With her kora, Sona Jobarteh feminizes tradition and converts the planet – RFI Musique

With her kora, Sona Jobarteh feminizes tradition and converts the planet – RFI Musique

Son Jobarteh.

© Rob O’Connor

There is no doubt about her change of status: in just a few years Sona Jobarteh has become a reference value in West African music, as evidenced by the many concerts held with her group all over the world. Virtuoso of the kora, the 30-year-old Anglo-Gambian and cousin of Malian Toumani Diabaté defends a modern vision of the Mandinka tradition with her new album Badinya kumoo.

RFI Musique: How does this new album relate to the previous one, which put you in the spotlight?
Son Jobarteh:
This is the second leg of the journey, after Phasia. Maybe a little more adventurous. I wanted to challenge tradition in some of its extremes and potentials, push that boundary further, do something very different, but keep it within the tradition.

How traditional is your music and what isn’t?
I don’t think we can think in these terms. Everything I do follows tradition. I always remind you that tradition is something that lives, just like the human beings who perpetuate it. It grows, matures, changes with the generations. To stagnate them, to drag them into the past is a very destructive thought process for me, because this is what prevents traditions from surviving. One could say that it is not traditional for women to play the kora. It’s traditional because I make it. It’s a new tradition. Also, the kora was not traditional in the past! The tradition must evolve. If it doesn’t reflect our current society, it no longer has a reason to exist. More utility. And that’s when we start to see traditions die.

Your conception of tradition is not shared by everyone. How do you explain that it can be seen differently?
We are talking about an English word: traditional is not a Mandinka word. So it depends on who uses it, knowing that this concept has penetrated many people’s minds: many Africans were raised in imported school systems and with foreigners who told them what was traditional or not. So I question all these concepts.

Is this one of the reasons why you created The Gambia Academy for the education of children in The Gambia?
Exactly. My ambition is to question mindsets, question our way of thinking and understand why we hold certain beliefs and figure out which beliefs make sense. Because not all of them make sense for our progress.

Is music used to defend values, in your eyes?
Yes of course. What purpose do we really have if we don’t talk about values ​​in our music? Subconsciously, I have always known that music had a purpose, surely because I have my roots in this tradition where music is not just entertainment but plays a role in society.

In your childhood, were you interested in music that carried a message?
Not necessarily. I listened to music in languages ​​I didn’t understand. I just wanted the music to touch me, to inspire me, to motivate me, which is already a message for me, isn’t it? Language is not as important as the power of the music itself.

What is the meaning of the album title?
Badinyaa Kumoo means “words of unity”. But this translation is a compromise. There is actually more depth to these words. Phasia had to do with the cultural heritage that comes from the father, while Badinya it speaks of the mother, or rather of the much broader concept of motherhood and of what the mother symbolically represents, in a community. It refers to unity, this unique feeling that exists between children of the same mother. It was culturally relevant in griot society and it still is today, even if the context has changed: we are no longer in a village, but we are citizens of the world, we are still part of a society. Badinya emphasizes the importance of finding ways we can actually achieve that sense of unity.

You invited Youssou N’Dour to one of the songs. What does it represent for you?
Musically, it meant a lot to me to collaborate with this icon. There is also the fact, as a Gambian, of singing a duet with a Senegalese, on a song designed especially for him. But apart from the musical side, this song talks about Pan-Africanism and says the importance of collaboration between African countries. Not only artistically, but also financially. Youssou is a symbol, a pioneer, an entrepreneur who has been successful in many areas other than music.

Is it judicious to see in the expression of your music and its sounds similarities, if not a closeness to the Malian Habib Koité’s approach to Mandinka music?
Yes, partially. Habib is an artist who has had a great influence on many people of my generation. I was really a big fan. But he has a different way of approaching, of structuring his music. When I started studying composition very intensely, he had a profound impact on my approach to tradition. My mind was always thinking about how to build the music rather than just playing it. I often compare writing music to sculpting. I know I want to create a face and I’m going to use the tools to gradually make it appear. For me, composing is not something spontaneous, even if it starts like this. The initial idea is not enough.

Is creating a song a long process for you?
Yes, very long. It’s also something I don’t always appreciate, because I know exactly what I want to hear. I become with myself one of those professors one has nightmares about. He gives me a lot of trouble, but I refuse to stop until it sounds like what I originally had in mind. It can take a long time. And it’s also difficult to force creativity. For Kambengwo with Youssou, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard on a song in my life. I don’t want to go through it again as it was a very hard and painful process for me.

Was that extra pressure to propose?
When you know you’ll send it, yes. But mostly because I had to do it right. Whatever he said, I wanted to make sure that in ten years time when I listened to him again, I would have no regrets telling myself I should have done it differently. It was a very important opportunity in my life, in my career and for the culture I represent to make something that stays, even when we’re gone.

Son Jobarteh, Badinya kumoo (African guild registers) 2022
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