New Ideas for Changing Times
I wrote in the previous post that I’d revisit the song “Ko Sao” to clarify issues raised by the singer, or rather to give context to the song. I’d attempt that here.
I wrote in the posting First Among Equals that Salia Koroma was born just seven years after Governor Cardew promulgated his protectorate over the land lying outside the Sierra Leone Colony. That Salia Koroma lived well into his tenth decade made him a witness to and an actor in the many changes that were to occur in Mende society. This longevity, spanning the early British influences in the hinterland, spanning Independence, coups and counter-coups and the start of the civil war, permitted Salia Koroma to see value systems evolve and change.
“Since they brought in this N.A., how the princes have sunk into deep slavery:” Among these changes were those that directly impacted on the system of hierarchical relationships that had existed before the Protectorate. First to be targeted were the powers wielded by the chiefs; larger political units were carved up, or vassal units of a large chiefdom were granted outright autonomy on the basis that their chiefs had “signed” treaties of friendship. Next to be targeted was the system of domestic slavery that had been the main source of princely wealth. The 1927 (yes, that recently!) Abolition Ordinance brought an end to slavery in what was then the Protectorate. At about the same time, what we know today as the N.A. system was brought in, effectively making chiefs functionaries of the colonial system ( and then the central government today.) There were cosmetic changes as well: whereas the symbol of princely office in Mendeland had been the ceremonial ivory tusk(buli), the colonial system issued each chief a staff as the new symbol, a pale imitation of the royal sceptre that obtained (obtains) in Britain. Things haven’t changed with Independence.
“Since Freetown came, this Sierra Leone, everyone’s a freeman:” These changes in power relationships were to have profound effects on society at large. There were educational opportunities as well as economic opportunities opened up by the colonial system to all in society, changes that helped define a new pattern of ties and kinship. Between freemen and former slaves, between husbands and wives, and between parents and children new power relationships were in negotiation. The chiefs could no longer be the only wealthy people in society. Trade and mining could now make every Lahai, Vamboi and Vandi a somebody. And with the advent of national politics, government ministers and even backbench M.P.s could give the chiefs a run for their money as to who best can give favours. Serious competition!
Children could strike out on their own, far away from the native village and make a life for themselves. An industrious wife in the countryside could gain a level of financial autonomy by gathering palm kernels and selling these at a produce store in the next town. Authority at all levels was, if not threatened, at least in an unstable stage of renegotiation as a direct result of the new shifts in societal and individual attitudes. The railway and the lorry made the first restless horde of young people criss-crossing the country feel themselves to be colonial governors or District Commissioners (D.C.’s) ‘going on patrol,’ touring the counrty.
This is what Salia Koroma made the very stuff of his songs:the realities of the individual and those of the community at times intersecting, often barely touching. These shifts were to become the context in which Salia, as an artist, worked, and these were to become the very content of his work. To do otherwise would’ve made his work irrelevant.
A New Language for the New Man: “Ko Sao” picks up new language to reflect a new reality. Only alien words would adequately bespeak an alien attitude: ‘Patrol’ (travel), ‘Fit-yai’ (Krio, to disrespect). And the overarching language would be money, penneh (penny, money). For the singer, his attitude as an individual in the new reality of colonialism is grounded in the symbolically vivid language and vision of his beloved Mende country: “Folo geh loh a ngevo…” (The sun’s end is the dry season…) Each term of the comparision makes the careful listener ask, shouldn’t it be the other way round? Perhaps Salia Koroma asked himself that question, because in later compositions, he, this gifted artist, could no longer find his being and purpose in his patron. He becomes the thorn that makes the chiefs, the branches, dreaded; and the patron can only be considered important because Salia Koroma sang for them.
Attitudes had indeed changed.