Salone News

Musical Artists and Social Change in Sierra Leone: A Reflection

19 November 2005 at 18:21 | 1950 views

By Zubairu Wai

I stood there trying to absorb the shock and conceal my excitement at what I was hearing and seeing. It wasn’t anything negative at all. It was just that I was stunned because it wasn’t there when I left Sierra Leone in 1999, or not on this scale when I returned to visit in 2002.

This time, in September 2005, something had changed. At Paddy’s Beach Bar that fateful Friday evening, the night scene was amazing like usual, but unlike previously when it was dominated by mostly foreign music, the music played this time round, was predominantly Sierra Leonean. The depth of the artistic quality of the songs, their hypnotic rhythms, crisp and professional production, and beauty of their lyrics were astoundingly admirable and made me stop in my tracks. Soon, I found myself reluctantly sliding into spasmodic gyration of my body, responding to the rhythm even as I tried very hard to resist doing so. The music was just too good to resist. I could hear ‘Cam Inside’ blasting, then ‘Girl U know’, then ‘Sugar Mammy’, then ‘Che Che’ and then ‘Turn to Me’; by the time the DJ toasted ‘More Fire’ and ‘Tutu Party’, the crowd had gone crazy, ecstatic and wildly raunchy. I was excited too, gradually increasing my tempo until the full blown frenzy of dance consumed me, sweating profusely in the process.

Yeah, this is another part of Freetown that one should definitely experience whilst in town! Despite the decadence, the filth, the perennial blackout problems, not to mention the vagaries and vicissitudes of life’s daily struggles for the ordinary person, the entertainment industry in Sierra Leone has somehow managed to keep itself sane and thriving and this is something that too easily misses the common eye.

There has been a miraculous reinvention of Sierra Leone music in the past couple of years. Today, there is a thriving home grown music scene with most of the songs, written, recorded and produced in Freetown of high professional quality. This explosion in musical creativity in Sierra Leone is somewhat surprising, but yet, not quite. After all, Sierra Leone has a rich pedigree of musical creativity. The exploits of S. E. Rogie and his Palm Wine music (Maringa), Big Fayia of the Sierra Leone Military Band fame, Ebenezer Calender and his Goombay (Gumbe), which was later converted to Milo-jazz by Olofemi Israel Cole (a. k. a. Doctor Oloh), and Bunny Mack, are all too well known. In the 1970s especially, Sierra Leone had a very vibrant musical scene which was very effectively represented in the explosion of Afro-pop on the African continent at the time. Bands like Afro-National, Super Combo and Sabannoh 75, blended Palm Wine rhythms with funk, soul, Makossa, high-life and Congolese Afro-dance rhythms and not only dominated the national music scene, but also made their presence felt elsewhere on the continent.

When decline sets in beginning the 1980s as a result of increasing economic hardship and most of the bands fell apart as a result, some of the successful artists like Abdul Tee-Jay, S. E. Rogie, Abu Whyte, etc, left Sierra Leone for greener pastures in the West. As the industry declined, so also did interest in it wane. Sierra Leone’s popular music was overtaken by different genres of foreign music, especially British pop, reggae (later dancehall/ragga), soul, and most recently rap and hip-hop/R&B. Most of my generation for instance, grew up listening to these foreign genres of music. Even in our African music tastes, we tended to appreciate artists from elsewhere like Kanda Bongo Man, Shalomon, Shaka Bundu etc, other than our own. Except for a few Sierra Leonean acts like John Gbla, King Masco, Colins Pratt, Abu Whyte (of Tabulé fame), and others mostly in the UK, popular Sierra Leone music had virtually died and so also was interest in it. There was no where in which one could see this tell tale of decline than in discothèques and bars, where we’d rather have foreign music played than listen to our own.
The 1990s did witness a brief moment of rejuvenation when Steady Bongo appeared on the scene with his explosive “Ready Before You Married” album in 1991. This album took the country by storm and set Steady Bongo’s career on course. But revival proved difficult to sustain and hence short lived. True, more artists like Janka Nabay, Ngoh Gbetuwa, Musical Flames, M. B. Attila, etc also appeared on the scene and indeed intermittently, we kept dancing to Steady Bongo’s successful singles, even if poorly produced, like “Kormot Bien Me” (1996) for example. But on the whole, the music industry, like most other industries in Sierra Leone at the time, remained stuck in mediocrity because, apart from the war, or rather because of it, no one really wanted to invest in promoting it. The result was very bad quality production, monotonous beats, poor marketing and sometimes even lack of imagination on the part of the artists.

The arrival of Jimmy B on the scene in the millennium changed things for the better. Jimmy B, a successful recording artist in South Africa (was at first in the US but was relatively unsuccessful there), returned home and pumped some fresh new blood into the music industry in Sierra Leone. He established a recoding studio and signed on young and talented artists looking for avenues for artistic expression. With his Paradise Studio and through collaborations with Super Sounds and Cassette Sellers Association (CSA), the Sierra Leone music scene got a rebirth and was once again alive and kicking and this time with an edge. Sophistication, complexity and professionalism laced the music produced. People started paying attention and the music revolution was underway. The Paradise Family compilation featuring acts like Fisher, Daddy Saj, Don Kay, Janka Nabay, Attila and Jimmy B himself, quickly became a success.

But oh, trouble started too! Jimmy B was soon accused, by some of the artists whose careers he had helped kick-start, of cheating them of royalties from record sales, and meddling with their finances. I don’t know whether or not any of these accusations were true (though I wouldn’t be inclined to think they were). What I do know however is that Jimmy B’s example encouraged further investment in music in Sierra Leone and studios started springing up everywhere in Freetown. Most talented youngsters who had been frustrated now found avenues for artistic expression and the creative genie once imprisoned, was let out of the bottle. The quality of the songs, and the fact that they could match songs produced anywhere in the world, now encouraged people to return to their roots. Sierra Leone music has taken hold of Sierra Leone, only that this time round, it was different too. It had another very important component to it.

Music in Sierra Leone has come to not only be a means of artistic expression; it has become a very powerful tool in the campaign for socio-political transformation, the struggle for human dignity and morality in society. The popular artists in Sierra Leone are not only entertainers, but social commentators and educators as well. Their bravery is astounding especially at a time when the political dispensation seems to be sliding into a mild form of dictatorship (dressed up as a democracy (read polyarchy); and at a time when the government is frowning on dissent, and suppressing free speech, (Harry Yansanneh and Paul Kamara are testimonies to this). The artists today are young women and men, mostly in their 20s. They represent a generation that has known nothing other than rottenness in Sierra Leone. Their consciousness is shaped by life’s experiences and social realities and that is what is vividly portrayed in their songs. They represent “the ghetto generation” as SQV rightly put it in their hit single “More Fire.” This is perhaps what gives their music such poignancy. Their focus is generally on corruption, hardship, sufferings, hopelessness, and marginalisation; in short, representing the voices of the voiceless, their fears, anger, aspirations, and hopes for a brighter future. They also address moral issues, like skin bleaching and prostitution. One doesn’t have to look too far to recognise this. Just listen to songs like ‘Corruption’ ‘Borboh Belleh’, ‘Ar Vex’, ‘Same Soup’, ‘Big Whait Fol’, ‘Next election’ ‘Sidom Wan Place’, ‘Love Nor to Pass Money’ etc.
2004 marked the defining moment as music increasingly became the vehicle for political expression and resistance to corruption and decadence in Sierra Leone. Steady Bongo’s ‘Wake Up’, Jungle Leaders’ ‘The System (Wutehteh)’, and Daddy Saj’s ‘Corruption’ led the way. In fact Daddy Saj’s demand that corrupt politicians should ‘pack and go’ became a popular slogan throughout the country, just as Emerson’s ‘Borboh Bele’ and ‘swuegbeh’ are today. Wan Pot Sojas were just simply pissed off in ‘Ar Vex,’ because of the deplorable state in the country, while Jungle Leaders focused on the plight of young people’s inability to afford basic education. If only the government and politicians would listen. But no, they are too busy enriching themselves than pay any attention, while at the same time dismissing these artists as misguided youths misled by the opposition.
Writing about Emerson’s Washington DC concert in October, Karamoh Kabbah described ‘Tutu Party’ as “tutuerapeutic,” meaning that it had a healing power. He wasn’t wrong, neither was he exaggerating. There is definitely a therapeutic potency in the current brand of popular music in Sierra Leone. Though, like every other profession, there are a few sycophants producing praise songs like that ‘Solo B Wutehteh’ song that I heard the other day, the majority of these artists are definitely championing very important societal causes and they need to be commended for it. Among the Mende, there is a belief that a musician cannot be held accountable for what he says in a song. Let us hope that the entire country and especially the governing elites recognise and respect this (though it was rumoured that the government was contemplating the detention of Emerson in order to prevent the release of his ‘Borboh Bele’ album, which greatly boosted his popularity. In the end he wasn’t). Kpakra Massally’s pointed warning in an article titled “The System,” published in the February 10, 2004 edition of Concord Times, which says “the songs of these youngsters, if not taken seriously, might bring this government down like the Biblical walls of Jericho,” is prophetic indeed. If this view is correct, as I am sure it is, then one should be inclined to think that socio-political change in Sierra Leone this time round, would likely be sparked by the popular musicians through their conscious massages making the round in the country.

Photo: Zubairu Wai