Navigating Tradition and Modernity with Sona Jobarteh

Navigating Tradition and Modernity with Sona Jobarteh

Posted on December 11, 2023 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
From October 30 – November 1, I had the opportunity to attend Center for Effective Philanthropy’s national conference in Boston. Funders, intermediaries, philanthropic serving organizations, and consultancies from across the country came together to deepen their understanding of the philanthropic sector, reflect on their strategies, and network.

On the second evening was a performance by Sona Jobarteh, a Gambian public speaker, activist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, lecturer, and founder of the Gambia Academy. Jobarteh is the first professional female kora virtuoso to come from any of the West African griot dynasties. Griots are keepers of oral tradition. They are historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets, musicians, advisors, and mediators.

The kora, sometimes employed by griots, is a stringed instrument used extensively in West Africa. It’s made from gourd, cow skin, and hardwood, and it typically has 21 strings, which are played by plucking with four fingers, two on each hand. It’s a unique instrument that combines features of the lute and harp.

The kora is part of a West African musical tradition that only passes down its learning from father to son in griot families. Therefore, despite being born into one of the five principal kora-playing griot families of West Africa, Sona Jobarteh was not initially taught how to play the kora.

At 17, after only learning the basics while growing up, she asked her father to begin teaching her. He said, “Yes.” Since then, Jobarteh has become a master of the kora and one of the most famous kora artists in the world. And for good reason, as I can attest to based on her band’s exceptional and awe-inspiring performance at the Center for Effective Philanthropy conference.

Before her band’s performance, Jobarteh shared her story of becoming a kora virtuoso. As might be expected, Jobarteh gets some pushback, particularly from older generations, for being a female kora player. Jobarteh is more than okay with this pushback.

As she shared in a CBS 60 Minutes interview in August 2023, Jobarteh believes that “tradition has to evolve. Traditions are not stagnant. They are things that grow with humanity, with society, and they always have. At one time, this instrument was not around. And then, it became invented, and it became something modern. And yet, now it’s considered traditional. So in terms of me being female, this is a very central and important adaption the tradition must take in order to be able to be relevant to our new society.”

For the school she founded, the Gambia Academy, she sees it the same way. During her remarks at the conference, Jobarteh explained how when she was designing the school people wanted it to look like traditional West African buildings, including a grass roof. While there are elements of tradition she was sure to include, it was also important to her for it to be a manifestation of modern Gambian taste.

Jobarteh is a fascinating figure in part because she navigates the tension between tradition and modernity. Her work challenges us to ask: how can we hold two ostensibly conflicting things to be true at the same time, that there is much wisdom in how things have been done in the past and there are ways we can improve by changing how we do things in the present? Jobarteh is particularly powerful because as a griot, or a keeper of oral tradition, she is willing to write a new story.

I imagine that, in addition to her being a talented performer, this is why the Center for Effective Philanthropy brought Jobarteh to the conference. Her story inspires the philanthropic sector to reflect. What’s the story we want to write for the future of the sector? Which traditions should we keep, and which should we adapt? What changes will help us drive even more impact?

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.