Nuits d’Afrique : Sona Jobarteh and music as life itself

Interview by Elena Mandolini

Additional Information

Sona Jobarteh, an accomplished musician from Gambia, has been immersed in the world of music from an early age. For her, music is a natural talent, almost a vital function. What makes her an even more exceptional artist is the instrument she has adopted and through which she has made an international name for herself: the kora. Traditionally reserved for men, Sona Jobarteh is one of the few women in the world to have mastered this instrument to perfection. In addition to her musical career, she is the founder of the Gambia Academy, a school designed to offer a complete curriculum to Gambian children, in addition to teaching them traditional music and dance.

PAN M 360 spoke to this exceptional musician on the eve of her first concert in Quebec, as part of the Festival international Nuits d’Afrique.

PAN M 360: Hi Sona, thank you so much for your time. Growing up, you were surrounded by music. When did you decide that you were to pursue a career as a professional musician?

Sona Jobarteh: It’s hard to know because I don’t think I woke up one day and suddenly decided thatn. So I don’t really know what happened. It has been the norm of my life to be in music and to share music.

PAN M 360: What made you decide that you wanted to pick up the kora as your main instrument?

Sona Jobarteh: The kora is a hereditary tradition. So it’s something you are born into. It’s less about choosing the instrument, it’s more about the history of the family.

PAN M 360: What about the other instruments that you play?

Sona Jobarteh: There’s a different story for each one. I came to some of the other instruments I play sometimes through my relatives. For example, my older brother plays the cello, so I started doing that. The guitar is an instrument I came to around 12 years old. I was somewhere where there was a guitar and I tried it. Then, whenever I saw a guitar, I had to play something on it. There were very organic affinities with the instruments I play, you know?

PAN M 360: You are also very active in the education field. Could you tell us more about your mission at The Gambia Academy?

Sona Jobarteh: The Gambia Academy is not especially a music school, it’s an academy with a full curriculum. That’s what I’m working on developing. Music is a part of it too, like any other mainstream education institution. It’s a place that puts a lot of emphasis on culture, history, traditions, and several other things like that. People are a part of education. Music is a part, too, obviously.

PAN M 360: Let’s talk about your music specifically. Which message are you trying to convey with your musical work?

Sona Jobarteh: I’m not sure that it would be true to say, in my case, that there is a specific message that I want to convey. It’s not my intention to have a mission or to make you know who I am. Ironically, I talk about this in one of my songs. I talk about analyzing and dissecting things to the point that they become untruthful. I don’t put things together in some sort of plan.

PAN M 360: That being said, how do you see music in general?

Sona Jobarteh: Music is very much an integral part of not only human existence but individual existence. When we are musicians, we play music, of course, but it also becomes our private form of communication. Just like when I’m speaking to you, I’m not planning which words I’m going to use. It’s the same in music. The focus is not about what it is and how it is, the most important is that I’m speaking. Or playing. What I mean is that music is in a whole other class. It’s bigger than anything. Music as a whole is bigger than the specificities of my music.

PAN M 360: So music has the same status as a language?

Sona Jobarteh: I use music because I was in contact with it, I grew up with it. Like anybody, you know? If you are born into a great education, that becomes part of your life, right? I use English because I have been exposed to it. If I was in France, I would be using French. So it’s not so much the language of music or the specificity of the music. What is important is what you are trying to communicate. It doesn’t really matter how, right? And it happens to be different for other people. They might choose voice, it might be the guitar or the piano.

PAN M 360: What do you sing about when you compose a new song? What are your current themes?

Sona Jobarteh: For me, it depends on what the music’s message is, and what it wants to communicate. It’s different for every song. I won’t talk about all my songs, because that would take all of your time to go through all my songs. But I can say that, now, my songs are very much in line with the work that I do in connection to the Gambia Academy. They are in connection with social development, economic development, and educational development. My songs are very much linked and connected to all of those important areas of social development that I work on on a daily basis, away from music.

PAN M 360: You also composed a score for a movie. How do you approach this kind of work?

Sona Jobarteh: Just because it’s a film, it has to be different. You are no longer creating music that is sung by itself. It now has to take a secondary role, to serve the purpose of the visuals. So by its very nature, it’s going to be different than mu own personal music. I have to subject myself to the message of the film, the message of the videos, or the frames that I am dealing with. So it’s a very different experience, and what’s being composed can testify to that. It’s a different platform altogether.

PAN M 360: Which projects await you in the future?

Sonah Jobarteh: Well, to be honest, the most time-consuming work that I’m doing is really the work towards the Academy. Since I’m running the Academy, it’s a full-time job in itself. It’s been tough being away for long periods of time, with this intense schedule that I have at the moment. It’s been hard to maintain both.

PAN M 360: We are especially lucky to have you, then! How do you see your presence at Festival international Nuits d’Afrique?

Sona Jobarteh: I’m looking forward to it! I was in Canada a couple of weeks ago but in a very different area. So it’s the first time that I come to this particular region of the country. Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

Sona Jobarteh will perform on July 20 at 9:30 PM, on the TD – Radio-Canada Stage, during the Festival international Nuits d’Afrique. The concert is free. INFO HERE!

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