Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Musical Instruments

Pa Sam's wife Massa playing segburreh on Dama Road in Kenema

I am certainly not well-versed in the instruments and music of Sierra Leone but I know and remember what I liked. I was most fond of the "Mende Sing, " as noted in previous postings. The Mende women's music was (as I have said) haunting to me in its strikingly beautiful harmony, its patient and soothing rhythm, and the way it was portrayed. I was also struck by how these songs wove their way into every woman's life - each woman knew every song - its harmony - and the words. I suppose this might be true of any culture's music, but for me the Mende Women's music was beautiful. Most often - during the times when there would be spontaneous get-togethers on the veranda across the road - the leader (most often Bonya) would sing acapella (no instruments were used). The songs were slow in cadence at times - the harmonies in minor key. When there were more celebratory times a Segbureh (or shake-shake) would be used to mark the cadence. The segbureh was most often a women's instrument in Mendeline. I remember no other instruments that the Mende women used. The Mende men I less commonly observed singing. During the Kenema Trade Fair or what was best known as the Kenema Cacao Show the men would be more obvious using their hollowed slit logs that were called Kellei to beat the cadence this often accompanied by either native or European drums. [please see Nikiibu's communication below]. In one picture of Falwi below there is an attendant, dressed in netting, who is carrying the Jeke or men's shake-shake] The men's music was strong, and again with beautiful harmonies, but perhaps to my ear more harsh then the women's music. On occasion there was a metallic-sounding instrument used but this was - I think - more common in our area to the Loko men. I do not remember what the name of this instrument was called. The Mende rarely used stringed instruments with their traditional music although as exemplified by S.E. Rogers, many had no trouble transcending traditions in their participation in what was known as "High Life" music of West Africa or "palm wine music". Another Mende man, and his father before him, named Salia Koroma (see prior postings) used the accordion in his very creative poetry set to song. But for the most part - stringed instruments did not seem to be traditional to the Mende. The Fula (known elsewhere in West Africa as Fulani) did have a number of stringed instruments which had the appearance of gourd-like banjos (the forerunner of the banjo in the U.S.). The Fula also palyed a flute-like instrument. I never did know names of instruments other than what the Mende played. There may have been other northern ethnic groups such as the Mandingo and Susu who played such instruments. The Mandingo (and perhaps Susu as well) used a wooden and gourd instrument resembling the xylophone which was called a Balanji.
I spent a total of about 1.5 weeks in Kuranko country and had the luck of being in the village of Sokurella in March 1970 when there was a very fine celebration one evening while we were there. People from around the area (it was quite remote in the Loma Mountains) came to this get-together. It was at this time that their Bondo initiates were "coming out" and on one night there was spectacular singing, dancing, and music. I remember mainly percussion instruments but do not remember there being any stringed or other instruments. The celebration lasted late into the night - I never was able to find out what it was due to. I was impressed by how inclusive people were - as we were strangers in the area but were to some degree included in the activities. Sokurella was a small village of perhaps 100 inhabitants. That night there may have been 1000 visitors.
As Peace Corp volunteers in training we were very lucky to have had several opportunities to see what in those days was known as The Sierra Leone Dance Troupe. This award winning group made up of all the ethnic groups in Sierra Leone including my introduction to in-country music as we first saw them in July 1968 while training in Freetown. We all were so impressed by what we saw. Every group was represented. There was also traditional dance and acrobatics performed by both men and women. We all left that night feeling hypnotized by the wonderfully accomplished Troupe.
Much to our surprise, while we lived in Putney, Vermont the Sierra Leone Dance Troupe came to Burlington, Vermont to perform. We were able to obtain tickets and watch a wonderful performance there - this taking place in 1971. I remember being so excited to see them again - I wore a garrah tie-died shirt up there to identify with "my fellow coutrymen and women." For Susan and I this felt like a family reunion. Here we were, one year away from our Peace Corps days and already feeling "homesick."
One final impression was how daily life in up-country Sierra Leone was always accompanied by a background beat that made getting through the day for folks just that much easier. From the man brushing his farm, to the women at work in the kitchen using mortar and pestle to seperate the rice from its husk, there was always a background of cadence to the day and sometimes even to the night.

A very interesting blog that is worth looking at is:
this site shows some of the West African roots to American music and the banjo
for a great blog site about Mende accordionist and singer Salia Koroma check out this site:
Also worth listening to is S.E. Rogers

Or for Salia Koroma (Thanks to see

and for two examples of music, in this site click on Mende women's society song and also click on Mende slit drum and horn ensemble :


NIKIIBU said...

Hi there, Chad!
Great posting there, as usual.Keen observer! I read the previous posts on the 'devils' and the Fair (Cacao Show, as they were popularly known in the '70s and 80s, and probably before that). Didn't have time to leave any comments, though. I'll stick with this posting.
Here, as in the last posting, you referred to the slit-drum as jeke. Jeke is a sort of shake-shake that a Falui (or Falwi, in the koh-Mende dialect) attendant would shake each time the Falwi speaks its esoteric phrases and that the attendant interpretes into Mende. The slit drum's called Kellie (singular noun, indefinite; kellei, sing.,definite noun).
"Me like very much!"(Smile)

Chad Finer - said...

I stand corrected and now remember that what I was thinking of was indeed the Kellei. after 40 year my Mende has evolved into odd aberrations I am sure since the only person that I have to speak to in Mende is myself and I am not a very good speaker to begin with. I so appreciate your input - you clearly have a very knowledgable undertsanding of the wonderful Mende culture and its language. Please - when you have the time make the corrections for this my old memories.

sophia said...

I am thankful for the new things I learned reading your post. I have been reading a lot on here and have picked up some great ideas.


Ben said...

Dear Chad,

At the moment I am doing an internship at a recordlabel in the Netherlands, specialized in world music. Currently, we are working on a CD for which we are collaborating with Cootje van Oven, an ethnomusicologist: she has recorded over 450 songs in Sierra Leone before, during and after the period you were there. Currently we are selecting songs and analysing her fieldnotes.

I was wondering if you by any chance met her there, heard of her, were present when she recorded... I know she also worked with the Peace corps for a while...

was just wondering; if so, do send me a mail:, if you will. Thanks


Ben said...

BTW; I know Sierra Leone is big. But she has also recorded numerous songs in Mede villages in the exact district you were at.