First Among Equals
What made Salia Koroma stand out among his peers? There were other accomplished Mende musicians during the many decades that Salia Koroma lived, but for some reason these musicians’ singing careers were for the most part rather short. Or rather, their time on the national stage was short. I can name here Isata Nyambe and Gbakie in the 1960s and 1970s.In the 1980s and early 1990s there were Ami Kallon and Jenneh Koroma. And all these musicians sang in the same balladry tradition of Salia Koroma.
But for popularity and sheer length of career Salia Koroma outshone each and every one of them. And he was as popular with notables as he was with commoners because his material had a richness that surpassed that of the others, a lyricism that still astounds the listener today.
Precisely on account of the time of his birth, his longevity, and because of the length of his career, Salia Koroma bridged the gap between pre-colonial and post-colonial Mende country in its balladeering tradition. Salia was the transmitter of that tradition in more than a figurative way, having been handed the baton by his minstrel father who had in all likelihood served the chiefs of pre-Protectorate Mende country. One shouldn’t forget that the British Protectorate over the hinterland of Sierra Leone was only seven years old when Salia was born, so that when Bobboi Kandoh handed his boy Salia Koroma that accordion he was effectively handing over to the 9-year old the language, expressions, experiences and world view of pre-1896 Mendeland. Every Salia Koroma composition is a foray into a world that had virtually disappeared, hence the difficulty of the language.
An Overview of Salia Koroma’s themes: Salia Koroma relates the past to an evolving society, exploring at the same time, however blindly, the future. His songs are woven out of the substance of experience, reflecting on the relationships existing between humans, between humans and a world that exists beyond the visible and the concrete world around them. Christian and Islamic ideas had intruded into the Mende world by Salia’s birth, but their influences are hardly felt in Salia Koroma’s songs. Salia counted himself a muslim; however, the Mende perception of the spirit world is prominent (if not the only one) in Salia’s songs. In effect, the idea of a partly seen, partly unseen cosmology rooted in an authentic African experience (expressed in a language that channels that experience) precludes every other world view in Salia’s songs.
The songs as individual artistic expressions thereby become a residue of past human experiences as well as a treasury of social values in a world in full mutation. And the social values are what, exactly? Courage, industry, open-handed generosity and an ethos of communal goodwill; duty and deference to family and authority.
Contrasted with that is the individualism that undermines and that often negates the older values. Salia Koroma, however, wasn’t hypocritical enough to count himself always on the side of the older tradition, having participated fully in the new independence occasioned by the crumbling ‘feudal’ system that had existed prior to the advent of the Protectorate. (My next Salia post will illustrate these points with a ‘video’ montage of a complete Salia Koroma composition.)
I’ll close this post (and this Themes section) by adding that the songs (Songs of Old Age? Songs of Experience?) underline the pitiful loneliness of old age, the irony of man’s tragic condition of suffering and death played against a decor of vaingloriousness. The adventurer (I’m still talking about Salia Koroma, our minstrel), at the end of a long, hectic existence, now witnessing the passing away of one esteemed patron after the other, ponders his own mortal condition and declares that it wasn’t worth it.
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**For the photo at the top of this page, I’d wish to thank Chad Finer at Sierra Leone I 1968-70, who’s granted me permission to use his Salia Koroma picture. I’ve taken the liberty to crop the original for the purposes of this post. I shall put up the full picture at a later date. Chad Finer served in the Peace Corps in Kenema in the 1960s, where he took this picture of Salia Koroma in 1969 (Salia would’ve been in his mid to late sixties).