Continuing our survey of the international impact of Christian music, George Luke journeyed to Sierra Leone in West Africa.
Sierra Leone, a tiny country on the west coast of Africa, is known as The Athens Of West Africa' to some (Fourah Bay College, West Africa's first university, opened here in 1827) and 'The White Man's Grave' to others (many of the earliest European visitors here died of malaria). A seven-hour flight from either of London's two main airports takes you to Lungi Airport, and after a brief car ride you hop aboard a ferry across the river Rokel into the nation's capital, Freetown. It is on board the ferry that you are most likely to have your first taste of gospel music Sierra Leone style. Halfway through the trip, into the ferry's passenger lounge walks a man with a guitar slung across one shoulder and a makeshift amp across the other. He wishes everyone a safe journey, welcomes any foreign visitors and starts singing. The big difference between this ferry and the Tube is that the busker's repertoire consists entirely of praise and worship choruses - and when he sings, everyone joins in, even (or especially) the odd passenger who has had too much to drink.
Sadly, I didn't get to talk to the man who brightened the ferry ride for everyone, but before my stay in Freetown was over, I did get to meet some of the key players in the gospel scene in a country where it seems to be a rule that the first thing you do after becoming a Christian is learn to sing or play an instrument. There is a lot of variety in the music in Sierra Leone. Songs can be in English, or in the local languages (especially Krio), and musically styles range from traditional gospel to reggae to the delightfully upbeat African Soukouss, Zouk and Highlife rhythms, with just about everything else in between (BBC Radio 1 's Andy Kershaw would love it here!).
The first artists I met with were Eugene Cloe and Maurice Hanciles, two members of one of Sierra Leone's longest running groups, the Gospel Youth Singers, or GYS for short. The GYS started life in 1976, and, as their name suggests, is made up of young people, mainly students. The group's line up tends to fluctuate depending on members' other commitments, but there is a nucleus of at least seven permanent members. They like to inject some variety into their shows by combining music, dance and drama, but this hasn't always gone down too well as Eugene explained. "It's as if Christians out here are afraid of being entertained," he told me. "We'd put on a massive programme over three days, and on the first two nights, there'd be no-one there." But that doesn't discourage them.
As far as recorded music is concerned, the only format that matters in Sierra Leone is the analogue audio cassette. Thanks to inflation, the vinyl record had died here as far back as the early 80s. The high cost of CDs (just a little under the minimum monthly pay packet) and CD players (don't ask) puts them well out of reach of the average Sierra Leonean, and the MiniDisc/DCC battle currently being fought in the West has bypassed this part of the world completely. In the late 70s, the gradual disappearance of vinyl (and non-enforcement of copyright laws) led to a proliferation of 'recording studios' where, for a small fee, you could have your choice of singles or album tracks put onto tape.
One of the most popular of these 'studios' was ABA Records & Tapes, in the East End of Freetown. It's proprietor, Mr Abu Bakarr Adams, had become a Christian and is now a keen supporter of gospel music. "I'd say he was our Number One backer," said Eugene. "Whenever we're putting on a show, we can always rely on him to loan us equipment and give advice, as well as financial help," said Maurice. Mr Adams' name came up several times in conversations with other artists, all of whom spoke well of him, so I decided to pay him a visit. "I made a commitment to Christ in 1982, although I'd called myself a Christian for years before," Abu told me. "I decided that since I'd always been in music, but on the Devil's side, it was time to support God's musicians and their music."
Pademba Road, in the centre of Freetown, is one of the city's most well known streets, with the CID headquarters on one end of it and the country's most notorious prison at the other. Somewhere between these two landmarks is the head office of the Scripture Union, where every Saturday evening four young men - Jonathan Williams, Jonathan (Bunmi) Boiro, Augustus McJohnson and Dudley Bangura - meet to practise. Known simply as The Gospel Quartet, they have been singing together for three years.
"Dudley and I met at an SU camp in 1990," Jonathan W, the leader, explained. "Someone - not connected with us - talked to us about using our talents productively. We spent some weeks praying before starting the group." Bunmi added, "There was definitely a call on our lives. In the beginning, we didn't even have a name. People called us whatever they liked. We decided on Gospel Quartet after Augustus joined us in 1991."
I asked the Quartet what advantages and disadvantages they had in their ministry. "Our main advantage is satisfaction in knowing we're doing what God wants us to," Bunmi said. "We're sowing into people's lives knowing we'll reap further down," Jonathan added. "And more doors are opening," added Augustus. "Recently, we recorded a concert which SLTV will show when they start broadcasting." (The country's national TV service had ground to a halt in the late 80s but since the military took over, they have been working on it, and the revamped SLTV should start broadcasting again in early 1994).
The Gospel Quartet do not receive salaries or charge a set fee, but leave it up to the public to decide whether or not to give them money and how much. "A few people have pledged financial support," Augustus, their treasurer, said, "...and I can count them on one hand!" Jonathan added. "We do get support," Bunmi said, "firstly from the Pa (pointing upwards), but also from people." But what of disadvantages? "We've not had a guitar of our own since we started," Jonathan said. "We bought a second-hand one for Le23,000 (about £25) in July. Also, if one person is absent, we're handicapped." At the moment their sound is four voices and a guitar, but they are all expert instrumentalists. Dudley plays bass, Bunmi plays bass and keyboards, Jonathan plays guitar and Augustus 'keeps time', as they put it. Unlike most other groups, they aren't in too much of a hurry to go into the studio yet. "At present, we feel more of a need to minister to people in person," they said. "Cassettes can come later."
The Quartet highlighted one major problem affecting musicians of all persuasions in Sierra Leone. At present, there are no shops in the country which sell musical instruments, and would-be musos are forced to either buy second-hand ones, or to order them from abroad, which can be quite expensive. Because of this, something that should only be a minor inconvenience - like a broken guitar string - can be a major catastrophe for a musician.
Of all the many Christian organisations operating in Sierra Leone, none has done as much for music as the Youth For Christ organisation. The YFC's music ministry office in the city centre is the nerve centre of the country's gospel scene. It houses the YFC studio, one of three studios in the country solely dedicated to recording gospel artists. The studio is run by Desmond During, known affectionately to all as "Uncle Desmond". Desmond showed me round the 4-track studio, and gave me a brief history of Sierra Leonean gospel.
"There wasn't much happening here in gospel until 1976," Desmond said, "when two groups - the GYS and the Jesus Generation Youth Singers -were formed. Before that, no-one took gospel seriously, but those two groups set a standard and inspired a lot of other people. They were soon followed by groups like Shield Of Faith, the Melodians and Salt Of The Earth. Today, we have groups such as the Agape Springs and the Harmonisers, and solo artists like Joe Saiid, Yema Caulker, Isata Bundu Kamara, Glena Banya and Syble Ramsay-Nicol (currently living in the UK and singing with the LCGC).
"As more people started getting involved in gospel, we ran into a number of problems that needed sorting out," continued Desmond. "The first was our lack of recording facilities, which we overcame by setting up this studio; then as more people produced cassettes, we had to find ways to promote them, as well as distribution outlets - the CLC bookshops are our main ones. We've struggled a lot over the years, but we've managed. During the Liberian civil war (which started in 1990) there was a huge influx of Liberian refugees into Sierra Leone, including a number of very talented Christian singers and musicians. Their input has helped raise the standard of gospel music here considerably. In fact, most of the artists who use this studio are Liberian." Even as we spoke, he was busy mixing some tracks by a Liberian acapella group, the Royal Ambassadors.
The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service has always aired a fair amount of religious programming, both on its national AM service as well as on its more music-oriented FM frequency. In 1993, a Christian FM station was opened by Grace International Ministries, but it ran into some trouble after a few months, and has been off the air ever since. "We've had some progress with the radio stations," Desmond said. "We've been able to get our artists' music played, and the SLBS sometimes use our facilities to record ads and jingles, so it's a 50-50 relationship. The Grace people obviously wanted our music, being a Christian station; unfortunately, they're not broadcasting at present."
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