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Musician Sona Jobarteh is building Gambia’s first cultural academy for children to study their own culture

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Since 2011 that respected kora player, vocalist and instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh dropped the album Fasiya, the world-renowned musician has not released any other album. Instead, she has been placing all her finances and energies into the Gambia Academy of Music and Culture she opened in her home country, The Gambia, in 2015.

The school is the first of its kind in The Gambia that teaches music and academic studies as an integrated course of study. In other words, the Academy educates children in their cultural traditions and heritage alongside the mainstream curriculum.

“My ambition was to teach children an innate sense of pride in their own culture and history. It became my ambition to make sure I contributed to this change,” said Jobarteh, who is from a long West African tradition of Griots and kora players from Mali and The Gambia.

At just five years old, Jobarteh was already playing the kora, the 21-string instrument which is traditionally reserved for men. Today, she is known as the first professional female kora player in The Gambia, and throughout her performances, she has shown that one does not have to conform to outside influence to be successful in the music industry.

“You can actually represent your tradition, you can even sing in your own language without having to bend to pressure not to do so,” she said.

It is against this background that she founded the Academy dedicated to the social and economic development of the country. To Jobarteh, African children, when given the kind of education her Academy offers, will be motivated to take up roles in building and harnessing the resources of their own countries rather than thinking of leaving their country.

Jobarteh, a scholar in traditional West African Mande music, came to the above realization during her studies at SOAS University in London, CNN reported. “[SOAS] has one of Europe’s largest libraries containing African literature and resources — an absolutely amazing place,” she told CNN. “But why should Africans leave Africa to go and study their own culture? This is something that didn’t sit well with me.”

So with 21 students, Jobarteh started her Academy in a makeshift facility in Farato, a rural town in western Gambia. The number of students has increased to 40, with many being orphans from rural communities who lacked access to education. Jobarteh pays the fees of all the students, using the earnings from her international touring and album sales.

With more students hoping to join the Academy, it is now expanding to Kartong in southwestern Gambia. Jobarteh purchased 50 hectares of land in Kartong in 2017 toward the construction of a new campus that will support about 300 students as well as the Academy’s Senior department for those above 18 years old.

The Gambia Academy of Music & Culture - Penoyre & Prasad
Jobarteh purchased 50 hectares of land in Kartong in 2017 toward the construction of a new campus. Photo: thegambiaacademy.org/

The Academy campus, which hopes to become a “centralized hub for African cultural and academic excellence”, will offer courses including general and specialist musical education to both national and international students, all of whom will benefit from on-site accommodation. The new campus comes with facilities such as a dance studio, a concert hall, recording studio, a library, screening room and a multi-media suite, according to its website.

Sustainable, locally sourced materials will be used for the project but what really excites Jobarteh is the location of the campus. The Academy campus is not only a ten-minute walk to the beach but also closely connected to the rural community, giving Jobarteh and her team “a bright, natural setting that blends African tradition, arts and culture with academia.”

Multi-instrumentalist and composer Jobarteh is currently seeking external funding in order to complete the pioneering institution.

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