Friday, December 02, 2011

“My Life” by Sia Tolno: Another African Success Story

When you hear the name of the country “Sierra Leone,” music is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, more likely being the movie “Blood Diamond,” the Leonardo D vehicle which portrayed it largely as a tiny remote West African nation enmeshed in a violent revolution funded by corrupt and illicit mining, a portrayal at least partially true.  I think of it as the slave-era British counterpart to Liberia, a territory where freed slaves were released and allowed to make their way as best they could without the baggage of the past infringing, hence the emergence of Freetown as capital and major city.

“My Life” is the title of the new album by Sia Tolno, and this is the cultural milieu into which she was born and raised, for a while at least.  She, too, like many others, was forced to leave to escape the brutal civil war, and begin a refugee’s life of crowded cramped restless wandering, first in Guinea, then elsewhere as her fame grew.  Her music reflects that harsh reality she had to endure to survive.  Still she never forgot home, even when ir was largely reduced to ruins.  The title to her first song, “Blamah Blamah,” is the name of the town where an annual festival used to be held, back in the good ol’ pre-war days.  Such is life, one of makeshift impermanence.  Sia Tolno takes it to heart, brooding and growling and cursing the corruption and decadence, while never losing her optimism.  And still she’s pure African at heart.  If many “world music” artists seem like nothing so much as enlightened hybrids, Sia Tolno is refreshingly pure and authentic, and so is her music.

From that pure percussive African starting point, Sia proceeds to stake her claims to all the styles for which African is famous.  If she opened the album singing scat, she follows it up in “Odju Watcha” singing balls-to-the-wall blues, and to good lyrics, too: “People fight here for power… with all the gold and diamonds we’ve got…  human pride does not exist…”.  There’s some kick-ass good brass and lead guitar showcased here, too.  Then she changes it up.  This is the mark of the consummate artist, and the place where most fall short, the ability to mix it up in a variety of styles and still resonate (pun intended).  “Di ya leh” does just that, with soft and smooth balladry, Sade-like, the moody female reduced to type without being reduced in artistry.  The title song “Malaya (My life)” explains: “I spent my life making people happy when I was so sad…Oh God, take me back to your peaceful home…,” slow and brooding and accompanied by some nice clean guitar.

Just as abruptly she shifts right back into defiant mode. “Polli Polli” is a kick-ass rocker—complete with some screamin’ sax—and a blistering critique of corrupt local politics: “what did they say…sister, what did they do?... polli polli no good at all,” Sia all the while growling, cursing, kicking and screaming—yet never losing her cool.  Then another signature sound emerges in “Aya ye,” neither harsh nor soft, neither brass nor ballad, more like a jazzy reggae, light and lyrical, prophetic yet fun, “Kongossa” following in a similar vein.  “Blind Samaritan (Poor Man)” starts similarly, a reggae-like ballad, “Here comes the blind man, hoping to see the beauty of this world…no man is an island, no man stands alone.”  But it also adds another distinct sound, just when I thought Sia had pretty much shown her full palette.  She has a Latin side, too.  If this is hinted at in several songs, it’s overt in “Tonia (The Truth),” which just may be the most compelling song on the album, or at least a close second to the Afro-Beatish “Odju Watcha.”  Slow brooding and romantic and with some biting sharp guitar, Carlos Santana would be right at home on this song and Sia seems right at home with the style, too.   This could be a whole new growth area for her.

“Toumah toumah” also features some elegant guitar, and flute, and some whispering vocals that only leave one continually astounded at the range of Sia Tolno’s musical, acoustical and emotional depth.  Most of all, though, she’s an African patriot.  “Shame upon u” closes the album rocking and rollicking, “We are the owners of Africa… it belongs to us… shame upon you.”  BTW, did I mention that the album is elegantly produced, also, by Francois Breant?  She’s a keeper.  That’s “My Life” by Sia Tolno, out on December 6 on the Lusafrica label.  Know what I’d do if I were you?  I’d check it out.

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