Category Archives: Mende Gendei
I’m going ahead to post another Mende Gendei, albeit this one a live performance. In my previous post I mentioned that he had sung the truncated version before he was asked to perform the longer version with its litany of chiefs. This is that shorter version.
Of his numerous compositions, was Mende Gendei Salia’s favourite “accordion tune”? This is a question that needs asking. If it wasn’t, then
it would appear that he put aside any concerns about it being a burden and eventually embraced the popularity of this particular composition.
And of his many compositions, this is the most “textually” consistent across all versions ( and Salia’s compositions are very consistent across versions). Had Salia been a man who could read and write, I’d have arrived at the conclusion that he had written down the text of this song and that he was singing off a piece of paper. (To which he would naturally have responded, “And what white paper is that?”) The one line that is different (perhaps because the audio is better here) is : “The Rice Barn’s end are the Supporting Pillars,” where the others sound like: “The Forest’s end are the Trees.”
Or it could be that I just need to have my hearing checked. Tell me what you hear in the different versions.
There’s a piece in the oeuvre of every artist that is at once a blessing and a curse: a song, a poem, a novel, a painting that somehow manages to be everyone’s favourite. This is the work to which they’re constantly brought back, the one work they’re required, in spite of themselves, to sing, to recite, to read, to comment on, to explicate, to contemplate, every single time. And being regarded as Master and Creator, the artist knows (or senses, at the very least) that the request to revisit “everyone’s favourite” comes with an implied challenge to their creativity. So that at the heart of every request is the need on the part of the artist to defend their work. For Salia Koroma, that work was Mende Gendei.
In the video I’m posting Salia is being asked to perform the long (full?) version of the song. (Earlier in the interview he’d been asked to play the same song and he had obliged with his usual truncated version. And one thing is for sure: you’ll feel cheated until you’ve heard the longer version of Mende Gendei with its litany of Paramount Chiefs that have passed on. It could be that everyone likes to be reminded that vanity is vanity.) Here (for the record), he defends the length of his career and the integrity of his creativity.
We’ll continue here our examination of Mende Gendei as a lyrical and very coherent articulation of what it means to be alive, what its is to experience human triumph, to grow old, and to know that death is a certainty. However one chooses to attend to the song, it aims to speak directly to the careful listener.
This second part of the 1980 version of the song is a forthright address to the hosting chairman of the OAU Summit, President Siaka Stevens. Success doesn’t mean that one has a more favoured relationship with God. And in the Mende world view, two relationships matter more than the others in the hierarchy of family relationships: 1) father-son, and 2) uncle-nephew/niece (in which the word ‘uncle’ is understood to refer to the mother’s brother and male cousin).
Therefore, having no special relation with God, the successful person assumes the right attitude of humility in relation to other people, even the humble musician. And if the successful person wields political power, there’s the temptation to accrue to oneself god-like powers. Salia cautions against this.
Then comes the blow. Our troubadour chooses to mourn the president whilst he’s still alive, to remind him of the grave that awaits him, that other wealthy, powerful and historical people have not been able to escape the fate that awaits all men. To underline his point, Salia Koroma gives a litany of chiefs that have gone on.
Some in this litany of chiefs have their lineages mentioned three generations back. Given the constraints of his artistic discipline, Salia can only give so much. No matter! This is an effort to urge the historically curious to dig a little deeper into their own history:
“Kai Samba, the Father of the people of Nongowa, did pass on/ In the same way as had his grandmother, Humonya.”
In doing this, Salia is simply giving a history lesson to his audience. Salia is linking Paramount Chief Kai Samba to the pre-Protectorate King Nyagua, who had inherited from his father Faba a kingdom which encompassed the whole of present-day Kenema District, part of Kono District, part of Kailahun District and portions of Pujehun District. Salia is telling the listener that if you go backward in time, Kai Samba goes back to Madam Humonya, to her mother Madam Matolo, to Matolo’s husband Faba, to Nyagua, Faba’s son and inheritor, to the great warriors who had fashioned the Kpanguma State more than two hundred years before. (My thanks to the Kenema District Development Association website, History of Kenema, Arthur Abraham).
Salia in this litany is very much walking the listener through a cemetary, pointing to graves with no headstones, saying names and stories that transcend time and space: “That’s Demby over there; that’s his brother, and their father’s over there, and the grave you see over there reclaimed by the forest and time is Honna, their grandfather. You should’ve seen them in their day. Now come with me. There’s Yavana. There, Kajue; Yambasu is here, just over here under the great ceiba tree… It’s hard to tell who’s there, it’s so bushy here…
In short, nothing protects against the inevitable end: not wealth, not power, not even a powerful and old lineage. Perhaps the human desire for wealth and power, and the hunger for the admiration of one’s peers can’t be curbed. But a sense of perspective can’t be forgotten either:
One can not wish the Earth for oneself/Eh… there in is emptiness.