In September, I was invited to talk about my banjo research at the North Carolina Folk Festival. I was lucky enough to see many amazing artists, include Sona Jobarteh. She entered the main stage of the North Carolina Folk Festival to a massive crowd with a rock-star attitude: confident, ready to get the audience excited, and knowing exactly how talented she is. She picked up a kora, a 21-string plucked harp made from a gourd, and fastened it to a harness so she could stand and play. Backed by a band, she sang traditional songs and songs she had written, and got the audience to sing and clap along. Many people in the audience never heard her play before, and the performance was magical.
She Shreds magazine recently published a piece I wrote about Jonarteh, and how she is transforming traditional music from her native Gambia into something new. What only briefly made it into the piece, but what I found really fascinating, is the relationship between the kora and the context in which it is played.
"Every instrument has a role - music cannot be detached from its purpose," she told me. "The instrument cannot exist without the ceremony or the tradition it’s a part of," traditions like naming ceremonies, weddings, or hunts. "If we play the song out of context, it’s not really happening." This allows Jobarteh to play to kora, since she's doing it in a secular context and not a religious one. But in my research about the banjo as a religious object, these ideas underlined how connected a physical instrument is to religious ceremony in West African Griot traditions.
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Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.