Tag Archives: music


Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe Fights to Return to Glory Days

I went along with my colleague at Cotton Tree News, Kevin Lamdo, to produce his program entitled “My Visit,” where he highlights the everyday life of different groups of people in Sierra Leone. The show has featured everyone from Paramount Chiefs to scrap metal collectors.

This week, the program went to the Aberdeen Cultural Village, the official centre for arts in Sierra Leone. Despite being located inside the city, it lives up to the title of “Village.” Generations of families live here, growing small crops and raising livestock. Chickens squawk running in between bathing children while pots of rice simmer on open fires.

This is the home of Sierra Leone’s National Dance Troupe, who tell me they are happy to be making a living doing what they love, even though their salaries barely allow them to make ends meet.

I visited the village in the morning and for hours they practiced singing, dancing, acrobatics and playing drums – traditional Sierra Leonean music from around the country. But, they tell me, they often can’t afford to maintain their costumes and repair their instruments.

For a time, the troupe performed everywhere from Canadato China. In 1963, the National Danced Troupe was founded by John Joseph Akar, a Sierra Leonean entertainer and repeat guest on the Merv Griffin Show. Under Akar’s leadership, the troupe was invited to the United States to perform at the New York World Fair, at the Negro Arts festival in Dakar, Senegal and went on a four-month tour of Europe.

Today, little seems to be invested in promoting the culture of a country that is best known around the world in popular culture primarily for blood diamonds and civil war.

The Troupe still entertains at foreign diplomatic events and, performs for state functions – including last year’s 50th Anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence. But this kind prestige didn’t last. Several corrupt governments and an 11-year civil war left little room in the government budget for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture,

Lansana Kelfala has been a musician with the dance troupe since 1963, and for a while, he says he felt the pride of traveling the world representing his newly-independent country.

“We used to travel, perform and get paid all the time. Now we can go two or three years without going anywhere,” said Kelfala. “We want the government to give us more help and we want the people to support us so we don’t starve.”

In Malawi when ‘Life’ gets tough, it gets banned

Saturday night in Blantyre and the drinks are flowing at Mustang Sally’s, a fluorescent bar with a swimming pool centerpiece frequented by ex-pats and a new generation of young Malawians who have money.  The laptop DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” for the eighth time of the night.

No longer under the strict censuring control of one-party-state president Hastings Kamuza Banda, Malawian airwaves have opened up to music that in the 20th century remained an unknown.  In the years following the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994, the Malawian music industry has diversified, with Malawian artists more free to perform traditional, gospel and reggae-inspired sounds, and some images and styles even being scavenged from sexually provocative, explicitly violent and drug-saturated music on  stations such as  MTV.

Today Malawians can praise any God, they can even party rock, but if you ask Lucius Banda they still can’t protest.

Lucius Banda, the first Malawian musician to use his platform to protest government. Photo submitted.

The first musician to sing openly against political oppression in Malawi during the decades of one-party rule, Banda says growing up in absolute poverty and amid systemic social injustice inspired him to “make sure there’s an alternative voice from the government.”

“Coming from a broken family living in absolute poverty, life was difficult,” remembers Banda.  “We had to go to the Catholic mission houses to clean toilets to pay for school fees.  After we’d paid that, we’d go to school, and then if the president was visiting your area you had to raise money to give him as a gift.

“We couldn’t afford that and so we wouldn’t be allowed in class, maybe for two or three weeks.  It was like getting candy from a grandchild,” he says.  “I don’t forget that.”

In the 1980s Banda began his music career singing gospel songs as part of the Alleluya Band, but eventually branched out on his own to produce music that would “sensitize people to regain their conscience.”

“I didn’t like singing love songs,” he says.  “I talked about injustices, the suffering of the people, that was my main concern.”

In 1993 Banda released his first solo album titled “Makolo”.  The single “Mabala” which means “wounds” was critical of the ruling Kamuzu Banda regime, which he said afflicted pain on those already living in absolute poverty.

In 2001 when then-UDF chairman and President Bakili Muluzi attempted a third term, Banda released the song “How Long.”

“I did a lot of songs rebuking [Muluzi],” Banda says.  “Why should we have become a friend of Mugabe and others who were clinging to power?”

In 2005 he released the album “Enemy (of the State)” where he criticized current president Bingu wa Mutharika for quitting the UDF party that had ushered him into power to seek re-election as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate instead, and in 2006 and 2008 he released the albums “Survivor” and “Freedom” respectively with messages meant for Mutharika: “We’ll survive you” and “You will see when people realize the truth.”

But in 2011 his latest album of protest music and its title track “Life” attracted negative attention from the Malawi Censorship Board and a ban by the Malawi Broadcasting Company (MBC).  Now that his music is banned from Malawian radio stations, Banda says Section 35 of the Malawi Constitution has failed him and that without free expression the music industry is “harsh” in Malawi.

“You can’t criticize people who are in positions where you put them with your vote,” he says.  “They say, ‘Stay quiet as I’m sitting on your money’ at a time when we don’t have a strong opposition and [Malawians] are weaker than we were in terms of our reactiveness to dictatorship… The Malawians you meet today are not the Malawians of 1994.  In 1994 Malawians were aggressive.  We were patriotic.  The Malawians you meet today I’m sorry to say are desperate, everyone for himself, ‘as long as I get mine it’s OK.’  That’s why we cannot come together and fight one common enemy.”

Though he still believes Malawians who love their country should show that they’re not happy with what is happening, Banda says the MBC ban has hurt his medium.

“Because of the ban, slowly [my] music is dying, people don’t listen to it, youngsters don’t listen to it, so they [government] are succeeding,” he says.

“Today you have to censor yourself so much when an artist is supposed to be free.  If I were going into the industry now, in this environment, I wouldn’t go.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on March 8, 2012.

Listen to Banda’s song “Tikamalira” (Why We Cry) here.

Stay Jay and E.Fine visit Kapital Radio

Kapital Radio — The Heart of Music

My coworkers have developed a habit of calling me up to the studio when Ghanaian celebrities come in, whether it’s a Black Star’s player or a musician. Most recently two West-African musicians, one from Ghana and one from Nigeria, came into the studio to talk to NY DJ on the station’s afternoon show, Homestretch. Ghanaian hiplife artist, Stay Jay’s, song “Shashee Wowo,” is currently playing on the Ghanaian airwaves. E.Fine, the Nigerian artist, has a collaboration with Sarkodie entitled “Stamina.”

To listen to some of NY DJ’s interview with the two artists, and to hear some a Capella watch the video below.


From Newfoundland to Ghana With Love

The deputy head master points to Andrews' home province, Newfoundland

I sit eating my lunch and watch two women pound cassava into a fine pulp. One turns the white lump over just before the other woman brings down a wooden pole with a force that could easily break fingers. They work with a perfect rhythm—the woman’s hand pulling back just before the pole comes down.

Rhythm is a part of life here in the Volta Region. There is a strong tradition of music and dance in the region, especially the town of Dzogadze.

That’s what brought Newfoundlander Curtis Andrews here in 1999. He was studying drumming and dance in Ghana and was so impressed by the talent of the musicians that he returned in 2002 to live in Dzogadze for two months. The villagers welcomed him and he became known as Kojo, the Ghanaian name for males born on a Monday.

Andrews went back to Newfoundland with a plan to hold a fundraiser and use the money to improve Dzogadze’s school compound that was lacking space and materials. Over the next few years he organized a series of concerts in St. John’s that raised over $8,000 to build a kindergarten block, computer lab and library.

When I asked Dzogadze Basic School teacher Jacob Lekpor to show me what the donations have accomplished, he pointed across the soccer field to a yellow building.

The library's collection is made up of a combination of Ghanaian textbooks and Canadian literature

“That’s where our beloved brother Curtis Andrews has put up a school for our children,” said Lekpor, a junior high school teacher.

When Lekpor came to Dzogadze four years ago, there was no kindergarten classroom. The children were forced to learn under a tree and write in the sand. Now the school is gaining a good reputation and drawing students from neighbouring communities.

Things have improved for older students as well. The computer lab helps students compete in the public school system where information technology has recently become a required part of the curriculum.

“It will enable the children to have access to information,” says Lekpor. “The country is developing, and information technology is very important. I’m happy that even at this age they will be able to improve their computer skills.”

What’s more, the library is full of books donated from overseas that expand students’ knowledge of the world outside Ghana.

Lekpor says attendance rates were very low when he began teaching in Dzogadze and very few students passed the graduation exams. Now 60 per cent of students graduate and move on to higher education.

Artifacts from Canada cover the walls and fill the shelves of this rural African school. The library includes books about hockey and classic Canadian novels like Anne of Green Gables. There is a map of Canada on the wall, and a chart of the different fish species of Newfoundland and Labrador.

It would be a lie to say Dzogadze is now a utopia thanks to generous Canadians. People still fetch water from a stagnant pond when the pumps don’t work, and many students can’t afford the necessary uniforms for school.  The medical clinic hasn’t had a nurse in two years and patients have to be taken by motorcycle to the nearest hospital half an hour away.

Quality of life is still lacking in some areas but people here are thankful for what they now have thanks to one musician from the cold north.

“His presence has helped a lot of children,” Lekpor said to me as we stood in the doorway of the Curtis Andrews Block. “Those that did not know the importance of education, they are now getting it.”