Sona Jobarteh was born in London to a family of Gambian griots, musicians and storytellers who maintain the oral tradition that keeps the histories of their people alive. Jobarteh’s family is one of five in West Africa associated with the kora, an instrument that combines features of a harp and a lute, with a large gourd resonator and two ranks of strings. Jobarteh began learning kora as a child and has become the first woman from a griot family to rise to global prominence for her mastery of it. Jobarteh’s music, activism, and scholarship are informed by her commitments to gender equality and to adapting ancient traditions for a modern world. She’s the founding director of the Gambia Academy, which seeks to give African students an empowering, engaging education through an anticolonial lens; the school’s curriculum includes music, dance, capoeira, and agriculture alongside academic pursuits.
Last year Jobarteh released Badinyaa Kumoo, her first full-length record since 2011, and it’s well worth the wait. Singing in Mandinka, she presides over an inviting fusion of traditional music, Afrobeat, jazz, and pop with her clear, resonant voice. She also introduces an array of guest stars into her musical world. Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour lends his commanding vocal presence to “Kambengwo,” and Israeli-Yemenite singer Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues adds pure, yearning tones to “Kafaroo” that raise goose bumps in the song’s gentle, lullaby-like setting. Malian kora master Ballaké Sissoko joins Jobarteh on a duet named for him, and the two of them explore the full magical potential of the kora: delicate, harplike notes run like a clear stream of water, inviting the listener to carve out space for focused, intentional listening in the chaos of the day. Alabama-born bluesman Jock Webb contributes searing Delta blues harmonica to “Nna Kangwo,” while Memphis saxophonist Kirk Whalum (that’s him on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”) evokes ascension with a solo on “Nna Mooya.” Jobarteh doesn’t need this level of international star power to shine, but the mix of musicians adds an intriguing energy to the record. Jobarteh made her local debut at the Chicago Cultural Center on her first North American tour in 2018; this return performance, part of the Old Town School of Folk Music’s World Music Wednesdays series, will feature a full band with electric bass, drums, guitar, and percussion.
Sona Jobarteh Wed 3/22, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, Maurer Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln, $35, $33 members, all ages