Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Music I heard

There was no reggae in those days. There was no rap music. In those days there was "High-Life" and its offshoot known as "Palm Wine Music." There was also the music of Salia Koroma - who was a poet-troubadour and who seemed to be out there by himself with his accordion music box and his wonderful incite into the complexities of Mende life. His complex pieces and observations were only understood by the real students of Mende. As for me, I enjoyed how it sounded, and what it meant to those who were in the know, but I had little understanding except when my Mende friends would help me out. And of course there was Traditional Music, both the "religious" that was part of the Bondo, and the secular that was part of upcountry, everyday life. Across the road lived Bonya and her singing about everyday life and its struggles, and about the Bondo, was spectacular. Her voice was haunting, the responsive harmonies were also haunting. A moonlit night might be spent out on her veranda listening to her and her followers sing these wonderfully traditional songs (in Mende). I understood little of it, yet the music grabbed hold of me. It was eery and beautiful. The harmonies were so intricate and interesting. Bonya had a beautiful voice. And the women who would sing with her responded to her leadership with beautiful voices of their own. At night, we heard music coming from a nearby "bar" known as Jattu's Bar. This was high life - which mostly came from Nigeria although there was some that originated from Sierra Leone. And at night, on my shortwave radio I would pick up exotic sounding music from Guinea, or from Mali. I liked High Life for its beat, for its fun. Much of this music was what the younger Sierra Leone crowd was listening and dancing to. But always in the background of upcountry Sierra Leone was the rhythm of traditional music. Historic in its grip on upcountry people, whether one was out working on the farm, or in the back kitchen husking rice with mortar and pestle, the rhythm was out there and part of the daily beat of life. Young folks might deny their knowledge of it, and religious folks might pretend to frown on it, but traditional music always caused folks to pause when it was around...and in me, this white man paused also...and I grew to love it. It made me dizzy at times with its power. It made me want to be a part as it became more of a surrounding force to my daily upcountry life, and it always made me pause to listen and watch. To this day I can vividly remember the listening, the watching as folks sang, and how I felt as I listened to this wondrous music...for me it was the best.

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