Review: Live Arts brings Sona Jobarteh to Superblue in a spectacular Miami debut
Kora player Sona Jobarteh’s brightly colored traditional attire contrasts with the dark background of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s immersive installation in a performance presented by Live Arts Miami on Saturday, Aug. 19 at Superblue, Allapattah. (Photo courtesy of Liliana Mora/Live Arts Miami)
The tiny West African nation of Gambia could not have found a better ambassador for its rich cultural heritage than kora player and singer Sona Jobarteh. Brilliant, beautiful and charismatic, the 39-year-old mesmerized a sold-out audience in her Miami debut on Saturday, Aug. 19 with her virtuoso musicianship, charming stories and intriguing ideas. She covered just about everything from educational reform to the artist’s role in society to finding a path that allows us to break free from traditions that limit us while at once upholding those that lift us up.
The show was Live Arts Miami’s first stab at presenting music at Superblue in Allapatah, a two-year-old museum whose specialty is immersive visual art installations, not intimate concerts.
Other than having to call an ungodly 7:30 a.m. soundcheck to accommodate Superblue’s regular visiting hours, the pairing of museum and music was a match made in heaven.
For the evening performance, Jobarteh and her pared-down three-member band (percussionist Mouhamadou Sarr, bassist Andi McClean and guitarist Eric Appapoulay) shared the space with Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Pulse Topology,” a gorgeous, thought-provoking piece made up of 3,000 retro light bulbs that hung from the gallery’s high ceilings in undulating waves.
The lights pulsed with the individual heartrates of previous visitors who had placed their hands beneath special sensors placed around the room. They provided a stunning visual backdrop for the stage that felt like a warm embrace for audience and artists alike.
Jobarteh plays a 21-string kora. Made from a large gourd, the instrument sounds like a cross between a harp and a classical guitar. In Jobarteh’s hands, it was surprisingly versatile. The music was at times meditative and trancelike, and with all those glowing lights it was as if you had wandered into a place of worship celebrating an ancient candlelit rite that was as holy as it was chill.
But when the effervescent Sarr would ramp up the tempo with the bright lightning runs on his congas and the deep dum dum of his big calabash drum, we could have been sitting in the coolest and toniest of downtown discotheques— a friend said that it seemed like the entire audience was vibrating in their seats, itching to get up and dance.
Before she played the piece “Dunoo,” which she translated as “responsibility,” Jobarteh spoke of the sacred role that musicians play in the lives of their listeners — “listeners whom they will never meet, but whom they nevertheless leave their mark on.” It was clear how deeply she takes to heart her responsibility as an artist to make music that is as honest as it is uplifting—especially for her younger listeners.
“Whatever we put in their minds today,” she said, “will flourish tomorrow. Let it be something we can be proud of.”
Jobarteh also spoke compellingly of the paradoxical role she plays as a Gambian artist: women, she explained, have not played the kora professionally since the instrument was first used in the 14th century. Until now, that is.
“Society changes, so women must be a part of that change in tradition. But this is not to take away from the generations that have gone before us,” she said.
As she introduced “Ballaké,” an homage to the influential kora master Ballaké Sissoko, she said that the song was also a tribute to her father, who, when she came to him at seventeen and implored him to give her lessons, agreed to break with 700-year-old tradition and teach her the instrument. Great musicians like these, Jobarteh said, live by the Gambian principal that “what you acquire you must leave behind. Don’t take it with you…pass it on before your time is done.”
Jobarteh put down her kora and picked up a guitar, however, for “Nna Kangwo,” a song from the region of Malil that was the ancestral birthplace of what would later in America become the blues. In her introduction, she spoke passionately of the power of music that is “born out of the real, lived life experience of the people to which the music belongs. . . . It is not the beats,” she said, “it’s not the timing or the keys or the notes or the chord progressions. It is the language of people’s life.”
And Jobarteh is changing lives daily in what she called her “real calling”—education. In 2015, she started a school that now has 32 full-time students and which she dreams one day will have hundreds more. Her goal, she said, is to “decolonize education” –to center learning for African students in the history, culture and life experiences of their fellow Africans. At the Gambia Academy, male and female students learn academics, practical life skills and, of course, traditional dance and music, including the kora.
In their 90-minute performance, Jobarteh and her musicians managed to create a deeply meaningful sense of connection with her audience. Even the dreaded singalong—so often cringeworthy—was somehow transcendent under her tutelage. Jobarteh convinced the entire audience to buy in, with everyone singing the few words they had just been taught in Mandinka: “Oyiyo, woyiyo jarabi, woyiyo woyiyo jarabi,” with everyone singing with utter abandon. It was a song about love, Jobarteh said. With 205 voices joining in under the lights of the gallery’s 3,000 electric stars, the room seemed fairly bursting with it.
Live Arts Miami next presents Jamaican-American performance artist Shamar Watt presents the world premiere of his work “Summon” at 8 p.m.Saturday, Sept. 23 and 3 p.m., on Sunday, Sept. 24 at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW 7th Ave., Miami. Information at liveartsmiami.org.
ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.