Posted October 11th, 2012 at 6:19 pm (UTC-5)
On Thursday, October 4th, vocalist and music innovator Sorie Koroma, a.k.a. Sorie Kondi, gave his debut US performance in Washington DC. Kondi, who has been blind since birth, gave an exciting performance of what his sideman and percussion player, Ibrahama, described as “cultural music.” I spoke with them before the show and learned that their music is original in two ways. First, their songs are all Sorie’s “own creations,” as Ibrahama noted. Most likely, the core musical material in Sorie’s repertoire comes from folk and traditional music from Sierra Leone that he adapts and rearranges in his own, new way. Some of his lyrics are expressions of his own unique ideas on current affairs, such as track 1 of his new CD, Thogolobea, entitled “Bumbuna.”
Bumbuna is the name of a town in the northern part of the country, and home to one of the world’s largest hydropower dams. Sorie sings “What is happening with Bumbuna?” in a way that praises the current president of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma. Sorie sings “They [the APC (All People's Congress) political party] have all the power. Just look at what they can achieve.”
Second, I learned that Sorie was the first to modify the traditional instrument, the kondi, that he plays. He modified it by adding a pickup to the body so that it can be played as an electric instrument. I have seen this done with the kamalen n’goni in Mali by Allata Brulaye in the early 1970s and, of course, other acoustic instruments around the world have been modified in similar fashion. The electronic kondi sound, however, is unique. Unmodified, the kondi (also known as mbira, kalimbe, ikembe, gyilgo, and many other local names across sub-Saharan Africa) is a meditative, quiet instrument. It is simply entrancing in its electric environment. Sorie’s voice adds Sierra Leonian spice to the mix with its raspy, hard edged timbre and traditional straight tone that almost sounds like he sings with a sock in his mouth. He sings in Krio and Mende and, on the new CD, is supported by a beautiful female chorus of young voices that sound as if they were straight from the village. What puts this music on my favorites list is that all of this neotraditional music is mixed to up-tempo techno beats and modern production aesthetics of voice mods and other techno sound effects.
The live show at Tropicalia sounded more “cultural,” as Ibrahama kept calling it, because there were just the two musicians, unplugged. Sorie, however, was impressive to watch. While Ibrahama cracked jokes of questionable humor and played the jembe and shebrue (a netted gourd percussion instrument), Sorie commanded the stage. This slight, elderly blind man, while sitting behind big dark glasses and on top of his small box drum, beat out a steady bass drum rhythm with his right heel, played his kondi with furious fingers of both hands, and sang with power song after song. The young audience sat and stood mesmorized before him, swaying and bobbing to the earthy grooves.
Sorie and Ibrahama are from the town of Lungi, in the Port Loko District of Sierra Leone. The Tropicalia was their first stop of a tour up the Eastern states of the U.S. We were lucky to have him.