Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond

 


Graceland's Heartbeat


LONDON—“It came to me like in a dream, because as I was sitting home the phone rang. They say this is a call from America. ‘You wanna play the Graceland Paul Simon gig?’ I went blank. I didn’t remember who Paul Simon was.” More than two years after that call, Sierra Leone’s Francis Fuster still speaks of it in tones of wonder and amazement. “I-I mean, how did he know me?”

Of course Hugh Masekela was the likely source. His presence, along with that of Miriam Makeba, conferred a special mantle of authenticity on the Graceland tour, and Fuster had earned his musical reputation as the South African trumpeter’s percussionist. Their association dates back to a 1974 recording session in Lagos when Fuster was still with his own band, Baranta, successor to Sierra Leone’s seminal pop group the Heartbeats.

Fuster grew up in a central area of Freetown known as Kroo Town. Traditionally Kroo people are seafarers, so Kroo Town was a natural meeting point for African and western culture. “When anything comes into an African city,” he says, “it usually comes through the bays. So even the music came through the bays at that time.” His seafaring father would bring home records by Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald while the streets shook to the beat of traditional dancers and drummers.

Fuster admired the drummers. “It was a manly thing to me,” he recalls. “It was very muscular. These guys were strong guys, and I admired their attack on the drums.” One man in particular, Batu Biosei, caught his fancy, and the ten-year-old Fuster begged him for lessons. “I would go straight to his house from school....And I would do all the chores. And then we would sit down and just play for a couple of hours. The love of drums happened at that time. And since that time I don’t remember wanting to do anything else.”

Soon after it had begun, his apprenticeship was cut short by Biosei’s untimely death. But the setback was only temporary, for one day Fuster’s mother took him to Freetown’s Church of the Lord Aladura. The sound of celebratory drum beats cascaded into the street as he approached the building, and he was hooked. For the next four years he played drums in the church’s daily services. “Most of my drumming, what happens now, today, actually took form in that church,” he declares.

In 1962 Fuster met the Heartbeats when a dance team he had formed called Kompara Jazz was booked with the band to perform at a school leavers concert. The band’s drummer failed to show up, so although he had no experience with western style kit drums, Fuster volunteered to sit in. “The experience, the excitement, the applause! I mean I got applause as a dancer, but sitting there and actually playing music and people liking it and standing up affected me too much.”

The Heartbeats had formed in 1961 with singer Geraldo Pino, guitarist Balogun “Dynamite” Johnson-Williams, and drummer Reuben Williams. Bassist George Keister and Hassan Deen, whose speciality was Congolese style vocals, were soon added to the mix, and in despair over their drummer’s erratic behavior, the players eventually replaced him with Fuster.

The 1960s was a golden decade for Sierra Leone’s music scene. Pop bands proliferated. Recording studios and record dealers sprang up around Freetown. Geraldo Pino and his Heartbeats was one of the dominant bands, recording songs like “Maria Lef for Waka” and “Oh Ye Charanga,” staging dances at Goodings Hall, and playing nightclubs like the Tiwana, Flamingo, and Palm Beach Club. By the mid-sixties the band was touring regularly, playing tight covers of American soul songs. Propelled by Fuster’s devastating drums and Pino’s James Brown dips and struts, they fomented West Africa’s soul craze.

Despite occasional personnel changes—Dynamite, for example, left to form his own band—the group prospered. As the soul craze wore off the players weaned themselves from covering western pop songs by developing new, original material. But by 1972 tension within the band was high. Money and management had become constant sources of friction. After playing some Christmas dates in Ghana, Fuster quit and went to Lagos. Most of the others soon followed leaving Pino odd man out. The Fuster faction resumed playing under the name Baranta, a Krio word that means rebel.

In 1974 Fuster met Hugh Masekela through his friend Liberian singer Miatta Fahnbulleh—a meeting that led to an album project with Masekela, Fahnbulleh, and Baranta recording together in Lagos. Incredibly, the music was lost when the master tape was inadvertently left on a train in Nigeria.

Baranta broke up in 1976 when Fuster became stranded in New York where he had gone in search of better equipment and performance techniques. He finally scraped together enough money to get back to Freetown in 1978. There he taught karate—he had achieved a black belt while in New York—and booked entertainment for the newly opened Bintumani Hotel. He also staged shows at the City Hall Auditorium, which featured various performers and his own satirical monologues.

Fuster’s monologues generated such political heat that by 1982 he felt he had to leave the country. He moved to London, where, once again by chance, he encountered Masekela and quickly accepted his offer of a job. The association paid off in spades when he was invited to join Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. “That’s my biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he says still seemingly in awe. “For an African boy coming from my direction, it was big for me...it was a good feeling that I could do it, that I could play at that level.”

These days, in spare moments between tour and recording dates with Masekela and freelance session work, Fuster is putting the finishing touches on his first solo album. He wrote most of the songs, and in addition to drums, plays some guitar and sings for the first time since the days of Baranta. “I like to think of it as music for the soul,” he says. “I feel some responsibility towards my people. And I need to help them with my music if that’s the only way I can....And doing that to me at this time seems to be very important.”

This article first appeared in West Africa, no. 3747, 12 June 1989 and became the basis for a chapter in the book Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm. Copyright © 1989 by Gary Stewart

 


 
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