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BEAUTIFULLY poised, strikingly good-looking and quietly charismatic, Sona Jobarteh is guaranteed to hold the attention of any audience with her superbly dextrous kora playing.
Born and raised in London but from a Gambian clan on her father’s side that has boasted a number of kora virtuosos, she’s the first woman ever to make a living out of playing the instrument. For seven centuries, it has been a male-only preserve within West African griot families such as her own.
That Jobarteh’s audacious break from those strictures has been so readily accepted must surely be credited as much to her great talent as to any new-found open-mindedness among the traditionalists. There’s no disputing that she’s at the top of her trade.
Most of her songs at Kings Place were extended pieces that show off not only the breathtaking assurance of her flying fingers but the inspired professionalism of her four-piece band, calling and responding to her string-based invitations and matching her note for dizzying note, particularly on her second number Mamamuso, written in tribute to her grandmother.
Also on stage for a couple of songs on balafon, a type of xylophone, is her nine-year-old son Sidiki. He attends the Gambia Academy of Music and Culture, a venture set up by Jobarteh to train and educate young African musicians, and he already looks and sounds every inch the griot.
He was offstage by the time the song Gambia, the best of Jobarteh’s compositions, is unveiled. It’s been written to celebrate the country’s 50th anniversary of independence and envisaged as the centrepiece of an album which, more than three years after the event, she is still promising to deliver.
Maybe she should shelve the project, for Gambia on its own is a worthy enough tribute. It’s a great showcase for the excellence of her voice, which should not be overlooked amid the admiration for her instrumental prowess.
Rapt throughout and hugely appreciative at every point, in the end the audience didn't get quite as much of Jobarteh’s time as they were hoping for as she was rushing off to another gig elsewhere in London.
No encore, then, but still enough magic to keep everyone enchanted on an evening of traditionally tinged but contemporarily relevant West African music.
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