A musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas

Musical journey in the footsteps of N. W. Thomas in Sierra Leone

Between 1909 and 1915, Northcote W. Thomas, made hundreds of sound recordings as part of his anthropological surveys in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. His recordings included stories, ‘specimens’ of languages, and especially samples of local music traditions. These wax cylinder records are now in the collections of the British Library Sound Archive – one of the [Re:]Entanglements / Museum Affordances project partners. The fragile wax cylinders have recently been digitized and we are working with the recordings in our fieldwork.

During our fieldwork in Sierra Leone we have been retracing Northcote Thomas’s 1914-15 itineraries and returning copies of Thomas’s photographs and sound recordings to local communities. We have been collecting lots of new information about these archival materials. Supported by a small grant from the British Library, we have also been making some new field recordings of music in the same locations that Thomas worked in. Here, then, is part of our musical journey through northern Sierra Leone, in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas…

Kamalo, Sanda Loko Chiefdom, Karene District

Nandawa Kargbo, Kamalo, Sierra Leone

Nandawa Kargbo, from Makankoi near Kamalo, singing a traditional Makama style Temne song accompanied by a ‘5 gallon’ (a five-gallon plastic container, replacing a bass drum). Nandawa sings Eye ye minɛ soli-o [I am worried], A tey mi thonɔŋ-o ka ȧŋwula [I am left in the wilderness], Eye ye I bayɛ sɔ wuni ŋȧsu abɛra I bayɛ su wuni ta mɔnɛ [I have no one left on my side, my fellow women, for the sake of poverty].

Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Karene District

Women singers at Sendugu, Sanda Tendaren Chiefdom, Sierra Leone

When we arrived unannounced in Sendugu one afternoon, we were greeted by a group of women singing and led by the oldest member of the community (the woman pictured above on the right). At the time of Northcote Thomas’s visit in 1914, Sendugu was the seat of the Paramount Chief, Bai Lama Munu. Since those days, however, the chieftaincy has been elsewhere. The song told of the return of power to Sendugu and the Munu lineage. The song included here has the words: A yɔ mi kare, ye [They wronged me], A yɔ kare ro rȧsu a yɔ mi kare [They wronged me by our people], Ye kare ŋa yemu, kare ka rȧbȧy-o [It is wronged, wronged by our leaders].

Matotoka, Tane Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Digba Nasoko Turay and Bondo society women at Matotoka, Sierra Leone

A Bundu society song performed by Digba Nasoko H. Turay, Matotoka. Accompanied by Bundu society women, saka (gourd shaker), saŋbori (Bundu drum), saŋgba (hour-glass-shaped drum) and ‘5 gallon’. The song is a warning to non-members to not interfere with Bundu society business. Digba Nasoko sings Yirȧ gbo əŋ kəli-o, Eya ye gbeleŋ bȧki yirȧ kəli-o [Sit and watch! Our elder sit and watch!], while the refrain, Gbenleŋ say, gbeleŋ kənəmla gbeleŋ say, is a Bundu chant that cannot be translated into ordinary language. The original location of Matotoka that Northcote Thomas would have visited is now the society bush and it is forbidden for non-members to visit it.

Mabonto, Simiria Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Tambah Koroma

This beautiful song is sung by Tambah Koroma from Kolifaka, and recorded in Mabonto. Tambah accompanies himself on the kondene, a 10-stringed bow (somewhat like a kora). This is originally a Yalunka instrument played by hunters. Traditionally, the kondene‘s bow was inserted into skin-covered gourd, which acts as a sound box. These days a metal pan is often substituted for the gourd. Tambah is a well-known kondene player locally, though when we visited him in Kolifaka, he explained that he hadn’t played in a long time and he showed us his kondene in pieces with no strings. The following day, however, when Tambah met us in Mabonto he had completely restored the kondene. This is a Koranko song his grandfather taught him. It tells of the hunters’ prowess and their ability to attract women, since they could provide food. It was played to hunters to give them courage as they left for the forest and its many dangers.

Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Tonkolili District

Mohammed Gibateh, Bendugu, Sierra Leone

Northcote Thomas did not visit Bendugu, but he photographed a number of balaŋ players in Mabonto – praise singers of Paramount Chief Ali Suri. When we asked about local balaŋ players, we were told about Mohammed Gibateh in Bendugu, some hours drive away on very rough roads. The balaŋ is a xylophone, traditionally associated with the Mandingo, Soso, Koranko and Yalunka areas of Sierra Leone. This recording includes two balaŋ one played by Mohammed Gibateh, the other by his brother Fassaleh Gibateh. They come from a famous family of Koranko praise singers (Yelibah). This song speaks of the value of life – even if one has nothing, if there is life, there is hope. If there is hope, there is life.

Bumban, Biriwa Limba Chiefdom, Bombali District

Ma Binty Conteh, Bumban, Sierra Leone

A song led by Ma Binty Conteh welcoming us to Bumban. The song, sung in Biriwa Limba, expresses how the community is happy – someone has come to bring development to Bumban.

Gbawuria, Kabala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District

Mohammed 'Medo' Kuyateh, Kabala, Sierra Leone

Mohammed Kuyateh is known as ‘Medo’ (‘the famous’), and is a well-known balaŋ player and praise singer in Kabala in north-east Sierra Leone. He is praise singer to the current Paramount Chief, Chief Gbawuru III, and his forefathers were praise singers to Chief Gbawuru I, who Northcote Thomas photographed in Kabala 1914. Thomas also photographed two balaŋ players in Kabala, including one called Fode, likely to be Mohammed’s grandfather, who was indeed named Yelli Fode. The first thing Mohammed did when we showed him this picture was count the number of ‘keys’ or gbene on the instruments – there were 15, while these days it is more typical to have more (Mohammed’s balaŋ has 18). Mohammed explained that the Yellibah always performs his songs in the Maninka language, regardless of what language he speaks normally. He is accompanied here by Salu Conteh on the bata (hour-glass shaped drum), and by his sons, Lansana Kuyateh (second bata) and Alusine Kuyateh (dundun or bass drum). Mohammed himself plays the balaŋ with a hand rattle or bell on one wrist.

Yagala, Wara Wara Yagala Chiefdom, Koinadugu District

Sidi Conteh, Kamaloko, Yagala, Sierra Leone

There are many different languages and dialects spoken in Sierra Leone, and Northcote Thomas was among the first to systematically document these. In Kabala and near-by Yagala we struggled to find anyone who could understand a number of recordings made by Northcote Thomas in Kabala in 1914. We were told, however, about a blind singer named Sidi Conteh who lived in a remote farming hamlet who might be able to help us. Guided by a friend from Yagala we set off for Kamaloko and, sure enough, Sidi was able to sing along to the 105-year-old recordings – they were actually in the local Wara Wara Limba dialect! Sidi accompanies himself on the kututen, a kind of finger piano. Sidi’s kututen is made from an old tin gallon can, one side of which is replaced by a wooden finger board to which are attached metal tongues made from old umbrella stretchers beaten flat. The can is filled with pebbles and shaken at the same time as being played to provide the rhythm. We love the way this song builds and how the voices of Sidi and other members of the Conteh family – Thunkeh, Marie and Koda – interweave with one another

Musaia, Dembelia Musaia Chiefdom, Falaba District

Sukaria Sigisa Samura, Musaia, Sierra Leone

A Yalunka Bundu society song led by Sukaria Sigisa Samura. The women explained that this was one of their oldest songs, dating to the times of the great Yalunka chiefs. It was sung also as a demonstration of their pride in the women’s society, and in gratitude for our visit with photographs and recordings of their ancestors.

Copies of these and other songs recorded ‘in the footsteps of Northcote Thomas’ will be deposited with the British Library Sound Archive. We are grateful for the British Library for supporting this aspect of our fieldwork.

Fieldnotes: protection from witchcraft

Charms collected by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone, 1914-15
‘Charms’ collected by Northcote Thomas in Sierra Leone, 1914-15. Clockwise from top left: Sacrifice to keep children well (MAA Z 14477); Charm to protect kola tree (MAA Z 14479); Charm (MAA Z 14499); Charm for kola tree (MAA Z 14502).

Sometimes the most potent objects are not the most visually striking. This is true of the various ‘sacrifices’ and ‘charms’ that Northcote Thomas collected in Sierra Leone in 1914-15, and now held by the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They take many forms – cloth covered bundles, a few sticks tied together, crumbling packages – yet they are also some of the most powerful objects in the Thomas collections. They have the power to protect people and their property from malevolent forces, including witchcraft, which might bring sickness, crop failure or other calamities.

Sacrifice for good sleep, Kamalo, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice’ in house in Kamalo to protect from evil and bring good sleep. Photographed by N. W. Thomas in 1914. (MAA P.33089)

Witchcraft and the various means to protect oneself from it appear to have been of particular interest to Thomas during his tour of mainly Temne-, Soso-, Koranko- and Limba-speaking communities in northern Sierra Leone. He devoted a number of chapters of his Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone to the topic and related matters. This reflects the centrality of the issue to the communities he worked with.

He evidently struggled to make sense of the numerous rites, ceremonies, sacrifices, amulets and charms that were employed by different communities to protect themselves from malevolent forces. This no doubt reflects the anthropologist’s desire to make distinctions between and classify the practices and objects he encountered. Thus, in Chapter 7 of his Report, Thomas discusses various rituals, sacrifices and magical things under categories of ‘satka’, ‘wanka’ and ‘kanta’, and yet in his descriptions the distinction between these is often blurred and confusing.

N. W. Thomas, Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, typology of wanka
Pages from N. W. Thomas’s Anthropological Report on Sierra Leone, including a table in which Thomas attempts to produce a typology of wanka.

The ‘belief’ in witchcraft is still very much part of life in Sierra Leone and it is not unusual to see protective amulets, charms and other devices, especially in rural areas. The need to protect oneself from malevolent forces (the invisible ‘bullets’ of a ‘witchgun’, for example) is strongly felt and local herbalists or ritual specialists perform important roles in their communities. Although these charms are often constructed from ordinary things (basketwork, calabashes, eggs, stones, fishing nets), these have been ritually transformed. Thomas concluded that the objects were often selected because of their mimetic properties – a fragment of old fishing net thus becomes a ritual trap, for instance.

Sacrifice against fire, Fundembia, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice against fire’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Fundembia (?), 1914. NWT 5735; MAA P.33428.

Satka are often set up outside people’s houses. They typically take the form of long poles, on top of which are suspended various things – sometimes a white or red cloth, sometimes a small fan or basket, sometimes a small bell. Thomas observed these too: ‘Chief among mimetic rites’, he wrote, ‘may be mentioned the custom of hanging up a fan which swings in the breeze and is believed to be efficacious in blowing away evil influences’ (Thomas 1916: 53). We were given a similar explanation at the village of Katumpeh, on the road between Kamalo and Kamakwie. Mr Abraham Dumbuya explained that his previous house was damaged by strong winds, so he had this satka made. Now when evil comes with the wind, it sees the satka and jumps over the house, leaving it unharmed. Instead, the satka welcomes in good luck. Another man in the same village explained that when his satka swings in the breeze, it will invite good luck to the household.

Satka charm, Katumpeh, Sierra Leone
Satka outside house in Katumpeh, on the road between Kamalo and Kamakwie. Photographs by Paul Basu.

When we brought copies of Northcote Thomas’s photographs of Mamaka to show the present-day community, we asked about the various wanka he had photographed. One type, in particular, was instantly recognized. Thomas describes this as a type of ‘sacrifice’ ‘put at the entrance to a farm … to keep away witches, bad krifi [spirits], and evil-disposed persons and influences’ (Thomas 1916: 53).

Sacrifice on entrance to farm, Mamaka, Sierra Leone
‘Sacrifice at entrance to farm’, photographed by Northcote Thomas in Mamaka in 1914. NWT 5863; MAA P.33523.

In Mamaka, we were later introduced to Mohammed Kamara, a herbalist or omen, who agreed to let us film him making such a charm, which he described as a kantha. He explained that farmers would approach him to make the kantha. It would be set up at the entrance to a farm at the time of hoeing the soil, before planting. The kantha can be re-used from year to year, but a new ceremony must be performed each year. The kantha includes a raw egg wrapped first in a red cloth, then covered in a piece of old fishing net. These have previously been transformed into powerful things using herbs or medicines. These are placed in a basketry receptacle that has been woven into long strips of cane. The receptacle is then covered in another piece of red cloth and another piece of old fishing net, which is bound in place. Just like the example photographed by Northcote Thomas in 1914, this is then suspended on two poles and set up at the entrance of a farm. At key points in the making of the kantha, Mohammed spoke words that ‘activated’ the charm. The egg, he explained, was like a bomb – if a witch passed by, it would explode. The fishing net was a ritual trap.

Documentation film of Mohammed Kamara, herbalist, making a kantha charm to protect farm from witchcraft.

Mohammed learnt the skills of a herbalist from his father, Pa Almamy Kamara, who had, in turn, learnt the art from his mother, Yanna Kanray. He explained that not everyone has the power to make such charms and cure diseases. One must be gifted with ‘four eyes’ – that is, the ability to engage with the spirit realm. We asked how much a farmer might pay him for a kantha and he explained that it depended on how much he was able to pay. We asked that the kantha Mohammed made for us be given to a poor farmer who could not afford to pay. We hope that it will protect his farm from harm and bring a good harvest!

Kantha charm, Mamaka, Sierra Leone
The finished kantha that Mohammed Kamara made for us in Mamaka. Photograph by Paul Basu.

Conversations with a carver

George Agbo in conversation with Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
George Agbo and Chief Anaemena discuss photographs of wood carvings collected by Northcote Thomas in 1911.

In 2018 we photographed many of the artefacts collected by Northcote Thomas during his anthropological surveys in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and now held at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. This allowed us glimpse into the artistic skills of the various communities in which Thomas worked. This included metal working such as bronze casting and blacksmithing, wood carving, pottery, basketry, weaving and leather working. Our engagement with these collections has led us to pursue certain lines of inquiry in our fieldwork: for instance, we are interested in who made these objects, why and how they were made, to what uses were they put, and whether these artistic practices have survived.

Carver, Felix Ekhator, Sakpohba Road, Benin City.
Carver, Felic Ekhator, of Sakpohba Road, Benin City.

In some place, such as Benin City, we have found that traditional arts continue to flourish, as can be seen in the metal working guilds in Igun Street or the nearby wood carvers who produce works not dissimilar to those collected by Thomas over 100 years ago. In many places, however, it appears that these skills are being lost or have died out.

Chief Anaemena, Amansea.
Ozo Chief Raphael Anaemena of Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria.

In Amansea, Anambra State, Nigeria, which Thomas visited in 1911 during his first tour among Igbo-speaking communities, we met a carver – Chief Raphael Anaemena – who also holds the Ozo title. We did not see him work; he is advanced in age and has not carved in a couple of years, but he shared interesting insight into the art. He is from the Ibe family in Amansea, historically known across the region for the art of carving.

Although we do not have record of any wooden artefacts collected by Thomas from Amansea, Chief Anaemena’s father or grandfather may well have carved the doors or shrine figures that Thomas photographed in the town. He and other carvers from the Ibe family also received commissions from neighbouring towns such as Ebenebe, Ugwuoba and Awka where Thomas did collect. There were carvers in these places too, but the works of the Ibe of Amansea were particularly sought after due to the high quality of their craftsmanship.

Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911.
Examples of wood carving photographed by Northcote Thomas in Amansea in 1911. Left: carved door (NWT 3466; RAI 400.20020; MAA P.31638); Right: shrine figure (NWT 3473; RAI 400.20026).

We sat down with Chief Anaemena to look over some of the photographs of the wooden objects Thomas collected in the area and benefitted from his insight into production techniques. Consider, for example, how carvers joined pieces of wood.

Thumb piano collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0351; MAA Z 14207.
Elaborately carved thumb piano or ubo collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu in 1911. (MAA Z 14207)

Looking at the above elegant wood carving to which a thumb piano (ubo) is attached, and which was acquired by Thomas in Awgbu, Chief Anaemena explained that some parts such as the leopard and the animal heads with horns were carved separately and then joined together. While other carvers would use glue, such as the type made of wax from a certain insect in the bee family, to join the various parts, the Ibe would achieve a better result by creating a protrusion on one piece of wood and a groove on the other wood into which the protuberance would be fitted. Another joinery technique is ‘nailing’ with thorns such as those from orange trees, palm branches or pieces of wood given nail-like shape. However, this technique only works with soft woods such as the type used in the production of the box for keeping eagle feathers which Thomas collected from Nise.

Box collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. NWT 2 0599; MAA Z 13900.
Box for storing eagle feathers collected by Northcote Thomas in Nise, 1911. (MAA Z 13900)

Generally, the kind of wood used for carving is determined by the object the carver intends to create. Masks for instance would be produced from light wood so that they could easily be carried by the masker. Other production specifications such as size and design are largely determined by the one who commissioned the carving. Carvers do not usually produce carvings to be kept for sale. The work is driven by demand, where the carver could even be employed for some time in his client’s home. One who wishes to have an ikenga figure made, for example, would give the carver specifications about size and the objects it would carry in its hands. However, clients could at times ask the carver to make design decisions for them. According to Chief Anaemena, it was once common to see the ikenga figure with a knife in one hand and a human head in the other as exemplified by the one Thomas collected from Awgbu.

Ikenga collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. NWT 2 0348; MAA Z 14203.
Ikenga figure collected by Northcote Thomas in Awgbu, 1911. (MAA Z 14203)

The trophy is suggestive of the malevolent side of ikenga’s power. At some point, people began to find that too fierce. Ozo Chief Anaemena explained that, in the 1970s, he began to put the ofo stick in one of the ikenga’s hands and a knife in the other to suggest ‘okpegbuo ogbuo’ (it can only kill justly). This was well received and it soon became fashionable.

Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea
Stool carved by Chief Anaemena for his Ozo title taking ceremony, Amansea.

Today, Ozo Chief Anaemena does not carve anymore but he still has some of his works. An example is the stool he carved in 2013 for his Ozo title taking ceremony the following year. He also showed us some of his carving tools including nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood), muma (for shaping), ugama (for cutting), and mma oge (for cutting). We hope that in the course of our fieldwork we will meet some traditional carvers who still practice their art and look forward to learning more from them.

Some of Chief Anaemena's woodworking tools, Amansea.
Some of Chief Anaemena’s wood carving tools, including: (1) nkori oshishi (for creating effects on the wood); (2) muma (for shaping); (3) ugama (for cutting); and (4) mma oge (for cutting).

Faces|Voices – confronting the photographic archive

Looking through the photographic archives of Northcote Thomas’s early twentieth-century anthropological surveys of Nigeria and Sierra Leone, one gazes upon thousands of faces. Faces of men, women and children, many photographed against a canvas backdrop; all of them silent. What were they thinking as they were being photographed by this Government Anthropologist, perhaps with a number card held above their heads? Was the encounter with this pith-helmeted white man, with his entourage of carriers and boxes full of strange equipment, an unpleasant one, or an amusing distraction from everyday chores? What can we see in the faces Thomas photographed? What can we read in their expressions?

In Faces|Voices, a short film we have made as part of the [Re:]Entanglements project, we invited participants to reflect upon some of the faces captured in Thomas’s photographic portraits and to comment more generally on the significance of these archival images. Adding their voices to the mute photographs, we find that the same portrait may invite quite different ‘readings’. Where one may see coercion, another might detect boredom. The crushing experience of colonialism may be found in one subject’s expression; optimism and resilience in another’s. Perhaps most surprising is the sympathetic view – even identification with – the face of the Government Anthropologist himself.

The film complicates any simple reading of the colonial archive. Even ‘physical type’ photographs, intended to identify and classify people into different racial or tribal categories, and which seemingly epitomize the violences of colonial ideologies, become ambiguous on closer inspection.

What do you read in these faces? Please make your voice heard by adding a comment.

Faces|Voices was made in collaboration with The Light Surgeons as a pilot for a video installation for the [Re:]Entanglements exhibition planned for 2020. See also our earlier blog entry about the making of the film. Many thanks to our participants: Ebony Francis, Robert Kelechi Isiodu, Kofi Mawuli Klu, Yvonne Mbanefo and Esther Stanford-Xose.

Fieldnotes: Kuranko flute

Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.
Hassan Jalloh, flute player from Bendugu, Sambaya Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

As part of our fieldwork in Sierra Leone, we are recording contemporary musicians and singers in the locations in which Northcote Thomas worked in 1914-15. Indeed, the majority of the wax cylinder phonograph recordings that Thomas made during his Sierra Leonean tour are ethnomusicological.

On 21 October 1914, while conducting research in Mabonto in what is now Simera Chiefdom, Tonkolili District, Northern Sierra Leone, Thomas recorded a flute player. Mabonto is now largely Temne-speaking as a result of in-migration due to mining activities. In 1914, however, Mabonto was a Koranko-speaking town.

Recording of Koranko flute made by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto on 21 October 1914. NWT 681; British Library C51/3076.

When we asked whether there were any traditional flute players in Mabonto, we were told that there were none, and that one would have to go deeper into ‘Koranko country’ in order to find one. We were told about a flute player named Hassan Jalloh, who lived in Bendugu in neighbouring Sambaya Chiefdom. The following day, after a long, arduous drive through the hilly terrain, we arrived at Bendugu only to find that Hassan had been called away to play his flute at a men’s society ceremony. Thankfully, however, we were able to arrange for him to come to Mabonto the day after, where he played for us.

We played Hassan Northcote Thomas’s 105-year-old recordings of the flute player in Mabonto. Hassan confirmed that this was the same instrument he played. He immediately recognized the music and began playing a version of the same song, which he told us was played in the men’s society camp.

Hassan Jalloh playing a version of the flute music recorded by Northcote Thomas in Mabonto in 1914.

Thomas collected two examples of these flutes and they were some of the most fragile objects that we photographed in the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) stores in 2018. They are made from reeds that grow on river banks in the region. Hassan explained that he learnt to make and play the flute (locally called fuli or fullii) from his father who had learnt from his father before him. The finger holes are burnt into the reed using a hot stick and one can still see where the stick has singed the reed in the examples in the MAA collection. It appears that the MAA examples were not played, however, since they are missing the mouthpiece, which is fashioned from a kind of resin produced by insects.

Flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in Koranko country in 1914. NWT SL 0139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Reed flutes collected by Northcote Thomas in northeastern Sierra Leone in 1914, now in the collection of the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. NWT 139; MAA Z 14559.1-2.
Hassan Jalloh's flute
Hassan Jalloh’s flute. Note the mouthpiece formed of resin that is missing from the examples collected by Northcote Thomas.