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The planets appeared to be somewhat aligned tonight as I took my front row seat at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds. All the elements that usually go with a successful gig were very much in place; arrived early, found a handy parking space, greeted by a jolly friendly 'concert host' who was eager to chat to me about photography strangely enough, and most crucially, I found myself seated in the midst of a cheery multi-cultural audience, each of whom wore beaming smiles as we sat in eager anticipation of tonight’s concert, half listening to the cool jazz ambience track. World music events, for want of a better phrase, are really quite exceptional when it comes to the feel-good factor, there’s a relaxed contentment I rarely feel in other circumstances; it's really quite intoxicating. Well, whilst being completely loved up (for a change - Ed), I suspected I wasn't the only one in the room falling head over heels for Sona Jobarteh even before she walked onstage.
I'm not sure what it is, apart from the obvious - beautiful woman, playful with the audience, utterly graceful and elegant and handy with a kora to boot - but you really can't take your eyes off Sona Jobarteh for a moment, not even when her wonderfully charismatic percussionist Mamadou Sarr performs minor miracles with his congas, things he does with one pair of hands that normally takes three, you tend to keep focussed on Sona. Perhaps it has something to do with the sheer ballsiness of this musician, who perhaps best suits the term 'Wayward Daughter' even more than Eliza Carthy. After seven centuries of exclusively male dominated griot traditions, it perhaps took someone with enormous strength to challenge that tradition, Sona being the first female kora player from a West African Griot family to make her mark on the serious music traditions of her homeland; well you gotta love her for that if nothing else.
The one thing I've noticed at the Howard Assembly Room over the last few visits is that they seem to have done away with support acts, which meets with this reviewer’s approval. Mind you, I haven't been to a folk event here for a while, a scene where the opening act is often notoriously tiresome. Perhaps on those nights there’s even a raffle in between the two sets. I jest of course. Tonight, there was no support and we were straight into the good stuff from the start. On stage first were Sona's band, made up of the aforementioned Mamadou Sarr on percussion, Derek Johnson on guitar, Andi McLean on bass and Westley Joseph on drums. Sona followed shortly afterwards to a warm Leeds welcome.
For the first of just three UK shows in this tour, the material performed was varied, ranging from a handful from Sona's current album FASIYA, with others from the Gambian tradition, each song played with warmth, tight precision and contemplative respect for that tradition. One song, Saya, was described as a song about loss, of losing someone, of the feeling you are left with and the pain one suffers, in two minor chords, with Sona switching to the guitar, whilst delivering the delicate sentiments in verse. A poignant moment of the set.
It wasn't all serious though, with Sona duelling with each member of her band throughout the 90 minute performance. A very generous musician, Sona allowed her musicians to flex their musical chops, her smile signifying these to be the most enjoyable moments in the set. Audience participation was invited throughout, with varying degrees of success. If the audience were feeling the love, then one song in particular summed up such a feeling, Kanu (Love) being the last song of the set.
Returning to the stage for the one final encore, Sona and her band performed Bannaya, dedicating it to her elders, pointing out the importance of respecting the older generation, one of the chief principles of her culture, which met with a ripple of approval from the predominantly 'older' members of the audience, including this reviewer as he fast approaches retirement. I've attended a good few concerts here at the Howard Assembly Room over the last few years and tonight's performance was right up there with the best of them. A triumph for Leeds, for World Music and for community spirit. We long for Sona's return visit.