Tuesday, 11 November 2014


Sia’s Tolno’s infectious laugh and relaxed “vibe” do not immediately convey the message that this Guinean artist is a fighter. But once you hear her story and listen to her music, you realize that Tolno is on a serious mission to change attitudes - towards war, gender and parenting, just to name a few issues.

Her latest album African Woman, with the single Rebel Leader, is a blistering critique of those who ravage and destroy countries with incomprehensible wars and of leaders who do nothing for their populations.

Set to Afrobeat music, the lyrics of Rebel Leader are addressed to warlords in general, and to Liberia's Charles Taylor in particular.

“Mr. Rebel Leader, tell me who you fighting for, tell me why this massacre,” Tolno sings with palpable anger and urgency. “How do you feel inside when you see children die?”

The 39-year-old singer says she has no interest in being a heroine, but she wants to use her music to bring about change.

“I know what it means to be a refugee in other people’s countries because of war,” Tolno told SWAN in an interview in Paris, where she now lives. “And I wonder about the mentality of people who create war, beating people who are already down. So when I’m alone, this is what I write about. I decided to use this album to speak about these things.”

Sia Tolno in Paris
Tolno’s empathy and drive owe something to her own rough childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she lived with her father who had relocated from Guinea to work as a teacher.

Her father used corporal punishment as a constant form of discipline, she says, and she can still remember being hit just because she had been seen walking home with a friend after school.

“He thought that beating was for a child’s own good,” she says. “Some parents don’t know the long-term repercussions that this can have. But I have to say that he was always there, and made sure I went to school, but he was not a mother.”

Her mother lived in Sierra Leone as well, but Tolno had little contact with her. Along with the feeling of isolation within her own family, Tolno suffered from the conflicts created by warlords fighting over the region’s “blood diamonds”, and she took refuge in writing and poetry.

“There are so many people who manipulate us because of our poverty, and nobody is there to help us,” she recalls of those days.

When she was 20 years old, and wondering whether to study drama or information technology, Charles Taylor’s forces once more plunged Liberia and the region into bloody warfare, and Tolno had to flee to Guinea, although she hardly knew the members of her family there.

“I can see nothing good about war, nothing,” she says. “It’s like a disease. What can you do if you’re not sure you’ll still be alive at the end of the day?”

Music was a means out.
Photo by N. Lawson-Daku / Lusafrica
Music provided a way out of the feeling of desolation, and in the mid-Nineties Tolno began performing at a club called “Copains d’abord”, operated by a Lebanese businessman named Mustapha, who she says was kind and helpful to the people working for him.

As a member of the conservative, “forest-based” Kissi ethnic group, Tolno could not draw on any griot troubadour tradition, and she says her family found it unimaginable that she had decided to be a singer.

But her powerful voice and her choice of material - popular songs by Western singers such as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Whitney Houston - soon won her many fans.

She represented Guinea in the first series of the “Africa Star” music show held in Gabon in 2008 and particularly impressed two of the judges: Gabonese musician and composer Pierre Akendengue and record producer Jose Da Silva (the CEO of the Paris-based Lusafrica label and the person who first recorded the late great Cesaria Evora).

Although Tolno didn’t win, Da Silva invited her to join his label, and her first international album Eh Sanga was released in 2009. That was the year more civil unrest broke out in Guinea, with security forces opening fire on a crowd and sexually assaulting women in the streets.

Pierre Akendengue, a mentor.
Living in countries where such atrocities have occurred has had an impact on Tolno’s writing and singing. She has now set her powerful voice and lyrics to Afrobeat, the rough and angry fusion of Ghanaian-Nigerian funk, jazz and highlife made popular by music legend Fela Kuti.

African Woman, her third international release, comes with notable contributions from Tony Allen, who was Fela’s drummer and artistic director for more than 10 years until they had a political falling out. But here there’s a difference: while the music is still “angry” and explosive, Tolno’s songs take aim at machismo, gender inequality, Africa’s inadequate children’s rights and the culture of warmongering.

African Woman also condemns female genital mutilation (in Kekeleh) and the treatment of migrants (Yaguine et Fodé). The latter song is perhaps the most moving on the album, as it focuses on the tragic story of two teenagers from Guinea, Yaguina Koïta and Fodé  Tounkara, who set out for a better life in Europe but who froze to death as stowaways in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner in 1999.

Their bodies were discovered on the plane at Brussels International Airport after the aircraft had reportedly made at least three return flights between the Belgian capital and Conakry. If they had lived, the young men would have been 30 and 29 years old respectively in 2014.

Sia Tolno,
before a portrait of Cesaria.
“We have to do more for our young people who must cope with so much frustration,” she says. “You always hear that Africa is the richest continent in terms of resources, but what are the resources being used for?”

Despite such heartfelt words, there’s a small problem with the album: people may find themselves too busy dancing to the catchy rhythms to fully consider the urgent message. 

But one can only hope that at least some of Africa’s government leaders and warlords will hear the appeal from this African artist.

Watch the video of Rebel Leader here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUP2BHF__ao