A Brief History of Sierra Leonean Underground Dance

In a recent interview I conducted with South African journalist Sean O’Toole for my show “Africa Is a Country Radio” on Worldwide FM, we had a short discussion around what the concept underground really means. Underground does in fact imply, at first, a physical location, one hinting at a type of verticality in play. But a more widespread usage in music circles describes the activity that would happen at such a location. It is away from the prying eyes of authority, that the current concept of underground started to take shape. In apartheid era South Africa, perhaps we can see the clearest example of that definition. However, in today’s global North oriented dance music culture there is yet another definition. This one is more oriented towards ideas of artistic and cultural freedom, hiding away from the all-consuming formal market forces that define daily life.

And yet, to say underground in a Sierra Leonean context might cause us even more problems without clarification. Who is above and underground in a Sierra Leonean context? Perhaps one could be talking about some invisible, or shape shifting, being, who may wish harm on the inhabitants of the realm of humans. Or perhaps it is the ancestors who protect us on their visits after scaling the roots of the cottonwood tree. Or perhaps, like in Europe or the United States, it is also music that happens outside of the mainstream formal market. However, in Sierra Leone, the informality that might characterize or be celebrated in the underground music scenes of the North tends to define daily life for all the country’s inhabitants. So, then, who isn’t underground in a Sierra Leonean context?

In fact, Sierra Leone could be considered a petri dish for underground experimentation going back all the way to its founding as a colonial outpost for freed British former slaves. Africans from the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and England all settled in Freetown brining their own cultures and mixing it with local ones to create new variations, all on the edges of the British Empire. It is out of this stew that musics such as the Cuba and Trinidad inflected maringa, palm wine and highlife were born. This negotiation ultimately was about asserting citizenship in the face of an Atlantic world that continually denied the humanity of Africans. What’s more underground than that?

Sierra Leone is a small nation that is rich in musical history and talent. Today, after 60 years of nationhood, and as it crawls out of the shadow of civil war, Ebola, and decades of post-colonial economic dysfunction, you can find a kind of cultural renaissance. You find artists making hyped up electronic versions of “tribal” music, dancehall artists modeled on Vybz Kartel, rappers with Maryland inflected accents, and even some techno and house experimentations. It would be difficult to cover all of what could be considered dance music in Sierra Leone, but any brief survey would have to cross generations, ethnic identities, languages, and maybe even challenge the concept of nationhood itself.

So, with that in mind I present to you a sampling of songs that illustrate the breadth of music output in the vibrant but relatively small music “scene” of Sierra Leonean dance music. It is not to be authoritative of prescriptive in any way, or even definitive of anything other than a small nation trying throughout the centuries to understand what and where it really is.

Buy Kondi Band’s latest LP ‘We Famous’ on Strut.

National Dance Troupe of Sierra Leone

You have to start out with a video that illustrates the breadth of cultures that exist in the small country of Sierra Leone. Here is the National Dance Troupe of Sierra Leone giving a taste of the diversity of the nation.

Janka Nabay feat. Bajah – Nar London

With Janka, Bajah, and I in this video, the three of us, and a few others such as Lamin Fofana, round out the Brooklyn underground Sierra Leonean underground dance music community. Janka Nabay brought bubu music from the streets of Freetown to the studio to the stages of New York. He recently passed away, too soon.

Kai ft Laj & Kao Denero – Fit Yai Corner

Kao Denero and LAJ have been Sierra Leone’s premiere rappers for over a decade now. They used to beef on record, and a few times that beef spilled over onto the streets. But I see that as of 2019, and in the name of Afrobeats heat, things seemed to be all good between them.

Drizilik x Prodigy x Yung Sal – Padi

This is the new generation of Sierra Leonean rappers and Afropop artists. Everything is independent and beef has been long exorcised from the scene. Music today in Freetown is just all about fun. Here Drizilik, Yung Sal, and Prodigy testing the limits of underground and commercial in an extended ad for Padi food products.

Brother Portrait – Seeview/Rearview

Reppin the Sierra Leonean diaspora in London, Brother Portrait embodies the underground ethos of a country like the UK, while at the same time reppin’ an immigrant cultural experience that might be familiar to a wide swath of global society.

Buy Kondi Band’s latest LP ‘We Famous’ on Strut.

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