Transitional Times


While it's true that Dawda Jobarteh was born into an illustrious Gambian family of griots, hereditary court musicians and especially kora players (his father was Amadou Bansang Jobarteh, his uncles were Dembo Konté and Malamini Jobarteh, and his grandfather was the great Alhaji Bai Konté), it doesn't necessarily follow that he upholds family tradition. Griots learn their craft and repertoire over many years of study with their elders, starting in childhood, but Dawda was an adult when he picked up a kora for the first time, and by then he was far from Africa, his elders, and their tradition. Living in Copenhagen, he was a drummer in jazz and rock bands. But the sound of the kora, even in his untrained hands, tugged his ear and stirred deep memories and feelings. He taught himself to play the 21-string harp, figuring out the classics he remembered from his youth and composing new music in untraditional styles. He recorded his debut album, Northern Light Gambian Night, for Sterns Africa in 2011 (STCD 1112CD). All About Jazz praised its "gorgeous synthesis of the old and the new"; Songlines described it as "an album of delicacy and beauty" and awarded it five stars; and ABC Radio called it "a joyful noise from a man right at home in very different musical and geographic places." In the five years since then, Jobarteh has traveled widely, performing in Europe and Asia, returning to Gambia and touring other African nations, but Denmark, where he lives with his wife and three children, has been and will remain his base. And "right at home in very different musical and geographic places" still characterizes him and his art. "Winter Trees Stand Sleeping", the kora solo that begins his new album and gently evokes piano nocturnes by Scandinavian composers like Edvard Grieg, and compare it with "Dalua", a piece firmly rooted in Gambian griot jaliya. "Jamming in the Fifth Dimension" is an unbridled improvisational duet between Jobarteh, playing an electric kora, and percussionist Salieu Dibba, and "Transition" is a John Coltrane tune. Dawda's expansive worldview is reflected in his words as well as in his music. He wrote "Bright Sky Over Monrovia" for a play about Liberian blood diamonds. "Efe" decries the way arbitrary borders and immigration policies divide families. When he sings about his own family, his perspective is rounded and nuanced, as in "Mba Sina", which is both critical of polygamy and appreciative of his mother's co-wife. Dawda Jobarteh honors his heritage while never letting it confine him.