If The Gambia wasn’t already on our list of possible holiday destinations then for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the Howard Assembly Room tonight it most surely will be now. For over a really quite sublime hour and a half in what is a rather glorious riot of music and words, Sona Jobarteh and her superb band bring to intoxicating life all of the vibrancy, colour and passion of this west African country, its people and its culture.
In a tradition that has been almost exclusively passed down from father to son through family generations for centuries, Sona Joberteh is the very first female kora virtuoso to have come from a prestigious west African Griot family. In addition to playing this long-necked 21-string harp-lute instrument with incredible élan, Joberteh proves herself to be a most accomplished guitarist. When account is also taken of her wonderful singing voice, you strongly suspect that there is precious little she couldn’t do, were she to turn her hand to it.
Cutting a supreme figure of style and grace, Sona Joberteh glides onto the stage shortly after her four musical accompanists – percussionist Mamadou Sarr, guitarist Derek Johnson and Andi McLean and Westley Joseph on their respective bass guitar and drums – straps on the kora, and then proceeds to stand as she plays throughout the entire performance. Her presence is one of unquestionable spirit, elegance and quiet determination.
Sona Joberteh’s second album is due later this year, but it is largely towards her debut offering Fasiya where she heads tonight. Fasiya may well be seven years old now but its songs still sound fresh and alive. ‘Jarabi’ is a message to love; ‘Mamamuso’ is dedicated to her grandmother whose dream inspired Joberteh to become a musician; ‘Gainaaka’ celebrates the Fulani, a nomadic people who are scattered throughout many parts of west Africa; and ‘Saya’ speaks about the pain of losing someone very close to you
All of these songs are united by love, a deep respectful reverence that percolates freely through the five musicians’ incredibly skilful playing as they shift effortlessly across a spectrum of sound that connects more traditional African rhythms with Afropop. As if to illustrate her versatility, when she first picks up the guitar for ‘Gainaaka’ Jobarteh ends up trading transcendental licks with Johnson as if they have somehow become some strange African incarnation of the Allman Brothers Band.
The five musicians return to the stage for a richly deserved encore, a wonderfully improvised, elongated reading of ‘Bannaya’ that stretches out to way beyond the half hour mark and provides each of them with an opportunity to demonstrate their own individual artistry. Just like everything that had gone before, the sound that Sona Joberteh and her band create here is one of great unity, inclusivity, warmth and unconditional love.
Photo credit: Simon Godley
More photos from this show can be found HERE