Sona Jobarteh – St George’s Hall, Bristol

Ages ago, probably in the interval of another gig at St George’s, I was looking through the programme and this gig stood out, so I got myself a ticket. I’ve started to make a point of seeing more diverse artists (I mean, there really are only so many things a boy can do with a guitar. Unless he was Prince) and I want to keep pushing my boundaries.

Sona is a female Kora player. This is trailblazing, as it is an instrument traditionally only played by men. Therefore, immediately I liked her. An African woman, standing proud of her Gambian heritage and ancestry whilst simultaneously rewriting all the rules. That’s my kind of woman.

I have harboured a secret desire to travel to Senegal and The Gambia for years (the fear of flying and complete lack of funds somewhat hampering any attempt to make it a reality). All because of music. The roots of most modern music lie in rock n roll, The Beatles nicked Rhythm n Blues from Black America, and the roots of that music lie in Africa. Slavery stole the people of West Africa and all they had to take with them was their music. Call and response singing,  drum beats & rhythm patterns, jazz – it all comes from West Africa. Without West Africa there would be no RnB, no rock n roll. So I have long wanted to pay a pilgrimatic journey to West Africa to give thanks.

But what I haven’t done, until very recently, was listen to or see live any African artists. Tonight was part of rectifying that.

Sona and her band were superb. Groovy, funky, playful, soulful and moving. The Kora is an incredible instrument (it’s a type of harp), capable of delicate sounds and beautiful harmonies. Backed by a 4 piece Afro Beat group of drums, bass and percussion, and with Sona’s lovely voice, they played a dozen or so songs. All sung in a language I don’t speak, although I have learnt the Manding for love and woman this evening. It was an inclusive evening of music, making a political point, yes, but with love and warmth and heart. We were encouraged over and over to join in with the singing and with playful humour gently poked fun of for our very feeble first attempts until we were getting it right. Some songs were sad and mournful, about those we had lost, others celebratory about the power of love and of women and one brilliant one the nomadic tribespeople of West Africa. Sona is on a one woman musical mission to ensure the heritage of traditional playing and songs continues, but also moves with the times. I, of course, loved her.

Sona sparred with her percussionist Mamadou Sarr and that was pure joy to watch, each of them teasing and raising their game against and with each other to make sublime sounds. I was grinning from ear to ear. Any time you get to see talented musicians play is a joyful experience, they want to make each other better, raise each other up and take you with them.

As a representative of the school she founded in Gambia, to pass on to the next generation the skills needed to keep this music alive, Sona bought on her son to play with the band. It was a lovely touch. There was a mixture of professional and maternal pride on display that was very touching. He came back for the encore too, and took his bow rightfully with the rest of the band.

By the end there pockets of dancing had broken out in the aisles! At St George’s! Usually a staid and serious place of classical music and polite clapping. Of elderly, well educated white people. And some of them were dancing! It was wonderful. Music reaches inside you and makes you want to move. Dance. Jig. Groove. You don’t have to understand the language of the lyrics, you just need to feel. Feel connected, feel moved. Feel the rhythm, check the vibe. Let your backbone slip, you know.

I had no idea what the Kora would sound like before tonight. I hope I get to hear one played live again. There is clearly a whole other world of music out there that I need to start listening to. Thank you Sona Jobarteh for opening my ears.


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