By Isaac Massaquoi
Sierra Leone music has indeed come a long way. A man from humble beginnings in the west end of Freetown was destined to be the one to revolutionise the Sierra Leone music industry after more than two decades of inertia and mediocrity. I bet that Jimmy B will cringe at the sudden turn of events. As I write we have musicians before the courts after an unusual gun battle beginning with an O.J. Simpson style car chase in the usually serene Lumley beach area of western Freetown.
On a cold Saturday morning in February 2000 the South Airways plane I travelled on from Accra landed at Johannesburg Airport. This was the start of my internship program with the South African Broadcasting Corporation. I was looking forward to this experience in a country with so much history and tradition – South Africa, the home of Madiba, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sissulu, Steve Biko, Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassi and many others. It took more than one hour for Robert, the SABC man who was supposed to pick me up from the airport to arrive. I searched my note pad and saw the telephone number for the only Sierra Leonean I knew in the country Jimmy B. I wanted to be sure that should Robert fail to appear Jimmy will help me out. His phone was switched off at the time.
Robert turned up in the end and as we drove into the city on our way to Auckland Park where the SABC building is located, I kept marvelling at the infrastructural masterpieces on the way. This was my first trip outside West Africa so you should understand why I was in dreamland.
Once we got to the radio station, I called Jimmy’s number again, but the phone was still switched off. At this point I asked Robert to help me get a place for the weekend. We went to three guest houses in the neighbourhood but they were fully booked. At the fourth place, Robert spoke to a lady who sounded like an elderly woman through an intercom. The woman told Robert she could put me up for the weekend and asked that we wait outside for a few minutes.
I was well and truly tired after that 9 hour flight. I had in fact waited for four days to sort out my visa at the South African High Commission in Accra and the whole trip was beginning to take a toll on me. Here I was in this great country with potentially no place to sleep and Robert had by this time told me he would have to leave for the township of Alexandria, just outside Johannesburg – it meant therefore that I would be on my own. Scary stuff!
When our lady came back on the intercom, she asked Robert this question, ‘where is he coming from’? ‘Sierra Leone’ he replied. ‘Sierra Leone’? with an unnecessary stress on the last syllable. ‘Yes, Sierra Leone’ shouted Robert who was getting a little frustrated. ‘Sorry, no place’ she shouted and closed down the intercom. Robert turned to me in apparent disgust and said ‘let’s go back to the station’.
Sitting on the main lobby of the SABC building, I thought long and hard about the reasons for the old woman’s sudden change. In the last few days before I arrived, Sierra Leone was on worldwide TV. Foday Sankoh had abruptly left Sierra Leone and travelled to South Africa, despite a UN travel ban on him. And as always when such incidents are reported, TV stations use background material to put the story in context. They showed horrific pictures of displacement and amputations. Maybe that’s why the guest house owner didn’t want anything to do with a Sierra Leonean.
Back at SABC Robert went off to do other things passing by me as if he didn’t know me. Then like a dream, I saw Jimmy B walk through the revolving door. I walked over to him and he was very happy to see me. After half an hour, we drove to a hotel in an exclusive area called Sandton to the north of Johannesburg where Jimmy lived. It was in that hotel room that he told me about his dream to radically transform the music industry in Sierra Leone. He told me he will be travelling to France in the coming week to link up with some friends and then return to Sierra Leone to establish a state-of-the-art recording studio, set up a music label to encourage budding artists in the country to start ‘thinking big’ and ‘working hard’. I returned to Sierra Leone months later just about the time, the first music compilation on PARADISE RECORDS was being launched.
There’s no doubt that this was the beginning of the second coming of Sierra Leone music for a good number of the artists who worked with Jimmy on the paradise records label went on to establish solo careers and even the French studio Engineer, Charles Olstrov who worked with Jimmy on the Paradise label, went his way to establish his own outfit called Studio J. The period following that witnessed an effluvium of musical talent and today the landscape has changed beyond recognition. Jimmy is still in the music business but is gradually moving into the movie industry.
I have to confess that I am naturally a follower of the Rastafarian movement and that should give you some idea about the type of music I enjoy listening to. But Sierra Leonean music is going places. There are a few I like. Take player man by Problem M. It’s fantastic. I also like an old one by Baw Waw society, the titled of which I can’t remember. Emerson is in a class of his own. His song, titled Go Fen Am, is a commentary on the laziness that has come to characterise the average Sierra Leonean young man who believes that he could survive by using cunning tactics to get money out of people or even steal his daily bread. Fantastic song!
The trouble however is that Sierra Leoneans are switching off local music because of many reasons: the rush to keep pace has led to mass production and a considerable drop in quality; and most seriously, so-called ‘beefing and violence’ has gripped the music industry. The nation woke up to the news on Saturday 14th January, that three people had been killed in a gun battle and car chase involving some great names in the business.
Journalism ethics and standard rules of court reporting tell me I must avoid making comments that could jeopardise the current case against LAJ and others now that they have appeared in court. But as a Sierra Leonean, I would argue that Jimmy would be very surprised at the turn of events.
Musicians now mobilize the ever-present idle young people in their hundreds to parade the streets under sinister fan club names, unauthorised, disrupting vehicular and pedestrian movement all too frequently. This is becoming very common. The ordinary resident of Freetown is looking on helplessly.
The justice system is presented now with a big opportunity to deal with another strand in this growing tide of lawlessness sweeping Sierra Leone and signal the national resolve not to allow gun crimes like this to paralyse parts of the city as has happened in some countries. It may sound alarming but it was only when I left Formula One hotel in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg that I was told that I spent the night in one of the most violent parts of the great city. I didn’t return to Hillbrow throughout my stay there. We could have our own such areas soon if this gun business is not stamped out.
The nation has lost three of its citizens and we must remind the police about this because all we can say at this stage is that the charges so far laid are interesting in relation to those deaths.
Sierra Leoneans will not accept any trial that ended with people being freed on legal technicalities this time.
Play the music please.
Bottom Line: From Jimmy B to Lumley gun battle
By Isaac Massaquoi