“I’m a very changeable person: I don’t wear the same face everyday”. The description Sia Tolno gives of herself also fits with the musical works of this 40 years old Guinean woman: so far, none of her four albums have resembled the previous.
Tolno ascribed this to a mere attempt of finding a style that fits her, trying zouk, funk and Mandinka rhythms, until she finally found herself at ease with afrobeat. Talking about the promotional tour of her third album, My life, she recalled in an interview with Radio France Internationale that she and her band used to “change the drums on almost every track to make them more afrobeat, and it was then, with my record label, that we all realized that it was what suited me best”.
Then came African woman, her latest work, and while composing the twelve tracks of the album, Tolno finally realized that afrobeat fitted her “like a glove”. In hindsight, things could not have been any different, since that was exactly the kind of music she listened to in her early years, out in the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she was raised before being forced to leave due to the civil war ravaging the country. When dealing with this musical genre, however, it is impossible to avoid comparisons with the man who became its symbol, the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Tolno faces this unavoidable challenge with an unlikely mix of audacity and reverence. Her cry for a Pan-African feminism, indeed, is the opposite of Fela’s ideas and lifestyle: also the choice of afrobeat – a genre in which few women have made their way – can be seen as a provocation from this point of view.
On the other hand, the Guinean singer does not hide her admiration for some sides of the late singer’s personality. “He was a man who didn’t listen to his critics but simply lived his life. He didn’t come from a very poor family. He had a good childhood and a decent education, but he decided to live the life he wanted. I admire people like that. And I liked the message he put across: I could see that it concerned me, because African history concerns us”, she also told Radio France Internationale. One can even say that in a certain sense, Fela has left his mark in African Woman, since his onetime drummer (and fellow afrobeat legend), Tony Allen, is the producer of the album and greatly influenced Tolno’s style.
Many performers, in fact, do not find themselves at ease with afrobeat, where musicians are very present and play a lot, while the singer only comes in from time to time. “That’s the afrobeat law! – Tolno said – whichever way you do it, there are rules you need to respect. And Tony Allen made me understand that. I would ask him if he thought I should sing at a particular point, and he would tell me if I should wait, or if we should put in some brass, etc. I learned that whole system in the studio”.
Nevertheless, even in the framework of these rules, the Guinea-born artist is always ready to make an exception, to “wear a different face” again, for instance in Manu, which retains some features of gospel, or Mama, with a nuance of ‘highlife’ music. As for the themes, things are more straightforward: most songs deal with political issues, due both to a tradition of which Fela himself was one of the greatest interpreters, and to Tolno’s own experiences. A great part of her life, indeed, has been shaped by politics: she grew up listening to orchestras abiding by the policy of authenticité culturelle (cultural authenticity) of the controversial Guinean president Sékou Touré and the experience of the war in Liberia and Sierra Leone (her home city, Guéckédou, lies not far from the border) deeply affected her life. “The war – she said once – broke my dreams”.
One of the songs in the album, Rebel Leader, is directly related to these events: it has been conceived as a letter to the former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor and it asks questions about his ruthless and selfish behaviour. This is not the only track in which Tolno deals with sensitive subjects: Yaguine et Fodé recalls the true story of two young migrants found dead with a letter in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner, and African Police denounces the corruption of officers who are paid low wages and rely on bribes. But African Woman also includes Djoumata, a cheerful song calling on everybody, young and old, to sing, dance and have fun. Once again, Tolno does not always wear the same face. (D.M.)