Sierra Leone 2019 Part 2

This is part 2 of my write-up of my second trip to Sierra Leone. Part 1 is here. Since writing the first part, Hazel from WayOut tells me that some of the people from King Jimmy’s have started to visit the studio to get involved, and some have even moved into some abandoned building structures nearby so they can be close to the studio – great news!

You can donate to WayOut Arts here.

When I was 18, fresh out of school, I spent a couple of months backpacking around Eastern and Southern Africa, in a pretty typical middle class, gap year kind of way. The trip was instigated and planned by my first love, Sarah. My first proper girlfriend, she was a Londoner, half-Chinese but had spent most of her childhood in Botswana. She was filled with a general sense of yearning to return to Africa, and before the trip had spent many hours trying to describe to me how different, how special the place was, how it got in your blood, how it always called you back.

Our holiday was mind-blowing and miraculous, as most late adolescent experiences tend to be. We travelled overland from Kenya to Cape Town – where Sarah now lives, incidentally, having finally given in to the siren call of the continent. I loved the trip but was also glad to get home. Nevertheless, I learned in a small way to appreciate the unique atmosphere of the place. Sierra Leone is a long way from anywhere I went on that trip, both geographically and culturally, but every morning I’ve woken up there I’ve breathed in the scent, basked in the light, in a way that reminds me powerfully of that youthful excursion.

Our second day in Freetown began with the four of us feeling rested and raring to go. After hotel breakfast, we returned on foot to WayOut. I had a busy day ahead of me, not least recording music with as many of the local artists as I could (most of them had asked me to guest on a track). On the journey there, I quizzed Josta further about political developments since my previous visit. In the 7 months since the change of government, there had been some tangible changes – a new oil pipeline was in the works, a system of PIN codes had been introduced for state employees to try to crack down on the phenomenon of “ghost workers” – the registration of extra, non-existent workers on the payroll. As ever, Josta was smart and thoughtful in his replies. As we walked the now-familiar route and talked, I kept thinking about the endless mounds of crumbling concrete that characterise the urban landscape in the city. All of it, just all of it, seems to be falling apart, in some fundamental way. I wondered whether that’s a question of materials, technique, or climate. Josta couldn’t say.

On arrival at headquarters, Hazel told us that the water system in the local area (which mainly consisted of wells on the street) had broken down. This was a serious issue, and meant that quite a few people were running late, as they had to scour the city for supplies for their families. All the same, there was a lot to be done in a short period of time, so I started trying to ration my studio time in the best way I could, while Ben, Jamie and Dave decided to make a trip across the city to see where some of our friends actually lived.

Working on beats with Thomas

My first appointment of the day was with the Black Street Family. I met this imposing group back in 2017. They began as a local gang, based in Black Street, the slum area around the dilapidated Siaka Stevens stadium, just behind the WayOut building. Many of them were former child soldiers, and their founding purpose was essentially defensive of their area, but with Hazel’s encouragement they have, over the years, found their voice as a rap group. They were keen for me to help them get a track off the ground. Fal G and various others (I’ve never been entirely clear of the exact membership of the band) were in the small, stuffy control room, with Thomas, the producer, all people I’d met before. They sang me a chorus they had been working on, and I came up with a heavy guitar part to lay down underneath it as a backing, playing heavy distorted chords alongside the beat, which they loved. I left them to work their magic on the verses, and moved on to writing with Mash P.

Mash had been working on a new song on the subject of homelessness. When the WayOut crew came to London in late 2018, it was for a worldwide summit discussing homelessness and the arts, and he’d decided to write a track addressing the issue, and had asked me to contribute. He had a chorus and a beat worked out, and asked me to contribute a verse. Writing lyrics on this subject is tough for me, even leaving aside the fact that I had only about 20 minutes to come up with something. I live a comfortable life in the West; saying something meaningful about this alongside someone like Mash, a homeless former child soldier, is a creative challenge if ever I met one. I had been intrigued to hear that all the Sierra Leoneans who came to the UK had been shocked to see people sleeping rough in the capital city of one of the richest countries in the world; it’s a fair point.

I managed to rustle up some words on the subject that (hopefully) weren’t too cringeworthy or trite, and laid them down. It felt good to sing with Mash again, he’s an amazing talent. After we’d nailed the part, I moved on to tracking with Meeky. Last time around we’d recorded an acoustic take of one of his songs together, “I Must Lose With You”. He wanted to record a proper studio version, so, along with Thomas, we started building the piece, with a reggae feel. At the end of the trip they actually gave me the audio files of what we’d worked on so far, and I plan to finish that off in good time at home for release.

Recording vocals with Meeky

In a quiet moment after finishing that bit of work, as Ben and Dave set to work fixing various guitars and other bits of equipment, I got chatting with Chen B, a guy I’d met last time there but hadn’t got to know especially well. Chen lives in Black Street, but he’s a slightly different character, because he is actually Guinean, speaking African French as his first language. He was very keen to take me on a guided tour of Black Street. I was initially a little wary of this, as Hazel’s general direction to me had been not to wander off unsupervised, and the area still has a fearsome reputation. Chen was sincere, however, and I thankfully threw caution to the wind and went for a walk with him.

I’d briefly visited before, but this was a proper introduction to the neighbourhood. Chen introduced me to a burly-looking older guy, telling me he was the “king” of Black Street. I paid my respects and shook hands. Throughout the walk I met a further four or five “kings”, so I’m not sure how official the title is. We threaded our way down the Street itself, a dusty, rutted track, edged with corrugated iron shacks filled with the busy sights, sounds and smells of domestic life. At the other end, the Street empties out into a large car park by the stadium full of cars, half of which were abandoned wrecks, many with people living in them. Everyone was friendly, and most of them knew who I was from my WayOut reputation, and I was greeted with joy and respect (and requests for selfies) everywhere. It was a curiously touching experience.

Black Street with Chen B.

As we walked, Chen told me his story. He’d grown up on a farm in Guinea with his half brothers, his mother having died when he was young and his father having remarried. They sounded well-off, relatively speaking. When his father died, however, the sons of his stepmother turned on him and evicted him both from the farm and from any inheritance. Left destitute, he had wandered through the country, crossed the border, and ended up homeless in Freetown, living with the Black Street crew. Like so many of the people I’ve met in this country, he was keen, almost insistent, to relate his circumstances, even though there is little, practically, I could do about it. There was a sense of wanting to have the facts on the record, and on that level, I was of course happy to listen.

I returned from my excursion for some lunch – a plate of chicken and fish, a gift from Fal G’s wife, which we shared with everyone – and a quick music lesson. When we’d seen Meeky and his amazing band play on our arrival the day before, it had occurred to me that they could quite easily learn the chords to one of my songs – “Little Changes”. I’d had the idea of showing them the changes and then letting them take it in their own direction and play it in their own, African style. Meeky was into it, so I got a guitar and talked him though the music, and then left him and his crew to work it over.

Meanwhile, the four of us, Hazel and Fal G loaded up into our convoy and headed out into the city. I had an appointment to keep with Fal’s family. Not long after we met, Fal had become a father for the second time. He’d decided to name his son after me – Frank Turner Koroma. I had been supposed to be present at his naming ceremony back in December 2017, but, in probably the most crushing part of that disappointment, had been forced to miss it. To make up for that, I was now invited to the house to meet my namesake.

Incidentally, Hazel had told me that naming a child after someone else in this way is actually quite common in Sierra Leonean culture. The belief is that the name will carry with it the original bearer’s luck and strength. I was not being asked to act as a godfather per se, just some vague form of inspiration. Either way, it’s a huge compliment to me, as well as being one of the more unusual things that has happened to me in my career.

We pulled up at the bottom of a steep hill and trekked up to Fal’s home. He and his family live in a half-built shack of brick, iron and wood above the city, on the edge of a building site. The poverty of the situation is only a little set off by the amazing views of the bay. In fact, they told me they are close to being evicted from their home, such as it is; the building site next door is not far off being finished as some new housing, at which point they will no longer be welcome there. Part of the naming ceremony that I’d missed involves the invitees giving the new parents cash gifts, and Hazel had told me that this would be appropriate for me to do too, if not expected. After some discussion of amounts, I gave them about £40 in local currency – an amount easy for me to afford, but which would make a big difference in their search for a new place to stay. The whole thing gave me very mixed feelings, as you might expect. I was reminded of my musings at the end of my last trip here, about whether or not I should simply sell everything I own and give it to people here. As I thought last time, I’m aware that that’s not the solution to the problems of West Africa, but that fact is not, in itself, an argument against doing that.

So it was with slight sense of inner conflict that I was greeted by Fal’s beautiful wife. We thanked her for the food and the welcome. Shortly afterwards I was introduced to little Frank Turner Koroma – the “future CEO of Black Street”, as his proud dad called him. He was a very cute little two year old who was extremely wary of the white visitors at first – youngsters here often think white people are ill, or even ghosts, when they first encounter them, as it’s outside their experience. After a while he warmed to us, and we sat on chairs outside the house chatting in the sunshine. He regaled me with tales of the ceremony I’d missed, the different traditions, a mixture of local African things and more traditionally Muslim rites.

With Fal G and Frank Turner Koroma

Sitting around and shooting the shit with the family was a lovely respite from our hectic schedule, but there were demands on our time calling, so we had to say our goodbyes and head back down the hill. WayOut was hosting a talent show in our honour that evening, a chance for all the kids at the project to show off their skills. Given what we’d already seen, we were excited for the performances. We rolled back into the compound to hear the stereo already pumping, with John up front playing MC and giving an impromptu dance show. Given his usual seriousness, it was really quite funny to see him clowning around and keeping the crowd entertained as they waited for our arrival (we were running a little late). There was a joyous, chaotic atmosphere that felt wonderfully African.

John leading the talent show

Once we were settled in, the show began in earnest with some rather more coordinated dancing. I got chatting to a tall, soft-spoken guy I hadn’t met before called Mozis Rozis, who spoke excellent English. He talked me through some of the dance moves, and laughed unguardedly when I told him that I wouldn’t be getting up for a go myself as I can’t dance to save my life. Once the dancing finished, he surprised me by getting up and walking to the microphone. It turns out he’s a spoken word artist, and he gave a performance of a poem called “The System”, which opened with the line “I have not smiled in a while.” It was a visceral, staggering piece of art, sinewy, angry, sarcastic and bitter. I was completely blown away by his voice, he’s easily one of the best spoken word performers I’ve ever seen, truly powerful. Chatting with Hazel later, she told me he was a homeless guy who’d started coming to WayOut since I’d last been there, but in that time he’d won a national prize for one of his poems. He’s definitely someone I’d like to try to help as an artist if I can.

Mozis Rozis in full flow

After Mozis had floored us, Meeky’s band got up to back a selection of different vocalists. All the material was original, and the standard was very high. Some of the songs were humorous crowd-pleasers, like the rapper Facebook’s song “Money There For Spend By You”. I was particularly tickled by the lyric “If you’re the king, I’m the kong.” But there was also a lot of angrier, more political work. I was struck by their self-awareness of poverty and suffering. These are people perfectly aware of where they sit in the socio-economic scale, and they aren’t taking it lying down.

After a while, Meeky and his band took over the proceedings themselves; they’re clearly one of the most developed groups there (and I should especially mention their drummer, Courage, who is simply brilliant). Meeky sung a few of his songs, which the crowd knew and sang back to him, including the charming “She Wants A Man Like Me”, and a song called “Stereo”, a celebration of music that reminded me of Rancid’s “Radio”. The grand finale of the show was their performance of “Little Changes” with me on vocals. The arrangement they’d worked out was a glorious fusion of my chords and their own distinctly Afrobeat sensibilities. It’s a song I’ve worked out in quite a few different guises since writing it, but this was certainly the most fun to play. Connecting with those musicians was as real honour.

Once the show was done, Ben, Jamie, Dave and I begged forgiveness for our exhaustion and wandered slowly back to our hotel for dinner and sleep. It had been another rollercoaster of a day. Meeting my little namesake had been wonderful, but it was Mozis’ poetry that was still running around my head as I drifted off to sleep.

Once again, you can donate to WayOut Arts here.

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