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Salia Koroma: “Two Heads Of Game Wouldn’t Fail To Fill A Pot”

The song I’ve posted is in every way a stand-alone performance, ‘culled’ by the singer himself from the longer composition that we all know. What we have here is the fifth portion of Fishing For Our Father, The Legend Of Fawonde, in other words the conclusion of the song.

We should note that Salia has given to a familiar story a very deft narrative slant, and this is so only because of the chiefly audience.

Salia Koroma: Metamorphosis & Shape-Shifting In A Land Of Wonders

In his 1947 Man article on a nameless Mende accordionist “in the service of a chief in Middle Mende Country,” Kenneth Little referred in his end notes to the resemblance of that musician’s material to what he called “the fountainhead of the European novel.” That fountainhead was of course Lucius Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass.” (Man, # 47, March 1947.) Dr Little only went on to translate in that article, to illustrate his point, the “Yohmeh.” We’ll propose here another illustration, too uncanny a resemblance to Apuleius’s novel.

This prelude (translated) sets up very poetically the rest of the story, as a woman leads Salia into a land of magic and witchcraft. The story that’s about to unfold is one wondrous tale of duelling magic arts and wits. The ballad raises many interesting issues that we shall discuss in the next postings of the song.

Salia Koroma: Of Imps And Human Bondage

The story in Njawima Meme is very simple. At first glance at least. It is a story of a master-slave relationship, one of dominance and control, of power and impotence inverted.

A Ndohgboh Joso goes fishing, but as it puts the only fish that had been in the weir trap into the fish basket, the fish wriggles out of its hands and into the stream (njawi). To recover this loss, it spends a fruitless morning fishing.  It returns to its lair, only for its human captive to tell it to go back to the stream, that if it doesn’t come back with the particular fish that had slipped away death awaited him on his return. That’s a bind for a spirit to find itself in.The song is an expression of the predicament of the Ndohgboh joso.

But even this explanation of the song doesn’t make sense without a knowledge of the Mende folklore about Ndohgboh Joso/Yoso. Ndohgboh means bush, and Joso means magic, but that doesn’t mean much, does it? A Ndohgboh Joso is then a magician of the bush, a malicious, some would say evil, spirit that takes on the shape of a man, short of stature (not a dwarf, a completely different forest spirit) and rather unattractive. It’s best known for leading lone travellers astray and keeping them captive if they do not recognise its nature on their first encounter. The human would eventually become the spirit’s slave.

Now if you were a captured traveller but you somehow managed to keep your wits about you, there’s a chance of escape within the first few days. The idea is  to make impossible requests, like asking the spirit to fetch you drinking water in a fishing net. The cool-headed captive can thus reverse the master-captive relationship. In the end the imp would be obliged to return its human captive (now master) to the nearest village.

Isn’t it interesting how fishing, the impossible ‘feat’ of catching the right fish, features in Salia’s imagination? Isn’t it interesting that there’s often a power dynamic involved?