The Heartbeats of Sierra Leone

Posted March 31st, 2008 at 11:45 pm (UTC-5)
30 comments

Ever since our weekly radio program ‘Music Time in Africa’ first hit the airwaves, back in 1965, Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats of Sierra Leone have been part of the show: for the last 43 years our opening and closing theme has been a guitar loop taken from the Hearbeats song ‘Zamsi’. Over the course of two long sessions, in November and December of 1964- at the VOA African Program Center in downtown Monrovia, Liberia-the Heartbeats recorded over thirty songs, virtually their entire repertoire at the time. These were not the group’s first recordings (those were made around 1963, in Freetown, at the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service), but they were the last made by the ‘original’ Heartbeats.

The Heartbeats were formed in Freetown, Sierra Leone, back in 1961, by Balogun ‘Dr. Dynamite’ Johnson-Williams and Gerald Pine. Dr. Dynamite remembers first running into Gerald at a meeting of the ‘Reveler’s Club’, a social club that often organized musical events. Gerald showed up one afternoon with his electric guitar and started to play covers of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly songs. By the end of the day, Gerald and Dr. Dynamite had decided to form a band, and were soon rehearsing together at Gerald’s house on Shalot Street, where he lived with his mother and sister. Their first recruits were bassist George Keister, singer Hassan Deen, and drummer Reuben Williams, who was soon replaced by percussionist Francis Fuster. Their early repertoire, which consisted of covers of songs by the British Pop sensations ‘Cliff Richard and the Shadows’, changed drastically after the Congolese group ‘Ry-Co Jazz’ arrived in Freetown in the early 1960s (probably in 1962). The Meringues, Cha-cha-chas, Mambos, and Rumbas performed by the Congolese group sparked the imagination of all of Freetown’s young musicians, and the Heartbeats soon jumped on the Rumba bandwagon.

Over the next two years the Hearbeats became one of the most popular groups in Sierra Leone, performing frequently in Freetown, and up-country, sharing bills with the Ry-Co Jazz, the Ramblers from Ghana, and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis from Guinea. As the group became more successful, Dr. Dynamite and Gerald-who by that time had adopted the name Geraldo-started to disagree about finances, and in January of 1964, Dr. Dynamite left the group. Dr. Dynamite’s replacement was Tom Brown, a Kru from downtown Freetown, remembered as an imposing (even menacing), and relatively uneducated man; and a fiercely talented guitar player. By the end of 1964, Geraldo had brought the Heartbeats to Monrovia, Liberia, where they landed a six-month engagement at the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel.

It was at the Ducor Intercontinental that the Heartbeats crossed paths with the Voice of America. Leo, who had just recently arrived in Liberia, caught the group’s set one night and invited them to come down to the Voice of America studios in downtown Liberia. Leo was interested in recording young groups he could feature on his programs, and Geraldo was interested in a set of high-quality recordings that he could issue as 45-rpm singles. During the first recording session, which was held on November 26, 1964, the Heartbeats recorded twenty-one tracks, with only one second-take. The second session, which was held on December 2, 1964, yielded sixteen tracks, with only two repeats from the November sessions. For reasons that no one can any longer remember, some of the recordings at the November session were made in mono, and others in stereo.

The Heartbeats repertoire in 1964 could be divided into four different styles; original material, covers of popular Latin hits, covers of Congolese songs, and covers of British and American popular music-especially the hits of Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley, and perhaps Buddy Holly. The recordings they made at the Voice of America feature their entire repertoire except for covers of British and American popular music: Dr. Dynamite thinks the group did not record this material for fear of copyright infringement-Pino was planning on releasing these recordings. (I don’t know whether the Heartbeats VOA recordings were, in fact, ever commercially released. Geraldo Pino told me they were not, but ‘Jet’ Arnold Nylander, the guitar player who replaced Tom Brown in 1966, and remained with Pino until 1972, insists they were. Many of these recordings, however, were definitely played on radio in Liberia and Sierra Leone.) Interestingly, none of these recordings seem to feature the voice of Geraldo Pino. The main appeal of these recordings, over forty years later, has got to be Tom Brown’s guitar playing.

One of the highlights of the sessions is ‘Tom Brown’s Gamal’ a guitar Merengue. Tom Brown tears it up on a cherry-red Fender Jaguar, running through a Dynachord amplifier with a wicked tape-loop echo.

Next up is ‘More Time’, an original composition by Geraldo Pino. This recording features the voices of Hassan Deen and Francis Fuster.

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    The Heartbeats ‘More Time’

The next track is an original Heartbeats composition written, and sung, by bass player George Keister. He sings, in the Temne language, ‘Girl, I love you. If you love me, let me know right away’.

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    The Heartbeats ‘Wa Tibera Yo’

The only other original composition the Heartbeats recorded during these sessions was ‘Zamsi’, written by Francis Fuster. This is the song that Leo used for ‘Music Time in Africa’s’ theme song. There is a great percussion break a minute into the song.

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    The Heartbeats ‘Zamsi’

The Heartbeats definitely took these next two songs from the Ry-Co Jazz repertoire. First up is ‘Give Me Bombolo’, a song that Ry-Co Jazz wrote while they were in Freetown, and that became a huge hit for them in Sierra Leone. (The Ry-Co recording of this song was made in 1963, and can be heard on the Ry-Co compilation released in 1996, by RetroAfric.)

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    The Heartbeats ‘Bombolo’ (Rumba)

The Ry-Co Jazz often performed covers of popular Congolese songs. This next track ‘Kayi Kayi Pachanga’ is a Dr. Nico composition, that was recorded by the African Jazz in the late 1950s, and that Ry-Co Jazz probably performed. This song again features Hassan Deen, who was hired to sing the group’s Congolese material.

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    The Heartbeats ‘Kayi Kayi Pachanga’

The Heartbeats repertoire in 1964 included songs in Spanish, Creole, Lingala, Fanti, Igbo, Temne, and Wolof. This next track is a cover, sung in Wolof, of ‘Fatou Diouf’ by Gambia’s Super Eagles. Before coming to Monrovia, the Heartbeats may have performed in the Gambia (Dr. Dynamite thinks they did).

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    The Heartbeats ‘Fatou Diouf’

The next three selections are covers of popular Latin hits. All three former Heartbeats I spoke with (Dr. Dynamite, ‘Jet’ Arnold Nylander, and Geraldo Pino) identify Ry-Co jazz as the source of these songs. These are all Cuban compositions that were probably part of the Ry-Co repertoire. First up is ‘Alto Songo’, a Cuban Son-Montuno that was composed by Luis ‘Lili’ Martinez Grinan, who became famous as Arsenio Rodriguez’s long-time piano player. The most popular Cuban version of this song was recorded by Felix Chappotin’s popular conjunto. This song was also recorded by Johnny Pacheco and his Charanga in 1962, it was the flip side of ‘Acuyuye’, the track that, Johnny says, ‘took me to Africa. It was a huge hit over there’.

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    The Heartbeats ‘Alto Songo’

This next song ‘El Que Siembra Su Maiz’ was composed in 1928 by Miguel Matamoros, the founder of the legendary Cuban group the Trio Matamoros. In the late 1950s this song was recorded by ‘Le Grand Kalle’ and his African Jazz, and was probably part of the Ry-Co Jazz repertoire.

This final recording is called ‘Cha-Cha-Cha Block’. I have not been able to trace this song. If you have any idea who composed this song please let me know!!

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    The Heartbeats ‘Cha-Cha-Cha Block’

Two years after these recordings were made the Heartbeats went through dramatic changes. In 1966, during their second trip to Liberia, Tom Brown left the group. (I am not sure what became of him. One story is that he left Monrovia to return to a girl he was crazy about. He may have subsequently joined the Liberian army, and may have passed away several years ago.) More importantly, however, it was during this trip that the new Heartbeats line-up, which included guitarists ‘Jet’ Arnold Nylander and Emile Walsh, started to perform the American soul covers that would make them so popular throughout Ghana and Nigeria in the years to come.

By the time the ‘original’ Heartbeats broke up in 1972, they had performed for packed crowds throughout all of Ghana and Nigeria, famously influencing a young Fela Ransome Kuti. Today, Geraldo Pino lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria (he has been there for the last twenty years) and continues to perform with his ‘Heartbeats’. Of the other 1964 Heartbeats, Hassan Deen passed away in Freetown several years ago, and Francis Fuster (who went on to perform with Hugh Masekela and Paul Simon-the Graceland tour) and George Keister live in London.

I would like to thank Balogun ‘Dr. Dynamite’ Johnson-Williams, ‘Jet’ Arnold Nylander, and Geraldo Pino-all ‘original’ Heartbeats- for their time and generosity.

30 Responses to “The Heartbeats of Sierra Leone”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks a lot for the music and the related information. Really good work. Lots of gems to discover and to enjoy !

  2. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic post. Great music and information–I’ve wondered about the Heartbeats ever since hearing “Heavy Heavy Heavy ” on the Kona compilation years ago. I knew there was more beyond what Soundway and Retro Afric’ reissued two years ago, but had no idea there was this much recorded. Thanks again.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is brilliant! Thank God for the solid foundation laid by “Giants” like Gerald & Co, and their self-less sacrifice at a time in our history when people looked down on musicians as second-class. We acknowledge your God-given talents and salute you, Guys. We call forth a revival in the Sierra Leone music scene.

  4. Anonymous says:

    thanks for the memories.great music. i grew up at fourah bay road.i can can remember them playing at conray hotel.they flooded the neighbourhood with great music. can you tell me how i can get some more of their old stuff. thanks

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks immensely for the memories, particularly during my days at
    Albert Academy. How and where can I purchase more of their songs?
    Malcolm Seisay

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank God these gems were not lost forever. I was in Form 1 when Heartbearts played at Bo School to entertain our Pricipal, Charles L. Holden — He had earlier been their (some of them) Principal at POW. Thanx for the memories.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Those were great days. The Heartbeats ofen played for our very famous Brookfields ls Club summer parties. Hope you are well Gerald and…Fuster

  8. Anonymous says:

    I am so happy that you all have found your way to our site and been able to enjoy these tracks. Thank you all for your encouragement. All of these Heartbeats recordings have such a wonderful energy. Unfortunately none of these tracks are commercially released. Geraldo recently performed at the Barbican in London and I heard it was a very enjoyable show. He was back on stage, after many years or separation, with Francis Fuster. According to the reviews I read, Geraldo focused more on his early 70s Afro-funk repertoire than on the songs he recorded for the VOA. Who knows, maybe we will be hearing more from a reformed ‘original’ Heartbeats lineup.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Amazing records, and history indeed! This relics were thought to
    be lost, and Im delighted by the works of VOA to preserve such
    a national Treasure.

    I’m certain, most Sierra Leonean decendants will appreciate your
    such an Archive.

    Thank you.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic!! I was inspired by the Heartbeats to take up the guitar a
    long time a ago and I have kept on playing since.I spent a lot of time
    listening to them practice and a group of us followed them around
    to the different halls where they were scheduled to play.We ended
    up forming our own little group but never rose to the heights that
    they accomplished. Thanks for the memories!

  11. Anonymous says:

    This is a gold mine of beautiful sierra leonean music I hope it would continue to be preserved for future generations to appreciate.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Please note that Geraldo pino is now dead ,he died in Port-harcourt about ” months ago .

  13. LD says:

    Here it is 3 years later and I am just discovering your wonderful post on Sierra Leone and great blog. Thanks for posting the tune and mp3, and all the history. Fabulous stuff.

  14. Tom Gardner says:

    Hi there,
    This is very interesting indeed, thanks very much. I’m a student and a documentary maker from the UK. I recently made a film about Highlife in 1960s Nigeria (which you can view here: https://vimeo.com/51962303 password: highlife123). I am currently thinking about a project in Freetown, and would love to research the Heartbeats. Do you know how I can get in touch with any surviving members (in particular George Keister and Francis Fuster, since I live in London…)
    All the best,
    Tom

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Hi Tom,
      Since this blog post was written by Matthew Lavoie, the former Host of Music Time in Africa, I cannot offer you as much insight as you may have hoped. However I will send your request to our African Beat music show host, David Vandy, who is Sierra Leonian. Perhaps he can help you with your search. I’ll send him your email and he will be in touch.
      Best,
      Heather

      • WIllietta O J-W Grant says:

        Hello,

        I have enjoyed reading the comments made by all. Indeed it is really good to hear about our music back in those days.
        My dad Balogun Johnson-Williams (Dr.Dynamite) was one of the original members of the Heartbeats. He lives in the U.S and if you or anyone would like to contact him please send me an email and I will give you more information.

        Thank you!

    • WIllietta O J-W Grant says:

      Hello,

      I have enjoyed reading the comments made by all. Indeed it is really good to hear about our music back in those days.
      My dad Balogun Johnson-Williams (Dr.Dynamite) was one of the original members of the Heartbeats. He lives in the U.S and if you or anyone would like to contact him please send me an email and I will give you more information.

      Thank you!

  15. Henson King says:

    I am thrilled to have stumbled upon the name of George Keister here. I got to know him in his later life. He related to me personally that after coming to Liberia to play, his band broke up, fame eventually disappeared and he became a drifter around Liberia, ended up in Buchanan where he lived till his death. He said he probably had a son or children in Sierra Leone.

    • Tom Gardner says:

      Thanks for your reply. I am sad to learn that George Keister has now passed away. I’m still very keen to track down and speak to Francis Fuster. Do you by any chance have any idea whether he still lives in the UK, and how one would go about contacting him? I still think it would be great to make a film about the Heatbeats and Freetown, far too few people have heard their music and know their story here in Britain.

  16. Denys Santos Blell says:

    I have three vinyl records of their music that was never released among my vast collection of old African music. The 3 albums were produced from audio recording done at the SLBS Studios in Freetown and contain mostly the same stuff except for several of Gerald’s performances of Cliff Richards, Buddy Holly, James Brown songs.
    I sent Francis Fuster copies.

    Best,
    Denys Santos Blell

    • Tom Gardner says:

      Hi Denys, thanks for your reply. I’m still very keen to track down and speak to Francis Fuster. Do you by any chance have any idea whether he still lives in the UK, and how one would go about contacting him? I still think it would be great to make a film about the Heatbeats and Freetown, far too few people have heard their music and know their story here in Britain.

      • Denys Blell says:

        Francis lives in Ghana and Kent in the UK. I can be reached at 214-918-1365.

        I have some archival material you may be interested in.

    • Tom Gardner says:

      Hi Denys, thanks for your reply. I’m still very keen to track down and speak to Francis Fuster. Since you once sent him vinyls, do you by any chance have any idea whether he still lives in the UK, and how one would go about contacting him? I still think it would be great to make a film about the Heatbeats and Freetown, far too few people have heard their music and know their story here in Britain.

    • Louis B. Jones says:

      Hi Denys,
      I am interested in getting some more of Heartbeats recordings. Would like to swap some of my other collections for the HBs. Will be calling you shortly. Glad to note we were all fans of the HBs!!
      Louis

    • JAMES ALLAN says:

      I was at St Edward,s Secondary School with Farouk Blell and his older brother in the 1950s. Are you a relative?

  17. Banky Allen says:

    Extend my greetings to Francis. He was my neighbour when he was living at the Campbell’s residence at Fergusson Street in Freetown. He is great guy. We hung out on some occassions. Those were great days indeed. You must be his wife or his daughter.

  18. Charine says:

    Loved this!! Thank you! One small proof reading error: in Freetown we don’t have a ‘Shalot St.’ We do, however, have a ‘Charlotte St.’ Thanks for giving me an unexpected giggle!

  19. Oshoku Johnson-Williams says:

    Dear All,
    Thank you very much for all your comments of the Heart Beats and their songs. It’s good to know my father and their group were appreciated even though they might not have been rich as the Jay Zees etc, but their wealth is what we are enjoying today which is in their music. I was born at the time the original group fell apart and I did not have the opportunity to see or hear them perform live. What I saw of my daddy within the short time before he somehow retired are memories I will take to my grave. To see a man playing the guitar with his teeth and also on his back is miraculous and to also see him play the keyboard with his chin and elbows make to thank God for giving us such talents. I wish television in our environment had been as powerful as it is today then you would have understood my feelings!!
    Thanks and I love you Daddy, aka.. Dr. Dynamite, Masokoloko, witch-doctor Maso!!!!

About

About

Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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