Monday, January 30, 2006

Freetown & Northern Sierra Leone

January. 30th 2006

My first trip outside of Guinea took me to Freetown, the capital of neighboring Sierra Leone. My digging guide and friend Amadou Baldé and I left town early in the morning in a bush taxi. There's this special brand of vintage Peugeot cars that have another, smaller row of seats behind the back seat. On the outside it's not bigger than any other regular european car, on the inside neither but somehow, around here you can fit at least 10 people plus an unbelievable amount of luggage inside a car like this plus another 3 to 5 feet of luggage on top. Sometimes more. This means you have two passengers riding shotgun, if those two aren't fat, you can fit a third passenger between the two front seats, raising the number of people on board to 11. On the backseat which in fact is the "middle row", at least 4 people are seated. The tiny little bench behind somehow fits 3. Being a decadent Westerner who only cares about his own comfort, I rented the entire middle row for Amadou and me, paying for all 4 "seats" of course prompting comments like "look, this is how rich people travel" from the three big ladies compressed into the small space behind us. After 3 hours, the tar gave away to a dirt road with a surface changing from deep washed out tracks and large craters to some sort of ripple pattern that must originate from the type of machinery used to level the "Freetown-Conakry Highway". Our car somehow reminded me of the Zombies in Dawn Of the Dead: Important parts of the body were missing, it looked like it long ago should have stopped moving but somehow this car was still going. Only difference being that this was one fast Zombie careening through the jungle at breakneck speed, camouflaged in an immense cloud of red dust, heading straight towards Freetown. Okay, I should mention that we had a three hour stop at the border but this would be an entire story on its own, everybody who has any experience in african border crossing should know what I'm talking about.

Freetown used to be a bustling town. The nearby beaches, endlessly long, white and lined with palm trees are considered to be amongst the continent's most beautiful, some claim they would make the worldwide top ten. This is why Freetown, before the 10 year long civil war that plagued the country up until 2001 had enjoyed its fair share of tourism. Then it became the favorite playground for international dealers in firearms and diamonds. The fighting during the first 6 years was limited to the border region to Liberia in the East and the diamond fields in the North but in 1997 one of Africa's most gruesome civil wars of the last decade engulfed the capital. Gangs of bandits and soldiers of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) for the most part consisting of drugged out teenagers with machetes and AK 47s took the streets, terrorizing, raping, mutilating and killing civilians at will. After being pushed out of the capital by the Ecomog (West african peace keeping force) in 1998, the RUF retaliated in '99 with an unimaginably brutal assault code named "Operation No Living Thing". A wave of terror washed over the city of Freetown. Within a few days, many thousand civilians got killed or had limbs hacked off with machetes. Almost every single person you get to meet in Freetown can tell you stories that will wrench your gut.
Amadou and me entered the city through the borough of Kissy which was the one to suffer the most during the war. Amadou's uncle lives there and we paid him a visit. The old man told us how he had lost his business during the war and how he was lucky enough to keep his life. At times being forced to flee his house and live in the streets on the West side of town where for the most part, there were no rebels but where privately operating bandits executed their own brand of brutality. He told us how his entire family walked around with swollen bellies because they were not able to cook for weeks. The smell of food would have attracted the rebels who would have taken everything away. The diet consisted of raw cassava and potatoes resulting in severe intestinal pains.
After a couple of ice cold Star beers (the surprisingly good local brew of choice), we took to the center of town where we found our first "recording studio". The owner refused flat out to sell any of his records even though he didn't use them anymore. After he left, his employee told us to meet him after work at the kiosk inside Victoria Park. We headed for another spot called "Topman Recording Studio" where we met Abrahaman, our future main connection to various private record collections. Abrahaman let us go through his entire store stock and I scored my first few OG nigerian issue Fela records along with "Mandjou" by Ambassadeur International on Badmos Records with a young Salif Keita on vocals, not a dance record but an incredible piece of music: jazzy trumpet and organ soli, supertight percussion and Keita's hypnotic vocals. Gives me the chills every time I put it on. I also scored my first funk records by local bands: The insanely good and very rare 12" "bi loko" by Muyei Power and the "push am forward" 45 by Afro National.

Abrahaman told us to search for "old sailors". He explained how it had always been the sailors who brought the new records to town. They were traveling up and down the West African coast, buying records in the harbors of Lagos, Cotonou and Abidjan, the cities with pressing plants and sold them to local recording studios and nightclubs once they would get back to Freetown. We left Topman and turned a few corners to an electronics store that also used to deal with records, but they had nothing interesting left. There we met a young man named Zico who told us he knew just the man we were looking for, an old sailor with a vast collection of records. The shop was located on Regent Road, one of Freetown's busiest streets, lined by small stores and businesses with an endless stream of pedestrians, cars and the infamous taxi motorbikes which dart through traffic without any consideration for their own or anybody else's wellbeing. Zico showed us away from the chaos, down a narrow road with deep cracks in its tar. The edges giving away inch after inch to the valley into which we descended. In its middle, a bridge crossed over a small creek. The last few yards before the bridge, the edges of the road zigzagged towards its center, almost reaching the middle. Someone had painted the outline of the remaining tar white to minimize the danger of falling into the bushes below when walking after dark. On the other side, Zico led us into a neighbourhood of old wooden houses from colonial times and to the left we entered a narrow gate in a sheet iron fence which gave way into a small community of shacks and one story houses. A labyrinth of pathways led us past old women preparing food in front of their houses and girls fixing each others hair. On the other side, we exited again through another door and entered into a backyard where we found Mr. Abu Deen Kamara sitting in front of his one story house.

Mr. Abu Deen Kamara was old, hard to tell what age exactly, his eyes were slightly fogged as if someone had poured a few drops of milk into them. He told us about how he had bought vinyl and tapes all over West Africa in the 70s and with pride, he explained to us how he had always taken good care of his records over the years and that they would all be in excellent shape. Mr. Kamara disappeared into his house while his neighbours offered me a wooden chair. I sat down and set up the portable record player on the three feet high tile covered wall surrounding a water well. Instantly, we were joined by several children and a group of women who sat down for their meal in front of the house next door eyed us with curiosity. Mr. Kamara carried out the first box of 45s. Most of them really were in great shape, many even with intact color sleeve. I found Docteur Nico's Garage Funk Bomb "Sookie" on 45. Pressed much louder than the LP version and a full minute and one insane drum/conga break longer. The fact that this beast was recorded in Kongo in 1968 just blows my mind. Another Highlight was Cobra with "wari-wa", one of the heaviest Afrobeat tracks I've ever heard and pure dance floor material. Ernesto Djedje from Cote d'Ivoire teaming up with the Manu Dibango Orchestra for the incredible Latin Funk 45 "anowah" turned out to be unkown even amongst afro-specialists. I also found another local release: Lamtei Lamptei with "fish and funji", the heavy drum intro had some of the kids start dancing around. We left with a nice stack of 45s after handing over a good amount of cash to Mr. Kamara who was just as happy as we were. He even received a spontaneous mariage proposal from one of his neighbors who said that now, since he was a wealthy man, she'd be happy to become his wife.
We made it back downtown and entered Victoria Park to sit down in front of the Kiosk for a rich meal of delicious palm oil stew with rice. The friendly owner of the place already knew about us and said that our young friend from the recording studio whom we were supposed to meet had already been by earlier and would be back in a while. As the sun settled, the sky filled with tens of thousands of flying dogs, a large kind of bat that sleeps through the day, hanging from tree branches like dead leaves. At dusk, they travel to the countless mango trees for a nightly feast of sweet fruit calling out to each other in high pitched voices.
We were lucky to have a flashlight with us because Freetown has zero electricity and nights are pitch black. Our friend arrived and brought us, amongst other records, two great LPs from Ghana: Bob Pinodo's "show master of africa" with the track "africa" that starts out with an amazing drumbreak and one of my best finds ever, a previously unknown and excelent Ebo Taylor record named "conflict". Amadou left for his uncle's house and I took a cab to my hotel on the West side. Initially I had made plans to just take a shower and then check out some local clubs but when I sat on the hotel bar's terrace over a beer, trying to decide if I should walk or send one of the guards to get me a cab, there was gunfire errupting from several corners within the hotel's close proximity and I figured I might just as well go to bed and call it a day. Still some guns left on the streets of Freetown, it seems.

I've been back to Freetown on several occasions after this trip and I managed to establish a solid network of agents who are hunting down records for me while I'm away. It's always a big pleasure to visit this amazing place.
One day, I decided to explore the provinces of Sierra Leone. My wife was nice enough to lend me her SUV and once again, Amadou and me hit the Conakry-Freetown highway. This time, about 100 Miles before reaching Freetown, we turned north towards the cities of Bo and Kenema right in the heart of Sierra Leone's diamond fields.

Traveling with our own car and with a driver made things a lot easier for us. The cars diplomatic license plates reduced the normally several hour-long waiting periods at various checkpoints around the border to a few minutes. Thierno, our driver, sometimes didn't even stop, he slowed down, yelled "Mr. Ambassador coming through" out the window and everybody wearing a uniform stepped back and saluted... Another big advantage of having an all terrain vehicle was the condition of the road: We were traveling early in August at the height of the annual rainy season. We had to deal with pot holes that looked like small lakes and there was no telling on how deep the muddy brown water would be. Once we hit a not only very deep but also steep hole with too much speed, we heard something snap and upon close inspection on the other side of the crater, we had to discover that we had lost our license plate. Luckily, Thierno was able to retrieve it out of the water after only a short search.

It seems very amusing when you see the sometimes bizarre, African ways of transportation. Cows are bound at the feet and sat into the trunk of a cab, head with confused eyes sticking out to the side. The need to bring all sorts of goods and large numbers of people from one place to another with nothing but worn out cars results in lots of creativity but also in serious danger. 20 to 30 people get jammed inside "mini busses", small vans, in fact, with holes cut into the sides so air can get in. One of those crashes, the often already twisted frame might give away some more, jamming the side door. Leaking fuel, a spark, nothing more needed for a dozen or so people to burn to death. Happens not too seldom.
The last 100 miles before Bo, the road got really bad. We counted a total of three large trucks lying on their sides next to the road. One of those accidents as we later learned had cost the lives of 8 passengers who had climbed on top of the truck's load that consisted of sacks of rice and cement. When the truck tipped over, people's bodies got mangled between the heavy sacks, the scene must have been horrifying.
We arrived at Bo in the early afternoon and decided to first grab a bite to eat and then to start looking for records. We didn't find anything in Bo but very good groundnut stew. It was raining every day, all day. We decided to try our luck in Kenema. The road from Bo to Kenema is only 80 miles long but amongst the best maintained of the whole country. It was a pleasant drive through thick forests of palm trees, fields and small villages. Halfway there, I saw a field full of suspicious looking plants and asked Amadou "hey, I'm sure I just saw a big field of marijuana!" "yes, this is very popular in Sierra Leone and around here it grows a lot". When asked if that wasn't illegal, Amadou simply said "yes, but the police have other problems..."
Kenema is the center of Sierra Leone's Diamond trade but it's a very unglamorous city. It mainly consists of one main road with an endless row of lebanese owned stores that buy and export not only diamonds but also coffee and cocoa. At the same time it is very hard to find a cup of real coffee, not only in Kenema but in all of Sierra Leone, Nescafe is much more popular. Being amongst the world's poorest countries, Sierra Leone is also one of the worlds biggest exporters in diamonds. Of course, all that the tiny country ever got in exchange were big cars, offshore accounts and mansions for a small elite and guns and machetes for the rest of the population.
(As a footnote: Do not watch this movie called "Blood Diamond". It's a lying, trivializing piece of shit and on top of it it's boring and a total waste of time. Also some of the most pathetic acting I've ever seen in mainstream cinema.)
While doing research all around Kenema and finding the one or the other record (doubles of the Cobra 45 and the Poly Rythmo Vol.4 with "aihe ni kbe we") I kept hearing about a lebanese guy named Gassam. Suppposedly, he had bought up stock from several recording studios in Freetown and then moved everything to Kenema. Due to the war, there was little interest in music, basically every citizen at some time or the other had to flee their house, places got looted and business concentrated on things that were easy to move, like diamonds and guns. Gassam dumped all his records in his basement and waited for times to get better. Now he runs a big store for mobile phones which are strong in demand in Sierra Leone. It took us a couple of days to get a date with Mr. Gassam and on the last day before our departure back to Guinea we scored. We scored big!

These records hadn't been moved in years and the red dust that during dry season will enter all houses even through the smallest cracks and settle on everything, had covered a good dozen of about 5 foot high piles of LPs that lined one entire wall of Mr. Gassams basement. There was no light so I was happy to have come prepared. I pulled my strap-on headlight over my forehead and a mold-stopping microfiltermask over mouth and nose. Of course, I looked like a complete idiot and both, Amadou and our host had to chuckle. Many hours later though, after I was through with all the records, it was clear that I couldn't have done without the mask. More than once before, and again a few weeks later when I returned from my trip to Benin, I had to pay the price for deciding against the mask in order to either not be ridiculed or to not insult my host by giving them the impression I thought their house was dirty. Western Africa has a lot of rain, Conakry and Freetown are amongst the cities with the most rain in the entire World. All this rain comes down within 3 to 4 months every year, resulting in extremely high humidity and frequent flooding. It is rare to find a record with not at least a bit of mold on the in- or outside of the cover. Moving records around when looking through them results in fanning all those mold spores into your face. Doing this for a couple of hours, day after day in my experience results in an about 50% chance to fall sick within a week. It starts like a common cold with serious headache, the symptoms move up and down your throat and sinuses, sometimes settling in your jaws or forehead. It's nasty stuff, so better wear a mask when digging in the tropics.

The drive back to Conakry was easy. Funny how the way back always seems much quicker. We made a short stop at Rogbera and scored some delicious bush meat. An animal called cane rat, a large rodent, bigger than a beaver, personally, I prefer "grasscutter" the more appetizing other name under which this animal is known. The meat was simmered down with several spices and herbs I could not name and it tasted delicious. Tender to the bite and juicy, the thin layer of fat under its spice-covered skin melted on my tounge, pleasing every single tastebud. I regretted not to have bought the entire pot. Amadou explained to me how he used to hunt for grasscutters around his village when he was young. Since the animal is nocturnal, he would stake out their feeding ground during the day and then at night surprise them with a flaming torch, causing the feeding animals to scare and freeze, thereby giving him enough time to hit them over the head with a big stick. One of those cute little things would give you around 8 pounds of meat.


Hunter Vaughan said...

great reading of the hunt for thee wild vinyl game...the stalking through the 'hoods in search of the elusive 45 or lp that is truly a find....keep it up, cant believe no other comments on this post//// but you know the web...appreciate your efforts...from a snowstorm in toronto...your provided rhythms keepin us warm...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

It will be better if you can put these Mask to the disposal of a national museum. Your blog is very good it is like a kind of archiv or library but Mask are different a picture cannot replace the materie.

Frank said...

I don't know what mask you are talking aboutt but rest assured that I only bought authentic ritualistic artifacts that have not been in use for a long time. I have also only bought artifacts in Guinea where mosques are built instead of museums for animistic artifacts. The few museums Guinea has can't even show the things they already have. Lots of pieces are rotting away in storage rooms and under staircases.

Word of mouth Mike said...

Thanks for your story it brought back memories of a trip to Sierra Leone looking for music. Incredible place where like seems much more vital and often is as people live on a knife edge.

Powerful memories included watching people duck as jets came over, the beautiful beaches and things too crazy to talk about here.

Is there any Sierra Leone music on this blogsite?

Frank said...

Yeah, Sierra Leone is a pretty crazy place. Unfortunatelly, there are new signs for troble at the horizon...

I always thought, I had put Afro National's "push em forward" and Lamtei Lamptei's "fish and funji" on one of the mixes but I just checked and it doesn't seem so.

Sierra Leone didn't have recording studios or pressing plants in the 70s so most local talent went to Ivory Coast, Ghana or Nigeria to record and many artists tayed there like for example Geraldo Pino.