Continuing our survey of the international impact of Christian music, George Luke journeyed to Sierra Leone in West Africa.
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One thing that did put a strain on the YFC's relationship with the radio stations was money. "We tried raising the issue of royalty payments with the radio stations," said Desmond, "because our artists put in a lot of hard work into their music, and deserve some reward for their efforts. But the radio stations' view was that by playing our music they were helping to promote us, so they refused to pay us anything when, in their opinion, they were doing us a favour." Earlier on, while talking to Eugene and Marcus, they had told me that artists had to pay to have their music played, or to have themselves interviewed on the radio. Another singer I spoke to was slightly less tactful in his assessment of the situation: "They (the radio stations) want us to bribe them to put us on the air," he had said.
Among the artists who breezed in and out of the YFC's office while I was there was Alpha Bassie-Kamara, who is very popular, not only as a solo artist with a hit cassette under his belt, but also as a member of a group called the Frandie Gospel Band. Alpha describes his brand of gospel as 'Hot Soca', and, it turns out, is a keen CR reader! His main vision is to see Sierra Leonean acts break into foreign markets. "Sierra Leone's very small," he told me. "The best selling artists here can only sell a maximum of about 10 thousand cassettes, so we need to have our music released abroad."
In the studio rehearsing were the Harmonisers, a volunteer group attached to the YFC. Their leader, Tien Freeman, describes the group as being made up of poor students, whose original intention when coming together was to release an album and use the money from sales to pay their tuition fees. "You could say we had a change of vision," Tieh said. "We now devote our time to reaching lost youths with our music." The group's members, who were all either at the Technical Institute or in sixth form in various schools, gave up their course work to join the YFC full time. They have a cassette out, titled 'Spiritual Warfare'.
The next stop on my travels was Lumley village, home to many of the country's tourist attractions, with a beach overlooking the Atlantic. Here, I dropped in on the Frandie Gospel Band at their 8-track studio. Keyboard and sax ace Andrew Williams is the band's leader and the studio's chief engineer. Only a few years ago, he was a popular nightclub entertainer and a member of one of the country's hottest groups, the Sierra Afrique dance band. He became a Christian in 1992, after hearing the evangelist Reinhardtt Bonnke.
Andrew, Alpha and the other Frandies overflow with enthusiasm about their music and what they see God doing in people's lives around them, and it would be very difficult - if not impossible - to hang around them without some of that enthusiasm rubbing off. As he showed us the studio, Andrew gave one advantage of not having much to work with. "It makes you think more and be more creative, trying to make up for what you don't have," he said. "I'm sure I've found some uses for my synth that even the Yamaha people haven't thought of yet!"
All the old controversies and heresies surrounding CCM are as alive here as in the West and the Frandies have had their share of criticism. "All that stuff about the beat being demonic - we get that all the time," Andrew told me. The current hot issue concerns a new kid on the block, called Sam Jones. Sam, a songwriter and producer, used to live in Britain, and has worked with a number of acts including UB40, Junior and the Wades. He recently relocated to Freetown, where he has set up a state-of-the-art 24-track studio, with the intention of nurturing local talent - both gospel and secular -and helping to give local acts international exposure. The problem most Christians have with him stems from the fact that he's a Muslim. Desmond explained: "Sam really wants to work with me, because out of all the so-called engineers he's met over here, I'm the only one with a good knowledge of recording techniques. I want to work with him, because I know just what I could do with all the equipment he has. But the moment I mention it, I come across a lot of opposition. People have even told me that the Bible's warning about being unequally yoked isn't just for marriage and girlfriends, but applies to business and job situations as well -although most of the Christians in everyday jobs have unsaved bosses or employees! Beside that, I know that some of our artists simply refuse to record in a 'non-Christian' studio. There's a lot of narrow mindedness in that whole area among Christians here, and they need to have their eyes opened a little."
No article on Sierra Leonean gospel music would be complete without a mention of the Agape Springs, undoubtedly the country's most well-known gospel group. They were formed in 1986, as part of the YFC, and were the first group to make the bold step of giving up their day jobs to devote themselves to their music full time. They scored a major hit in 1991 with their song "Salone Nar We Yone (Sierra Leone Belongs To Us)", released at a time when the country was going through a really rough patch and morale was low. Shortly after the Frandies' Andrew became a Christian, he helped lead Bunny (another Sierra Afrique member) to Christ, and he joined the Agape Springs as a trumpet player. They toured several African countries and visited America twice, but after their second American visit, they decided to call it a day, or at least go on an indefinite sabbatical. Shortly afterwards, in November 1993, their bass player, Rev Sammy Sesay, aged 32, died of cancer. Sammy's death received the kind of media coverage normally reserved for megastars over here, with tributes in the national newspapers as well as on the SLBS' Breakfast show.
With all the odds stacked heavily against them, Sierra Leone's gospel artists continue to make great music, and to reach for new heights. "We're nearly at the stage where you can go into a shop and find gospel and secular music side by side," I was told. "Give us another year, and everyone will be buying our music." The faith and determination of the gospel musicians of this small but vibrant nation should serve as an inspiration to us all.
Geographic location: West Africa
Area: 72,323 sq km
Land use: Agriculture (25%) and mining
Population: 4,050,000 Growth rate of 2.3%
Capital city: Freetown (pop 465,000) Other major town: Bo (pop 44,000), Kenema (pop 21,000) and Makeni (pop 20,000)
Language: English (official), Krio (pidgin English or patois), Mende, Temne and Limba
Nationalities: Sierra Leonean 85%, Liberian 4%, Guinean 8%, Lebanese 3%
Government: Military. The NPRC (National Provisional Ruling Council), headed by Capt V E M Strasser, ousted the APC (All People's Congress) in a coup in 1992, after 24 years in power, 14 of those as a one-party state. They plan to return the country to civilian rule in 1995.
Economy: Was rated fifth poorest country in the world in a 1991 UN report. It's main exports are diamonds, coffee, bauxite, rutile and palm kernels. The currency is the Leone (u1 = Le900, $1 -Le650).
Religion: freedom of religion, but Islam has been growing in influence. Christian 10%, Muslim 40%, Traditional (animistic) religion 50%.
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