In many West African cultures, griots serve as communal memory banks, transmitting a people’s history, rituals, folklore and values from generation to generation, stretching back centuries.
But for Anglo-Gambian kora master Sona Jobarteh, becoming the first women from a griot family to master the 21-string instrument was a decidedly secluded process. Though hailing from a storied clan that includes her Gambian-born grandfather, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, and Malian cousin Toumani Diabaté (arguably the world’s most celebrated kora virtuoso), she didn’t want to make her apprenticeship a public statement.
Rather than studying the tradition in Gambia, where griots are, by definition, embedded in extended family networks, or in the expansive West African diaspora of London, where she was born, Jobarteh sought out her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, who was living in Norway at the time. She was 17, and didn’t have to worry about the community reaction to her defiance of a custom that says only men can be griots.
“I was really put off by being a spectacle,” Jobarteh said. “I didn’t want to disclose to people what I was doing. I didn’t want people to see my journey. The process was quite solitary, and it allowed me a lot more space to study and focus, to go and sit with my father in a room for hours and study.”
She may have mastered her craft in Scandinavian solitude, but these days Jobarteh is an international star performing around the world and rapidly gaining attention in North America. Last December 60 Minutes profiled her pioneering role as a performer and educator opening doors for other people not born into the griot tradition.
On Sunday, Jobarteh, who also plays guitar and several other instruments, brings her quintet to Brava Theater Center, featuring Senegalese percussionist Mouamadou Sarr on calabash, congas and vocals; Andi McLean on bass and vocals; drummer Abayomi “Yomi” Sehindemi; and Anglo-Mauritian guitarist Eric Appapoulay. She’s focusing on music from her 2022 album, “Badinyaa Kumoo,” which includes guest appearances by heavyweights like Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, Yemen Blues founder Ravid Kahalani, and fellow kora master Ballaké Sissoko, who hails from Mali.
Following up on 2011’s striking “Fasiya,” which mixed traditional kora repertoire with her own pieces, “Badinyaa Kumoo” documents her evolution as a composer steeped in Mandinka culture but well-equipped to blaze her own paths. As a teenager, Jobarteh studied cello, piano and harpsichord at the Royal College of Music, and went on to attend the Purcell School of Music to study composition.
She earned an undergraduate degree at the prestigious SOAS University of London, which possesses a vast archive of manuscripts, recordings and other materials from West Africa. Though Jobarteh made a name for herself as a pioneering female kora player and an alluring vocalist, she said she sees herself “as a composer. That’s my passion, and a major part of what I do. I work as an instrumentalist, though people focus on the voice and get to know me that way.”
Sunday’s concert is presented by Diaspora Arts Connection, the East Bay nonprofit that champions musicians with roots in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Founded and run by Iranian-born Nazy Kaviani, DAC is best known for the annual showcase Let Her Sing, a concert that presents women from countries where female vocalists are suppressed by law or custom (particularly Iran and Afghanistan).
Upcoming DAC gigs include Tehran-born, Florence-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Payman Salimi, best known as the founder and lead vocalist of the pop-rock band the Allophones, at DNA Lounge April 7. And the great Kurdish singer Aynur, an artist who infuses traditional Kurdish folk songs and original compositions with a deep appreciation for jazz, performs April 22 at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater.
Jobarteh doesn’t fit neatly under the DAC umbrella, but she came highly recommended. “My son had been to see her in Prague and said that she’s so amazing,” Kaviana said. “It’s a sold-out show now. I think most people who bought tickets are from her community. She is getting so big, this is probably my only chance to present her, though if she’s interested, I’d love to book her again.”
Working hard to expand her audience, Jobarteh isn’t just touring across the West. She’s keeping a foot planted firmly in West Africa, committed to finding outlets for her music in The Gambia and neighboring countries “where it belongs,” she said. “Especially with the new repertoire, which is bringing something quite new. For me, it’s about being able to raise questions and stretching the boundaries of the traditions.”
Every time she takes the stage, Jobarteh opens up new space for women, both as a role model and in her role as an educator. In 2015, she launched The Gambia Academy, which teaches children reading, writing and math, as well as African history, culture and traditional music. And if girls want to play kora and balafon, they’re encouraged to pursue it, to “break new ground, not just on the level of gender but coming from families that are not griot,” she said.
She didn’t want to weigh the relative challenges of studying griot instruments for young people not born into griot families, versus fighting past traditional gender roles, but noted that “there are still heavy burdens of breaking beyond your bloodlines that might be even deeper,” she said.
By creating an academy, she’s taken traditional music out of the family setting, into a “neutral space, connected but not connected to the culture,” she said. “We’re recreating the new norm. This is an institution, not a family. That was important. That’s what allowed me to develop. If I had to position myself in the traditional space of rituals, the burden would have been too great. So you start to create new norms. The new stories are being written.”