A Case for the Prosecution
Salia Koroma? ‘Mende Singer,’ Please: In March 1948, 60 years ago this year, Kenneth Little published a “free translation” of a song by a Mende singer in the “service of a chief in middle Mende country.” Three years later he’d publish The Mende of Sierra Leone. That 1948 article was quite logically an outgrowth of his research for the 1951 book. Of course Dr Little was mum on the identity of this musician who “accompanied himself on an accordion” and sang “a traditional form of song known as the Yohmeh, which has a certain similarity to the European ballad.”
That the singer’s name wasn’t mentioned at all is indicative of the anthropologist’s main interest in the people he “investigated” (to use his own term). Our Liverpudlian detective had tracked down a source but in the interest of the case, the exhibit should be presented without divulging the source. The informant, in the jargon of the discipline, goes into The Witness Protection Programme, the reason for which the jury are left scratching their heads. But it’s clear to those in the investigation business: The musician could’ve been only representative of tribal life and his song an artefact of tribal production, exemplifying, in Little’s words, “a prominent cultural pattern in Mende life.” After all, Anthropology, this science of the primitive, for and by the civilised seeks to define a whole society; its seeks to bring out “a pattern.” To do that, the particular is portrayed as the universal; the artist, an individual with his idiosyncratic observation of his own society is projected as the norm. And the informant, quite obviously for his own protection, is sent off to wander down an ever-narrowing tunnel of cracked mirrors set up by the Detective Sub-Inspector.
Salia ‘goes on patrol’ down the tunnel: Dr Little had no idea just how narrow that tunnel would get. In 1966 Leonard W. Doob published an excerpt from Dr Little’s article as a “Mende Poem,” a very lax title, if you can imagine one. Given what ‘Sub-Inspector’ Little had handed him, Doob perhaps had few options as to the choice of titles. Or perhaps he’d painted himself into a very tight corner by the title of his collection of poems. No matter! Other publications would take that and run away with it, all of them fixated on the poetic prelude of the ballad.
For me, though, taking the cake was a book full of irony as it was with utter ignorance, and this for something that was ostensibly to impart knowledge and awareness. In the 1990s an anthology of poems for secondary schools was in use in Sierra Leone. The title of that precious anthology escapes me now; I gave it nothing more than a passing glance then. In any case, I was leafing through this book one day. It had the usual suspects of first and second generation African poets writing in European languages: your David Diops, your John Pepper-Clarkes, etc. Well, there, on a page all its own, sticking out in its monstrous anonymity was… Of course, it was our “Mende Poem!”
The girl who owned the book had no idea who the composer was, and her teacher hadn’t told the class, quite obviously being as ignorant as his/her charges. Did she believed me when I told her who the composer of the ‘poem” was, that he was now an old man living about 250 miles from where she was in Freetown?
How could she have known, poor girl, drunk on everything but what belongs to her? Our investigating officer, who had also prosecuted the case for the Crown, had presented the case he wanted. In the process, recognition had been withheld from whomever it was due. Case closed, what else do you want?
Yes, that Salia. Get him out of there! I’ll be laying out the case that the “singer…in the service of a chief in middle Mende country” was none other than Salia Koroma. It’s going to be a meticulously pieced-together case that I’ll be presenting. I can’t do it justice at a go. So it’s going to be little piece by little piece. To close my case I’ll present that famous “Mende” poem, as composed and sung by Salia Koroma. I’ll say: “Behold!” Or more appropriately: “Hark!”