Defence Case: Exhibit A
I promised in my last posting to lay a reasonable Salia Koroma claim to the ‘authorship’ of the Yohmeh or ballad published in “free translation” in the March 1948 issue of Man. In the absence of Dr Little’s research papers, a reasonable claim is all I can make here; but I think there’re enough clues in the article and my own research to believe Salia our Mende musician.
Where in the world is…? Little’s “middle Mende country” comprises some six chiefdoms in present day Bo District. One of these is the Bumpeh Ngawo Chiefdom, about 13 miles west of Bo Town. Now, from the evidence of the book published in 1951 we know that Dr Little passed some research time in that chiefdom. Right about that time a young Paramount Chief, a chief who was to have the most influence as a patron on Salia’s career, was the chief. That Paramount Chief was Kposowa, a former teacher, at once modern and very respectful of old chiefly traditions. Salia and his patron were about the same age and from the first time they met at a durbar they had a special bond. This is apocryphal, but it’s said that PC Kposowa called his sub-chiefs and elders and presented his special musician, Salia, asking them to accord the musician, wherever he may find himself in that chiefdom, the respect they’d give the PC himself. (It was in this same chiefdom that Gary Schulze, quoted in an earlier post, recorded Salia and noted him touring in his own Land-Rover. I’d believe that the Land-Rover was the chief’s.) The relationship between patron and artist lasted for over twenty years, until the chief’s passing. It was probably this chief and his court that Little saw been regaled by the accordionist in the evenings.
The One & Only: Of course in Mende country itself, there’s always been one accordionist: Salia. That may not have been the case in reality, but older people I asked some years back couldn’t come up with any other name. Salia said his father had pupils but it would seem that these didn’t make a career of their learning, perhaps because they saw little future in the life of a minstrel in the new Protectorate. Salia himself gave up playing full-time for a short period, taking the train to the Colony and joining the colonial police force in Freetown. He returned to the Protectorate shortly before the outbreak of World War II and settled down to what his father had wanted of him from the start. It was this short sojourn in the colony that was the obvious inspiration for the prelude of the ballad that was to fascinate Dr Little and others. Hanging up his uniform to return to the hinterland, Police Constable 377 Salia Koroma could compare Town and Country in the most vividly poetic and personal way. And if there’s anything about a Salia composition, it’s the prominence given to the singer’s personal life and experiences. No other Mende singer did (does) that. But I’m already anticipating the next piece of evidence!
*The photo is of the 1961 Independence Chiefs’ Durbar, held on the occasion of the Queen’s visit that year. Durbars or chiefs’ assemblies were a feature of the British Protectorate. A section of Bo, Durbar Grounds, is named for those chiefs’ conventions. Photo:(c) Sierra Leone Web.