Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond

 


Big Fayia


Fayia, Big (Fayia, Mustapha Sahr), noted Sierra Leonean singer and composer; b. Dia, Sierra Leone, 1939; d. Freetown, Nov. 16, 1999.

While working as a prison officer at Bonthe on Sherbro Island, Fayia learned guitar from a local palm wine musician. An eventual posting to Freetown put Fayia in the thick of the of the capital’s thriving pop music scene. In 1963 he formed a five-piece combo (three guitars, conga, and drums) called the Blue Diamonds and cut his first record “Garri Go Gi Yu Beleh” (a double-entendre in Krio: garri, food made from ground cassava, will give you a belly or make you pregnant). The Blue Diamonds became Iron Ore Jazz the following year when the group played at the Marampa Mines in Lunsar and were invited to stay on for an extended gig. The pay was good enough for Fayia to quit his prison job. In 1965 the entire band joined Sierra Leone’s army and became the nucleus for the new Military Dance Band headed by Fayia under the name Famous Fayiah.

The Military Dance Band earned considerable money playing concerts at home and abroad, but Fayia and his musicians only collected their standard army pay. To supplement his meager salary, Fayia began to make records on the side, cutting his songs in the studios of the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service with help from producer Chris During [link to CD page] and a studio band named the Invissible [sic] Five. He called himself Big Fayia to camouflage his participation. Finished tapes—among them “Before E Burn Make E Wet” (before he burns make him wet) and “New Love No No Ben Mot” (new love doesn’t know lies)—were sold to one of Freetown’s growing number of record labels.

Apart from the military band, which could play almost anything, Fayia produced an uptempo mix that reflected the profusion of styles vying for Freetown audiences in the 1960s: the palm wine commentaries of S.E. Rogers “Rogie,” [link to SER page] tasty guitar work from the visiting Congolese band Ry-Co Jazz, the jazz sensibility of highlife dance bands from Ghana and Nigeria, and the punchy new sounds of American soul. In London on an army scholarship to study classical music, Fayia cut more records in 1976 including the great “Want Want No Get (Get Get No Want).” In 1978 the Military Dance Band, under Fayia’s direction, won the top band prize with their performance at the World Festival of Youth in Havana.

Fayia retired from the army in 1985 at a time when Sierra Leone’s economy was rapidly disintegrating and pirate cassettes had overwhelmed the record industry. He traveled occasionally to Abidjan to record but sustained himself with a dance troupe called West Africa Mask Dancers that played regularly in Freetown’s tourist hotels.

Fayia’s performing career came to an end in 1996 when a freak accident during a recording session injured his head leaving him paralyzed and speechless. He will be remembered as a regional figure, immensely popular at home with a loyal following along the coast as far east as Nigeria. His success as an artist inspired a younger generation of Sierra Leoneans to join the uncertain profession of musician and kept the embers of Freetown’s popular culture kindling long after they might otherwise have smothered.

DISCOGRAPHY

“Want Want No Get” (45 rpm DBF 40) 1977; “Respect” (45 rpm DBF 42) 1977; Big Fayia (casette, Freetown) 1987.

With The Sierra Leone Military Dance Band: O.A.U. 1980 (J.& H. Samuh) 1980.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

G. Stewart, Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm (Chicago, 1992).

This article was written for an encyclopedia of world music that got lost in the shuffle of various publishing industry mergers and was never completed. Copyright © 2000 by Gary Stewart


 
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