NJODZEKA DANHATU, BIRD
JATO Sonita is standing in the middle of a bamboo forest, surrounded by a group of younger children. They are all wearing clothes made from banana leaves, ready to start recording their latest music video. First, however, Sonita wants to explain what she’s doing here and why it’s so important. She’s a real force of nature and everyone stops to let her speak. This is my big chance, so we take a few minutes in the forest clearing to record an interview ahead of the first take.
Referred to as the “forest girl”, the young teenager is very clear about her identity as Jato Sonita. Recently however, another name has been doing the rounds… “Cameroon’s Next Big Thing”.
Growing up with her grandfather and listening to the songs he loved inspired the teenager, who said she fell in love with music at the age of three.
“While I was growing up, my grandfather always like to listen to traditional music which I always listen to most of the time because he leaves his radio on even when he sleeps,” she explained.
“He had this favourite song, Elimba Dikalo, by Eboa Lotin. So while growing up, I always like listening to the songs he was listening to.”
Jato Sonita is very clear that her music and her videos are all about finding alternatives to the fast fashion and brands that have become synonymous with successful African music and musicians. She is insistent on going what she calls “the natural way”.
In her music videos, she is almost always seen in the forest with kids. And then there are the banana leaves…
“There was a time I had the chance to watch some of those videos and I discovered that back in the days, they dress somehow this (showing her banana-leaf outfit) and I said ‘why don’t I do what they did to bring it back into our generation and make the people see the importance of what they did before?’”
Sonita explained that her viral popularity on social media is a way for her to spread information and promote African culture.
“(I) use music to pass information, to give the importance of things to people because it serves as a more entertaining way to send out information to the world,” she said.
“I use music to promote my culture in my way, to be able to tell the world that not only music is important, but we must remember where we are coming from.”
Her popularity in Cameroon and beyond has a lot to do with the way she sings. It has a ring to it that many have called “traditional” or “African” and while she usually sings covers of old African classics, they have a very unique sound that is instantly recognisable as hers.
“I had this musical talent which I never knew how to manage well but I chose to use it in my own way to pass information about my culture and where I am coming from,” she said.
Sonita’s voice has made her a celebrity in almost no time. Some of the musicians whose songs Jato has covered have already reached out to her. Ever since Congolese star Fally Ipupa posted Sonita on Instagram, she has become the talk of the town on social media platforms in Cameroon. Witty Minstrel, of “Be Proud” fame has reached out to her, while Fally Ipupa posted that he anticipated seeing her soon, after she covered his song, A Flyé.
Though she has started writing her own songs, Sonita says, for now, she does covers of people’s songs “songs which have valuable meanings, meanings which are very strong and can tell the world something which will help them in future.”
Examples she quotes are “Elimba Dikalo” by Eboa Lotin and “Be Proud” by Witty Minstrel, songs which she says are “connecting” because of how they pay attention to and connect the listener or viewer, to African Culture.
Witty Minstrel’s “Be Proud” video, for example, plays on the negative, colonial stereotypes associated with West African cultures and faiths, using parodies of those stereotypes to offer a light, fresh take on African culture and heritage.
For Sonita, however, it’s about more than cultural history. She is also very much part of a generation that is acutely aware of their environment and the pressures placed on it by consumerism.
“Banana leaves connect me to nature and also, it is one of the most available I can have for every other person to (find a) way without spending money on buying Gucci and Versace,” she said.
The forest, she says, is an essential part of her wider sense of “connection”.
The popular 14-year-old is still in form four at secondary school in Bamenda, in Cameroon’s Northwest region and is facing challenges managing her newfound celebrity. Students wanting to take selfies with her ” left and right “is something she was not prepared for.
“Everywhere I go, people want me to sing for them, be with them and even when I am not prepared, some still want to take pictures with me,” she explained, adding that she was finding ways to manage that.
In October 2021, Sonita won the Nora Brown Music Contest, beating out 82 other contestants and taking home two million Central African CFA Francs (USD 3,400), along with an opportunity to perform at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in early 2022.
Sonita’s success is in no small part thanks to the marketing network of Che Emannuel Bayong, CEO of Cameroon’s Kids Hall of Talent Foundation. Bayong said that working with the Forest Kids, where Sonita is the lead singer has been a wonderful experience for him.
Their style, he said, “comes from the fact that we are in the bush. So we live in a local community in the Northwest region of Cameroon and the most available costume we can have are banana leaves… it is a way of communicating our culture, our way of life to the world.”