A Composer for Every Country: Sierra Leone

Continuing south down the West African coast from Guinea is Sierra Leone. Like Guinea, Sierra Leone is quite ethnically diverse, with sixteen different groups. The Temne and the Mende people form the largest percent of the population, each being about a third of the total. One ethnic group stands out compared to Guinea: the Krio. This group of people is the result of Sierra Leone's curious history as a British protectorate, and to understand where they come from we have to go back to the American Revolution.

 
You see, it turns out that chattel slavery is not just morally reprehensible and probably economically disadvantageous in the long run. It also causes national security problems (slave owners knew this, of course, given the universal fear of slave riots breaking out). So when the American Revolution started, a not insignificant portion of slaves joined the British army, some joining because, seriously, screw the slave owners, but many joining because the British promised emancipation.
 
After the war, the British lived up to their promises of compensation for the loyalty of these now-former slaves and relocated them to Nova Scotia. That didn't last long because it turned out there were just as many froth in the mouth racists in Nova Scotia as there was any other place on the continent, and that suddenly transplanting large groups of people from one location to another naturally causes friction.
 
At the same time, a number of freedmen had been relocated to England, with somewhat similar results. There was a big to-do about what to do with their "Black Poor," and, seeing that their plan to relocate certain sections of the British population to Australia was starting to really pay dividends, the British government proposed a solution the logic of which would make Patrick Star proud: they decided to take the freedmen from Nova Scotia, and the "Black Poor" (who, lets be clear, were also freedmen) and put them somewhere else. That somewhere else happened to be Sierra Leon.
 
Sierra Leon continued to be the location of choice for sending people liberated from slave ships throughout the 19th century. Due to the nature of the slave trade, the Liberated Africans came from all manner of locations and ethnicities. The end result was a new creole ethnicity, or "Krio," as they came to be known in Sierra Leone. Somehow, despite making up only about 2% of the population, the Krio language became the lingua franca, spoken by almost every ethnic group even though English is technically the official language.
 
Like every African country, there's more to say about Sierra Leone than its history with colonialism, but the downside of writing about a new country every week is to sacrifice some depth for breadth. More recently, Sierra Leone has been wracked by civil war and the outbreak of ebola and now the novel coronavirus. That said, the country is doing somewhat better than some of the other countries I've covered so far, at least as far as economics are concerned. That growth is tenuous, though, and a lot will have to go right to stabilize the country. 
 
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Today's composer is Asadata Dafora (1890-1965). I say "composer," but that really sells the guy short. He was also a dancer, choreographer, and operatic concert singer. He was born to a wealthy family in Freetown, where his father, John Warner M. Horton, was city treasurer. In 1929, Mr. Dafora went to New York. Given the Great Depression, it wasn't the best timing, but his talents as a musician and dancer eventually saw him through to success and the founding of his dance troupe, the Shogolo Oloba.
 
Asadata Dafora also had a remarkably productive collaboration with Orson Welles, performing in Welles' all-Black production of Macbeth, as well as co-authoring a radio play called Trangama-Fanga. Mr. Dafora's magnum opus, Kykunkor, is a dance/opera telling the story of a bridegroom who is cursed by a witch doctor and her groom's attempts to lift the curse. The opera was a literal overnight success, it's afternoon audience of 60 or so attracting so many people for the evening performance the concert venue had to turn people away (this may be exaggeration, because the numbers don't quite add up, but it's hardly my place to throw away a good story).
 
Unfortunately, I cannot find any recording of the work. In fact, I can hardly find any recording of anything Dafora wrote. But I did find this performance of his solo dance, Awassa Astrige/Ostrich, composed and choreographed in 1932.
 
 
Dafora is a really intriguing figure I had no knowledge of. It seems his legacy lives much more strongly in the world of ballet, where his work laid the foundation for future Black dancers and choreographers to be taken seriously in a (still) largely white profession. I hope his work sees a revival, because it sounds super interesting, and if it's even half as good as Awassa Astrige, it will still be worth revisiting.