Tonight, we would like to present you to Sona Jobarteh, a musician who introduced us to the exquisite sound and history of the kora, a centuries-old instrument. It’s a string instrument from West Africa, part of a musical legacy that dates back to a 13th-century empire and has been strictly passed down from father to son, man to man, in a select group of families for centuries.
Sona Jobarteh was born to one of these so-called griot families. The daughter of a British mother and a Gambian father. She is the first woman in hundreds of years to master the kora. She claims that through her performances around the world and in her work offstage, she keeps tradition alive by disrupting it.
As we did, have a listen to Sona Jobarteh playing the kora. It has 21 strings and is played with only four fingers on each hand, two on each hand. Its sound is both exotic and familiar.
Lesley Stahl: It reminds me of a harp. What is it compared to?
Sona Jobarteh: I suppose I don’t compare it to anything because it’s usual for me. I relate the kora to other things. Sona Jobarteh
The song Sona played for us, titled “Jarabi,” is a traditional Mandinka-language love song. The practice dates back to the 1200s, when a kingdom known as the Mali Empire ruled over a vast portion of modern-day West Africa, including the territories of numerous nations. Men known as griots were the empire’s singers and storytellers; they advised rulers, mediated conflicts, and passed down traditions orally over the generations. Women in griot families were vocalists, but only men were permitted to play instruments.
Up until Sona Jobarteh, that is. At the age of 39, she has become one of the world’s best kora musicians, performing with her band around Europe, West Africa, and the United States, as we witnessed in a packed auditorium outside Boston.
Sona Jobarteh: When you hear this music, it still evokes a sense of the empire at its height. You feel like royalty, like you’ve accomplished something you’re so proud of.
Lesley Stahl: What I consider regarding you is the fact that you have broken tradition.
Sona Jobarteh: No, I don’t consider myself that way, mostly because I believe tradition must develop. Traditions are not stagnant. They have grown alongside mankind and society since the beginning of time. Historically, this instrument did not exist. Then it was invented and became something contemporary. However, it is now considered conventional. In light of the fact that I am female, this is a crucial and essential change that must be made to the tradition in order for it to be applicable to our modern culture.
Sona Jobarteh is both insider and outsider to the griot tradition. Her artist mother is British. Her father is the son of a famed Gambian kora player whose griot ancestry dates to the thirteenth century. Sona grew up in both the United Kingdom and her grandfather’s family compound in the Gambia, where she claims her grandmother encouraged her to embrace her griot heritage, which as a little girl included singing.
Sona Jobarteh: She used to remind me again, “You must sing.” I never desired to sing. I despised singing vehemently.
Lesley Stahl: Why? You possess the ideal voice.
Sona Jobarteh: — didn’t like it. Never liked it. And so–
Lesley Stahl: However, your grandmother knew you had a wonderful voice.
Sona Jobarteh: I don’t believe she heard it very well due to my refusal. Regarding this, I was a pretty stubborn child (LAUGH). There, I would wait for “Nnnnn.” Sona Jobarteh is a kora player.
But Sona was drawn to the kora, and as a young child, no one appeared to object to her learning the fundamentals. She believes her grandmother may have even approved of the concept. In the United Kingdom, however, she studied a different musical genre — classical cello — and excelled, earning a scholarship to a prominent music boarding school at age 14.
Lesley Stahl: Were you one of the few multiracial students at your school?
Sona Jobarteh was the lone person of color in her elementary school.
Lesley Stahl: Am I the only one?
Sona Jobarteh: Yes.
Sona Jobarteh: As a student, I was quite bashful. I never talked. I would argue that this is my way of surviving those years.
Lesley Stahl: Were you sad? Was it a difficult time?
Sona Jobarteh: Yes. Indeed, that was a very difficult period. Yeah. Happiness was not a significant component.
However, she did locate one connection to her life in Gambia.
Sona Jobarteh remarked that a kora hung on the wall of the school library. So I would constantly observe this object. Then one day I decided to remove it off the wall. It was a complete mess, as you could expect. I began removing it from the wall, repairing the rope, and rehanging it whenever I had a few moments of peace and quiet. And I was doing it with the hope that nobody would notice that I was removing it from the wall. In addition, there was a woman who was one of the late-night workers. She asked, “Why not bring it to your room? And you can continue to work on it there.”
Lesley Stahl is your savior.
Sona Jobarteh: —and I was authorized. It served as my sanity.
And her profession. She decided at age 17 that she wanted to study the kora properly, which required her to take a personal risk: asking her father to pass the tradition on to her, his daughter, as he had received it from his father. Sanjally Jobarteh was primarily living and performing overseas, therefore they had not spent much time together. Sanjally Jobarteh
Lesley Stahl: For countless generations, the kora was passed down from father to son —
Sanjally Jobarteh: Mm-hm.
—father to son, Lesley Stahl
Indeed, Sanjally Jobarteh agrees.
Lesley Stahl: And your daughter arrives!
Sanjally Jobarteh: Yeah.
Sona, Lesley Stahl says.
Sanjally Jobarteh: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Did she ask her father to instruct her?
Yes, Sanjally Jobarteh, she stated, “The kora is what I want to learn most.”
Lesley Stahl: However, women did not play the kora at the time.
I told Sanjally Jobarteh that if I close my eyes, I do not need to distinguish between a man and a woman.
Lesley Stahl: Ooh.
Sanjally Jobarteh: “If you’re able to help me with that.”
Lesley Stahl: You instantly responded, “Okay?”
Sanjally Jobarteh: I just quickly said, “Okay.”
Lesley Stahl: Have you never wavered?
No, Sanjally Jobarteh, I never wavered.
Sona Jobarteh: “I do not want you to become preoccupied with the concept of being female. Do not let that enter your mind. Don’t let it dis— distract you. Your aspiration must be to become a skilled kora player. Not female kora player, but an excellent kora player.” Consequently, this was my initial obstacle.
How arduous was Lesley Stahl’s labor?
Sanjally Jobarteh worked incredibly hard.
She began performing, first with her father and later with her own group. She was initially accepted in Europe. Then, in 2015, she returned to Gambia with a song and film celebrating 50 years of Gambian independence. More than 24 million people have viewed it on YouTube, making it the unofficial national anthem.
Without the dancers, we found Gambia to resemble Sona’s music video. It is a former British colony on the west coast of Africa and is mostly Muslim. Pre-colonial culture runs deep here. Sona Jobarteh’s name and heritage hold weight, and she is embracing the ancient griot position of cultural leader to advocate for her life’s mission outside of music: developing a new model for African education. She established the Gambia Academy, a tiny institution where students study dancing, drumming, the kora, and another traditional griot instrument, the balafon.
Sona Jobarteh: The music receives the most attention because everyone enjoys and appreciates it. However, they are learning the same subjects as students in every other school: arithmetic, science, geography, and history. However, how are you taught this?
Sona feels that the majority of education in Africa is so deeply based in colonial patterns that it conveys to pupils that their own heritage is in some way inferior.
Sona Jobarteh believes that, in order to do things properly, “We’ll do it this way” Additionally, “this method” is always distinctly European. Can we have the same outcome, a successful outcome, if we change the cultural orientation at the core of the educational system? Boring and Rough
Students here therefore wear traditional African uniforms. Furthermore, Gambian culture is celebrated. Rohy and Borry have attended the school since its establishment seven years ago. There are no limits based on gender or lineage. Borry is in the advanced balafon class while Rohy is learning to play the kora.
Borry: I like it. When I’m playing, I feel quite joyful.
Lesley Stahl: Are you griot?
Rohy: No, sir.
Lesley Stahl: Are you griot?
No, monotonousness is not acceptable.
Lesley Stahl: And— you’re feminine. You two are giggling because you understand what I’m talking about.
Borry and Rohy: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: Won’t that be extremely challenging?
Exactly what a guy can accomplish, a woman can do as well. Yeah. I do not come from a griot family, but I enjoy playing the kora. And when you are passionate about something, you can accomplish it.
Lesley Stahl: Are you experiencing resistance from within society?
Sona Jobarteh: Absolutely. Particularly from the older generations But— it doesn’t matter.
Performing on the complicated West African kora instrument | 60 Minutes 06:11
The songs on Sona’s debut CD were both traditional and contemporary. Her most recent album, which we observed her rehearsing with her band, consists entirely of original songs. She composes every element herself, including songs about education, women, and her own personality. She performs them in Mandinka.
Sona Jobarteh: When I sing in my native language, the Gambia’s language, I give you a sense of pride that you’ve never had before, that your language is just as important.
Sona Jobarteh: When I can perform in front of an international audience and have the entire crowd in Germany, Spain, and the United States singing Mandinka?
She asserts that the power of music.
Sona Jobarteh: The language becomes worldwide. I can communicate with anyone in the world through music. I cannot accomplish this in any other way.
In addition, she is teaching her 15-year-old son Sidiki, a skilled balafon player, the family legacy. And next, connect the past of the griot to its future.
Lesley Stahl: You had told her, “I don’t want to hear a female kora player when I close my eyes.”
Sanjally Jobarteh: No.
Lesley Stahl: “I desire to hear a fantastic…”
Sanjally Jobarteh: “…kora player.” Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Close your eyes and then describe what you hear.
Sanjally Jobarteh: I hear a fantastic, fantastic, fantastic kora player.
Sanjally Jobarteh: I’m extremely, very proud. Definitely.
Shari Finkelstein is the executive producer. Collette Richards and Braden Cleveland Bergan are co-producers. Associate of Broadcasting, Wren Woodson. Daniel J. Glucksman edited.
Lesley Stahl, one of the most renowned and experienced broadcast journalists in the United States, has been a correspondent for 60 Minutes since 1991.