Q. What does it take to get North Oxford to dance?
A. Genre-eliminating groove from a kora virtuoso and storyteller with significant standing in a seven-century-long tradition, and with a band that slays. I.e. something you don't see every day.
There are different ways to tell Jobarteh's story: she upholds a west African bard-like hereditary vocation, as the first daughter in a father-to-son chain that links back to the 14th century; when her peers live in Europe to earn a living, she invests time in her native Gambia to ensure that chain's continuation into future days. There are other possible reductive headlines, but hearing from the woman herself trumps them all. So, are you sitting comfortably? We were, until all the dancing.
The show is a game of two halves, both 45-minute segments spinning by deliriously quickly. A funk-reminiscent bass riff opens proceedings, and Jobarteh's kora sets up a dialogue with both her front-line instrumentalists, a scene-stealing percussion player and a guitarist whom I secretly think is the don. As they discursively settle into a beat, style-wise we're somewhere between propulsive high life and reggae. Even their rhythm is gloriously unpindownable as double-time or half-time, so I forget about definitions for the evening. For maximum universality, the song is 'Jarabi' which translates as 'love'.
The second song is an original pointedly dedicated to her grandmother. The spoken intro itself gets a round of applause: this redoubtable head-of-family passed away, leaving a hole in the family. But it was she who encouraged young Sona to sit with her grandfather as he played kora (so she forcibly absorbed the tradition) and to start singing (which she only did post-grandmother's passing). The tribute song is beautiful, an imposing personality memorialised in strict, wiry kora playing, with sweet interplay and intricate unison between string instruments evoking her tutelage in the style.
Jobarteh seems to have an idea partway through song number three, which she shares off-mic with her bassist. Soon he's laying down a phat 5-string line, guitars start playing rhythm a la Nile Rodgers, and we're in straight funk territory for a few glorious minutes before she calls it back to the original feel. The crowd is wowed by crazy percussion duelling, as the drummer spars with Mamadou Sarr on congas/djembe/calabash (which looks like the top half of the Death Star) - we applaud and whoop their smiling intensity. It turns out to have been the close of a triptych - based on a traditional song also named 'Jarabi', this one means 'love' in the Manding language.The second half has Jobarteh banishing any notion of West African musical homogeneity by introducing Fulani rhythms, initiating a groove I wanted to never end, and recounting the lack of knowledge among Gambia's youth about their musical heritage. Without initial funding or backing, her dream of founding a music school there has come to fruition with young students on scholarships taking exams this very month! In a unique incentive to buy a t-shirt, proceeds from tonight went toward them. This has been achieved by Sona Jobarteh's unshakeable sense of what-she's-on-earth-to-do, carried with humility but big enough to unseat Beyoncé. Mid-encore, the crowd get to sing in praise of women across the planet, find new dance areas in the North Wall, and see a fantastic band on their way to Glastonbury with a massive ovation.