Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond

 


AVanishing Breed
Big Fayia, Sierra Leone's Musical Ambassador


FREETOWN—Recording artists in Sierra Leone are a vanishing breed, victims of a massive influx of tape cassettes and recording machines that has produced a tidal wave of music piracy. Seeing profits from their work vanish into the pockets of others, many of Sierra Leone’s musicians have stopped recording; many others have pursued their careers abroad. One who perseveres in Freetown, resolutely resisting the trend, is Mustapha Sahr Fayia, known to the music world as Big Fayia.

With the release of his latest album, Big Fayia is currently heard around the country urging farmers to produce more food and exhorting the nation’s unemployed to return to the farm. Set to a rock-solid reggae beat, “Farmers” is a key component in President Momoh’s effort to rally behind his Green Revolution Program. But this album, entitled simply Big Fayia, is more than an exercise in propaganda. It contains much clever social commentary sung in the sharp, witty style that is Big Fayia’s trademark. “Snuff Chick,” for example, is a humorous tale of a girl who doesn’t kiss because she eats snuff, and “Etara Layn” sings the praises of none other than Big Fayia himself.

Fayia is backed by Jehpeh-Londo, a band featuring singers Abou Whyte and Dr. Chelsea and veteran guitarist Bankole Gabba. The demise of Freetown’s recording studios forced the group to record in Côte D’Ivoire with financial assistance from President Momoh. In an attempt to discourage piracy, the album has been released on cassette tape simultaneously by Freetown’s three main taping studios, Abba, Pat Paul, and Tapes International. Fayia hopes to find a dealer in Europe or America to press and distribute a disc version on the international market.

Between recording and performance engagements Big Fayia can often be found at “bottom mango,” the last poda poda station near the main gate to Wilberforce Barracks. There he maintains a small kiosk—the word “Maryland” emblazoned across the front of it—where friends from his twenty years in the army pause for a cold pint of beer and some conversation. Income from the kiosk supplements the uncertain rewards of a musical career and helps provide support for his wife and six children.

Fayia’s ancestral home is the town of Dia in Kailahun District, but he spent most of his youth in Bo. Nothing in his early years, in the late forties and early fifties, seemed to portend a musical career. He lived a normal schoolboy life with the aim of becoming a mechanical engineer. But after finishing his studies at Bo’s U.C.C. Secondary School, Fayia could find no opportunity to pursue an engineering career. In desperation he answered an advertisement for employment with the Prisons Department and was hired in 1957.

It was in Bonthe, Fayia’s first prison post, that he discovered his latent musical talent. He met a local musician named Pa Cooper who sang folk songs, accompanying himself on the guitar. “That was the very first time I saw somebody playing guitar,” Fayia recalls. “I was hearing the Zulus and this man, S.E. Rogers I used to hear his records by then, but I didn’t know him, and I had never seen anybody playing guitar. That was the very first time, so straightaway I was interested.” He paid Pa Cooper for a lesson and then bought his own guitar.

Over the next few years Fayia was transferred to various prison posts around the country, all the while continuing to play his guitar. Eventually he was posted to Freetown where his musical career began to take off. In 1963 he formed a five-piece band called the Blue Diamonds and cut a record for Freetown’s leading producer, Jonathan Adenuga, called “Gari Go Gi Yu Beleh” (a double-entendre: gari, food made from ground cassava will fill your belly or make you pregnant). When the band played for a dance at Marampa mines, the performance so impressed some managers at Delco, the mine’s operator in those days, that they invited Fayia and his musicians to play there permanently. “They were paying me, the prisons, ten pounds a month. So Delco said we’ll give you thirteen pounds, so I had to leave [the prisons].” The band played around the Marampa area for nearly a year under the name Iron Ore Jazz.

In 1965 the army’s parade band came to Marampa to play for Delco’s annual “long service award” ceremony. The soldiers, who had heard the hot sounds of Iron Ore Jazz, began to talk to Fayia about forming a military dance band. “They convinced me to come to the army....And I left Delco, came to the army to come and make the first dance band.”

Competition among Freetown bands was fierce in the 1960s. There were several outstanding groups including Akpata Jazz sponsored by Prime Minister Albert Margai, Geraldo Pino’s Heartbeats, SLBS Crackers, Red Star, and the Police Dance Band. Fayia joined the fray with his Sierra Leone Military Dance Band.

The band’s lineup featured three guitars, conga, and drums played by the old Iron Ore Jazz, whose members joined the army with Fayia. To that base he added a horn section of saxophone, trombone, and trumpets. Under Fayia’s direction the Military Dance Band achieved great popularity. The band toured periodically making stops in Nigeria, Liberia, Gambia, Russia, Hungary, and Cuba. In Havana in 1978, they beat out twenty-five other bands—among them the famed Congolese group Bantous de la Capital—for first place in a music competition. From this triumph, Fayia and his band went on to record their first and only record, an album in honor of the 1980 0rganization of African Unity conference that was held in Freetown.

The Military Dance Band was a success, but Fayia was not completely satisfied. Seeing that there was money to be made in recording, he organized another band, around 1967, outside the army. Since military officers generally knew him as Mustapha or M.S., he called his second band Big Fayia and the Invissible Five [sic] to conceal his involvement. The Invissible Five included conga player Abu Sillah and guitarists Stanley Kabia and the late Kanga Joe. Together they produced a string of hit records including “Ngi Ye Lima,” “New Love No No Ben Mot,” and “Big Fayia Duya Tell We” [see “Sierra Leone’s Silent Sage” for Chris During's explanation of how the Invissible Five came to be].

In 1975 Blackpool, the powerful Freetown football team, organized a contest to find a theme song. Fayia’s composition won, and he was sent to London to record it. The following year he was back in London, this time sponsored by the army, to study classical music. In London he met Sierra Leonean producers Akie Deen and J.F. Samuh and recorded for each of them at different times. Great songs came out of these sessions such as “Want Want No Get,” “Me Back (Jealous Woman, Jealous Man)”, “Respect,” and “Alay Wu Waa.”

After twenty years of military service as his country’s musical ambassador, Big Fayia left the army in 1985. Despite Freetown’s bleak recording scene, he refuses to give up on the music business. “It is now that I’ve started,” he declares, “Because I am waiting for my children [who are budding musicians]. And they are trying; they are coming up.” Meanwhile he works with Jehpeh-Londo to promote the new album while attempting to hasten the day when Sierra Leone’s flagging music industry will revive.

This article first appeared in West Africa, no. 3637, 27 April 1987 and became the basis for a chapter in the book Breakkout: Profiles in African Rhythm Copyright © 1987 by Gary Stewart


 
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