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A Note from the Producer of the Music of Sierra Leone series:
Making these CDs over the last two years has been a fascinating adventure and a labor of love. It began as easily as strolling down the local beach after just a month on the ground and running into a couple of fisherman beating their sangba drums. Those fisherman made the music you hear on Volume 1. To get to Sherbro Island, where I recorded Volume 7, I had to load my recording gear into a 10-foot canoe and paddle 5 miles upstream in torrential rain. Along the way, I learned to speak Krio, crashed a motorcycle four times in one day, suffered from malaria, typhoid, giardiasis, amoebic dysentery, and sunburn, ate hundreds of pounds of rice and cassava leaf, learned how cold it can get in the Loma mountains in December, saw devils, priests, and imams, made an incredible number of friends, heard unimaginable tales of wartime atrocities and resilience, and carved a huge place in my heart for this beautiful country. My goal in producing this multi-volume anthology for EarthCDs was to put Sierra Leone on the map of world music and highlight the diversity of styles amongst the nation's many ethno-linguistic groups. As far as I could tell, there had only been three international releases of traditional music from this remarkable West African nation: two on Ethnic Folkways and one on Ocora. Even if these LPs hadn't gone out of print a long time ago, there would still be a massive gap in representation on the world market. My anthology does not entirely fill the gap, but it is hopefully a good start. It is worth noting that only because of special nature of EarthCDs is it even possible to release a set of detailed musical portraits on this scale. There was no grant funding this project. The only way these musicians earn money and production costs can be recouped is through sales. Because of EarthCDs mission of exposing music that is not commercially viable, it is possible to dedicate an entire CD to each group instead of shortchanging them with one or two tracks on a compilation.
Sierra Leone spent the end of the 20th century in a brutal civil war, and although it was not my intention to make that a theme of these CDs, in retrospect, I can say it was inevitable. The war left no life untouched, and many musicians have taken it upon themselves to comment seriously on a subject that most people are reluctant to discuss. The memories are still very recent and quite painful, but overall, the artists I recorded had a positive and sometimes amazingly inspirational message to communicate in their songs. If I did my job well, their stories are told in a powerful way on the CDs and in the commentary and song translations you will find in the liner notes. So I want to take this opportunity to tell the story you won't find in the CD booklets: the story of how I recorded and produced these CDs.
I lived in Sierra Leone for 17 months in 2006-2007. My base was a town called Tintafor. I liked this location for a lot of reasons. Tintafor is a village of perhaps 1000 people in a semi-rural coastal area known as Lungi. The fact that the international airport is nearby has had a great impact on this region. Freetown is located on a mountainous peninsula, so they were forced to build the airport across a deep bay of water where the land is flat. During the war, many people from all over the country migrated to this area because it was relatively safe. The airport was defended first by ECOMOG (Nigerian force) and later by UNAMSIL (UN peacekeeping force), and there is a major police post there as well, so the surrounding area was never overrun by rebels. The result is that Lungi is one of the most ethnically diverse places outside of Freetown, and by living there I could easily meet people who had come from every region of the country and had knowledge of different music cultures from remote villages. These days, Lungi has an interesting mix of educated professionals, subsistence farmers, skilled craftsman, expats, and plenty of unemployed youth. I could say the same about Freetown (minus the subsistence farmers), but to live in Freetown I would have had to deal with noise, pollution, and overcrowding (and I'm not one of those people who loves New York City).
Being in Tintafor for 17 months meant that I could take my time producing the anthology. I didn't really seek out music. I usually just stumbled upon it, and when I found something good I would start spending time with the musicians. If I liked the music enough to make a major time investment, then I would ask them if they were interested in being featured on the next volume. Fortunately, everyone I asked gave me an enthusiastic response, although they all had different reasons for doing it. Most of them did not completely trust me at first, but over time that changed of course, and the relationships I developed with the musicians were an extremely rewarding aspect of this project. I became good friends with Musa Turay and Mohamed Kargboh, who appear on Volume 2. They lived a short bike ride from my house, where they planted swamp rice and cassava, harvested palm kernels, and tapped palm wine. Whenever I needed to "get away," I could always rely on their buffa for cool shade, quiet surroundings, and tasty poyo. It was during these times that I learned in bits and pieces about their songs and way of life. Once I went to Musa when I was sick from a particularly nasty case of typhoid that I couldn't seem to cure with the white man's drugs, as they call Ciprofloxacin and other tablets. He brewed some traditional medicine for me using pineapple skin and baby limes, and besides tasting great, it actually eradicated the typhoid. The night before I left the country, they came to my house and wished me well, assuring me that Allah would protect me on my journey.
Sorie Kondi of Volume 3 carved out a permanent place in my heart. Impossibly stoic, surprisingly down-to-earth, endlessly cheerful and witty...I can't say enough about this man. You can read more about his personal story on his website which my friend Todd Brown (videographer on my Cajón Espíritual and Obiní Batá DVDs) designed for him pro bono. Sorie Kondi was touring through Lungi when some locals kids who knew that I was into music brought him to me. I immediately recognized him as a talented musician, but he was planning to return to Freetown the next day. I recorded him live, playing solo kondi, that same night in a rather rushed manner. Fortunately the performance was brilliant, but a long time passed before I was able to touch base with him again. I found it impossible to stay in Freetown for more than a couple nights, and that hindered our relationship. But eventually I was able to bring him over to Lungi to stay with me, and it was then that Sorie Kondi just completely blew my mind. He gave me his life story, played kondi and sang into the wee hours of the night, and totally inspired me with the way he coped with his blindness. After that I tried to stay very involved with him. We recorded an album in my studio together and shot a music video in Freetown and Lungi for the song "Without Money, No Family." I took on the development of his career as my own responsibility because I realized music is his only chance to escape life-threatening poverty.
I also worked with some great partners during the course of this project. With each volume I needed a partner to help interpret the African languages and handle some of the logistics of the recording sessions. None of them had any experience doing this sort of work, but one thing besides diamonds that are in abundance in Sierra Leone is educated young people with the desire to work but no job opportunities. I had no problem finding competent partners who had a lot of time on their hands to help me out with translations and such. Their contributions were vital to the CDs. Naturally, I became close friends with these partners. I want to say a little bit about two of them here.
Foday P. Fofanah was one of the first people I met in Sierra Leone, and we went through just about everything together. Foday is one of the most intelligent people I've ever met. He is an avid reader, listens to the BBC World Service incessantly, and is a huge fan of Ronaldinho. His main hobby is memorizing facts and figures, partly just because he likes being well-informed, and partly because he has a passion for debate, and statistics serve him well in that regard. The BBC is pretty much the best thing that ever happened to him, considering that it is extremely difficult to find books, and internet access is out of the question. It took me a while to realize this, but once I did, I started avidly listening to the BBC myself. When I gave him a copy of Martin Meredith's massive post-colonial history of Africa, The State of Africa, which a British friend had brought from the UK, he devoured it. Unfortunately, to date, Foday is a sad case of wasted potential. Orphaned during the war, he became one of Freetown's street boys. He was taken in by Don Bosco Homes and the Salesians brought him to Lungi and sponsored his education through secondary school. But around the time he graduated top of his class, the Salesians lost their subsidy from the United States province and his hopes for going to college were dashed. Foday was my main assistant with Volumes 1-4. He also was greatly involved with Sorie Kondi and shows off his dancing skills in his video. You can email Foday.
Gabriel Demby is a fun-loving hipster on the outside, but deep down he is a mature guy who cares for his family. He's from a small Mende village called Njala, and during the planting season he returns there to help his mother with the farm work. A lot of young people in Lungi and Freetown seem unwilling to do farm work (I can't blame them- it's really hard), but Gabriel is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and break his back in the fields. Gabriel was trying to finish up secondary school while I was producing the anthology, but he found time to help me with Volumes 1 and 2. In December 2006, I took a motorcycle journey with him to Bo and his village, Njala, where I met his mother and younger brother. But our real adventure came when we went on the road together to record Volumes 6 and 7 in June 2007, for which he translated Mende to English.
Traveling by shared minivans can be uncomfortable and slow at best, and deadly at worst, but it does offer one the chance to meet and chat with people along the way. Motor-powered wooden boats called pampas are a bit more comfortable because there is much more space per passenger, but are perhaps more risky, especially during rainy season when tropical storms can suddenly appear. But we would have to use both to complete our voyage. Our first destination was Moyamba, a district headquarter town where Gabriel had some relatives who knew of a professional music and dance troupe. This group had met at the Clay Factory refugee camp in Freetown during the war, and provided the music for Volume 6. Our next destination was Bonthe. This old British colonial town is located on Sherbro Island, which is separated from the mainland by a 5 mile strait. Although the strait is narrow, most of the mainland coastline in that area is mangrove, so in order to get to Bonthe you must join a pampa from one of several river towns like Mattru, and take the pampa down the River Jong until it empties into the strait. If you've read the book A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, you will probably recognize Mattru as the town where Ishmael was living when he encountered his first rebel attack. In hindsight, we probably should have gone from Moyamba to Mattru, but looking at the map, it looked like a more direct route was through Yagoi, a smaller town on a tributary of the River Jong. So we hired two motorcycle drivers to take us there. We reached Yagoi after two flat tires but no serious hold-ups. June though, is the beginning of rainy season in Sierra Leone. The skies had been clear for the entire motorcycle ride, but just after reaching Yagoi it began to rain pretty hard. We took cover, and waited for the rain to pass. After an hour or so, it cleared up and the sun came out again. We were relieved since we would be boarding a boat, but when we inquired about when the boat would arrive, we were told that the boat to Bonthe had been cancelled that day, and it might be a couple of days before another one came. The only way to reach Bonthe would be to take a canoe five miles up the river, against the current, to another town called Momaya, where we would be able to join a pampa coming from Mattru.
I figured a map would be helpful to illustrate here:
I didn't feel very comfortable getting on a canoe with all my recording equipment. I had it wrapped in plastic and inside my backpack, but it wasn't waterproof and probably wouldn't have floated. But I prefer discomfort and risk to sitting around and waiting.
So, we asked the chief if we could hire a canoe and a canoeist from the village to take us to Momaya. The chief called a man for us. When he arrived at the beach we could see he was an expert paddler. He had body-builder biceps and shoulders, and his right arm was significantly shorter than his left arm. Presumably paddling every day of his life had caused his arms to grow to different but optimal lengths for the work. He brought an extra paddle, an umbrella and a couple of very short stools for me and Gabriel to sit on so that we wouldn't get wet from water that collected at the bottom of the canoe. And we set off. At first, we relaxed and let our hired man do the work. But after about 20 minutes, it started drizzling, so we decided to take turns using the second paddle so we could speed things up. Whoever wasn't paddling had to hold the umbrella over our backpacks. I tried paddling rather vigorously, but it seemed to only increase the speed of the canoe slightly. Apparently, our friend in the back with the huge biceps was providing most of the horsepower. Nevertheless, we persisted. But then the drizzle became a downpour. We propped up the backpacks on the stool to keep them dry, and used a calabash to scoop water out from the bottom of the canoe. And we paddled as fast as we could. Pulling over wasn't an option because we were surrounded by mangroves. The downpour lasted for an hour and then returned to a drizzle. When we reached Momaya, we were completely soaked. We opened our backpacks and found that all of our clothes were soaked as well. The water had found a way to seep in. Fortunately, the recording gear was dry inside the plastic. But we had nothing dry to change into, so we just had to wear our drenched clothes while we waited for the pampa to come from Mattru.
Gabriel had never been to Bonthe and didn't know anybody there, but some people we met in Moyamba had given us some names of friends who might be able to help us out once we got there with accommodations. We were hoping to arrive in Bonthe early in the day so that we would have plenty of time to sort out where we could sleep. But it just wasn't going to happen. We waited a long time for the Mattru pampa. It finally rolled into Momaya just after 5 pm. We boarded the boat with a mixture of excitement because we were finally going to make it, and apprehension because we were going to be arriving at dusk with no idea where we could sleep. But if there was one thing I had learned about travelling in Sierra Leone, it was that whenever it seemed that I might be in a bad situation, I would always run into somebody that would save me. You could call them angels. It had happened countless times before, and so I was holding out hope that it would happen again.
The pampa was covered with tarps to keep passengers and luggage dry. As I looked around the boat and saw that we were dripping wet and everybody else was bone dry, I felt a bit foolish for taking the shortcut to Yagoi but on the other hand, I knew that if we had gone from Moyamba to Mattru by vehicle, we would have missed this boat and had to have spent the night in Mattru. We were soaked, but at least we were getting to Bonthe in one day.
No more than 15 minutes passed before a young man approached me and introduced himself as Peter. He was curious about where we were coming from and what our plans were in Bonthe. Looking into his eyes, I had a feeling that he was going to be my angel for this trip.
We told him what we were up to, and he explained to us that he was from Freetown, but working for the National Electoral Commission (NEC) in Bonthe. Before that he had worked as a foreign contractor for the US Army in Iraq. He had made some good friends among the soldiers, and so he told me that he really liked Americans. At this point, I just knew he was an angel. And sure enough, he popped the question: "Do you guys have a place to stay in Bonthe?"
"Well, not yet, actually."
"I can show you a fine place for you to stay."
"OK, that would be great."
Peter must have been the angel shown in the manual which God distributes to all the other angels that He knows I will cross paths with on my journeys in Sierra Leone. When Peter said he would show us a fine place to stay, he meant that he would take us to the NEC house, give us his room and bed to sleep on, have someone bring us boiled cassava and fish to eat, give us his own dry clothes to wear until we could dry our own, and show us around the town. He also explained to us that we were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, and that he would do everything in his power to make sure we found one of the island's famous folk singers. The first night we were there he went to the radio station and had his friend broadcast an announcement over the air in Sherbro for one musician named Gbindi to come to Bonthe town the next day if he was interested in recording. Gbindi never came but we heard about a folk-singing duo a couple of days later who were performing for the paramount chief. We had to charter a boat to go find them, but everything worked out and we had an excellent recording session the following morning. And that duo of Ansumama Fai and Abdul Sheriff is what you hear on Volume 7. They weren't easy to find, but they were worth it!
After my journey to Bonthe, I decided that it was time to return to the United States, take respite, and work on releasing the first seven volumes. Doing the layout for the CD booklets wasn't nearly as much fun as traveling and recording music, but I hope that the liner notes provide a solid context for music that will be completely unfamiliar those of us not born in Sierra Leone, and that they help listeners better appreciate the music captured on these CDs. Eventually I would like to continue the series, as there are many ethnic groups I was not able to cover in just 7 volumes, like the Limba, Koranko, Kono, Fula, Mandingo, and Yalunka. I also teamed up with the People's Educational Association of Sierra Leone to write a grant proposal to collect traditional music and stories on a large scale for the purpose of rebuilding their archive which was burned down during the RUF invasion of Freetown in 1999. The proposal includes a plan to release some of the material internationally. For now I am observing what sort of response the first seven volumes will get. If you have any feedback, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'd love to hear from you.
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