Moving the Music Industry Forward in Sierra Leone

About three months ago I was asked to travel to Sierra Leone to speak and participate in a conference entitled “Moving the Music Industry Forward”.  The trip was sponsored by the US State Department and was the second time I’ve been asked to do something like this.  The first time was to Montenegro.  I’d never been to Sierra Leone before let alone Africa.  I did a lot of research before agreeing to make the trip.

Sierra Leone is located on the coast of western Africa with the capital being Freetown.  The country was embroiled in an eleven-year brutal civil war which saw over 50,000 deaths and countless more maimed.  In 2002 the war was declared over and elections took place with nearly an 80% turnout of those eligible to vote.  The next election was scheduled to take place on August 11th, 2007. The votes are still being counted as I write this and it looks as though there will be a run-off for president.   Although making progress, Sierra Leone is considered one of the poorest countries in the world with nearly 70% of its citizens living in poverty.

Downtown Freetown and the Cotton Tree

Needless to say I was nervous but also curious about this opportunity.  I had to get a number of vaccines before going along with a prescription for anti-malaria medication. Travel time from San Francisco would be about 24 hours with layovers but, since the airport in Sierra Leone is located across the bay from Freetown and transportation is questionable, it took me over 30 hours until I arrived at the Hotel Cabenda. It was a comfortable place with a restaurant and internet access.

– Day One –

After a few hours of sleep, a driver picked me up at my hotel and took me to the US Embassy where I met Amy Challe.  She works for the State Department and was my primary contact in Sierra Leone.  I met her briefly the night before as she welcomed me to Freetown. Amy showed me around and introduced me to Amelia Brown who is the acting director at the embassy. The three of us then headed to the Miatta Conference Centre in the center of Freetown. Approximately 180 people were scheduled to attend.

Miatta Conference Centre Attendees

The program started with a number of opening statements from the people responsible for making the event possible and those involved in the industry. Dr. Julius Spencer, Managing Director of Premier Media and the chairman of the conference, stressed the importance of a thriving music industry in Sierra Leone. Thomas Hull, the US Ambassador offered support from the US Embassy and noted that a successful industry could help create jobs. He also gave me a very kind introduction.

After the opening statements and a short snack break, we started our first session “Key Elements for a Successful Music Industry” in which I gave a presentation describing the basic structure of the US music industry. I started off by saying that in my search for information on Sierra Leone music, it was difficult to find much information. I tried to show that it wasn’t just artists that made up the industry but also labels, clubs, media, equipment stores, Web sites and CD manufacturers as well as so many others. I was able to show the pressures of piracy on the industry and noted that its influence is felt by all of those involved, from artists and labels to retail outlets and even consumers.  Finally, after giving a few tips on what has helped me over the years, I let people know that music, to me, is an art form that is important to our culture and not just a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Mark Ainley, my UK counterpart and founder of Honest Jon’s Records gave a brief outline of how the industry works in the UK.  As the head of a label and an owner of a record store, he described the decline in sales and how piracy has a direct impact on his business.  Dr. Kitty Fadlu-Deen from the Balanta Academy, who chaired this session, reviewed what Mark and I spoke about and then opened it up for discussion. We had many questions regarding the structure and responsibilities of labels and their relationship with musicians.

Breaking into the International Music Scene Panel

The afternoon panel was entitled “Breaking into the International Music Scene” and was chaired by Emrys Savage (King Fisher), manager of Bodyguard Studio and included Jimmy Bangura (Jimmy B) and Lansana Sheriff (Steady Bongo) as well as Mark and myself.  We discussed the need for musicians to incorporate distinct and traditional local sounds with western styles that have become popular.  We also discussed the need for musicians to increase the quality of their products by working with high-end studios and producers, seek professional training if needed, and assemble a top-notch live band instead of just using backing tracks.

The final panel of the day discussed “Marketing and Distributing Sierra Leone Music” and included local production houses, distributors and labels.  I was not involved with this panel and although it was a bit difficult to get a grasp of the situation, it seems that many had concerns that the current distributor is playing a dual role by providing products wholesale as well as retailing them in its shop. This can create restrictions for expanding the market.

That was it for the first day.  In my preparation for this trip I read so many warnings about what to eat and what not to eat while I was in Sierra Leone but never had a problem.  Later that evening, after sampling some Star Beer, a local brew, Amy, Amelia, Mark and I all went out to the Lighthouse Restaurant for dinner. I had grilled barracuda which was so good that I had it at my hotel restaurant the next night as well.

– Day Two –

Mark and I opened up the second day of the conference by recapping the events of the first day. Chukuemeka Taylor, a local attorney then did an excellent presentation on copyright protection in Sierra Leone.  He defined many parts of the 1965 law but noted that it was very difficult to understand.  He also stressed that there is little to no law enforcement in place to combat issues of infringement.  His presentation even helped me understand how US laws work a bit more clearly.

Steve Beck discussing label structures

For most of the remainder of the day, participants in the conference split up into three groups to discuss and make recommendations regarding the following subjects:

– Strengthening copyright legislation and enforcement mechanisms
– Producing and managing musicians
– Marketing and distributing Sierra Leone music worldwide

Mark and I served as consultants to the groups as they discussed these issues and came up with recommendations on the various topics.  At the end of the day each group presented their initial suggestions on how to deal with these issues.

Members of the Links Group performing “The Rubber Song”

Later that night, after dinner, many of the participating musicians put on a live concert. Steady Bongo and the Cultural Heroes provided a live band and sound for most of the acts to perform with.  Others used backing tracks or played their own instruments.  This was an important step as many artists in Sierra Leone actually mime their music and don’t sing or play live. Musicians such as Daddy Rhymes and the Gospel Group were crowd favorites but mine was the Links group that includes Mackie, Sapano, Succulent and Lady Amit. They have a new song dubbed “The Rubber Song” that everyone was talking about. With the issues of AIDS in Africa, this song could be very popular throughout the region.

– Day Three –

On the third and final day of the program and my last in Sierra Leone we arrived at the conference center. The day started by critiquing the previous evening’s concert. Mark and I were not needed during this period so we accepted an invitation from Dr. Kitty Fadlu-Deen to take a quick tour of the Balanta Academy of Music in downtown.

In addition to getting to see a bit more of Freetown, visiting the academy was a nice break from being in the conference center. The Balanta Academy is non-profit and is governed by a Board of Directors with a goal to teach music to a high professional standard. They also receive a modest subsidy from the Government. In 2006, they had an average of 50 students per term. The curriculum includes the required “Theory of Music” along with classes focusing on individual instrument such as piano, drums and guitar.

Amy Challe, Dr. Kitty Fadlu-Deen and Mark Ainley at the Balanta Academy of Music

I was extremely impressed by the Academy, not only by their organization but also by what they give back to their community and culture. One of the issues brought out by the conference was the lack of proper education of musicians, and here was a place that in addition to offering training to those starting out, they also offered classes for musicians who are already involved in the industry.  It came to my attention that the Academy needed a keyboard/workstation and, through OnlineRock, I was able to donate an Alesis Fusion 6HD to them. These are not available in Sierra Leone and will be put to good use.

We headed back to the conference center where the three groups were now refining their recommendations based on the comments from the day before. Mark and I were once again available for consultation. The process seemed to work well as most participants were able to contribute in the discussions and the recommendations that the groups came up. These would later help to shape the action items from the conference.

During lunch, Mark, Amy and I took another little side trip to the Freetown Big Market.  The 143 year old Wallace Johnson Street Market was re-opened in 2004 and houses a number of vendors selling crafts and batiks.  Although it was a bit overwhelming with people trying to get our attention, Amy was able to negotiate for me and I was able to pick up a few items to bring back to my friends and family.  Amy also got me a beautiful shirt as a remembrance of my trip.  Here is a video of the Big Market:

Lunch was still being served when we returned. The conference provided lunch each day and they served some local dishes. This day we had cassava leaves with fish over rice and the day before was groundnut stew. After all of the warnings that I had about the food, everything was fine and I enjoyed all of the dishes that I tried while I was there. The stews had a bit of spice and the fish was always fresh.

The remainder of the conference was spent on recommendations and action plans to help move the music industry forward. The first was to create a task force to ensure that these recommendations were followed through with. This 16 member group would consist of musicians, producers, DJ’s, distributors, media and venues. Musicians were also encouraged to become members of the Sierra Leone Musicians Union to strengthen and restructure it to meet the current needs of its members.

Other recommendations included establishing a Copyright Office within the Ministry of Trade and Industry, drafting new Intellectual Property legislation that would address the current times, and create a forgery-proof seal that would be applied to all legally produced products to help combat piracy. It was also recommended that the Miatta Conference Centre should be converted into a National Arts Centre that could be used for both conferences and performing arts. My recommendation for creating a central Website for Sierra Leone’s Music was taken into account as well.

Dr. Spencer then brought the conference to a close. There was a feeling of accomplishment but also the understanding that there was a long way to go. There was hope that with the support of the conference’s sponsors, this could be turned into an annual event.  A number of participants wanted to chat with me, and a few members of the media asked for interviews. Throughout the three days I got to talk with many and feel extremely fortunate to meet the people that I did.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to travel to Sierra Leone. It is with much respect that I thank Amy Challe for all of her guidance and support while I was in Freetown. Without her I would have been lost.  She made me feel comfortable and was a perfect liaison as she knew many of the people involved with the conference. I’d also like to thank Gretchen Christison who initially contacted me about this opportunity and arranged all of my travel plans.

Freetown Market

Mark and I commented on how involved and enthusiastic the conference participants were and we noted that it would be rare to see that level of devotion at a similar event in the US or UK. I now have a better understanding of the hardships many have to face and the challenges they had to overcome, not to mention that electricity and water are still not accessible or reliable to all. I would like to commend those involved in the music industry for realizing they have issues to deal with and taking action to correct them. Some who have enjoyed international success are even putting efforts back into the local scene by starting their own labels, building studios and setting up distribution. I look forward to following the developments in the country, keeping in touch with my new friends and listening to the latest music distinctly from Sierra Leone.

Free Music From Sierra Leone:

Some of the musicians and producers that I met gave me CDs and asked to post their music on our website:

– Tribalism by Tetina Cultural Group from the album “Uman nor to slave nar man ose” – Meaning a woman is not a slave in her marriage home. It’s a cultural album preaching about peace in Sierra Leone, since we’re from ten years of war. Produced by Brima Timbo Sesay (Dj Britel) King Fisher and Sexy P for Marbrite Production Freetown, Sierra Leone.


– Free We by King Bangs (Tapsiru King) from the album “Free We” – King Bangs has been involved in the music industry for over ten years. His previous releases include Why Cry, Sweet Sweet Salone, Give Peace a Chance (composed during the war) and Welcome Peace (after the signing of the peace accord).

Free We

– By U Way by Leslie from the album “Running into the Future” – It’s an R&B album mixed with African rhythm and vibe. Published and Promoted by Marbrite Production Freetown, Sierra Leone.

By U Way

– Sedative by Zibo (David Konteh) from the album “Sedative” – Zibo is currently working on his new album. This one was recorded at Island Studios in Freetown, Sierra Leone and was produced by Sam Jones.


– Nut Nut by BSL (Born Sierra Leoneans) from the album “Nut Nut” – Meaning Nil Nil. It’s a rap album mixed with Zouck, Ragga and Cultural beats. Produced by Brima Timbo Sesay (Dj Britel) King Fisher, Sexy P, Sahr Issa, Dave Corker and Kaiyo for Marbrite Production Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Nut Nut

Originally published at OnlineRock

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