Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 2

The first day of my third trip to Sierra Leone had been gruelling in the extreme – both to experience, to write up, and for you to read, I suspect. That night Jess, Dave, Jamie and I slept the sleep of the just, out like lights by 9.30pm and up at a manageable 8am. Hazel had told us that the trip was somewhat front-loaded, so our second day felt, in anticipation, almost luxuriantly easy. It was also set to feature a trip yet further into the country than I’d ever been before.

Sierra Leone is a country that is geographically and economically lopsided. There’s only one real major city, Freetown. The other cities in the country – Bo, Kenema – are much, much smaller. The capital sucks in people and resources in a way that is a little familiar to someone who moved to London as a teenager. On previous visits, we’d made it out to Waterloo and Kissy Town – areas that can take several hours to reach but which are still only 15 or 20 miles from the centre of the city, and still on the Freetown peninsula. It has long been an ambition of Hazel’s to spread the work of WayOut up country, and I’d been fascinated to visit, if possible. Most of the people we know at the project come from somewhere out “in the bush” (their phrase), so I was curious as to what it would be like.

So after breakfast we saddled up in the jeep and another taxi and set out for Songo. Songo is both the name of a small town (almost a village) and the general area of which it forms the administrative centre. It lies maybe 20 miles further up the Bai Bureh Highway, past Hastings and Waterloo, just over the border into the Northern Province. The majority of our drive there was familiar to the veterans among us. We wound up through the clearer air and better roads of the hills for a while, past universities, embassies and government property. On the further side of the hill, the road abruptly ceases to exist in any paved form, and the journey becomes a bumping, grinding nightmare for a good while. And then you pick up on the startlingly straight and flat highway towards the centre of the country, built, as I’d discovered on a previous trip, by the Chinese, with one eye on the many resources waiting to be efficiently exploited, not least alluvial diamonds.

Though the countryside passing the windows of the jeep was familiar to me to some extent from previous drives, it was still a good crash course reminder of many of the more intriguing things about the place. The Chinese presence was as noticeable as ever, most of the more stable-looking buildings being emblazoned with Chinese characters and logos for China Aid. These stand in stark contrast to some of the local attempts at development – we passed the “Sierra Leone Department of Environment and Town Planning”, which turned out to be a largely collapsed building, with a fallen down sign in the driveway reading “Trespassers Will Be Porsecuted”. I know from talking to Josta and others that there is a fair amount of suspicion about the long-term intentions of the Chinese builders, but they are at least building something, so it’s hard to know quite what to think. The shiny new Limkokwing University (specialising in IT training) had a guy outside selling wires advertised proudly as “Cables that don’t catch fire!”

We passed through Waterloo and out into virgin territory (for me). A toll gate welcomed us to the Northern Province. We turned off the highway at a roundabout, where I couldn’t help noticing that the two cars in front of us drove around it in different directions, which was slightly worrying. Then we were on to a pot-holed gravel road, where John drove alarmingly fast, given that the backseat of the jeep didn’t seem to have functioning seatbelts. We passed herds of goats, a slightly random police checkpoint, and finally pulled in to the centre of the town of Songo.


Checking out the mobile studio in Songo

The area where we stopped was a small dirt clearing among a number of huts and shacks, but it was clear that buildings stretched back into the jungle around us. It’s an area that doesn’t get many, if any, visits from foreigners and NGOs. Gibo had been out a couple of times to check the place out, explain the premise of WayOut, and bring along the mobile studio (funded by the Joe Strummer Foundation). This consists of a series of plastic crates containing a Macbook, some monitor speakers, an audio interface, some microphones and a large keboard-cum-MIDI controller. It’s a neat little setup, perfectly adequate to the task at hand, and the WayOut crew set it up quickly and efficiently so that the Songo locals could continue to work on their tracks, either cooking up new beats or recording the raps they’d been writing and practising since the last visit.

While the artists were getting busy, Hazel introduced me to the local youth leader, a guy called Worry (which was, in itself, potentially a bit worrying, but he was lovely). He told me that Songo (population? “About a thousand”) had 80% unemployment and very little infrastructure. They feel “forgotten” by the government, and were frankly amazed that WayOut were taking the time to visit them. There was immediate practical value to the project; the local Songo radio station were overjoyed that they now had tracks to play by local artists, and a genuine feeling of community building around the music-making. He told me that they had a local club as well, called Result, where they held gatherings, shows and parties – possibly all three are the same thing, there was a slight language barrier. He explained that Songo was the centre, the seat of the chiefdom, of an area called Kuya (population? “About a thousand” – hmm).


Me and Worry

In general, Worry struck me as a decent, committed guy, doing his best to help build something in a pretty desolate situation. There was a palpable feeling of neglect in the air, which was now burning hot, though noticeably cleaner than in the city. But Worry was cautiously optimistic, or at least working on coming across as such, and he carried himself with quiet pride and authority. I didn’t end up playing my usual short set, as the local musicians seemed perfectly committed to the project already, and I didn’t want to bust in with sharp, white elbows.

It was time for us to head back to the city, but as we were leaving, Worry insisted on showing us Result. We drove down a steep small side road and into a massive clearing, peppered with palm trees. There was a well-built building at one end of the space with a concrete stage out front, flanked by an enormous JVL PA system that was currently blasting out ear-splittingly loud, slightly distorted afrobeats. The place had an amazing vibe, and Dave and I immediately both thought of how, one day in the future, it would be an amazing spot for a rave of some kind. And of course, that thought was immediately a little troubling – organising raves struck us both as being quite low down the list of priorities for the people of Songo.


Result

While Dave and I were lost in our musings, Jess was being shown around some of the other parts of the Result area. They had a small area full of large hutches with various animals inside, which they referred to as their zoo. It was actually kind of sad – the caged animals looked miserable, cooped up inside, especially the jumping bush rats, which were desperately leaping against the wire mesh, over and over, trying to escape. Some of the guys had come over to the club area with us, and they were happily showing her around. It slowly dawned on her that they hadn’t twigged that we are married, and they were doing their level best to chat her up, in an endearing way. Once they started asking for phone numbers the situation was clear, and she laughed and showed off her ring. It’s always remarkable to me how totally that shuts the situation down in this part of the world – they hastily and apologetically beat their retreat.

We said our farewells and set off back to Freetown. Hazel said something intriguing to me on the way back. She said that it was frustrating to her that the government so totally ignored communities like Songo. Shew said that, for all the decades of peace since the civil war, all it would take is one charismatic leader to appeal to the bored and listless unemployed youth of so many areas like that, and you’d have a new insurrection on your hands. Looking out for the people of Songo is a moral imperative, of course, but it should also be a political one, a matter of national security, in her view. I could see her point.


We stopped back at the WayOut headquarters for a late lunch of omelette sandwiches, which I found I’d missed. They’re a cheap staple that most people survive off at the project, but they’re tasty and filling. Then I set about trying to fix up as many of the guitars as I could. We’ve brought and shipped quite a few over in the last few years, but the combination of inexpert playing and an unforgiving climate roughs them up pretty comprehensively. I found myself missing Ben Lloyd and his infinitely superior skills in this field, but I did my best and managed to restring, clean and tweak most of them. Then it was time to head back to the hotel to relax for a while before the big night ahead of us in Lumley.

As mentioned before, the idea behind doing a “proper” show on this trip arose from a few different angles. Firstly, in the past it had been hard to know quite what to mention when doing more “mainstream” press in the country – people interviewing me on AYTV and AiRadio (and most of the people listening) were unlikely to venture down to Susan’s Bay for a show. And it struck us that it would be cool to have an opportunity to showcase some of the WayOut talent as opening acts for a gig. So Hazel had booked a bar called Carlington in Lumley Beach. Lumley is a comparatively upmarket part of Freetown – it’s where they shot the Bounty chocolate adverts (“A Taste Of Paradise”) in the 1970s, and it’s where they’re building new tourist hotels at a visible rate. We’d wandered down there before, and the whole area has a much more touristy, ex-pat vibe than the places we usually visit. The show was set for that Saturday night at 8pm.

Due to various technical hitches, including a powercut at the venue, John was late to pick us up from the Jam Lodge, so we were a little rushed for time on arrival. The venue was a bar on the side of the main drag along the edge of the beach, though it was too dark by then for us to drink in the view. There was a large bare-floored room immediately in front of us on entry, with a stage at the left hand end, maybe 10 rows of chairs set up in front of it. A small divider ran across the room, with the bar on the other side. As we entered, the WayOut house band was running through a peremptory soundcheck, and quite a few people we knew were milling about, many of them looking a little uncomfortable in their surroundings. This is an area and a bar where people who go to WayOut don’t often come. Out front there was a large poster advertising the show, complete with a big picture of my face. The guy on the door welcomed me with a big grin when he recognised me.

After I’d quickly checked my levels, the four of us hit the bar to get food and beer. The crowd started to dribble in slowly. I’d had absolutely no idea what kind of turnout there might be for the show, I had no frame of reference for it, and this wasn’t an occasion on which any advance tickets had been sold. By the end of the night there were maybe 70 people there, almost all white ex-pats from a variety of different places – the UK, Germany, Ireland, the US. There were maybe one or two people in the room who struck me as wealthier, more middle class Sierra Leoneans. In some ways it was a shame that the divide was so stark, but you can only play for the crowd that shows up, and they were an enthusiastic bunch. The back rows were filled with kids from WayOut, sitting slightly apart from the Westerners, but definitely up for a good time.

The show began. The first act up was Meeky. He took the stage with Sulcut, another WayOut attendee, and an acoustic guitar, and they ran through about 4 original compositions. Their harmonies were sweet, and the lyrics were touchingly romantic, although some of their song structures were a little unformed – something I’d work on with them both a couple of days later. Next up was the amazing Moziz Roziz. Moziz is a street poet we’d met in 2019 who had completely blown us away with his visceral, angry, funny work. I was stoked to see him again. He read three poems, two of which I remembered from before, furious, unforgiving pieces. His third poem was a new one, a love poem, that was sweet and hilarious. “The reason I hate buying you clothes / Is because I love to see you naked.” The crowd were in the palm of his hand.

After Moziz was done, we had a quick catch up to discuss some future plans (more on that soon!) while the WayOut band set up – drums, bass, piano and keyboards. These guys were total beginners on my first trip in 2017. In 2019, their progress was startling. They’re now a pretty slick backing band by anyone’s standards, especially the rhythm section. It was great to see them play again. After a short instrumental introduction, Mash P took the stage. His performance was staggering – he’s a natural born star. He was everywhere, all over the stage, high-kicking, running into the audience, staring down his crowd. “Mr President” was a big singalong, the WayOut part of the crowd rousingly joining in with the “Tell me what a gwan” call-and-response. Hazel has focussed a lot of her energy on his talent over the years, and it was abundantly clear why in that room that night.


Mash in full flow with the WayOut band

Once Mash had finished wowing the crowd, there was a short break while I got ready to play. People tend to show up late to events in Freetown, so we waited a little to let the last stragglers into the room. Then it was my turn. In all honesty, I felt a little flat after the display of local talent I was trying to follow. It was interesting to play more of a “proper” set for the first time for the friends I’ve made over there, and I slipped back into my more traditional stage habits and banter. It was fun, I played maybe 45 minutes or so, and got the crowd engaged as best I could, even though everyone remained sitting down.

One of the highlights of the set for me was singing a version of “Eulogy” in Krio. John had helped me to translate it earlier in the day, and I’d been practising my pronunciation. It’s a song I’ve sung in nearly 30 languages now, so it seemed appropriate. Dave held up the lyric sheet for me, and it went down a storm.

I finished with “Photosynthesis”, which I managed to segue into a reliable chorus of “We Lek We Salone” at the end, which got everyone singing. I wrapped up and started to make my way off the stage, but the crowd were definitely in the mood for more. On the spare of the moment, I called the WayOut rhythm section to the stage and got them to strike up an African beat, while I reprised the singalong chords, and encouraged everyone to get on their feet. In no time at all everyone was down the front for a brief but joyously chaotic dance party. Mash, Sulcut and others joined me on the stage, and it proved a raucous end to the evening, a more satisfying conclusion than I’d been planning or imagining.

Finally it was time to wrap up the song (which is dangerously inconclusive – you can keep playing it indefinitely if you’re not careful) and the night itself. My stomach was starting to grumble a little, so I figured it was probably wise to make my way back to the hotel, with its reliable toilet, sooner rather than later. After some hugs, high-fives and selfies, it was time to get out of there.


Dance Party!

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