Education with Music and Culture at its Heart: The Gambia Academy

Sona Jobarteh has a vision for the future of education in Africa. Sona is the first female professional kora-player who has achieved world-wide fame and has an international following. Her financial success enabled her, in 2015, to establish an academy in rural Gambia where children can learn to play the kora, balafon and drums (jembe and dundun): instruments once traditionally the preserve of men from griot families. The young students also learn singing and dance as well as a full range of academic subjects.

Sona is from a griot family, a hereditary class of musicians from a cultural tradition with a seven hundred year old history (see previous post about the kora). To keep pace with modern society change is inevitable and necessary but the high standard of music making that resulted from the old griot tradition need not be lost. The Gambia’s heritage of music and dance can continue to be passed on to new generations, by integrating it into education for children from all backgrounds. And Sona’s wider vision, which she is implementing now in the Gambia, is reform of the curriculum throughout the continent, so that children gain the life skills and confidence to flourish and develop, as individuals, as a community and as the future of Africa.

In the following clip, from 2018, Sona talks about her vision for The Gambia Academy. I find this truly inspirational.

Hear from the children themselves as they go about their school day.

Read more about The Gambia Academy Note that they are looking for volunteers, funding and guess what? You can go there to learn to play the kora, balafon or drums or to study dance.

Website: Sona Jobarteh

For me, music is at the heart of everything when it comes to communicating and bringing about change in the world.

Sona Jobarteh

Musical Instruments: the Kora

Of all the instruments made from a vegetable, the kora has to be one of my favourites. It’s made from a large calabash, a type of gourd that grows in West Africa, the original home of this instrument. The calabash is harvested, scooped out and the shell cut in half. A cow skin is used to create a resonator, like a drum skin. Then a long piece of hardwood is inserted to make the neck of the instrument for the twenty one strings of this harp-lute.

Until recent times, it wasn’t just anybody that could pick up the kora to play. That’s because the kora was one of the instruments played exclusively by a hereditary class of musician/storytellers known as griots, whose families originate from the time of the Mali empire, which spanned a large part of West Africa during the 13th -17th centuries. The role of the griot (known locally as jali or jeli), an important one in Mande culture, included learning the history, genealogy and traditions of their people and passing on that knowledge to future generations, through story and song.

There are a few well known griot family names: Diabaté (alternative spelling Jobarteh) Kouyaté and Cissoko for example. In the following clip, Toumani Diabaté talks about the griot’s tradition of kora-playing, and we see a kora being made.

The popularity of the kora in the West has led to people wanting to learn to play it, as is apparent from the clip above. I notice Toumani’s use of the French word ‘amateur’ is translated in the subtitles as ‘lover’ – the literal meaning. Sadly, the word ‘amateur’ in English has acquired the connotation of inferiority. As an enthusiast, I have been tempted to sign up for kora classes at the music summer school held at SOAS, University of London but so far have resisted taking up yet another instrument.

However, a good few years ago, I came across a small kora for sale. I bought it but I have never been able to tune it, as the hide that is used to tie the strings on has become brittle, so for the moment it’s hanging on the wall. I notice that nowadays kora players (particularly on the world stage), such as Toumani himself, have machine heads fitted to their kora which makes tuning easier. Perhaps I’ll try that with my mini kora …

I recently posted some clips of Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté and if you enjoyed their music you might like this playlist which covers a range of players, ensembles and styles including kora jazz, kora with cello and my current favourite: kora with viol, percussion and setar.

Here’s one more clip for you, from Africa’s first female griot kora player and singer, Sona Jobarteh. In this video we hear a live performance of her song entitled Gambia. What I love about this track is the sheer joy from everyone joining in, singing and dancing.

Here’s the official video release of the same track which features some brilliant dancing, a beautiful beach and a zebra.

And here are a few of my recommended recordings of kora music:

Kaouding Sissoko: Kora Revolution

Toumani Diabate: Kaira; The Mandé Variations; Toumani and Sidiki

Ballaké Cissoko and Vincent Segal: Chamber Music; Musique de Nuit

Mory Kante: The Best of Mory Kante

Sona Jobarty: Fasiya

Constantinople & Ablaye Cissoko: Jardins Migrateurs

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

Listen with Liv: each month I’ll share some music that has lifted my spirits. I hope you enjoy it too.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté (signed album cover).

This month, my choice is from father and son, Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté, master kora players from Mali. I love the sound of the kora, an instrument that has been played in West Africa by generations of traditional musicians (griots) such as the Diabaté family, for centuries. It’s not only the sound that I love, it’s the way Toumani and Sidiki weave in more notes than you’d think possible and it all fits seamlessly into the melody. I was lucky enough to hear them in 2014, when they performed in Edinburgh. Here they are at Glastonbury, as part of that same tour, playing Rachid Ouiguini from their album ‘Toumani and Sidiki’.

Music starts at 00.26

And here they are playing a gentle and poignant love song: Jarabi.