Sona pioneering a new genre in Africa cinematic music.

Over the past four years Sona has been carefully piecing together her band. Forming a UK-based band that is both sympathetic and sensitive to the subtle idioms of the Kora repertoire has not been an easy task, but Sona has now put together a group of inspiring musicians from different parts of Africa who manage to render her music beautifully onstage, whilst still embodying each of their own diverse musical identities. Whether the full band or a smaller acoustic ensemble, this group of musicians never fail to bring a rich, revitalising energy to the stage.

Her latest album, released in 2011 entitled “Fasiya” is a landmark not only in her musical journey, but in the continuously evolving tradition that she is a product of. Into this album Sona has poured not only her abilities as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, but also her competence as a keen producer. Working in both Gambia and the UK Sona pieced together the many elements she needed to produce a work of art that would reflect her unique position in this tradition as a both a preserver and innovator.

As an ardent advocator of tradition Sona has been working on setting up Gambia’s first manding music school alongside her father Sanjally Jobarteh over the past year which is dedicated to cultivating knowledge and expertise in traditional music and culture amongst the next generation of young Gambians. Named after her grandfather Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, Sona’s intent is for the success of this school to stand as an enduring testament to the invaluable legacy he left behind.


RWMF2015 Sona Jobarteh-Photograph by Sunara Begum