Tonight we want to introduce you to a musician named Sona Jobarteh who introduced us to the beautiful sound and history of a centuries-old instrument called the cortex. It is a West African string instrument, part of a musical tradition that stretches back to the 13th century empire and has since been passed down strictly from father to son, male to male, in special families. Sona Jobarteh was born into one of these families, known as griots. Daughter of father from Gambia and mother from Great Britain. After hundreds of years, men are the first woman master the bark. In his performances around the world and in his off-stage work, he says that he upholds the tradition by the very act of breaking it.

Hear like us, Sony Jobarteh who plays the bark. With 21 strings played by only four fingers, two on each hand, it sounds both unfamiliar and familiar.

Lesley Stahl: It’s like a harp to me. What are you comparing it to?

Sona Jobarteh: I don’t actually compare it to anything because it’s normal for me, right? I compare other things to the bark.

Sona Jobarteh

The song Sona played for us, called “Jarabi”, is a traditional love song sung in Mandinka. The tradition dates back to the 13th century, when the kingdom known as the Mali Empire ruled over a large area of ​​West Africa, the territory of several modern countries. The musicians and storytellers in the empire were people called griots who advised kings, solved conflicts, and passed on legends by word of mouth. Women in griot families were singers, but only men were allowed to play instruments.

That is, all the way to Sony Jobarteh. At 39, she became one of the leading kora musicians in the world, performing with her ensemble in Europe, West Africa and here in the United States, as we saw in one crowded theater outside Boston.

Sona Jobarteh: This is music, when you hear it, it still carries that sense of empire in its – at its best – to this day. You have a sense of royalty, you have a sense of, you know, something you’re so proud of.

Lesley Stahl: I think you broke with tradition.

Sona Jobarteh: This is not how I see myself, mainly because… believing that tradition has to evolve. Traditions are not stagnating. These are things that develop with humanity, with society, and it has always been so. Once upon a time this instrument was not available. And then it was invented and became something modern. And yet it is now considered traditional. As for being a woman, this is a very central and important adaptation that tradition has to adopt in order to be relevant to our new society.

Sona Jobarteh approaches the griot tradition as both an outsider and an initiate. Her mother is a British artist. Her father, son of the legendary Gambian kora player, whose lineage of the griot family goes back to the 13th century. Though her parents’ relationship did not survive, Sona grew up in both worlds, the UK and her grandfather’s family complex in the Gambia, where she claims her grandmother urged her to embrace her griot heritage, which as a girl meant singing.

Sona Jobarteh: She kept telling me, you know, “You have to sing.” And I never wanted to sing. I hated singing passionately.

Lesley Stahl: Why? You have a perfect voice.

Sona Jobarteh: – I didn’t like it. I never liked it. And so-

Lesley Stahl: But your grandma knew you had a great voice.

Sona Jobarteh: I don’t think she heard that much because I refused. And I was a very stubborn kid (LAUGHTER) when it came to this. I was sitting there for “Nnnnn”.

Sona Jobarteh plays the bark

But Kora was attracted to Sona, and as a young child, it didn’t bother anyone that she had learned the basics. She thinks her grandmother even liked the idea. However, in the UK, she studied another musical tradition – classical cello – and achieved success by winning a scholarship at the age of 14 at a prestigious boarding music school.

Lesley Stahl: Were you one of the few Bias kids in school?

Sona Jobarteh: The only person of color in the first school.

Lesley Stahl: The only person?

Sona Jobarteh: Yes.

Sona Jobarteh: As a student, I was incredibly shy. I’ve never spoken. I would say it’s my own way of surviving those years.

Lesley Stahl: Were you sad? Was it a difficult time?

Sona Jobarteh: Yes. Yes, it was a very difficult time. Yes. Happiness was not a major part of it.

But she did find one connection point with her life in The Gambia.

Sona Jobarteh: There was a bark hanging on the wall in the school library. So I’ll always be watching it. And then one day I decided to … get it off the wall. It was a total mess as you can imagine. So I started doing every time I get some time in a quiet place, I take it off the wall, fasten the string, put it back. And I did it, hoping no one would notice me taking it off the wall. And there was one lady who was one of the late night workers. She said, “Why don’t you take him to your room? And you can keep it there and just work on it. “

Lesley Stahl: She is your hero.

Sona Jobarteh: – and I had permission. It has become my sanity.

And her calling. At 17, she decided that she needed to properly study the bark, which meant taking a personal risk: asking her father to pass the tradition on to her, his daughter, just like his father did to him. They didn’t spend much time together because Sanjally Jobarteh mostly lived and performed abroad.

Sanjally Jobarteh

Lesley Stahl: Over the years, playing bark has been passed down from father to son …

Sanjally Jobarteh: Mm-hm.

Lesley Stahl: – Father of a son.

Sanjally Jobarteh: Exactly.

Lesley Stahl: And here comes your daughter …

Sanjally Jobarteh: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Sona.

Sanjally Jobarteh: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Did she say, “Dad, will you teach me?”

Sanjally Jobarteh: Yes, she said, “What I really want to learn is the bark.”

Lesley Stahl: But the girls weren’t playing the game back then.

Sanjally Jobarteh: What I told her – I said, “I wish – if I close my eyes, I don’t have to tell whether it’s male or female.”

Lesley Stahl: Oh.

Sanjally Jobarteh: “If you can do this for me.”

Lesley Stahl: You said right away, “Okay?”

Sanjally Jobarteh: I said right away, “All right.”

Lesley Stahl: You never hesitated?

Sanjally Jobarteh: I never hesitated, no.

Sona Jobarteh: “I don’t want you to get distracted by the whole idea of ​​being a woman. Don’t let this come to your mind. Don’t let this distract you. Your ambition must be good bark, Player. A woman who doesn’t play bark, she just plays the bark well. And that was my challenge at the beginning.

Lesley Stahl: How hard has she worked?

Sanjally Jobarteh: She worked very, very hard.

She started performing, sometimes with her father and then with her own band. It was accepted as the first in Europe. And then she returned to Gambia with a song and video that she released in 2015 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gambia’s independence. It has become the country’s unofficial anthem, with over 24 million views on YouTube.

Dancers aside, we found The Gambia as depicted in the Sony video. A tiny country on the west coast of Africa, it is a former British colony, mostly Muslim. Pre-colonial culture is deeply entrenched here. Sony Jobarteh’s name and legacy are of great importance, and she gravitates to this ancient role as a cultural leader griot to defend what she calls her purpose in life beyond music: to create a new model of African education. She founded a small school called the Academy of Gambia where students learn to dance, play the drums, of course, the bark, and another traditional griot instrument called the balafon.

Sona Jobarteh: Music gets the most attention because everyone sees it, likes it and likes it. But they learn the same subjects every other school is studying – your math, your science, your geography, your history, all of these things. But how is this communicated to you?

Sona believes that much of Africa’s education is so deeply rooted in colonial models that her message to children is that their own heritage is somehow backward.

Sona Jobarteh: So they feel like they are doing things right: “We’ll do it this way.” And this … but “this way” is always very European. My challenge now is, can you get the same result, successful result, if we actually create – we will change the cultural orientation at the heart and center of the education system?

Borry and Rohy

So the students here wear traditional African uniforms. And Gambian culture is celebrated. Rohy and Borry have been coming to the school since it opened seven years ago. There are no gender or pedigree restrictions here. Rohy is learning to play the bark, and Borry is in advanced balaphone class.

Borry: I like it. When I play, I feel very happy.

Lesley Stahl: Are you a griot?

Rohy: No.

Lesley Stahl: Are you a griot?

Borry: No.

Lesley Stahl: And– you’re a woman. Look at you both laughing because you know what I’m talking about.

Rohy and Borry: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Won’t it be terribly difficult?

Rohy: You know what a man can do, a woman can do it too. Yes. So I’m not from the griot family, but I love playing bark. And when you love something, you can do it.

Lesley Stahl: Are you repulsed by society?

Sona Jobarteh: Yes. Of course. Especially from the older generations. But it does not matter.

Plays a complex West African instrument called kora | 60 minutes


Sony’s first album was a mix of traditional and new songs. The last one we saw during rehearsals with her band is completely original music. She writes all the parts herself – including songs about education, women and her own identity. And he sings them in Mandinka.

Sona Jobarteh: For me, when I sing in my own language, when I sing in a language that belongs to the Gambia, it is … I am giving you a sense of pride that you have never had before that your language is so valuable.

Sona Jobarteh: When can I go to an international audience and can I have the whole audience in Germany, Spain, America, all over the world singing Mandinka?

As he says, the power of music.

Sona Jobarteh: It becomes a universal language. With the help of music, I can talk to anyone from anywhere in the world. I cannot do it in any other form.

And he does one more thing, passing the tradition on to his 15-year-old son Sidiki, the talented balafonist. And another link from the griots past to its future.

Lesley Stahl: You told her, “When I close my eyes, I don’t want to hear a woman playing bark.”

Sanjally Jobarteh: No.

Lesley Stahl: “I want to hear great …”

Sanjally Jobarteh: “… the bark of the player.” Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Okay, so close your eyes and tell us what you hear.

Sanjally Jobarteh: I can hear (LAUGHTER) great, great, great kora player.

Sanjally Jobarteh: I am very, very proud. Definitely.

Produced by Shari Finkelstein. Co-producers Collette Richards and Braden Cleveland Bergan. Radio associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.

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