"When the great court gathered…"
Salia Koroma, M.A., O.R.R.S.L.
Salia’s contribution to the cultural heritage of Sierra Leone is a well-established fact today, evidenced by the award of two honours before the singer’s passing. The first recognition was a civil decoration in the early1980’s. About a decade later, a few years before his death, Salia was awarded an honorary M.A. by the University of Sierra Leone. In a 1985/86 Government of Sierra Leone publication, Salia Koroma was listed among the 50 people who’ve contributed to the forging of Sierra Leone as a nation and to that of a distinct Sierra Leonean cultural identity.
Heady stuff for the nine-year old boy who’d left his native Njaluahun in 1912 in search of a father he believed would enrol him in one of the many mission schools that were sprouting all over Mende country at the turn of the century. For his school Salia was handed an accordion and told to go play for the Samanga, the Worthies of Mendeland.
With a hot warrior in your camp you go into battle without trembling If national and academic honours came late in his life, Salia’s unique abilities were recognised right from the start in Mende country itself. And to this day he remains the single most favoured singer. It was quite common to hear contemporaries of the singer, our grandparents who spoke no other language but Mende, say this about Salia Koroma: “But the man knows the Mende language,” or “What a clever man.” What they noticed in what we thought was old people’s music was Salia Koroma’s artistic use of Mende, his ability to say so much in a little turn of a phrase. But Salia’s primary audience were the chiefs and their courts, whose patronage, it would appear from the internal evidence of the songs, he didn’t have to seek. That’s how hot an artist he was. But such an evidence would be self-serving, wouldn’t it? So we’ll close with a quote from Gary Schulze, who recorded Salia Koroma in 1962 for the Smithsonian Folkway Label (liner notes):
Salia Koroma, a man in his fifties,is one of the best known Mende singers in all of Sierra Leone. His instrument, the accordion, is of western import, but his songs deal with traditional themes of love, war, and death.He often reverts to a classical form of the Mende language not always readily understood by the younger generation.When Salia appears in a chiefdom, people journey from many miles around to hear him. He travels in his own Land-Rover, is in great demand by the Paramount Chiefs of Mendeland, and has made many commercial recordings of his songs, which he composes himself.