When Leanne first enthusiastically told me about Sona Jobarteh, I was curious. Sona is a renowned Gambian musician and one of the few female kora players in the world. Leanne told me about how much she loved her vibrant West African music – and how brilliant it was that she was playing at the Skirball Cultural Center over the summer. Excited, we marked the date on our calendars and made plans to meet to savor great music, under the stars of Los Angeles in the Bel-Air hillside.
Sona Jobarteh was born into a prestigious Gambian Griot family. The Griots, also known as Jalis, are traditional oral historians, musicians, and storytellers responsible for passing down the cultural heritage of the Mandinka people. Sona’s family has a long history of kora playing, dating back to many generations.
The kora is a unique and captivating musical instrument with a rich history that is deeply intertwined with the cultural heritage of West Africa, particularly in the regions of Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and the Gambia. The kora’s design resembles elements of both the harp and the lute. he kora consists of a large calabash (a type of gourd) resonator covered with cowhide, a long hardwood neck, and 21 strings. These strings are traditionally made from fishing line or other materials, and they are played using the thumb and index finger of both hands. The kora’s design has evolved over time, with variations in the number of strings and the overall structure.
Sona’s interest in the kora, despite being traditionally considered a male instrument, was groundbreaking. What both Leanne and I loved is that she became one of the first women to master the kora and perform it professionally.
Needless to say, I was looking forward to basking in Sona’s presence and playing in person. So, when the night came, I wore my most fashionable outfit and make my way to the Skirball. Immediately, I felt the presence and vibe of African culture in Los Angeles. To start, there was a West African Marketplace, featuring local Los Angeles vendors through @blackwomenvend.
What I cherished the most about the concert is that Sona’s music is deeply rooted in West African traditions. But, she also infuses it with contemporary elements and her unique style. One song that she played was deeply influenced by American blues music.
Her compositions address important social and cultural issues, and she uses her platform to promote gender equality and challenge stereotypes.
The vibe of the crowd was magical. I loved hearing the way Sona harmonized with us as we sang along to the melody she created.
During the performance, she spoke vibrantly of the need for equal rights and justice, her school in Africa and the need for society to continue to be mindful of progress forward toward a more expansive and beautiful future on Earth.
The standing ovation Sona and her band received at the end of the performance was resoundingly well warranted.
Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N Sepulveda Blvd
Los Angeles, California 90049