Taking on centuries of tradition with the West Africa harp

Tim Woodall

Untitled 13 Taking on centuries of tradition with the West Africa harpThe kora, a 21-stringed harp, is one of West Africa’s – and Mali’s especially – finest cultural exports. The instrument is at the heart of the region’s tradition of hereditary court musicians or praise singers, known as griots, whose knowledge has been passed down through dozens of generations by word of mouth. The history of the griots, or jelis as they are sometimes called, stretches back to Mali’s Mande Empire of the thirteenth century, when the tradition of attaching musicians and story tellers to the courts of local rulers was established.

The young British-Gambian kora player and singer Sona Jobarteh belongs to the griot tradition by birth. Her grandfather was a master griot while Toumani Diabaté, also a kora player and one of world music’s biggest stars, is a cousin. But as a woman, Jobarteh would not traditionally have been able to be an instrumentalist.

Like numerous other musical cultures, jazz for instance, musical instruments are the preserve of men in West African society, while women have traditionally been singers. Jobarteh’s determination to become a kora player, and the first female virtuoso in her family, was partly inspired as a message to West African women that instrumental music was for them to play too.

Sona Jobarteh’s particular mission is just one example of the current generation of West African musicians that wants to draw from the griot tradition while not being hemmed in by archaic rules. Toumani Diabaté, for example, brilliantly exposed this tension by recording a hugely successful big band album with his Symmetric Orchestra five years ago, a funky, dance-oriented record that blended ancient and modern influences with ease.

Aside from Diabaté’s brilliance though, the kora suits more contemplative music. Virtuoso players like Jobarteh, spend years learning to add the building blocks of the kora sound: the repeating bass line followed by the harmonising chord pattern and finally the melody line that runs above the texture. The resulting music is often melodious and wistful.

Jobarteh has the added advantage of a beautiful singing voice, which she will no doubt be using to wide-ranging effect on her new album. Fasyia receives its launch at the Camden venue Dingwalls on June 16. Jobarteh also plays guitar on the record, and she’s pulled in other music genres like Soul, but the album’s name, which translates as Heritage, shows the roots of its inspiration.

The inheritance of the griot tradition, Jobarteh has said, is the “unifying sound” of the album. But for her, the word Fasiya also refers to something more practical than belonging. She has pointed out that simply being born into a griot family is not enough; it’s what someone does with their inheritance that is important.

With that in mind and aware of her responsibility to pass her family’s music on in a creative way, Jobarteh has set up a music school in The Gambia for young musicians to learn the music of the griot tradition. Closer to home, Jobarteh also teaches the kora in North London.

Visit her website

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