The musical instrument called the kora has been played almost exclusively by men since the 13th century, strictly passed down as a family tradition in West Africa.

But one musician has changed everything: Sona Jobarteh, the first woman from a Griot family to become a professional kora player.

The kora is often likened to a harp in some senses,” said Jobarteh, who is performing at the Somerville Theatre on Saturday. “It's a tradition which is hereditary, meaning you have to be born within the families to play this instrument, along with others that belong to these particular families.”

She told GBH's Morning Edition that she started learning how to play with her older brother when she was 4 or 5 years old.

“However, I started studying with my father when I was around 17 years of age, and that was really the beginning of the journey in terms of taking this instrument as my profession,” Jobarteh said.

A woman poses with a strong instrument.
Kora player Sona Jobarteh with her instrument.
Slawek Przerwa Courtesy

Traditionally only men can carry on the role of griot — storytellers, historians, musicians and praise singers. Jobarteh said her realization that she wanted to carry that role as well was not confined to a single moment.

It's a period of time in my life when I realized that this was something that I wanted to do professionally, as opposed to just something that I was doing alongside other musical adventures,” she said. “But I think what was more meaningful was the acceptance from my father to teach me. I think that was really an important turning point in that journey.”

When she sought her father’s teachings, he was living and working in Norway, she said.

“I went to find him myself in Norway and studied with him there. And then we continued back in Gambia as I was going through that journey,” she said.

Her first big public performance, she said, happened when she was 26.

“I did that through holding a performance in The Gambia that was attended by most of my extended family and obviously the wider community,” she said. “It wasn't a conscious decision for me to be going about becoming a kora player because of the fact I'm a female. It was an instrument that I was very much connected to and felt a huge affinity to. I think that it's very hard for people to kind of fake.”

Being a woman playing kora professionally was more of a hindrance in her early years than it is now, she said.

“I was not able to take that journey as every other player in my family was able to, I had to go about it a different way,” she said. “Later on, when I was already at a stage where I could perform on the instrument competently, that became the moment I needed to embrace the fact that I was breaking, in some ways, the tradition, and to be able to navigate that in a different way very consciously because of the implications that it had.”