The City Roots Festival is finally underway! Cambridge will have over two weeks of exceptional folk music from all over the world performed in all areas of the city. So what better way to start off this festival with the sounds of West African music? Sona Jobarteh and her supporting act the innovator of the Sawa blues, Muntu Valdo.
I acquired the tickets to see them live at The Corn Exchange in Cambridge. My first time to ever set foot in this venue as a Londoner and I was impressed. You can sense the history within this venue; it was bigger than I expected. I got a coffee to warm myself up as Cambridge was only 3°C. It was too cold outside, but I knew the upcoming African vibes would warm my soul for the night.
The lighting and the stage smoke set up the atmosphere, we knew we were in for a treat and expecting a spectacular show. This was the first live performance I have attended which did not require me standing up on the dance floor, but had the audience in rows of seats for this show.
Without any announcement, the lights dimmed and up came an individual. He picked up the guitar and stood in the spotlight, Muntu Valdo! The audience cheered him on. Muntu started off with an acapella of harmonising lyrics having them looped using his looper pedals. Then he introduced his harmonica and guitar riffs looping them and adding his percussive beat on top. Muntu Valdo proved he could be a ‘one man band’. The crowd applauded and soon after the friends he invited came to perform with him on the drums and bass for the rest of the show.
Muntu Valdo’s material was based on his album The One and Many, occasionally playing songs from Gods & Devils. Muntu’s style is unique, he incorporates styles from the Sawa region of Cameroon and fuses it together with his musical flair which sounds similar to blues, hence the term ‘Sawa blues’. Muntu was able to engage with the audiences by clapping and chanting segments “I am you, you are me!”. Overall, his musical performance was excellent, a talented artist and was a great way to start with night’s show.
The next act was Sona Jobarteh, but before she came on, her band members entered the stage first. The audience applauded, and the enthusiastic calabash drummer began. The calabash percussion creates a distinctive sound such as clicks, yet can also produce heavy percussive hits. The beat he created with this instrument had me moving, and I just couldn’t stop nodding my head to the beat.
While the music started to incorporate the drums, the bass and the guitar, on came the goddess herself, Sona Jabarteh. The audience cheered as she picked up her legendary kora instrument and stood in the spotlight looking amazing in her long red dress. When Sona started plucking the strings, the sounds created with a catchy melody which truly hooks you. Her first performing song was ‘Jarabi’ which is a traditional Malian song.
Sona dipped in the songs from her Fasiya album such as ‘Mamamusu’, ‘Saya’, ‘Jarabi’ and many more. Her voice captivates you, and the catchy string melodies grab your complete attention. She engages with the audience with jokes here and there, also audience chanting participation similar to Muntu Valdo. Sona is very versatile as she allows the other performers do their own rendition within the spotlight including the drummer, bass player and the guitarist for their solo moment. You can tell there is soul on that stage and it is so refreshing to watch.
Sona announced, “the next song I will be playing means a lot to me, it is called ‘Gambia'”, and with that, a fellow Gambian in the audience whooped and clapped! You can tell by the way the gentleman was smiling, his hand in the air and grooving to the melody that he was proud of this national song. You can sense the happiness, the heart in this song and it was really amazing live. Gambia truly has an inspirational musical icon and have all the right to be proud. Sona had founded the first music institution for the study of traditional music, as education is important to her and she wanted to give this opportunity to the new generation of students in Gambia.
Finally, her show was coming to an end; her final song was also the song played at the beginning of her entrance performance ‘Jarabi’ – in which she reminded us what the meaning of this word was? “Beloved!” shouted the fellow Gambian in the crowd followed with smiles from everyone. I understood why Sona’s performances require seating; it allows you to focus and get lost in the music. It’s euphoric, soulful and has great groove.
The crowd applauded while the performers bowed for their send off and this was an amazing show. This is the magic of African music; you do not have to understand the lyrics, possibly you just need to know the meaning behind the songs. However, one thing is for certain; you can feel the spirit and heart from this beautiful performance. It truly warmed me for the cold journey heading home.
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