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West African Griot and Trailblazer Sona Jobarteh Brings the Sounds of Her Culture to D.C.

By Eric Althoff

The West African griot, a traveling poet-musician who shares stories in song, goes back many centuries—but until now, it has largely been the provenance of male artists. Sona Jobarteh, a native of The Gambia, was born into a family of griots, and she travels the world spreading the joy of this ancient tradition from the Manding region. 

“I come from a griot family—a long line [going back to] the 13th century,” Jobarteh said recently. “It’s probably one of the most well-known traditions from West Africa. And it carries an important history for Africans.”

With her instrument, the Kora, a 21-stringed West African harp, Jobarteh will be appearing at the City Winery on March 13. With her ensemble, she will play traditional griot music, and tell the audience beforehand what each song is about—thereby keeping alive a cultural legacy that goes back nearly a thousand years. 

“I was born into it, so this is my heritage,” Jobarteh said, adding that her backing band includes Mamadou Sarr on percussion, guitarist Eric Appapoulay, bassist Andy Mclean, and drummer Westley Joseph—all of whom she has played with since 2015. “I will be explaining what each of the songs are about because they are not in English, so I do a little bit of background before I play them.”

Sona Jobarteh - Dan Pier
Sona Jobarteh – Dan Pier

In her music, Jobarteh mixes not only the griot sounds she grew up hearing, but also more modern styles such as Afropop and rock. She learned under the watchful eye of her father, Sanjally Jobarteh, and later on studied composition at London’s Royal College of Music. In addition to her performance schedule, Jobarteh works in social development and educational reform throughout Africa, and she is the founding director of The Gambia Academy, which advocates for educational betterment. 

When COVID-19 struck the world in the spring of 2020, Jobarteh’s rather hectic tour schedule suddenly came to a halt. However, she chose to look at the turn of events as an unexpected gift, and pushed herself to move forward on her upcoming album, due to be released later this year. 

“It gave me an opportunity to actually try to finish the new album, which has been very late,” she said of the new disc, tentatively titled Kambengwo, and which will feature guest artists including Youssou N’Dour, Ballaké Cissoko, and Kirk Whalum. “It was really helpful for me because I had time to” work on the album, she said. “That, I think, is the main positive outcome for me of that period of time.” 

Sona Jobarteh

Now it’s back to full speed ahead on her current tour, which will see her in Boston the day before her Washington, D.C. show, before moving on to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the night after. This is after a run of dates in both Senegal and her native The Gambia. Alas, she won’t have much time to sightsee in the capital region given the demands of such a busy show docket.

“Pre-COVID, I was praying for a break, but now, I just want to get back out there again,” Jobarteh said of her suddenly reinvigorated road schedule. “Everything has been suspended for so long.” 

Nowadays, she is facing the opposite problem: As the world has reopened once again for live music, Jobarteh has been jostling with other artists to book venues, as the appetite for music has steadily increased. 

It’s just one of many lessons that she can impart to up-and-coming musicians, who not only have to push hard to get seen before live audiences but also deal with an industry that is completely upside-down from what it was even a few years ago.

“It’s not what it looks like from the outside. Obviously, it’s a tough experience, and it’s a good idea to get a taste before jumping into it,” she said. “But if you’re clear about what you’re doing, if you’re willing to take on the sacrifices,” then all things are possible. 

Sona Jobarteh will play at City Winery on March 13 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are available by going to CityWinery.com.

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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