G.S.: A lot of the bands—probably all of the bands, actually—owe their existence to some big man back before the war. For example, the band Sabanoh 75 started out as Akpata Jazz, which was a band of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. So, in that sense, musicians did have allegiance simply because it was a big man financing them. Part of the problem in Freetown was that, as the economy deteriorated, there was less foreign exchange to import instruments. The musician, Abou White, explained to me a novel means of financing equipment purchases before the war: people bought old stamps, sold them in Japan and used the proceeds to buy goods. Sierra Leone postage stamps were valuable; he had plenty of them. You send them abroad and get a lot of money to buy the goods you want. I imagine people still do that; it was like selling antiques.AFROPOP: I wonder why that is. Is it just because the stamps were valuable as a collector's item? G.S.: Sierra Leone used to produce works of art—these beautiful, intricate postage stamps. J.A.: I remember when I first went there, the stamps were beautiful. G.S.: In the '60s, they had these really beautiful postage stamps that people valued. AFROPOP: As we learn more Sierra Leonean music, we keep hearing more about the sounds of palm wine guitar music. Please tell us about S.E. Rogie. G.S.: When I lived in Freetown (in the 70s), I heard the music of S.E. Rogers, and his nickname was Rogie. Eventually when times got tough for him musically, he moved to the United States and he thought "Rogers" didn't sound African enough, so he picked up his nickname and began calling himself S.E. Rogie. He was a quintessential palm wine musician. He drank the wine and played the music and sang the stories of life in Sierra Leone. He was very good at it. His career went downhill in the '70s, and then I helped him put together some of his old songs into an album that we called "The '60s Sounds of S.E. Rogie." I sent some copies to DJs in the U.K. and they picked up on it and Rogie was invited to come over and do some performances and he signed a record deal over there. His career had a rebirth. AFROPOP: And that's the recording that you can find now in stores? G.S.: That's the record, but it's been re-titled now. It's now on CD from Cooking Vinyl and it's "The Palm Wine Sounds of S.E. Rogie." AFROPOP: I love that album. You must have spent a lot of time with Mr. Rogie. What’s a story that you remember about him? G.S.: Well one time Rogie had a scheme. Once he hit it big in the United Kingdom, he saved up some money and he sent me to Germany to buy used cars for him. And we shipped the used cars to Freetown to resell and used the Sierra Leone money to build a nice house out in the Wellington section of Freetown. But unfortunately, he never got to live in the house. His career went well, and then he began to have heart problems. Eventually, he died during the war and his body was returned to Freetown. They tried to take him up country for burial, but his hometown was occupied by the rebels. So they couldn't bury him in his hometown. AFROPOP: Let's talk a little bit more about palm wine and we can get back to the war. G.S.: John’s the palm wine expert. [Laughs] I never liked the stuff, but John is a connoisseur. J.A.: I was forced to drink it. Fadugu is the center of a Limba chiefdom. And the Limba tribe is famous in Africa for tapping palm wine. When I say tapping, you literally tap the stuff in much the same way that maple syrup is tapped, only it comes out quicker. So they would climb to the top of a palm tree, and there was supposed to be a real art and science to this because not everybody could do it well, and you'd traditionally have a large gourd you'd call a boli and it would fill up. It was supposed to be best in the morning. It was almost effervescent… and different trees would have slightly different tastes. There was a lot of combined socialization and drinking that went on with this stuff. So there was the art of getting the palm wine and having the connections with the farmers to bring you the wine, and then there was the whole thing of sitting around and generally sharing the same cup. So it would go from person to person and you would drink the wine and it was an acquired taste. It had sort of a sour aftertaste. The most foreboding part of it was the fact that when the gourd is sitting there filling up, certain types of flies would lay their eggs there, so there would be the maggots, the larvae, which had to be pushed to the side; they would float to the top, but once you got through all of that it wasn't bad. G.S.: Just to relate this to music, the whole palm wine experience is a communal experience of people getting together and, often, someone would pull out a guitar or a homemade lute and begin to sing and tell stories, and that's where the palm wine guitar music developed all along the West African Coast, not just in Sierra Leone, but Ghana, Nigeria… J.A.: The catch phrase was to keep company, and this was a highly valued attribute that Sierra Leoneans would have for Peace Corps volunteers in general, the people remarked about this with Gary when I came, Gary was keeping company with people, the idea was that you would just sit down and you would just hang out. The palm wine in that village was a very important part of that, and like Gary said, there was always storytellers, and there was always a lot of spontaneous music in Sierra Leone, where people would just get up and sing, or just dance G.S.: Rogie had a really good quote that's pretty succinct. He says, "Palm wine music is like folk music or blues. People sing heart-to-heart songs about what they feel. They drink a little to feel happy, and what they drink is palm wine." AFROPOP: That's a good quote. That's beautiful. Gary, you've studied so many different strains of music, what’s different about Sierra Leone? G.S.: I think what's distinctive about Sierra Leonean music is that it's indistinct because there are so many outside influences on the music. Sierra Leone, especially Freetown, which is where the pop music mostly originated, is an amalgamation of enormously diverse peoples. They're descendants of repatriated slaves who came from all over Africa, so all of their traditions grew up in this music—and then you have all of the influences from abroad, especially Western pop and dance band music. Probably most importantly in Sierra Leone pop music is Congolese music. So you see all of these different things going on Sierra Leone music. It's so different than the homogenous music of, say, Mali, or Burkina Faso, or places like that, just because the population is so diverse. AFROPOP: Has there ever been a campaign or cultural movement to try and say, "This is Sierra Leone's sound?" Like, there's samba in Brazil or cumbia in Colombia or joropa in Venezuela or jazz in America. Is there anything like that? G.S.: No. In fact, I think most of the musicians pride themselves on being able to play many different things. There was some great reggae music that came out of Sierra Leone. You also had a guy like Ali Ganda in the early '60s who did calypso, The Heartbeats did James Brown stuff, and so many of the bands emulated the Congolese musicians. AFROPOP: Gary, could you tell us more about the Congolese influence?' G.S.: Well, there was a band that was really influential called Rico Jazz. It was this traveling band of Congolese musicians and they encamped in Freetown for a couple of years and made a lot of records and performed all over the country doing dances and such. They were very influential. Then the great Congolese guitarist, Dr. Nico, and his band African Fiesta came and played several concerts in Sierra Leone. They were hugely popular and the Sierra Leonean bands loved the guitar styles, and they all tried to pick them up. AFROPOP: This was in '69? G.S.: This was in the '60s and '70s. Jimmy Cliff was also immensely popular in Sierra Leone and lots of Sierra Leonean bands picked up reggae and did some great reggae songs. Then, eventually, the music of Bob Marley and Toots and Maytals came in. AFROPOP: John, what was your experience of reggae in Sierra Leone? J.A.: Really my first introduction to reggae music was in Sierra Leone. I was in Sierra Leone when Bob Marley died, and the effect of his death was felt equally there as it was felt anyplace else in the world. In Sierra Leone, there's a tradition of when somebody dies, when a family member dies you have a seven day ceremony after the death, and then you have a forty day ceremony, and people were literally having seven and forty day ceremonies after the date of his death, they were literally in mourning, because they felt the effect that his music had on their lives. G.S.: The same can be said of Franco from the then-Zaire, now Congo. AFROPOP: Was the reggae philosophy of African Zionism attractive to West Africans? G.S.: I think it's the feel of the music. I think that's the big appeal and that's why every culture picks it up. J.A.: It's true, it's the feel of the music. I don't think that African Zionism was as relevant in Africa. In Sierra Leone, people weren't talking about that. If they were talking about Bob Marley's lyrics, what people would talk about with me was this general notion of world brotherhood, the way his music would juxtapose the third world with the superpowers. But the discussion about a back to Africa movement wasn't so much relevant. G.S.: The message of reggae really resonated in Sierra Leone. You're talking about people who threw off colonialism only to have their own black brothers put, basically, a black colonialism back on top of them. The message that Bob Marley and some of the other reggae singers were saying really resonated with people who were on the bottom. Especially, those suffering under the yoke of mental slavery. It was kind of a black power—throw off the colonial mentality and take control. AFROPOP: Could you focus a little on the '70s bands that you referenced for us, especially Geraldo Pino and The Heartbeats? G.S.: The Heartbeats picked up on the soul craze that came out of America. They specialized in doing covers of James Brown. Then they threw in some of their own indigenous creations, and they were a big hit. Fela Kuti was blown away by The Heartbeats when they came to Nigeria because of their professionalism. They were rehearsed, the group was tight, they had the first-rate equipment—stuff that he'd never seen at that point. He just thought to himself, "Wow, I've got to get my act together." Also the Super Combo Kings (are worth mentioning)–they’re a band from the mid '60s that was very popular. People were really taken by the guitarist, Freddy Green, who was apparently somewhat mentally unstable but was a fantastic guitarist. Sabanoh 75 were extremely popular, as well. There was a kind of competition between Super Combo, Sabanoh 75 and Afro-Nationals. AFROPOP: Please tell us more about the music. G.S.: One thing about Sierra Leone music that I think is remarkable is that it wasn't exactly "message" music; it was fun music. It was bands congratulating themselves and naming the members of the band and saying how cool they were, and how much better they were than the other bands in town. It was funny stories, like Afro-Nationals talking about how the lead singer's mother-in-law is fine, and how he's admiring her more than his own wife, and how he sends his wife off into the bush so he can hang out with the mother-in-law. So before the war, the music was really party music. It was very joyful, and I think the music has definitely changed. After the war, people are a lot more serious. They're talking about more substantive things than people going out and having an affair or going out and getting drunk or partying. It's interesting because I just saw a video of some friends that they sent us from the village that I used to live in. I thought it was remarkable how serious the faces were. It was unlike the pictures that I used to see from Sierra Leone where the people were laughing and smiling. People just looked much more serious. Like they were still in shock, still recovering from the trauma. J.A.: The song Corruption is, I think, what Gary's getting at. Because even though there's a lively beat, the message is pretty clear today: that ordinary Sierra Leoneans recognize the immensity of the problems of corruption, the role it played in the war, and how they have to deal with the problem. There's a whole campaign that was tied around that in Freetown, about corruption, and the music was being played often on the radio. The lyrics were like “Corruption Corruption, It's enough, we've just had enough.” Unfortunately, corruption is still there, but now the discussion is there, too. People are talking about this more openly. When I first went to Sierra Leone back in ‘79, if you would've had a song about corruption, it would have been banned or seen as a joke. But now it’s not funny. G.S.: Another thing that just occurred to me is that part of the difference in the change in music is that, as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions' work in trying to get the country reunited, they enlisted musicians to really talk about serious subjects as a way to try and heal the wounds of war and bring the country back together again. That's part of the difference. AFROPOP: How does international aid function in Sierra Leone today? G.S.: Many of the NGOs that are involved in rebuilding the country are bypassing the government channels and they're taking whatever it is—be it nails, corrugated roofing or cement—direct to the people to see that it really gets where it's destined. J.A.: This is one of the reasons why the nonprofit that I helped found, Sierra Leone Village Partnerships (SLVP.org) works at a grassroots level—to bypass government and to go directly to communities. We don't feel comfortable dealing with the Sierra Leonean government. We don't quite trust it, so we'd rather work with community leaders and local chiefs where we know that when we send materials, they’re less likely to be sucked away someplace. AFROPOP: One big question we now have for you is: Where exactly is Sierra Leone today? G.S.: All over the world. [Laughs] Sierra Leoneans are everywhere. The abandonment of Sierra Leone happened long before the war. People in economic distress try to get out of that and go to a better place. Sierra Leoneans did just like Mexicans do or people from other African countries or even European countries. If you can't make it one place, you try to get to another place. Sierra Leoneans went to the U.K., they came to America, and they went to France, Eastern Europe—so there are refugees all over the world. AFROPOP: Does Sierra Leone exist in D.C. and Maryland? Would you say the country is there, living? Or are those people Americans? J.A.: Sierra Leoneans in exile is what they are. I lived in DC in the early nineties. I would get into a cab and I would meet a Sierra Leonean, and it would be some guy, and he's a cab driver, but in Sierra Leone he was like a senior teacher at the school, he might have been somebody who worked in a ministry job. There is a brain drain in Sierra Leone itself. The people that left say in the eighties were often educated and had connections, and they could leave. Sadly it was often times the kind of people you wanted to stay in that country. G.S.: Now the diaspora is a huge source of income for Sierra Leone—people sending money back to Sierra Leone from America. And also among the Sierra Leoneans that you'd find in the Diaspora, you'll not find one who says they're never going to go home again. They're all going to go back home one day and live in Sierra Leone. Just about everybody would say that. Whether they'll make it or not, I don't know. J.A.: There was an interesting comment that was made when we were working on the book. A [Sierra Leonean] was talking to us about that they were grateful that they had won the visa lottery and they got out of the country and their children were in a safe place and the two boys weren't child soldiers or anything like that. But in the same breath, they all desperately missed living in Fadugu and how safe it was prior to the war, that wherever her kids went in Fadugu, someone was watching them. There was this whole community that supported everybody and they all took care of each other. There is a great loneliness now living in the United States. G.S.: The thing about living in the tropics is that everybody's outside. People are always outside and they see each other and they sit out on the verandas and wave to each other in the streets. So when they come to a society like we have in the United States or in the U.K., everybody's in their own house and they go out and get in their car and go somewhere—everybody's isolated. It's very unsettling to people who come from Sierra Leone. J.A.: But when we went to Sierra Leone, it was at first unsettling because people are just in your life all of the time, commenting on it. G.S.: Yeah, sitting on your veranda. They'll just come up and just hang out on your veranda. Even if you're not there or if you're in the house, they'll just come and hang out on the veranda and wave to their friends. J.A.: And they'll talk about you. "Oh, John, I saw you walking…” They know what your business is. G.S.: And it's fun to talk about it. [Everybody laughs] AFROPOP: Speaking of sitting on the veranda, let’s get go enjoy this beautiful day. Thank you both for your stories and for you incredible book, Black Man’s Grave.