A look at Soul music in Sixties’ West Africa: Sierra Leone

(January 8, 2020) As an avid Soul Music fan, it has always struck me as strange that I can find almost no books or articles telling the story of how the African continent embraced the music made by our American Soul brothers and sisters. Well, here goes…

For us, James Brown was not just “Soul Brother No. 1,” he was a musical God. Almost everyone my age can recite the whole of Live at the Apollo Vol. II LP word for word;  I mean every intro, lyric, cough, musical interlude, the whole lot! The album was memorized by us in a way some people memorise holy texts.

With his records, we checked not just for the sounds but also what he wore. For the ladies, it was Aretha’s records providing inspiration.

I asked a friend, Denis Stefanopulos, of my favourite 1960s local band, The Golden Strings, for a flavour of what the music scene was like, as he was a few years older than me and this is what he had to say:

(January 8, 2020) As an avid Soul Music fan, it has always struck me as strange that I can find almost no books or articles telling the story of how the African continent embraced the music made by our American Soul brothers and sisters. Well, here goes…

For us, James Brown was not just “Soul Brother No. 1,” he was a musical God. Almost everyone my age can recite the whole of Live at the Apollo Vol. II LP word for word;  I mean every intro, lyric, cough, musical interlude, the whole lot! The album was memorized by us in a way some people memorise holy texts.

With his records, we checked not just for the sounds but also what he wore. For the ladies, it was Aretha’s records providing inspiration.

I asked a friend, Denis Stefanopulos, of my favourite 1960s local band, The Golden Strings, for a flavour of what the music scene was like, as he was a few years older than me and this is what he had to say:

“In the '60s, night life in Freetown was swinging. There were nightclubs with bands playing Sunday to Sunday at places like 'Flamingo', 'La Gondole'; 'Sugar Dandy'; 'Pasaris'; 'Yellow Diamond'; 'Brookfields Hotel'; 'Palm Beach', 'Yellow Submarine'; 'Cape Club'; 'Ratcliffe’s'; 'Tiwana' (Tijuana) etc.; other smaller clubs like 'La Tropicana'; 'Moulin Rouge'; 'Omar Khayam', etc. having discos. There were moonlight picnics at the Prisons’ Tennis Court at New England; Brookfields Tennis Court; Victoria Park; Atlantic Club; etc. Organised dances at the (old) Town Hall; Gooding’s Hall; YWCA; FBC; Cape Club; Milton Margai Teachers’ College; Railway Union Hall; The British Council; Ports Authority Canteen; etc. There was a regular Saturday afternoon 'Free Jazz Session' at the Yellow Diamond Club, at Krootown Road; where all musicians (local, current, foreign, retired) were welcome to pick up an instrument that was idle and join in whatever music was being played by those on the stage – a fun-time for all; vibrant interaction between audience and musicians; very relaxing and enjoyable to musicians; it created a bond amongst the musicians and an appreciation of unknown talent from retired, foreign, and visiting musicians.”

Even at 13, I had a reputation as a kid who was into his music and knew it well, such that some bands would allow me to sit in on their rehearsals, knowing I’d sit attentively in a corner and be no bother. The fact that my favourite band rehearsed a ten-minute walk from my house was a bonus. Here’s Denis, again, talking about them, The Golden Strings:

“'The Golden Strings' was formed in 1966, with Julian Braithwaite on Lead Guitar, Denis Stefanopulos on Rhythm Guitar, Pedro Renner on Bass Guitar, Cecil Blake on Vocals and Emmanuel Macfoy (son of another musician – Scrubbie) on Drums. Ekor Porter then joined the band, on Tumba, followed by Bobwin Amara, Vocals. The late James Braithwaite (who was a student at the FBC.) replaced his elder brother, on Lead Guitar; followed by Sammy Ndami (former guitarist with the Ry-Co-Jazz  - yes, that Ry-Co Jazz) when James had an ultimatum from the FBC to stop playing 'or else.' The late Isaac March replaced Sammy on Lead Guitar. When 'The Echoes' band went on tour, we invited two of their members to join us, on Vocals, P.B. Williams and the late Jerry Williams. 'The Golden String' was dis-banded in 1969, when most of its members went abroad for further studies.

“'The Golden Strings' played all types of music – African, Pop, Jazz, Blues, Latin American, Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk, etc. – depending on the occasion; - whether it's a Dance, Ball, Night-Club, Moonlight Picnic, Fete, Concert, Live Radio Show, Live Television Show, etc. We did our own arrangements; composed quite a few songs, (some even for adverts on the SLBS), had newspaper profiles, did interviews for the media and made records.”

One day, at a rehearsal, I had one of the most magical days of my life, when, as the band was into its fifth or so number, a band member who’d been late came in excitedly clutching an LP under his arm: “You have to hear this!!”

There was a handsome looking guy, with a sideways look and what appeared to be an expensive jacket, cufflinks, watch and a ring. Frankly, he looked a million dollars!

The name was unfamiliar: “Who’s Makin’ Love…Johnnie Taylor”.

Track one, side one, exploded out of the speaker like a grenade! We were all whooping and screaming excitedly. It was played at least another twenty times; we did not need to get past track one; and even now, it takes me right back to that moment, to that rehearsal space.

The replaying wasn’t just because we couldn’t get enough of a great record; the band members were all listening for their parts. By the twelfth go-round, they all felt ready to give it a go and attacked the song with more vigour than finesse. I had to leave an get home before dark.  

I spent the next few days telling my friends about the record, and, that they must come to the weekend dance to hear that song. Come the day, for once, my excitement at wanting to hear this one song, meant all the others went by in a blur. Each time a tune started; my friends asked, “is this it?”

As soon as I heard the rhythm guitar intro, I knew the “scream” a milli-second later, would launch into the song, I told them “here we go.” The song finished to absolute pandemonium! My friends were patting me on the back as if I had performed the song; they knew I had not been lying; it was a stone, cold smash. Of course, the band had to play an encore of the song and still people could not get enough; they absolutely nailed it!

Ade Daramy
Journalist, broadcaster, music fanatic'
(www.africanpostmark.com)

 

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