SALIA KOROMA: A POTTED STORY
British Order: “Atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.”(1) It was the end of the 19th century and the whole country was in flux. In 1896 Frederic Cardew promulgated a British Protectorate over the country outside the Sierra Leone Colony; two years later, on Wednesday, 27th April 1898, there was such a violent reaction to the whole enterprise that Cardew had to send in two expeditionary forces, called up from the Gold Coast under Colonels Woodgate and Cunningham(2), to restore calm (J. Grace, Domestic Slavery in W. Africa, with particular reference to the Sierra Leone Protectorate 1896-1927, Frederic Muller Ltd, London, 1975). By the time the mopping up operations were over in November of that year, all the old fortified towns in Mendeland were lying in ashes and over 60 chiefs had been gibbeted. The old order had been subsumed into Pax Britannica.
“In The Dawn Hours We Heard A Knock At The Door:” It was in the wake of this destruction that we first notice the presence of an itinerant musician called Boboi Kandoh, a native of kpa-Mende country (Gbo Chiefdom, present-day Bo District, but at the time a subsection of Madam Yoko’s Kpa-Mende Confederacy. It is interesting to note that both Boboi and Yoko hailed from the same chiefdom). In Seigbema, Njaluahun Chiefdom, koh-Mende country, Boboi married a local girl called Maama Dabba. Round about 1903, Maama bore a son for Boboi Kandoh and the couple called their child Salia Koroma.
Between 1903 and 1912, when Salia’s musical apprenticeship started, Boboi Kandoh would have been absent for a good portion of the time, combing the countryside, with the usual cameo appearance in the boy’s life before the next tour began.
“Let Me Fish for Our Father!”: During one of these absences the uncles, charged to look after him and his mother while his father was away plying his trade, refused to enrol young Salia at one of the many mission schools that were sprouting all over Mendeland whilst registering their own sons (and enrolment would’ve been mainly male in those days). Salia felt the unfairness deeply and, believing that his father would remedy the situation once he was made aware of it, he upped sticks and went in search of his father. Yes, such was the thirst for knowledge in Salia even as a boy! Even as a boy, he was already on the move! (Another retelling has the father coming to remove the son from school.)
How could he have anticipated the deception awaiting him in Kpoijebu where he found his father? When Salia put his request to his father, Boboi decided to satisfy his son’s desire for learning and knowledge by simply thrusting an accordion into the boy’s hands and telling him to get on with it. His boy was going to become, like himself, a minstrel to the “warriors of Mendeland.”
How do we interpret Boboi Kandoh’s reaction to his son’s tearful pleas? Not very hard to imagine in light of all what had happened. It had been little more than a decade since the mass hangings and exiles. Memories were still fresh and very raw. Nyagua had died in exile in the Gold Coast only six years earlier. Madam Yoko (Soma, by her given name), considered a traitor by all in Mendeland, except the British and their agents, had died in 1906, probably poisoned by her own courtiers, although her hagiographers, in great Victorian fancifulness, would go on to write it as the suicide of a blasée. Kpana Lewis died in the Gold Coast that year (1912). So it’s not difficult to fathom Boboi’s hostile reaction. He had served the ancien régime; he had been part of it: he had sang for Nyagua of Kpanguma, Faba of Dodo, Kai Londo of Luawa, Kajojo of Nyandehun Govoihun, Baketete of Gbongay, Fakoko of Ngalu. Now he has seen the raw power of the new system and couldn’t understand it, even as he understood perfectly the raw power of the old. Boboi didn’t see himself furthering the intentions of colonialists by sending his son to learn at their feet.
The father, though, failed to see that the pre-Protectorate system that he wanted his son to serve was on its way out. There’d be no more “koh-kugbesia,” war captains. His son will be serving the sons and grandsons of warriors. What came after 1896 would be something approaching a counterfeit of what had been. But there was a link still to the past and its traditions, and it was that past, those traditions, the strength and the resilience that ensure survival of a people, that Kandoh wanted his son to serve.
And serve it he did.
Did Kandoh sense the irony in his admonishment? Did he have a twisted sense of humour all the same? A new and foreign instrument to carry on an old art form? Mostly through fear (of a threatened paternal curse), Salia persevered and mastered his “school.” In a 1984/85 interview with Heribert Hinzen (Fishing in the Rivers of Sierra Leone, PEA, University of Sierra Leone, 1985), Salia paints two distinct images of his father. On the one hand, Boboi Kandoh was the stereotypical kpa-Mende male, hard and unemotional. On the other hand, there was a lack of cruelty that put the lie to the hard shell; each time the young Salia Koroma broke an instrument Boboi Kandoh would buy a new one without recrimination.
“Give Me A Shout, You Daughters Of The Sande!”: What Salia ended up doing was playing this new instrument like an African instrument. Few are the western ears listening to a Salia Koroma recording who would hear something that’s not completely alien. He had created a hybrid sound: not sounding western even if the instrument is western, and completely African. Listen to a Salia recording and there’s a constant drum beat underlying the song and holding it together. There’re strains of the kelei and segbule too to certain songs, if you know how to listen and hear. Listen to Ko Sao. In the second half of that song, starting from the bridge, the instrumentation sounds like a Bondo song. Didn’t he mention in his 1984/’85 interview that he did a good portion of his apprenticeship at Sande dances and other popular gatherings ?
“As You Get Angry, I Fall In Behind The Chief”: Whatever the case, and in spite of his initial disappointment, Salia took his father’s commission seriously, mastering the “school” his father had pushed into his hand, becoming the most coveted court entertainer in Mendeland. He went on to play for the prime ministers and presidents of Sierra Leone and for visiting heads of state.
He served a brief stint in the colonial Police whilst still continuing to play and to compose (joining on 7th August, 1939). Shortly before the colony joined the war effort of World War II Salia returned permanently to the Protectorate to devote himself full time to his vocation as a musician. When Gary Schulze recorded Salia in 1962 for the Smithsonian he had this to say about him:
Salia Koroma, a man in his fifties, is one of the best known Mende singers in all of Sierra Leone. His instrument, the accordion, is of western import, but his songs deal with traditional themes of love, war, and death. He often reverts to a classical form of the Mende language not always readily understood by the younger generation. When Salia appears in a chiefdom, people journey from many miles around to hear him. He travels in his own Land-Rover, is in great demand by the Paramount Chiefs of Mendeland, and has made many commercial recordings of his songs, which he composes himself.
Was it a sense of filial duty that made Salia forgo the security of a government job and go back to that for which his father had trained him, with all its insecurities? But he didn’t have to worry, for he was in demand. When his services were not needed at court he’d tour the outlying villages, essentially gathering material. In the villages, he saw that traditional life still thrived. At a time when western ways were making gains in the heartland (yes, there’re many heartlands!), at a time when urbanised people were too quick to heap scorn on their “bush” brothers, Salia, being in contact with both worlds, from his vantage point, saw value in what was derisively referred to as the “uncivilised” way.
“The Man o’War Brings News of Death:” When soldiers returned from Burma in 1945/46 Salia captured a little bit of the sense of sadness and loss in the song “Manawa” (Man o’war), although the song harkens back to an earlier war. When his greatest patrons started dying off in the 1950s and 1960s his signature “Mende Gendei” (Mende Roundup) was the perfect song for a reflection on all that is transient and illusory, an elegy that he later sharpened and hurled at President Stevens at the opening ceremony of the 1980 Organisation of African Unity Summit in Freetown.
But if Salia should interest anyone, it should be for more than thematic and socio-poetic reasons. One should be drawn by his language as well. As Schulze noted in the quote above, Salia had a tendency to “revert” to a classical form of the language, using obscure words and turns of phrase that aren’t currently used or in everyday usage. Why use kumbai when everyone uses kulei or even ndomei (clothes)? And he was always using as current terms, words that had become parts of idiomatic expressions or only used in proverbs, giving these archaic words and expressions a freshness that was both amusing and surprising. Salia demonstrates the rich literary possiblities of a language whose hallmark is its flexibility, always teasing shades of meaning out of words, hoping that the listener will get it in the end.
This is the man that’ll occupy the bulk of this site.
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(1) Tacitus: “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominimbus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” (To robbery, slaughter, plunder they give the lying name of empire (order); they create a desolate landscape, calling it peace.)
(2).Cunningham, D.S.O., of the Sherwood Foresters and the West African Regiment, was actually a Lt.-Colonel. Colonel Woodgate managed the counter-insurgency (a third expeditionary force was in the then Karene District, under a Lt.Col. Marshall, D.S.O.). In his final report to Cardew, Woodgate writes:
But for his promptitude Bandajuma might have fallen, and it is due to the energy shown by him
and Lieutenant-Colonel Cunningham, and the officers under him, that this formidable rising of a
a tribe, reputed the most warlike in the Protectorate, was quickly suppressed with slight loss by a few
police and troops, many of whom had been but recently enlisted.