Nov 15, 2022
Sona Jobarteh: The 60 Minutes Interview Transcript
Lesley Stahl reports on the kora, a centuries-old West African instrument, and the groundbreaking woman who’s mastered it, Sona Jobarteh. Read the transcript here.
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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Tonight we want to introduce you to a musician named Sona Jobarteh, who introduced us to the beautiful sound and story of a century’s old instrument called the Kora. It’s a string instrument from West Africa, part of a musical tradition that dates back to a 13th century empire and has been passed down strictly from father to son, man to man in a special set of families ever since. Sona Jobarteh was born into one of those families called Griots, the daughter of a Gambian father and a British mother. After hundreds of years of men, she is the first woman to master the Kora. In her performances around the world and in her work off stage, she says she is keeping tradition alive through the very act of breaking it.
Speaker 2 (01:03):
The story will continue in a moment.
Speaker 1 (01:12):
Take a listen, as we did, to Sona Jobarteh as she plays the Kora. With its 21 strings played by just four fingers, two on each hand, it has a sound both foreign and familiar. To me, it’s like a harp. What do you compare it to?
Speaker 3 (01:40):
I don’t actually compare it to anything because it’s normal for me, right? I compare other things to the Kora.
Speaker 1 (01:50):
The song Sona played for us, called Jarabi, is a traditional love song sung in the Mandinka language.
Speaker 3 (02:02):
Speaker 1 (02:08):
The tradition goes back to the 1200s when a kingdom called the Mali Empire reigned over a large swath of West Africa, the territory of several modern day countries. The musicians and storytellers in the empire were men called Griots, who counseled kings, resolved conflicts and passed the legends down orally through the centuries. Women in Griot families were singers, but it was only men who were allowed to play the instruments, that is until Sona Jobarteh. At 39 she has become one of the foremost Kora players in the world-
Speaker 3 (03:01):
Speaker 1 (03:01):
… Performing with her band across Europe, West Africa, and here in the United States as we saw in this packed theater outside Boston.
Speaker 3 (03:19):
This is music. When you hear it, it’s still to this day, carries this feeling of the empire at its greatest. You get that feeling of royalty, you get that feeling of something that you’re so proud about.
Speaker 1 (03:29):
What I think about with you is that you have broken tradition.
Speaker 3 (03:38):
Is not the way I see myself, mainly because of the fact of believing 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 adaptation the tradition must take in order to be able to be relevant to our new society.
Speaker 1 (04:07):
Sona Jobarteh comes to the Griot tradition as both insider and outsider. Her mother is a British artist, her father, the son of a legendary Gambian Kora player whose Griot family pedigree traces back to the 13th century. Though her parents’ relationship didn’t last, Sona grew up in both worlds, the UK and her grandfather’s family compound in The Gambia, where she says her grandmother urged her to embrace her Griot heritage, which as a girl meant singing.
Speaker 3 (04:41):
She used to keep telling me, you have to sing. And I never wanted to sing. I hated singing with a passion.
Speaker 1 (04:47):
Why? You have the perfect voice.
Speaker 3 (04:49):
I Didn’t like it, never liked it. And so-
Speaker 1 (04:51):
But your grandmother knew you had a great voice.
Speaker 3 (04:53):
I don’t think she heard it much because I refused and I was a very stubborn child when it came to that. I would sit there for…
Speaker 1 (05:00):
But Sona was drawn to the Kora. And as a little kid, no one seemed to mind her learning some of the basics. She thinks her grandmother may have even liked the idea. In the UK though, she studied a different musical tradition, classical cello, and she excelled winning a scholarship at age 14 to a prestigious music boarding school. Were you one of the very few biracial kids in the school?
Speaker 3 (05:28):
The only person of color in the first school.
Speaker 1 (05:30):
The only person?
Speaker 3 (05:31):
Yes. I was incredibly shy as a student. I never talked. That’s my only way of surviving those years, I would say.
Speaker 1 (05:36):
Were you sad? Was it a tough time?
Speaker 3 (05:39):
Yes, it was a very tough time. Yeah, Yeah. Happiness was not a major part of it.
Speaker 1 (05:43):
But she did find one point of connection to her life in The Gambia.
Speaker 3 (05:48):
The library in the school had a Kora there hanging on the wall so I would be always looking at this thing. And then one day I decided to take it off the wall. It was a total mess, as you can imagine. So what I started doing was every time I get a little bit of time where the place is quiet, I would take it off the wall, fix a string, put it back, and I was doing it hoping nobody was going to notice I keep 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 it to your room and you can keep it there and just work on it.”
Speaker 1 (06:19):
She’s your hero.
Speaker 3 (06:20):
When I had the permission, it became my sanity.
Speaker 1 (06:23):
And her calling. At 17, she decided she needed to study the Kora properly, which meant taking a personal risk, appealing to her father to pass the tradition down to her, his daughter, as his father had to him. They hadn’t spent much time together, as Sonjally Jobarteh had been living and performing mostly abroad.
For years and years and years Kora playing was passed father to son, father to son.
Speaker 5 (06:54):
Speaker 1 (06:54):
And along comes your daughter, Sona.
Speaker 5 (06:57):
Speaker 1 (06:57):
Did she say, Dad, will you teach me?
Speaker 5 (07:00):
Yeah. She said, “What I really want to learn is the Kora.”
Speaker 1 (07:03):
But girls didn’t play the Kora at that point.
Speaker 5 (07:06):
What I told her, I said, I was like, “If I close my eyes, I don’t have to know the difference.” Is it the man? If you can do that for me.
Speaker 1 (07:14):
You just immediately said okay?
Speaker 5 (07:16):
I just immediately said okay.
Speaker 1 (07:18):
You never hesitated?
Speaker 5 (07:20):
I never hesitated. No.
Speaker 3 (07:21):
I don’t want you to get distracted with this whole idea of being female. Don’t let that get into your head. Don’t let it distract you. Your ambition needs to be a good Kora player, not female Kora player, just a good Kora player. And so that was my challenge at the beginning.
Speaker 1 (07:35):
How hard did she work?
Speaker 5 (07:37):
She worked very, very hard.
Speaker 1 (07:41):
She started performing sometimes with her father and then with her own band. She got acceptance first in Europe-
Speaker 3 (07:50):
Speaker 1 (07:58):
… And then back in The Gambia with a song and video she released in 2015 to celebrate 50 years of Gambian independence. It’s become the country’s unofficial national anthem with more than 24 million views on YouTube. Minus the dancers, we found The Gambia much as Sona’s video depicted it, a tiny country on Africa’s west coast, it’s a former British colony that’s predominantly Muslim. Precolonial culture runs deep here. Sona Jobarteh’s name and heritage carry weight. And she’s leaning into that ancient Griot role of cultural leader to advocate for what she calls her purpose in life outside music, creating a new model of African education. She has founded a small school called The Gambia Academy, where students study dance, drumming, Kora, of course, and another traditional Griot instrument called the Balafon.
Speaker 3 (09:10):
The music gets the most attention because everyone sees it and likes and enjoys it, but they’re learning all the same subjects as any other school is learning, your math, your science, your geography, history, all these things, however how is that imparted to you.
Speaker 6 (09:22):
So continuous [inaudible 00:09:24] means what?
Speaker 1 (09:25):
Sona believes most education in Africa has been so deeply rooted in colonial models that its message to children is that their own legacy is somehow backward.
Speaker 3 (09:37):
So they feel to do things properly, we’re going to do it in this way, and this way is always very much a European way. My challenge is now, can you get the same output, successful output, if we actually create, change the cultural orientation at the heart and center of the education system? From your elbow to your finger should be straight line. Huh?
Speaker 1 (09:57):
So the students here wear traditional African uniforms.
Speaker 3 (10:01):
With the hand? Okay. Seven, eight,
Speaker 1 (10:06):
And Gambian culture is celebrated. Rohe and Boreh have been coming to the school since it opened seven years ago. Here there are no restrictions by gender or pedigree. Rohe is learning to play the Kora and Boreh is in the advanced Balafon class.
Speaker 7 (10:28):
I like it. It makes me feel very happy when I’m playing.
Speaker 1 (10:33):
Are you Griot?
Speaker 7 (10:34):
Speaker 1 (10:35):
Are you Griot?
Speaker 8 (10:36):
Speaker 1 (10:37):
And you’re female. Look at you both laughing because you know what I’m talking about. Yeah. Won’t that be awfully difficult?
Speaker 7 (10:47):
What a man can do, a woman also can do it. Yeah. So I’m not from a Griot family, but I love to play Kora. And when you love something, you can do it.
Speaker 1 (10:58):
Are you getting pushback from within the society?
Speaker 3 (11:02):
Yes, of course. Especially from older generations, but it doesn’t matter.
Speaker 1 (11:10):
Sona’s first album was a mix of traditional and new songs. Her latest, which we saw her rehearsing with her band, is all original music. She writes all the parts herself, including songs about education, women and her own identity. And she sings them in Mandinka.
Speaker 3 (11:36):
For me, when I sing in my own language, when I sing in the language that belongs to The Gambia, I’m giving you a sense of pride that you never have before. That your language is as valuable. When I can go to an international audience and I can have the whole audience in Germany, Spain, America, all over the world, and they’re singing Mandinka.
Speaker 1 (12:09):
“The power,” she says, “of music.”
Speaker 3 (12:12):
It becomes a universal language. I can talk with anybody from anywhere in the world using music. I can’t do that in any other form.
Speaker 1 (12:25):
And she’s doing one more thing, passing the tradition down to her 15-year-old son Sidiki, a talented Balafon player, a next link from the Griot past to its future. You had said to her, “When I close my eyes, I don’t want to hear a female Kora player. I want to hear a great-”
Speaker 5 (12:56):
Kora player. Yeah.
Speaker 1 (12:57):
Okay. So close your eyes and tell us what you hear.
Speaker 5 (13:00):
I hear a great, great, great Kora player. I’m very, very proud. Definitely.
Speaker 3 (13:25):
Thank you so much.
Speaker 10 (13:26):
The complexities of playing the Kora.
Speaker 1 (13:28):
How challenging is it to play that instrument?
Speaker 12 (13:31):