Sierra Leone 2020 – Part 4

We knew that our final day of our trip to Freetown was going to end with the traditionally gruelling journey home – a ferry to the airport at midnight, a long wait in the departures lounge until a 4am flight to Casablanca, a gritty and exhausted layover there for a few hours, before a final flight home to London. With some experience of that under our belts, we were braced and ready, but first there was a whole, long day in Sierra Leone to get through.

Jamie and I were a little the worse for wear after our adventures the night before, but we recovered over breakfast, regaling Dave and Jess with the tales of what had happened, both of us still visibly buzzing from the experience. The others were jealous to have missed it, but, hangovers aside, everyone was now back to fighting condition and ready for the day ahead.

In symmetry with our first day, our first stop was to be at a prison – this time the main male prison in Freetown, which is a larger and more intimidating affair. There had been much discussion leading up to the trip about the merits and wisdom of Jess joining for this particular excursion. It had occurred to Hazel and I that the sight of a young, blonde, Western woman in such a testosterone-fuelled environment might not be the most calming of influences. Interestingly, however, all the guys at WayOut seemed slightly perplexed by the query, and assured us that everything would be fine. So we set off to the prison slightly reassured, but still with a touch of nerves.

We arrived and went through the familiar rigmarole of signing in and being searched, though the whole process felt more serious, more foreboding this time around. The chalkboard in the foyer listed their inmates as at the Women’s Prison – 1,377 people incarcerated on that day, apparently, including 27 lifers. The number was, as before, recently depleted by the slightly random amnesty that had taken place over Christmas. We’d discussed this in the interim, and been told that the arbitrary nature of the justice system here makes the amnesty slightly more understandable. People get arrested and jailed for what we in the West would consider minor offences, often just to fulfil police quotas. On my previous trip in 2019, one of the WayOut attendees had been picked up right outside the main building for ‘loitering’ and jailed for two months. So it wasn’t like they were releasing hardened criminals into society – more just letting the unfortunate have a comparatively lucky break.

Eyed cautiously by the guards, we were led up a flight of stairs to the main office of the chief warden. We entered the room – all dark, carved wood furniture and deep leather seating, with a familiar slightly chaotic layout – with some ceremony, but the warden himself, Jimmy, was lovely once we were introduced. A large, uniformed, imposingly built man with a shaved head and an impressive physique and a firm handshake, he had kind eyes and welcomed us to the prison with some emotion, happy that someone, somewhere was trying to do something constructive for his charges. He told us proudly that he had worked all around the country in different correctional facilities, and this posting here was the pinnacle of his career. He bade us welcome and sent us on into the prison to check out the new studio.

The creative arts, like many things in Sierra Leone, still tend to be very male-dominated, despite the progress made by people like Susan at WayOut. So it is that while our visit to the Women’s Prison had been worthwhile and appreciated, at this place the project was further along the line. We’d pledged to ship over two new Macbooks to install in a dedicated room on the premises (and we found out during our visit that the shipment had finally cleared customs) so that they could set up a permanent facility there. We walked through a couple of desolate courtyards, separated by a shattered and gloomy cellblock, until we reached a kind of back alley in the grounds, and found a small room with freshly painted Strummerville and WayOut logos painted above the door. The mobile studio was set up inside, for the time being, and a couple of guys were in there, working on building a beat for a rap that one of the inmates had written. The producer was a guy I hadn’t met before but had heard about – Solo.

Solo at work

Solo is, at a guess, in his late 20s. He’s sociologically in a different place to most of the people we work with in the country, visibly wealthier and more middle class; for example, he has his own, functioning phone, on which he regularly taps away at WhatsApp conversations. But he’s an absolute diamond, as well as being a very talented producer and musician. He works in what counts as the ‘mainstream’ music industry in the country, and usually charges a fair amount for a beat. But he does deals for WayOut artists, as he recognises and supports their aims, and works at the prison one day a week for free. And most importantly, his beats are killer. Watching him work was an education in itself, flying around the keys of the midi controller and flicking through Logic work pages at a rate I could barely follow, all the while layering up something funky and irresistible.

It would have been easy to get lost for the rest of the day in the music there, but a tap on the shoulder politely informed me it was time to head over to meet the prison choir. There was a group of about 50 guys in a courtyard, standing in a circle and singing some African songs to the accompaniment of a single tribal drum. I got my guitar out of its case and was ushered into the middle, and welcomed with some polite applause. Gibo had told me that the inmates here had been listening to a few of my songs – indeed, I’d sent over lyric sheets a few weeks back – so I charged into playing my Africanised versions of “Little Changes” and “Don’t Worry”, which they seamlessly and enthusiastically joined in with. There was a wide demographic – young and old, those with the hangdog look of defeat and a long sentence and those clearly stopping for a short stay. There was no prison uniform to speak of, just the usual mishmash of civilian clothes we were used to from the street. The drummer kept time and we raised a rousing chorus or two.

After I’d played four or five songs of my own, the inmates asked if I could back them up while they performed their own material. As ever, this consisted of lyrics that they’d written, so my job was to improvise a musical backing with the help of the drum. I asked the first guy what direction we were heading in, stylistically, and he told me “soft reggae”, so I started vamping round some simple chords, and he sung along. While I kept the chords basic, we had a vibe together, but an one point I tried out some slightly more left-field progressions, and he immediately lost his way. I learned my lesson and settled back into the previous arrangement, and all was well again. The second volunteer requested something “hip hop”. That’s a hard style to play unaccompanied on an acoustic guitar, but I slipped into a sort of Rage Against The Machine style riff, with a lot of rhythmic muted strings, and he smiled and was off, spitting furious rhymes to the crowd. It went over very well, though as ever his Krio was beyond my comprehension.

Everyone in the choir seemed very friendly and pleased that I was there. But I noticed as I was playing with them that there was a mesh fence at one end of the courtyard, behind which, hanging off the wire, was a smaller group of very heavy looking guys, who were staring unblinkingly at me as I played. I never got a chance to ask what the delineation was between them and the choir, but it seemed clear that they hadn’t been given permission to be around the visitors directly, which left me a little spooked.

Time, as ever, was in short supply, and I was called away before the seemingly endless procession of budding performers had reached its end. As we were leaving I noticed that, for all our caution about how Jess would fare in the prison, she was totally fine. In fact, she was slightly guarding Susan, who had attracted the attention of a keen and optimistic guard. He kept trying to bring her chairs, water, umbrella for shade and more, and she didn’t seem overly comfortable with it. Shows what I know. And as we were leaving, I had a briefly surreal moment. I handed my guitar to a guard briefly, and he comically started strumming the strings. Presumably through some mad chance (rather than an unexpected passion for Canadian prog rock) it sounded like he was playing the introduction to the Rush song “YYZ”. I did a double take, we both laughed, and I left the prison, wondering what the hell had just happened.

In keeping with established tradition, our final afternoon at WayOut was a hectic frenzy of activity, getting as much into the schedule as possible. Jamie and Dave went off to the port to collect the equipment that had just cleared customs. Jess and I went back to the headquarters. Jess had planned a couple of drama lessons, which had been hugely over-subscribed on the sign-up sheets. She’s a trained actress and a teacher, so this was very much in her wheelhouse. She played a few basic drama games – one involving holding cards on your forehead and trying to guess the number value by how everyone else was treating you, well for a king and badly for a two and so on. She then moved onto more serious work, looking at self-confidence, empathy and diction. It went down a storm.

Meanwhile, I was lost in an endless sea of writing, recording and guesting with as many people as I could fit into my limited time. I sat with Meeky and Sulcut for a while, working through some songs they’d written on acoustic guitar and suggesting a few changes, some different chords and turnarounds. Then I recorded some vocals for a chorus with Sons Of Slaves, who I’d seen the night before. Next up, a verse and a chorus with Mash P (whose recorded material has come on leaps and bounds since my first visit). Fal G arrived, hoarse and exhausted after the show the night before (he told me he got to bed at 2am – good lad), but coherent enough to talk me through a chorus for another Black Street song. I tried a few approaches, which were OK, but eventually decided to experiment with some full-on hardcore screamed style vocals. Gibo and Fal were initially stunned by the performance, then burst into happy laughter, saying it was exactly what they wanted. I’m not sure if they’ve come across that stylistic approach to vocals before. Maybe there will be a Freetown hardcore band next I come back. Once we were done, I gave Fal a gift of a limited edition Social Distortion shirt that Mike Ness gave me last year (complete with an explanation as to who exactly that is).

Fal G repping Social D

We had two delightful social visits during the afternoon. Firstly, Moziz brought his grandmother, with whom he lives, down to WayOut to say hello. She was a dignified, ancient woman, who treated us with the familiar tolerance of a bemused relative, and wished us well. Later on, Fal G brought his wife and his son, little Frankturner Kamara, for a brief visit. He’s a bit less freaked out by the bold fact of existence and whiteness now, but he’s still a 3 year old kid, a bit overwhelmed by everything and distracted. In the end I managed to eke a brief fist-bump and a photo out of him.

Me, Jess, Moziz and his Grandmother

With Fal G, his wife, and little Frankturner Koroma

Time was running out, but Sulcut came to me with a song he’d like to record, which was very much in line with what I usually do for my own material – folky but upbeat – so I sat at the computer in the studio and threw together an arrangement as fast as I could. We just about got it down before Hazel said it was time to wrap up. There were still a few disappointed people waiting by the door to the booth, but there was nothing I could do.

Outside, in the courtyard of the building, everyone was gathering for their standard early evening ritual – Basic Chilling. Basic Chilling involves everyone sat around on plastic chairs in a circle, sharing new ideas for songs, poems, whatever. Meanwhile Amara cooks omelette sandwiches for everyone (one of the main attractions for people who don’t always have guaranteed food to eat at home). It’s a lovely, community-minded affair. Jess, Dave and Jamie (who’d finished unpacking the shipment) were already in the circle, and I went down to join. I had one more thing I wanted to do before we left.

Playing through songs from “Be More Kind” over the last few days, I’d been reminded how much of the material on that record was, consciously or otherwise, inspired by spending time in West Africa. I was looking for songs that were simple and easy for a crowd here to pick up, clapping, singing and so on. Two songs in particular – “Don’t Worry” and “Little Changes” – fit this mould, and over the preceding few days both of them had evolved into something more obviously African. I wanted to document that in some way, so I asked the assembled Basic Chillers if they’d be up for helping me out with a filmed performance. We got a light, rearranged the chairs, handed out drums and percussion, and I say down to lead a performance of “Little Changes”. I think the end result is just lovely – you can see it here.

Finally it was time to go. Departures can be slow in Freetown, as everyone wants a hug, a selfie and a few heartfelt words. We hugged and snapped for as long as we could but eventually managed to extricate ourselves from the warm embraces and load up in the jeep. I always feel a mixture of sadness and exhaustion at the end of these trips, but it was tempered this time by a feeling that the project as a whole is making tangible progress, that I’ll definitely be back in a year or so, and by the long list of new ideas and projects that had come to mind over our four days in the country. A part of my heart belongs to this place now.

As we drove back to the hotel, for a quick meal before heading to the ferry, we got caught in traffic behind a funeral procession. It was loudly, gaudily Catholic, very much with the feel of something from New Orleans. There was a marching band playing out loud, messy, mournful dirges, complete with brass and drums, and about 100 people were walking slowly but rhythmically down the middle of the road. There was a heady mixture of finery and tears, of Sunday bests and the rending pull of grief, ultimately of life and death, defiance in the face of all the shit that life can throw at you. Sierra Leone in all its ragged glory.

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