Salia Koroma:”Bed-wetter that I am…”
Those familiar with Salia’s music are aware of the epic length of some of his compositions. It’s common to hear a song that lasts over thirty minutes (Fishing is a good example). To listen to these songs, to understand and to appreciate them one needs a very patient ear. Now, why the lengthy compositions?
One reason has to do with the need to tell a story. The narrative usually has a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue’s a set of verses, that on the surface, has little to do with the narrative that follows. Only on the surface, because the listener has to query this prologue to get at the hidden meaning in the verses.The prologue anticipates the thematic arc of the story. If we take the composition Fishing for our Father as an example, we ask, what has “Fire! Fire! No escape here…” to do with the story of fishing that’s to follow? And why does that line and variants of it keep coming up at various spots in the song? These ‘reprises’ are like milestones along the way, marking the distance travelled, and telling the listener that there’s a destination ahead. These are things to keep in mind as one listens; they’re questions that need asking all along. But I’m aware that we don’t always anaylse the things we hear/read.
As for the epilogue, it ties everything together; it’s usually a ‘moral’ that he, the narrator/adventurer, has drawn from his travels. In this case, it’s an individual ‘lesson’ (if that’s the word to use) that the narrator has learnt, and certainly not a universal sort of “don’t do this/do this.”
Secondly, these songs are lengthy because of the circumstances surrounding the performances. In other words, one must remember that these songs were performed as entertainment for the patrons and their guests when they sat in the evenings. These entertainments would stretch on for hours. Such gatherings, then, by their very nature, encouraged these long ballads; patrons and guests had the time to listen to compositions like these.
It was gatherings like these that Dr Little witnessed while he was on fieldwork which led him to extrapolate on the state of chiefly entertainment in pre-Protectorate Mendeland (Man, March 1948, No. 26):
Every chief worthy of the name had his band of mercenaries and employed in addition a number of male musicians. Part of the duty of the latter was to regale the chief and his warriors when they sat carousing in the evening; the entertainment provided included a traditional form of song, known as the Yohmeh, which has a certain similarity to the European ballad. It consists of a set of verses, and narrates, though in a jocose manner, some popular story or set of events and experiences well known to the listener.
Many Salia compositions give an idea of these gatherings. Also, in many songs Salia Koroma refers to himself, rather boastfully, as “Bed-wetter.” The Mende expression he uses is slightly stronger than the translation “Bed-wetter;” the term Salia uses gives the idea of more than a single episode of bed-wetting. Instead, it’s of a constant, all-night wetting that keeps the parent up until the break of day. That’s how he saw his marathon nights with his patrons. He seemed to be saying that if they wanted his visits they should be prepared to forego sleep.
“Bed-wetter” as a metaphor, then, explains almost everything there’s to know about the length of some of his songs.