Sona Jabarte Preserves the Gambia Culture with the Gambia Academy

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We know that music can transcend time, location, and languages. But have you ever stopped to think that music could help people reclaim their heritage and overcome decades of British Imperialism? This is precisely what Sona Jabarte has done with the Gambia Academy.

There is an instrument that has its origins in West Africa that dates back to the 13th century. It has 21 strings, which are played by four fingers, two on each hand. This stringed instrument is called the kora. 

Traditionally the playing of the kora is passed down from father to son and only within specific families called Grios from West Africa. That is until Sona Jabarte came along. 

Sona was born into a Grios family, her father was Gambian, and her mother was British. She is one of the foremost kora players in the world and the first woman to master the instrument and perform around the world; she says she is keeping the tradition alive through the very act of breaking it.

Because her parent's relationship didn't last, Sona was able to grow up in both worlds, the UK and her grandfather's family compound in the Gambia. It is here she says her grandmother urged her to embrace her Grios heritage, "she used to keep telling me, you know you have to sing, and I never wanted to sing. I hated singing with a passion."

Sona always felt drawn to the kora, and as a little child, no one seemed to mind her learning some of the basics. She thinks her grandmother may have even liked the idea. But while in the UK, she studied a different musical tradition, the classical cello, and she excelled at it, even winning a scholarship at age 14 to a prestigious music boarding school where she was one of the very few biracial kids in the school.

She was a shy student and never talked to anyone. And one day, in the school library, she saw a kora hanging on the wall, and she decided to take it off the wall. Whenever she had downtime, and the library was empty, she would take it off the wall, fix a string, and put it back. She kept doing this, hoping nobody would notice. One night she took it off the wall, and there was a woman 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 work on it.

At 17, she decided she needed to study the kora properly, which meant taking a personal risk by appealing to her father to pass the tradition down to her, his daughter. They hadn't spent much time together as Sona had been living and performing abroad for years. 

She asked her father to teach her. She stressed that she understood that women don't play the kora. Her father replied, "If I close my eyes, I don't have to know the difference if it is a man or a woman. I don't want you to get distracted by this old idea of being female, don't let that get into your head, don't let it distract you; your ambition needs to be just a good kora player."

After much hard work, she started sometimes performing with her father and then with her own band, and finally touring in Europe, where she gained fame. In 2015, to celebrate 50 years of Gambian Independence, she released a song and a video, and it's become the country's unofficial National Anthem with more than 24 million views on YouTube.

Gambian is a former British colony that' is predominantly Muslim. Pre-colonial culture runs deep there, and Sona Jabarte's name and heritage carry weight, and she's leaning into that ancient Grios role of cultural leader to advocate for what she calls her purpose in life.

Sona is now using music to create a new African education model. She founded a small school called The Gambia Academy, where students study dance, drumming, kora, and other traditional Grios instruments. 

The Gambia Academy is the first institution in Gambia to educate young Africans about their culture, traditions, and history alongside their everyday academic education. According to Sona, Africa faces the crucial and urgent challenge of addressing the African education systems. Children fortunate enough to attend a school spend most of their waking hours there. In most cases, the environment, culture, approach, and curricula contented within these schools are oriented around a post-colonial value system and, subsequently, a foreign perspective. 

There are currently 21 students and 14 members of staff at the Gambia Academy, all being financed by Sona. There remains a long, ever-growing waiting list for new applicants. 

The construction of the Academy campus is essential and well overdue to expand and meet the demand and provide adequate facilities for students. This will serve not only as the full-time campus for the current students but will also become a centralized hub for African cultural and academic excellence, catering to both children and adults as well as national and international students. 

Sona says, "It is detrimental for future generations of the continent whose values and concepts are shaped during their school years, to continue to be trained within a system where African culture, African history, African traditions, and their intrinsic values are either non-existent or at best, relegated to the position of extra-curricular activities."