“The Man O’War Brings News of Death”

To the Memory of the Widows of WWI.

I’d always believed, until I watched an interview recorded in his compound a couple of years before his death, that Salia’s Manawa had its genesis in the Second World War. How wrong I was!

When we were growing up, as children in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the mythologies of the Burma Campaign that surrounded us: Myohuang and the march down the Kaladan Valley; the heroics of Sao Gbemeh who, the story went, silenced a stubborn gunner in a Japanese  bunker. We saw veterans of the Second World War (and wrongly and romantically invested others who had never been to war with  that status, simply because they were of our grandparents’ generation and had what we thought was a military bearing). One of these veterans was quite a character: foppishly curled moustache, military medals clinking against his chest, straight as a pole when he walked (or marched, we used to say). The First World War was too distant, with no local stories to accompany it, to give it contour and colour.

Naval ratings parading past Law Courts, Freetown, 1944. (Imperial War Museum, London)

And because World War 2 was still so present I’d associated the song Manawa with it for the longest time. But we learn that this song taps into Salia’s boyhood memories. In a 1993 interview Salia Koroma gave the background to the song, explaining that it was a dirge composed by the widows of the Great War (or the ”Kaiser’s War,”  in Mende).  Salia, being a young accordionist still honing his craft when that war ended, was quite willing to try any song; ready-made songs would have been welcome. But because the theme was difficult he reworked it to give it a lighter touch. For the women it was Maledi, but he decided to call his version of that song Manawa. We don’t know if the original went beyond the lines: “Rapscallion that you are, get away from me/You and your string of troubles, get away from me,” but from then on you can tell it’s all Salia.

We learn from the song that, for one, the Colonial Authorities didn’t bother informing relatives of the death of their loved ones who had gone to fight the Kaiser in Togoland (present-day Togo). The wives (because the song is from the point of view of a wife to other wives) had to fortify themselves in the eventuality that the news was bad. The next few lines lament the fate of a woman without a provider and a protector. Salia casts himself as a too forward suitor who thinks he’s losing nothing by trying his chance.

''You whose husband went to war/Down some raffia palm wine;/ Manawa brings news of Death."

I hope to post a translation of the 1947 recording of the song in the near future. In the mean time enjoy this last, live version.


Posted on November 11, 2010, in Salia Koroma and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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