The Kora (a 21-stringed African harp) is one of the most important instruments of the Manding peoples and it belongs exclusively to the few, “Griot” families within the Manding of West Africa and only those who are born into one of these families have the right to play the instrument professionally.
The Jobarteh family is one of the ﬁve, mighty dynasties that holds this right. Sona’s lineage carries a formidable reputation for renowned Kora masters and most notable amongst these are her grandfather, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh – an icon in Gambia’s cultural and musical history – and her cousin, the legendary, Toumani Diabaté. Sona is the ﬁrst professional female Kora virtuoso to come from any of the West African Griot dynasties. Breaking with convention, she is a pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated hereditary tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries.
The spirit of Sona’s musical work stands on mighty shoulders, and yet is powerfully penetrating in its own right. With one ear on the family’s historic reputation, one on the all-important future legacy and her heart in both places, she carves out a place today for the next generation. Her art has managed to attain tens of millions of plays on Youtube and other platforms without her singing in English or utilising any of the traditional music industry structures or imagery.
Following the release of her critically-acclaimed album, Fasiya (“Heritage”) in 2011 and reputed for her skill as an instrumentalist, her distinctive voice, her infectious melodies and her grace onstage, Sona has rapidly achieved international success as a performer. Her and her music have the unique ability to touch audiences from all backgrounds and cultures, commanding the attention of sitting presidents, royalty and regular people alike. Her captivating stage show has proved to be popular everywhere, and with a repertoire that exudes accessible sophistication, her audience demographic is forever expanding.
Sona’s dedication to spreading powerful humanitarian messages through her songs and her stage performances makes her much more than a regular musician; she is in fact a compelling social activist and change-maker who believes in leading by example. She set up the Gambia Academy, a pioneering institution dedicated to achieving her mission of educational reform across the continent Africa. According to the Sona, Africa faces the crucial and urgent challenge of addressing its education systems. Children who are fortunate enough to attend school spend most of their waking hours in school, however in most cases the environment, culture, approach and curricula content within these schools are invariably oriented around a post-colonial value system and subsequently a foreign perspective.
For Sona, it is detrimental for future generations of the continent whose values and concepts are shaped during their school years, to continue to be trained within a system where African culture, African history, African traditions and their intrinsic values are either non-existent or at best, relegated to the position of extra-curricular exoticism. This Academy is therefore the first of its kind in The Gambia to deliver a mainstream academic curriculum at a high level, whilst also bringing the culture, traditions and history that belong to students, to the front and centre of their everyday education. Her achievements in developing a new curriculum that reflects this reform at her Academy has gained her invitations to deliver speeches at high profile events around the world – including summits for the UN, the World Trade Organization and UNICEF.
Sona’s vision has always been to create a curriculum that can be replicated and implemented in schools across the country, thus creating a true education system that places the student, their cultural identity and values, rightfully at the centre of their learning experience.
As a skilled composer who majored in composition and scoring during her time at the Purcell School of Music in her earlier years, Sona landed her ﬁrst ﬁlm commission scoring for the movie, Motherland. Here, she cultivated a fresh sonic in African, cinematic music. The ﬁlm went on to collect multiple awards around the world. More recently, she was commissioned by PRS to compose a piece for Western and African instruments, exploring the meeting points between these two worlds through a dynamic, musical journey. In 2019, the composition was premiered at the South Bank’s renowned Purcell Room, in London. As a vocalist, Sona has featured in award-winning ﬁlms such as the Hollywood movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and The First Grader – the latter winning the “Discovery of the Year” prize at the Hollywood World Soundtrack Awards in 2012.
In recent years and by popular demand, she has taken to extensive touring, headlining major festivals around the world – including in North, Central and South America, Australasia, The Caribbean, India, South Korea, China, all over Europe and South-East Asia. As part of ﬁfty two performances in 2019 she completed US tours encompassing 15 dates from the Hollywood Bowl to Symphony Space in NYC.
Sona is also a unique academic within the ﬁeld of Mande music, history and social anthropology. She has lectured and held residencies at universities and colleges in Africa, across the United States and Europe.