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Sierra Leone: Literary appreciation of its indigenous music

Sierra Leone: Literary appreciation of its indigenous music

Sierra Leone’s indigenous music is embedded in a cocoon of mystic obscurity, deserving music lovers and scholars’ unquenchable thirst for refreshing anthropological inquisition. Probably, this might seem a novelty to the west, where its exposure is craving a fighting chance. The African Continent constitutes 53 independent nations, with each distinct geographic boundary, culture and diversified ethnic groups. Curiosity lured the producer of Earth CD, Luke Wassermann to visit the exotic, tiny West African nation – Sierra Leone. He would eventually discover a multifaceted pool of traditional musicians. As he braved it out on a challenging journey, slighting the sting of mosquito bites, lured by a foretaste of our undiscovered jewels.

Historically, it was late John Akar a Sierra Leonean diplomat, entertainer and writer, who initially led the Sierra Leone National Dance Troupe in 1964 to perform in New York World Fair, on the invitation of the United States. The group won best performance at the fair, and was presented with a plaque. It also performed at the Arts Festival in London: and was warmly greeted by thousands of fans. Subsequently, in 1965 it performed at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal. While four months later, the group toured Europe with performances in Sweden and France. This form of oral history and poetry is yet to be formally studied in institutions around the world.

Traditional music is learned from master teachers or artists, honing immeasurable passion and skill that could be passed down from generation to generation. Recording and preserving various cultural treasures must be done for posterity. The body of knowledge as reference material would benefit humanity in general. It sounds intriguing that a friend of Sierra Leone would invest in the recording of our cultural milieu. Music is a universal language, transcending cultural and geographic boundaries. Our ancestors had multi-talent and innate intuition, creativity and innovation. In passing down oral history through music and stories flavored with wisdom and wit, down our generational pedigree.


Listening to 7 of these CDs is soul-food and delicious charm and beauty that blooms and blossoms in our DNA: nursed by our shrewd and artistic folk. Music is essential in most African cultures. Despite the infiltration of western music trying to cannibalize or overshadow the juice flowing from our traditional musicians: starving them from the oxygen to survive. Locally crafted instruments like the kondi, kongoma, bata, segureh and balangi (xylophone) produce such unique sounds that connect both the musicians and dancers in forming a séance. Possessed singers are passionate and ecstatic to the delight and pleasure of their audience. Various drums communicate their own distinct messages. The tabule drum is sounded by the village crier at the dawn of an emergency. A secret society’s drum is heard during an initiation ceremony. While the kongoma eruption airs during festivities like celebrations.

Traditional music communicates a powerful and direct message to folk initiated or acculturated into it. Different shades of drumbeats are the handiwork of trained and experienced hands, teetering into a crescendo that marries the singers and dancers onto a state of ecstasy like a trance. Frivolous hands can’t challenge or poke fun at a drummer’s spell. These musicians are artists too, whose passionate ingenuity is priceless. Society forgets that artists have to survive too, to keep their legacy alive. Because of the inability to earn enough money from playing traditional music, youths are less inclined to embrace it. But it’s necessary to keep the legacy alive and vibrant. In jolting our consciousness to the cognitive imperative, it is emblematic of our cultural heritage. Our cultural music may constitute a contemporary expression of the political, socio-economic realities of Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leonean.

Sorie Kondi is a prophet no less than Bob Marley. But like Stevie Wonder, he was born blind. Honestly, who needs formal education when one is blessed with a gift from God? This prolific Temne kondi player earned his last name through his genius in playing the kondi instrument. Though a motivated self-starter, he plays, sings and dances to his own music. He’s both a musician and entertainer, whose lyrics are crafted in Krio, Temne and Loko: featuring a stream of burning issues. He harps the challenges folk like himself face daily: the high cost of living, poverty, class warfare or the dearth of basic human needs.

Kondi inherited a vibrant spirit of heroism from Bai Bureh the famous Temne warrior who fearlessly fought the British in repealing the hut tax, enforced in this former British Protectorate. He fled his hometown Makeni to seek refuge in Freetown, escaping the civil war: while several folk perished. Exposure fuels as it accelerates the engine of obscure artists. Investing in him could change his life, goading him onto the stairwell of success. In one of his songs in Temne, “Or both kone do kom” he states;

The sweetness is coming: let’s follow it
The excitement and enjoyment are rising
In another track in Loko “Nor Fala” he offers valuable advice;
Let’s not get wrapped up in the pleasures of this world
If we do so, we might be ashamed in the next world
Every man should know that God loves all his children
If we follow the temptations of this world
We are following Satan, because Satan rules this world
He wouldn’t have been able to conquer so many people.

Kondi’s poetic words deserve global attention. Who said he’s not educated? Maybe, the formally educated ought to learn from him. I can’t resist his articulate artistry.

Dance troupe dancer

Dance troupe dancer

Susu ethnic group has produced some of the most gifted musicians and storytelling singers called d’jalleba or griot. A griot is a West African poet, praise singer, and wandering musician, who is deemed a repository of oral tradition. And usually knowledgeable in traditional songs, rendering them error free: with the ability to extemporize current events. To be considered witty, griots need formidable knowledge of the traditional history. Referred to as praise singers, they could use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire and political commentary: they form an endogamous caste – marrying fellow griots. Susu brand of music though distinct is infectious, probably irresistible. Fused harmony produced by the melodious balangi, complimented with the bote hungbe drum provides excellent musical treat. The tone and tenor of nicely pitched monologues or duets by trained female d’jallebas are soothing to the intellect like the soul. Love songs lauding friendship, peace and harmony, germinate from this talented and peaceful ethnic group. Balangi music often attracts a very large audience, and could become a trap to apprehend folk who practice witchcraft, as well as thieves. Susu women are as beautiful as the soothing music they help create. In the song “Marafain garah muna” these lines intrigued my peering poetic interest;

There is nothing that I can offer to love,
So please tell love that I am discouraged
Yesterday I was with my beloved, following him, disheartened…
We started so wonderfully, so let’s not end differently.

During the festive season, a phase of nostalgia invades my mind. But not anymore, after listening to these poignant, homegrown songs, performed by some of the most passionate and talented folk. I’ve traveled to Sierra Leone, while in the comfort and convenience of my home and found healing through ancestral bond. I would encourage other Sierra Leonean patriots, music lovers, and scholars globally, to venture on this worthy, soulful trip too.

Visit the website: http://www.earthcds.com/africa/west/index.shtml#sierra

Patronizing such brilliant work of art, one is supporting gifted cultural artists, and challenging them to produce more excellent work. We could all help to preserve the legacy of Sierra Leone’s rich heritage, craving for a fighting opportunity. Every investment would be money well spent.

Roland Bankole Marke is a Sierra Leonean writer and artist with 3 books and CDs under his belt. Visit his website on: www.rolandmarke.com to sample his artistic work or call 904-645-5738

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