Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond

 


Rogie
Music Pioneer of Sierra Leone

RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA—The sounds of Sierra Leone in the 1950s and ‘60s—“Baby Lef Marah,” “Toomus Meremereh Nor Good,” “My Lovely Elizabeth”; the wonderful sounds of S.E. Rogers and his guitar. Rogie, as his fans called him, issued musical warnings, bemoaned broken romances, and sang out his advice to young and old. Playing his melodies on the guitar and singing with a smooth baritone voice, Rogie was a dominant figure on the music scene in Sierra Leone and beyond for more than a decade.

Now living in the United States, he is known as Sooliman E. Rogie with three years of college, two record albums, and two books behind him, he is currently performing African cultural presentations. He remembers his homeland and his struggles for success and in so doing brings Africa to life for American audiences.

Born in Fornikoh in the Pujehun District of Sierra Leone, Rogie moved to Freetown at an early age. As a teenager in the late ‘40s he began to study as an apprentice tailor, a position that, ironically, led to his music career.

Many of Freetown’s musicians came to the tailor shop, and Rogie got to know several of them. “One day I asked one of the guitarists to teach me how to play the guitar. So he put my fingers on the guitar and showed me that was ‘C’ and the whole process lasted about fifteen minutes.... That was all the instruction that I had, and I picked it up from there.”

As he became more proficient at both tailoring and music, Rogie began to earn a living by combining the two. “I started traveling from place to place playing my guitar. I would go to a town and open up my tailor shop. I sew all day and evening I pick up my guitar; entertain people.”

Freetown in the 1950s and ‘60s was a particularly good place for musicians. A Nigerian named Adenuga had established a thriving record company on Goderich Street. Known as Adenuga and Jonathan, the firm recorded, imported, and sold records. In l956, Rogie contacted Adenuga and auditioned some songs for him. The result was his first record, “Jaimgbatutu,” sung in Mende about the wise old owl. The pay in those days was a flat fee of £5 per recording. To make additional money, he bought copies of his records and re-sold them at a profit.

Several records later he saved enough money to order recording equipment from England and began making his own recordings. “I would wait when it’s late at night, when it’s quiet and no cars driving by and there was no noise outside. Then I would do my recording.” The tapes were then sent to Europe for pressing into records.

His first recordings were just Rogie and his guitar. Later, as his popularity grew, he recruited other local musicians and paid them to work as recording session personnel. Having his own recording equipment made him independent and enabled him to experiment with new ideas. For example, the percussion sound on “My Lovely Elizabeth” was made by striking a calabash which was submerged upside down in a basin of water.

Rogie began to perform and distribute his records in Guinea and Liberia in addition to Sierra Leone. In fact, “Baby Lef Marah” and “Man Stupid Being” were recorded in Monrovia for Chafics Music House. During his travels he performed for Liberian President Tubman and Guinean President Toure as well as for Prime Minister Albert Margai of Sierra Leone. He also came to the attention of a representative of E.M.I. Records, U.K., which led to his biggest hit.

“My Lovely Elizabeth” was based on a broken love affair. “A girl left me, and I was disappointed, and I tried to express myself through that song. I just chose the name Elizabeth because I felt it would suit the song, and I liked it also.” E.M.I. also liked it and agreed to press and distribute the record and pay royalty based on sales. “Elizabeth” sold tens of thousands of copies all over Africa and Europe, but Rogie felt he was not receiving accurate sales information. This led him to sever his business relationship and go back to doing his own distribution.

In 1973, Rogie decided to move to the United States. “Back there [Sierra Leone] I was a big artist, and I had many American friends and fans who told me that if I came over here [America] I would become a millionaire overnight.” While perhaps not yet a millionaire, he has achieved some success.

He settled in the San Francisco area of California and set out in search of a recording contract. After meeting with some disappointment, he joined forces with a group called Songs and Creations headed by Yohann Anderson and began to form a band. The musicians were Americans taught by Rogie to play in the highlife style. With financial backing from an American friend, Irene Greene, he produced a 45 rpm record and then an album, African Lady. He toured with his band up and down the west coast of the United States. Success with African Lady led to radio and television appearances and a second album, Mother Africa.

As his work progressed, Rogie felt he needed to know how to write down his compositions in order to better communicate with other musicians. He promptly stopped touring and entered college for three years to refine his communication skills. Since leaving school he has become an educator himself writing two books of stories from Sierra Leone and traveling to schools, singing and lecturing about Africa. He gets special satisfaction from contact with black students, “Black children have a lot going for them.... They have been misinformed about their background, about their heritage, so I enlighten them as much as I can.”

About the future, says Rogie, “l don't know what God has in mind for me for tomorrow or next tomorrow or next year, but I just let his will be done in me.”

This article first appeared in West Africa, no. 3482, 14 May 1984 and became the basis for a chapter in the book Breakkout: Profiles in African Rhythm. Copyright © 1984 by Gary Stewart. My first publication and they spelled my name wrong: Gary Steward.


 
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