As my West African deejaying debut approaches, I try to reassure myself by remembering some of the big African gigs I’d pulled off back in New York, especially the late night weekend shifts I’d done at Harlem’s center for African music, Shrine Bar, where the locals gave me the nickname “D.J. White Boy.”
When it comes to my mixing African music, getting a gig in Sierra Leone brings me around full circle. On my first trip to Africa, I had traveled through the country during the early stages of the civil war (a scene of civil war from the 1990s at right), in my late teens, on assignment with the Red Cross. Aside from seeing a number of unfortunate things related to the conflict, my time in Sierra Leone was largely positive and influential. This and the tremendous charm and hospitality shown by the Sierra Leonean people, even in their own time of trial, have pulled me back several times as a writer, documenting the country’s post-war progress. Thankfully, the war ended in 2001 and modern Sierra Leone is overwhelmingly peaceful. The country has a democratically elected president, Ernest Bai Koromo, and the capital, Freetown, is popping with tremendous energy and commercial activity. Nearly all the buildings that were destroyed or damaged during the war have been repaired or rebuilt and the ex-combatants, including former child soldiers, have been disarmed and many rehabilitated. This is quite different from my first experience there with armed checkpoints, curfews, soldiers with AK-47s and RPGs, and Nigerian Alpha Jets flying bombing runs overhead.
As someone who has always loved music, my first real exposure to African beats in Sierra Leone planted in me a permanent allure for sounds of the continent. To say that music is central in Sierra Leonean culture would be one of those patent understatements. In Freetown (downtown shown at left), music is the heartbeat of the capital. Anywhere you are—the downtown quarter, the markets by the ocean, the old wooden Creole houses, the shanty dwellings and slums along the city’s low areas, the big houses in the hills, in the taxi cabs and poda poda vans packed to the brim, churches, the national stadium, the local primary schools, every restaurant, café, gas station, and kerosene-lit roadside stand—there is always African and reggae-driven music playing in Sierra Leone. It’s the backdrop to everything that happens, a pleasant soundtrack for all people living there, and an escapist one for those living in challenging circumstances.
While I try to avoid stressing it, one can’t get away from noting that Sierra Leone is tremendously challenged by socio-economic standards. After living through 10 years of war, most citizens still live far below the poverty level. There are few real jobs and only recently did any part of the country have electricity. Only a small number have the opportunity to go to any form of school and for most, life is a day-to-day struggle of making ends meet on the streets, peddling whatever they can. Music helps keep people’s spirits up, appeals to a subtle romantic side of Sierra Leonean culture (there are always one or two hit ballads du jour playing non-stop throughout the country), and also serves as an outlet for discontent with a government that often appears more intent on serving itself than its people. A new generation of local musicians in Sierra Leone has become outspoken critics of corrupt politicians, most notably artist Emmerson Bockarie (right), whose album and songs helped sway the last national election.
On my first trip to Sierra Leone, this constant stream of vibrant music, juxtaposed to all that is West Africa, struck me like a beam. I recall a visit to the market near Freetown’s Wilberforce Street, with dozens of young music vendors, their tapes and CDs strung along the walls and streets, songs pumped out on car battery-powered radios. There, I purchased a variety of music, all which became an introduction and foundation to music of Africa and its diaspora. This was the first time I’d heard Soukous and artists like Kanda Bongo Man, Koffi Olimide, and Papa Wemba. I took home my first Caribbean dancehall CDs (Shabba Ranks, Tanto Metro) and heard African reggae legends like Alpha Blondy and Lucky Dube. Sierra Leone was my African Music 101.
About the author: Jake Bright (shown at left in Sierra Leone in the 1990s) is a writer and D.J. in New York. Portions of this piece first ran on Afropop Worldwide.