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Described as a cross between a harp, a lute, and a guitar, the kora is part of a musical tradition that dates back to the 13th century Mali Empire, which stretched across much of West Africa. The tradition has been passed down from father to son — man to man — in a special set of families ever since. 

Until now. 

Musician Sona Jobarteh was born into one of those five families, called griots. The daughter of a Gambian father and British mother, she is the first griot woman to play the kora professionally. It is hard to believe, watching this musical pioneer’s mastery of the instrument, that according to the rules passed down for centuries, she was not supposed to play it.

Instead, Jobarteh is one of the foremost kora players in the world. 

“She’s phenomenal,” said Banning Eyre, a musicologist and senior producer of the radio show Afropop Worldwide. “She’s fantastic. Her dexterity is second to none. The flow, the speed — there’s just nothing to compare with her. She’s right up there with the very best ones.”

Jobarteh’s mastery of the kora is a feat made even more remarkable when considering how complex the instrument is. 

Constructed from a type of gourd called a calabash, koras typically have 21 strings. The strings can be difficult to keep in tune, particularly when the instrument, traditionally played in the steadily warm weather of Africa, experiences cold climates. To combat this temperature challenge and be able to bring her kora around the world, Jobarteh has innovated in how she builds the instrument’s neck. Rather than using traditional leather rings to hold her strings in place, Jobarteh uses metal tuning heads.

The strings themselves are played with just the thumb and forefinger, a technique that requires notable dexterity. The thumbs play the bass notes, acting something like a rhythm section, and the forefingers play the melody. 

Although she has studied the instrument for years and now performs around the world, Jobarteh said she does not yet feel she has “mastered” the kora.

“I like to say what my grandfather said, which is that ‘I wish you will die a learner,’ that you never come to a point where you can say, ‘I know it,’ or, ‘I’ve mastered it,'” Jobarteh said. “But you’re always learning. And that’s how I like to think about it.”

The video above was produced by Shari Finkelstein, Brit McCandless Farmer, and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.