28 January 2019
Recording of the week: Bubu music from Tasso Island
This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.
Natural history broadcaster and author Dennis Furnell first travelled to Sierra Leone in January 1991 to record wildlife sounds for his radio programme Country Scene, broadcast on BBC Bedfordshire. As an active environmentalist involved with charities such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Birdlife International, he was part of a group visit, organized by the European Common Market, to Sierra Leone to see if it was possible to create an infrastructure for ecotourism. It was his first and only trip to the country.
The following recording was made by Furnell on 24 January on Tasso Island, about 8 miles east of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Made on cassette, this is a sound recording of traditional Bubu music, a genre modernised and popularised by Sierra Leonean pop star Ahmed Janka Nabay (January 5, 1964 – April 2, 2018) who first released music in his early 20s, also on cassette tape. Traditional Bubu music, played on “bamboo flutes, carburetor pipes, and other metal tubes of different sizes, as well as large wooden boxes, shakers, cowbells, and triangles…” (Nuxoll, 2015) has served diverse purposes in Sierra Leone, being linked with folk rituals (witchcraft), Islamic festivities and carnivals. Its popularised version, enhanced with synthesisers and drum machines, was appropriated by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels during the Sierra Leonean Civil War –
'During the war, civilians who suffered direct encounters with the rebel insurgents witnessed terror operations involving Janka Nabay’s music. RUF combatants regularly used Bubu music when invading villages and towns as part of hit-and-run raids. The rebels would play Janka Nabay’s popular music from ghetto blasters in order to attract and lure out unsuspecting civilians for easy capture or forced conscription. At other times, rebels would create the impression of initiating a party, playing Bubu music from loudspeakers and inviting civilians to join in, only to later disclose their real motives and then capture them.” (Nuxoll, 2015)
Dennis Furnell arrived on Tasso Island and made this sound recording by sheer chance. Returning from a visit to a nearby island, the person driving the canoe said they would go to Tasso because the chief was a friend. Dennis was keen to share his recollection of the event –
'This was an unplanned gathering of musicians and dancers (mainly children dancing) done, I believe, simply for my benefit and that of a small group of Scandinavian visitors who had come along for the ride. European visitors to Tasso Island were a rarity. As I said, the event was laid on by the Chief whose name I never discovered. It was a truly happy occasion after a relatively sombre visit to the nearby, uninhabited “Bunce Island” with its deserted slave compounds and rusting chains. There was a slave graveyard and armed forts, still with Georgian cannon pointing seawards and gun carriages eaten by termites. It was a major slave shipping island taking slaves from the Sierra Leone River to America. To my mind it seemed to maintain a shadow of its awful memories and appalling cruelty.
The musicians were residents of Tasso Island who simply appeared from dwellings and other buildings at the behest of the Chief, carrying with them a variety of tubes, pipes and drums, including car exhaust pipes, metal water pipes, steel vehicle brake drums – all in a variety of sizes. There were one or two sheet metal cones.'
'When they began to tune up it was rather discordant, then the children and young women began to beat time with their feet and the band seemed to pick up the rhythm. I had been talking into my recorder when the music started, but didn’t start to record the music straight away as I had some problems with over-modulation from the tea-chest drummer and I also wanted to photograph the dancers… But, when the band began in earnest I started to record. The sounds were fascinating and I wished I had begun to record from the beginning. It was a wonderful happy sound that reminded me of traditional Jazz.'
'Just at the end of my stay, the government collapsed and the army took over – and after some worrying moments I left the country. However, I retained a link through the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone (CSSL) and the Children’s Wildlife Week through a charity we had created with the support of my wife and several friends.
Not long after I returned to the UK war erupted, fueled by forces from Liberia under the control of the corrupt regime of President Taylor and the war continued for nearly 12 years* with appalling atrocities. During this time (with the exception of 2 years) our charity, the Rainforest Action Fund, with the help of the RSPB’s contacts and Birdlife International, managed to channel funds to the Children’s Wildlife Week and CSSL.'
Dennis Furnell donated the cassette tape to the British Library after playing it on his radio programme, for fear of it becoming lost in his own library. It was later included on a CD to accompany the British Library’s exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, distributed exclusively by Songlines magazine.
*The Sierra Leone Civil War lasted from 1991 to 2002. However, there was never really any peace after that which is why Dennis Furnell refers to it as having lasted 12 years.
Nuxoll, C. (2015). “We Listened to it Because of the Message”: Juvenile RUF Combatants and the Role of Music in the Sierra Leone Civil War. Music and Politics, IX(1). doi:10.3998/mp.9460447.0009.104