Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, 16/6/18

The audience response when Sona Jobarteh and her four-strong band take to the stage in Shoreham-by-Sea is sober at first. There are a few whoops from the back and the woman next to me gasps at how beautiful Sona is. Hers is a more fitting reaction – in bold and colourful Gambian attire, Sona is indeed stunning and the fact that she is gracing this somewhat sleepy seaside town is a complete marvel; in fact, a massive deal. As well as featuring on the soundtracks of films such as ‘Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom’ and working to champion music and culture in her home country, she is world-renowned for the fact that she has broken tradition, by playing an instrument typically passed down from father to son over some 700 years, as the very first female kora virtuoso from the prestigious lineage of a West African Griot family. Still, with these achievements in her repertoire, she remains blissfully down-to-earth. Just as comfortable playing a guitar as she is playing the 21-string harp for which she is famed, Sona quickly apologises for her singing this evening as she has a cold. What she would sound like without a bunged-up nose then we can only wonder because her vocal is faultless, commanding and mesmerising.

The bond between the musicians creates a special and intimate performance, conveying the joy and meaning within Sona’s songwriting to transport the listener to another place. ‘We are going to send some love all the way to the Gambia and bring some love from there to here’, she says proudly, her natural ease with her audience soon getting most of the room dancing, clapping or singing along. Covering themes of love, family and odes to her motherland with a beautiful simplicity, she dedicates the song ‘Musow’ (meaning ‘ladies’) to the women of Male, Sengal, Nigeria and Shoreham, bringing a slightly surreal inclusivity to the occasion but with a determination that it doesn’t matter that she is singing in another language, because it translates with a strong passion.

Literally every song is a highlight. Many taken from her 2011 album ‘Fasiya’, tracks like ‘Jarabi’ showcase her effortless voice and, although mostly lengthy, almost jazz-like in arrangement, sometimes even with the ambience of trip-hop, the group are captivating for their pure talent. Each man - sensational percussionist Mamadou Sarr, guitarist Derek Johnson and rhythm section, Andi McLean and Westley Joseph – is completely absorbed; smiling, joking or completely focused on what each other is doing in an often fabulously playful stirring of spirit that is exactly what Shoreham needed on this slightly chilly June day. An inspiring few hours, I am still saying long after the encore has finished how amazing the power of music is to unite people from so many different cultures in one room and I feel privileged and inspired to have been able to witness it. Live music is made for nights like this.

Anna C

Thank you to Ebou of African Night Fever for allowing me to review the show and putting on such a great evening of live music.