Sona Jobarteh Human beings, just as a race, as a species, they have universalities of course, we know that. But music demonstrates that in a very bold way. Because, at our core, we respond to certain things and that that is universal. Nobody needs to talk about happiness in Gambia or happiness in the US or happiness in China or Japan or whatever. Happiness is happiness.
You know, what might bring it about is different, but your experience of that emotion is still the same. And that’s where music comes in, is that no matter what nationality it’s from, where it’s from, who is experiencing, what set of circumstances in that particular person’s life made this song mean something to them, that’s all different. But at the end of the day, the emotion felt is shared.
Dacher Keltner Our guest today was voted one of the best female musicians in Central and West Africa. Sona Jobarteh is also an education activist, cultural ambassador for the United Nations, and the subject of a new documentary, Sona Jobarteh: A Continuing Story.
She joins us from her home in London to talk about how music can connect us to our heritage and across cultures.
Sona, it’s an honor to have you on The Science of Happiness.
Sona Jobarteh Thank you.
Dacher Keltner So you were born into a Griot family from Gambia in West Africa, and this is a 700-year-old tradition that preserves oral histories through poetry, storytelling, and music. Can you share more about this tradition?
Sona Jobarteh This is a tradition in West Africa found in, specifically, the Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau. So quite a wide region of West Africa because of the fact it predates the carving out of the modern map of Africa. And in those times, it was an empire which existed, very important in West African history. So that’s the birthplace of the tradition that I’m from. It’s been a tradition that has been, still, very important in the identity of people from that region of the continent. And it’s a tradition which still carries much cultural relevance.
And it’s hereditary. It has been, and it continues to still be that way. So for myself, I was born into one of the five Griot families in this part of Africa.
Dacher Keltner You know, one of the things that we’re grappling with in the science of music is in a way a paradox, which is that, when I heard your one of your albums, you know, I don’t speak the language and, you know, it’s a different culture. And yet there’s something that touched me, and it’s beyond kind of the spoken word. And it unites people, as you have talked about, in sort of seeing people react to your music. How do you think about that? How music unites us beyond language?
Sona Jobarteh I think the fact that it does that is the very reason why it exists. It is actually an inseparable fabric of human existence. And I often like to remind people that I think the concept — when we speak about when we use the word music, we have to remember that carving out a concept that we now define this entity item that is now to be regarded as something called “music” is something that came much later in human existence and that’s come as a result of us sort of needing to compulsively box everything into identifiable units, mainly again, for the purpose of commercial value, because now you have a product that you can sell. And it’s called “music,” right.
But let’s bear in mind, remember that actually what we are attempting to define by this word, “music,” is an inseparable fabric of human existence, and it always has been. In our existence as human beings, where do you draw the line? I mean, does pounding the seeds in your pot in time with each other? Is that music or are they cooking? You know, so but it’s both. You can’t draw that line. And we can talk about it conceptually, separately, but when it’s played, we still emotionally and instinctively go back to that original purpose of what the sound, what sound is about, how does it affect us and how does it affect our behavior in society? And that, I think, is why music is universal and why it is of this world, every animal also embodies it in a certain way. Sound and rhythms and timing and melodies. It’s everywhere. It’s everywhere.
Dacher Keltner You play the kora, an instrument often described as an African harp, but it’s really unique. It’s made from a long neck, twenty-one nylon strings, and a body — like a guitar body — but much rounder because it’s made from a hollowed calabash squash.
You’re a pioneer in the sense that this is a hereditary Griot tradition that’s handed down from father to son for seven centuries now. And, you’re the first female kora virtuoso.
Sona Jobarteh Being female in a tradition that’s male, I would not have got acceptance as a female to be playing this instrument in my culture. If it wasn’t for that social change of actually objectifying music and it being on a stage, because the stage gave me that neutral ground where I was still representing culture, but I wasn’t putting myself in a position which was culturally not acceptable. So, the stage has given a platform to so many people in different traditions around the world to get that little neutral ground to break traditions in a different way or to innovate traditions, I would say in a different way.
Dacher Keltner There’s this interesting cultural specificity to music that, you know, there are studies that show that depending on your culture, you hear certain instruments or certain rhythms and it speaks to you as a member of a specific subculture. And so, how do you think about that, that the varieties of music around the world also tell us who we are as a specific subculture?
Sona Jobarteh If one limits the conversation to its importance in terms of personal identity and the sense of belonging to a particular history, to a particular tradition, to a particular culture and everything that that means emotionally. It has a huge power and you see that played out still today in the countries where this tradition is present.
The tradition that I come from, how it communicates to Mande people, the emotion that it evokes in Mande people is not the same as the emotion that it evokes in people who are not part of that history. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evoke just as much strong emotions. It does, but it’s a different type of emotion. There’s a sense, that sense of belonging, pride, identity, all that kind of that swell in you that just makes you feel so proud of where you come from when you hear it. That’s different to other people who listen to it and just feel, “It’s amazing. It touched me. It made me cry,” you know, whatever it is. But it’s a different emotion.
So when I see these other traditions around the world, I think of it in relation to that experience, that relationship I have with my own tradition. And, I think how amazing it is with a tradition that I’m hearing that actually, I can’t make sense of. I don’t understand what they’re doing, you know. We can all be honest that we’ve all come across that situation. But you see how the people respond. And I recognize that response. I know that response because that’s the same response that my music gets back home.
So my thing is, you know, it’s talking to those people because I believe that just like in certain parts of Africa, the music actually evolves from the type of instruments that we can create because of our environment.
And that, then, informs how the sound start to come out, because then that becomes a desirable sound because that’s how you identify it. It’s telling me something about their land. It’s telling me something about the culture, the country, the ground that they live in. It gives birth to this type of sonic, you know, maybe this is a type of sonic that you hear naturally in that. So, I can feel whether it’s somewhere where there’s ice, I can feel whether it’s somewhere where there’s rainforest. You can hear that in the choice of a texture that you might hear. Because I feel like I can observe something about them without actually understanding much about the music or the traditions that they’ve done. I don’t know anything. It’s totally new to me. but it tells me something about them. It tells me something about their culture and about the way they interact with one another.
Dacher Keltner Wow. Sona, you’ve traveled the globe singing and playing the kora …What is a song or a musician from another culture that comes to mind where you were able to reach across and feel the ice or feel of the rainforest? Music that really connected you to that culture?
Sona Jobarteh He’s an amazing guitarist called Egberto Gismonti. He just plays solo guitar, for me, in the most amazing way I’ve ever heard anybody touch the instrument before, both musically, technically, and everything. And I reference him. I think I’ve referenced him in terms of just being a therapy for me. I think throughout my entire life, since I was 13. I hear it. I can feel it. I can taste it. The experience, the Brazilian identity culturally is so complex. You just have to know a little bit about history and how that came about, even what is Brazilian culture that is so complex and deep and layered. But for me, it just represented in that 12 string guitar, I can hear the complexity and I can hear the simplicity just beautifully told as him and a guitar telling a complex story with a very simple result, which is the musical communication.
Dacher Keltner One of the things that’s really moving about your career, Sona is, not only your music and I have other questions to ask of you of that, but your devotion to young people. And, while traveling the world and putting out albums and being part of a documentary, you’ve started The Gambia Academy, really devoted to young people. And I’m curious why you did that. What led you to that?
Sona Jobarteh I don’t see enough serious investment in long-term sustainable institutions which actually bring this type of education as a normal, central part of society. And I don’t see things really changing in terms of our mentality and attitude to our culture’s identity in value of self and everything. Until these become normal institutions in our countries and not fun projects that take place for a month or up to six months and go.
And this is why for me, we have to look at education in a different way. We have to look at education in a way that actually gives students the tools to do things now. I always say to people, I don’t want to know what you’re going to be when you grow up. I want to know what you want to do now. And it’s amazing seeing it demonstrated. Once you start planting those seeds within young people, it’s absolutely amazing to see what they can achieve in such a short space of time.
Dacher Keltner You know, when I first heard your music, I was you know, I wasn’t raised in this tradition, I knew a little bit about Griot, I’ve always liked West African music, but I grew up in California and I heard the music, I was transfixed. And we know from a lot of new work, including studies from our lab, that there is something universal that just transcends cultural boundaries in music. And the feeling you’re trying to create will stir feelings in people around the world. And I just am curious what that’s like for you as a performer. What’s it like for you to see this power of music, to transcend cultural boundaries?
Sona Jobarteh Eternally humbled. And I think that’s the funny thing for me. The more I’ve grown publicly, the more humble I’ve got, it’s gone the other way, you know, and I think that’s a very important position to have and to maintain, because the more I realize that it’s not actually just, it’s not about me, you know, it’s something far greater than me. And I’m just in a fortunate position to be able to enable those moments to happen. So, it’s being an enabler rather than a creator. So it keeps you in constant contact with the fact that it demonstrates to me that happiness is happiness. Whatever constitutes that, it still ends up in the same experience of what happiness means.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. Well, Sona, thank you so much for being on our show. It’s a real privilege to be in conversation with you.
Sona Jobarteh Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Dacher Keltner We know that when people create music together, they can feel closer to one another.
Jonna Vuoskoski But, we didn’t really know whether just listening to music from another culture, could it make you feel more empathic or more open towards that culture? So that’s exactly what we then set out to do in our study.
Dacher Keltner More on how empathy affects how we listen to music, up next.
Jonna Vuoskoski Well, I’ve always been really strongly affected by music, even as a child, and I started playing the cello when I was six years old, and ever since then, music has been a big part of my life. And basically, I never stopped being curious about music.
Dacher Keltner Jonna Vuoskoski is an associate professor in music cognition at the University of Oslo, Norway.
She did an experiment to explore whether listening to music from other countries could improve attitudes toward people from those cultures.
First, Jonna and her team measured how much empathy people had in general. Then, they divided everyone into two groups:
Jonna Vuoskoski Group one listened to a piece of West African popular music and group two listened to a piece of moving Indian popular music. And both of these songs, they were sung by a female singer and the lyrics were in languages that the participants couldn’t understand.
Dacher Keltner Afterward, they measured how the music affected participants’ unconscious feelings toward Indian or West African people.
Jonna Vuoskoski You’re not necessarily always consciously aware of the types of associations or attitudes that you have. And this test is supposed to be able to capture those types of associations. And it’s a test based on reaction time. We showed participants pictures of both West African and Indian people, and they had to very simply just sort these pictures into the correct categories. So Indian or West African as quickly as possible.
Dacher Keltner Mixed in with these photographs were words — both positive and negative adjectives.
Jonna Vuoskoski And when they saw a word, they had to also make a decision whether that was a positive or a negative word. So, if they have a stronger association between, say, Indian and positive, then they are quicker when the categories are in that order. So, it sort of measures our implicit preference for either of those two cultures. whether we slightly prefer Indian versus West African or vice versa.
Dacher Keltner Jonna’s team found that listening to music did affect people’s implicit attitudes toward people from those cultures.
Jonna Vuoskoski So if people heard Indian music, they had a stronger preference for Indian versus West African faces. But the important thing is that the effect was not the same for everyone. So not everyone was equally affected by the music.
Dacher Keltner It depended on how much empathy people had.
Jonna Vuoskoski So, people who scored high in this empathy measure, we saw that they had a stronger preference for the culture whose music they heard. So had a more extreme reaction to the music.
People who scored low on empathy, they were basically not really affected by the music at all. So, it’s sort of slightly disheartening, if you would like to argue that, yeah, music can make us more empathic or more understanding towards other cultures. But, hey, it only works if you’re already empathic.
Dacher Keltner Jonna’s theory is that more empathic people are more open to experiencing different kinds of music. And that, in turn, leads to a form of empathy for the people of culture the music comes from.
Jonna Vuoskoski But I think at least, like, the role of empathy is quite promising in that direction. You know, if there is sort of empathic engagement involved in music-listening, that suggests in itself already that some type of social connection or social bonding might be possible.
Dacher Keltner Thank you for exploring the science of music and happiness with us, and a special thanks to those of you who wrote in to share your favorite songs and stories.
The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us.