The unmistakable strings of the kora filled the Alliance Francaise auditorium as Gambian virtuoso Sanjally Jobarteh charmed the audience at his first ever concert in East Africa last month.
Jobarteh played a solo concert on the Friday before Christmas and returned to the same venue the next day playing the music that accompanied the performances of storytellers during the Stories Re-imagining African Folk Tales event.
Born in the rural village of Kembujeh, a bastion of Gambian tradition in the West Coast region, Jobarteh belongs to one of the five notable griot-playing families in the country.
“When you hear griot then you know I am a born musician,” he explains, while talking about community of West African storytellers, praise singers and musicians.
He picked up the kora from his father Amadou Bansang Joberteh an internationally renowned master of the 21 stringed instrument. His mother who was a singer also inspired his journey into music.
“We griots are not forced to learn the kora, I have brothers who are doctors and lawyers, but I chose the kora as a child,” he says. Initially his father wanted him to follow the footsteps of his siblings: “‘Educate yourself and get a good job,’ he would tell me,” recalls Jobarteh.
“Over time, he realised my heart was in music and we started intensive lessons on the kora. Whenever his guests came to visit he would proudly say, ‘come and play for these visitors’. He was glad that I was the only one that carried the family griot tradition”.
In 1983, Jobarteh made his first international trip accompanying his father to the UK to perform at an annual festival organised by the Ethnomusicology Department at Cambridge University, featuring traditional musicians from around the world.
In the late-1980s, he settled in Bergen, Norway to join his brother who was already living in the country. After living in Norway for more than 20 years. Jobarteh has now returned home to the Gambia with the aim of spreading traditional music around the continent. “A griot belongs to Africa because people here understand what I am singing about,” he says.
“Its not easy even today playing the kora but I don’t regret choosing the instrument because it has enabled me to travel around the world and spread my people’s culture,” says Jobarteh.
His own daughter Sona Jobarteh is also an internationally renowned kora player and is a female pioneer in the ancient male-dominated hereditary tradition of the Manding society of Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.
“A griot is not just an instrumentalist but is also a custodian of the culture of society, we must know the meaning of songs, names of people and we even act as a mediators in disputes,” says Jobartey.
“The influence of griots is more powerful than newspapers or any publication in our culture. Leaders like chiefs, presidents, ministers, all have a griot attached to them,” he adds.
However, he clarifies that he does not sing the praises of modern day politicians. “Griots should be neutral. I would rather sing in praise of a friend, or perform songs that salute traditional rulers like Sundiata Keita.”
His latest album “Tutu” is based on traditional songs that he has recorded in a new setting. “We don’t sit down and try and think through songs and lyrics. As praise singers, we have the ability is to compose spontaneously and many of the songs mention great people of our community by name”
He says the kora is a unique because everything is played from memory, nothing is written, the technique is learned by ear. “Griots listen to music from childhood and the songs are all in the memory and all you need is just to learn the technique of playing the kora.”
His own knowledge of Western music notation helps him collaborate with contemporary musicians from around the world. “I also practice a little bit of guitar to develop my kora playing so I am able to identify the chord progression when I am performing with musicians playing Western-style instruments,” he says.
In 2016, Jobarteh set up a music school in his father’s honor offering lessons in the kora and other traditional instruments. “I am introducing the young generation to not just the kora but other traditional instruments of the Manding people like the balafon, n’goni, and talking drums.”
“My aim is to show the young people that armed with education you can take your own culture to another dimension.” Jobartey is working on music education along with his daughter Sona Jobarteh who is imparting the same knowledge and skills to a younger age group. “This Instrument requires hard work because there are many good players and the world has become very small so people will distinguish the masters from the average musicians.”