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Pan-Africanism Through Musical Traditions: Taj Mahal and Sona Jobarteh

Updated: Mar 13

Tucson was blessed to have two masters of very different genres at the Fox Theater on February 27. Beloved bluesman and countercultural icon Taj Mahal has been blending sounds from across the African diaspora for well over 50 years, and is still at it at the ripe age of 81 years. For support on his current tour, he has enlisted one of the preeminent kora players in the world, Sona Jobarte.

The show kicked off with some instrumental jamming by Jobarte's band. I was immediately impressed with the interplay of electric bass, drums and acoustic guitar. Like a lot of sub-Saharan music, syncopation plays a key role in Jobarte's music. The intricate way her rhythm section danced around the beat while filling the room with a fat groove impressed me, and had most of the audience moving in their seats. After a few minutes of jamming, Jobarte joined the band and began showcasing her incredible talent. I've often thought of the kora as a one-trick pony, much like the banjo. While I enjoy the sound of both, they often seem to lack versatility in the hands of most players. Not so with Sona Jobarte. Her deeply rooted family history with the instrument shines through in her playing, giving more depth and breadth to her playing than any other player I've seen. This should come as no surprise, as she is the product of one of a handful of families that were allowed to play the instrument after the fall of the Mali Empire, over 700 years ago. These families, known as Jali, represent a musical caste in West Africa that is tasked with the preservation and spread of traditional songs and stories. This tradition had been strictly closed to women for its entire history, until Jobarte’s father chose to break with the past and teach Sona rather than her brother.

Despite her virtuosic kora playing, Jobarte's singing truly is what truly stole the show for me. Her vocal range and control are astounding, and the use of traditional (non-Western) microtonal pitches in her singing adds so much complexity to her music. Her set was filled with stories between songs, discussing the history of Jali music and her own struggle to empower students, especially girls, in her home country of The Gambia. About halfway through the set, she demonstrated first-hand the familial tradition of this music by bringing out her son to play the balafon, a type of xylophone that uses gourds as resonators. As the set drew to a close, I found myself wanting more, and can only hope for another opportunity to see her again.

After a brief intermission, Taj Mahal himself took the stage. Upon watching him walk out, I was a bit concerned by how much his age is showing. Stagehands had laid out fluorescent tape in a sort of “runway” for him to see the path to his seat and guitars. He shuffled slowly, but was clearly in good spirits and enjoying himself. After getting seated and telling a joke or two, Taj settled in to start playing.

He was joined on stage by an eclectic mix of players and instruments, with steel drums and Hawaiian steel guitar added to the usual drums, bass, and guitar of most blues music. As the band got going, I was practically holding my breath over what was about to come: Taj’s singing. As soon as he opened his mouth and belted out that first verse, any concerns I had over his age were instantly gone. The amount of power behind his voice blew me away. As someone who has seen many older musicians, I’ve come to lower my expectations for legends such as Taj that are still performing. It was such a refreshing change to see a musician at this age still putting on a great show. He moved through a mix of his classic songs (e.g. Corrina) and newer material (e.g. Honeybee), with a couple of traditional blues songs thrown in the mix as well. As a longtime fan, I found myself with goosebumps more than once during this set thanks to how good Taj still sounds. It was a powerful musical experience for me to see one of my musical heroes for the first time, at age 81, playing and singing with so much energy and skill.

After the incredible performance of Sona Jobarte, I thought there was no way Taj Mahal could hold a candle to her show. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Sometimes you walk out of a show feeling blessed to have had the opportunity to attend. Like some stars had aligned to bring you such profound joy. This was one of those nights.

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