Sociocultural and musical aspects of the conflict in Sierra Leone

Workshop hosted by the Free Floater Research Group Music, Conflict and the State:


Sociocultural and musical aspects of the conflict in Sierra Leone

When: Friday, 28th of May 2010 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Heyne-Haus, Papendiek 16, 37073 Göttingen


The workshop aims at delivering new perspectives on the civil war which raged throughout West Africa’s Sierra Leone for more than ten years from 1991 to 2002.
As well as looking at explanatory models which may provide a better understanding of this civil war, a special focus will be laid on war as performance, to the special role played by youth, and in particular to music. This will include looking at music which was used in or accompanied the course of war (e.g. the anthem of the main rebel group, the RUF), but also music in the post-war society of Sierra Leone today. In this respect, we will examine Sierra Leonean popular music which on the one hand reflects a sense of war fatigue, and on the other how music is being used by young people as a means of protest and to promote democracy.


Workshop Sierra Leone Photo


Invited Speakers

Keynote Speaker:
Paul Richards, Wageningen University/The Netherlands, Technology and Agrarian Development
„Song and dance in civil war: what kind of theory is needed?“


It is claimed by some that the civil war in Sierra Leone had no politics and no ideology. With the assistance of Hollywood, we are asked to believe that this was a war fought for "greed, not grievance". One important piece of early evidence to refute this theory is musical - the anthem of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone. Further materials on the importance of song and dance as media through which were projected the alternative societal programmes of the rebel movement and its opponents are now available, and the paper will offer a brief review of these data. But what then are we to make of a war in which music provides the clearest insight into the agency of the embattled? My paper is mainly concerned with war as performance, and with the theoretical resources that might be available to advance such a study. I propose a "musicology" of war. I trace its beginnings in the work of Durkheim on ritual as the foundation of social values. Durkheim is badly misunderstood as a functionalist (largely the work of later American authors such as Talcott Parsons). His philosophical origins lie in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, both philosophers who grounded theories of human agency in music. Durkheim's approach to the rite was that action preceded meaning. I then trace the theme of ritual performance in neo-Durkheimian authors (notably Goffman, Bellah, Collins and Douglas). Music and dance are ritual mechanisms through which social energies are focused on transformative projects. Reliance on ritual, however, risks the problem of uncontrolled positive feedback (something Durkheim termed "sacred contagion"). Atrocity in war (I argue) is a product of sacred contagion. It is drummed up by (essentially) musical means. How then can it be stood down? A paper by Randall Collins suggests the importance of temporal "clocking" to prevent disorder in war. This is why drummers on the battlefield "beat a retreat". But a time line is not the only requirement; peace making also requires embattled parties to see they share something in common. Mary Douglas suggested this search for common ground could be materially assisted by the resources of ring composition. Ring composition is a poetical form in which the beginnings and ends of a performative sequence are joined is such a way as to deflect from an opening or a rousing conclusion towards the message in the middle. The middle ground is where co-existence lies. The notion of peace is captured (musically) by the idea of a round dance or a perpetual canon. It is here (I conclude) that we shall find the way forward from a musicology of war towards a musicology of peace.

Background: Paul Richards is recently retired as Professor of Technology and Agrarian development in Wageningen University, NL. Prior to that he was Professor of Anthropology at University College London. His research training was in human geography, social anthropology and ethnomusicology and he has published in all three fields.




Nathaniel King, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
„Is current youth activism through music in Sierra Leone a product of the civil war?“


One of the phenomena that sustained Sierra Leone’s civil war (which started in 1991 and ended in 2000 ) but which also set the landscape for its conclusion is the Sierra Leone’s peculiar youth concept.

In Sierra Leone, “youth” is not a transitory stage between infancy and adulthood: rather, it is a relative state – of social and economic inability. Youth, in terms of Sierra Leoneans’ lived experiences, therefore, is an embracing of childhood, adulthood and, even old age (King, 2007). This realisation of youth thrives on shared circumstances-borne emotional unity.

Before the war, women were not considered as youth. But during the conflict, women made a performative claim to being integral to the youth concept as they proved themselves as very effective combatants, spies and agitators for democracy, for example. When the State collapsed and the President of Sierra Leone, with the bulk of his cabinet, fled to neighbouring Guinea in 1997, it was this concept of youth described above that was the source of mobilisation against the rebels, in the forms of neighbourhood watches and an organisation called Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.
A common discourse that emerged in Freetown after the restoration of democracy in 1998 was that: “authorities should be very careful with the youth” because of their destructive and constructive potentials. This logic continues to date.
In the immediate post-war period the youth’s role changed from one of literal attacks and defence to one of protecting democracy. One of the major means to this end was protest pop music. Songs in this genre railed against the state of the State, the undermining of democracy by the leaders, corruption and “youth neglect”. The quality of this music was significantly enhanced by the wide-range of youth that went and are still going into the industry. This group included: graduates, students and ex-pupils (who dropped out of the school system because of the war). In the wake of the reinstated government’s consolidating its power, some of its supporters called for such music to be banned. But the then president came out in 2004 to say that it was better for the youth to express dissent through songs than by “going back to the bush”. Youth’s new operational license was thus reinforced by the sheer force of its relevance. Even after a democratic change of government in 2007, such music continues to articulate the interests of the youths and the general citizenry. One of the most articulate singers in this project is a female youth.

The paper will look at whether the war or the youth concept or both shaped and shape(s) the message of current protest music. It will also examine how actors made the ingenious transition from firing live ammunition to releasing lyrical bullets.



Anita Schroven, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle
"Singing for change: women's belief to make better politics"


The civil war in Sierra Leone has been analysed from various perspectives. With multiple explanations offered, a common denominator was that social inequalities if not sparked off but certainly sustained and prolonged violence, opening doors for local atrocities and personal retributions. The post-war industry quickly presented projects to address this situation, trying to create a more equal or just society. Based on fieldwork in 2004 and 2007, I will foreground different, partly NGO-influenced discussions of women, women’s groups and discussions about women’s rights in this particular post-war context that often argued for a change in so-called tradition gender relations in rural Sierra Leone so as to increase social equality and indirectly prevent a war from re-occurring.
This particular argument was presented, amongst others, by one of the most vocal Sierra Leonean groups promoting the advancement of women in politics: the 50/50 Group. Lead by mainly Krio women based in Freetown, the group quickly achieved high civil society and media presence. Their English theme song “Side by side” was sung or mimicked by non-English- and Krio-speakers at workshops in remote areas of the country during election campaign periods. Whether this song should indeed show support for the more general claim of women demanding more representation in Sierra Leone’s post-war politics in the interest of gender equality, peaceful society or a demand to become modern will be discussed in this presentation.



Michael Stasik, African Studies Centre Leiden/The Netherlands and Humboldt University Berlin
„Taping over old tracks. War fatigue and popular (love) music in Freetown“

Since at least two decades, Sierra Leone‘s popular music is on a rollercoaster ride. The ups and downs that marked the recent developments of local music production, dissemination and consumption did not always correspond with the broader social, economic and political contexts they took place in, at least not in a straightforward way. Somewhat surprisingly, the period of the civil war did not bring forth a general caesura in the music market. In fact, during the years between 1991 and 2002 Sierra Leone’s music experienced a relative revival. The near-collapse of the country’s economy and state machinery in the 1980s had paralyzing effects on the developments of local music. From 1991 onwards, local music entered a period of turbulent but progressive recovery. The establishment of a first music production company in Freetown (1991) along with the countrywide formation of associated music distributors (1992) paved the way for hundreds of local artists to disseminate their sounds beyond the odd music bar. The widely-supported NPRC coup (1992), the short-lived return to democratic rule (1996-97), and the reign of the AFRC junta (1997-98) all sparked their respective reactions on the side of local music producers and consumers.
The ongoing war had as well a profound impact on Sierra Leone’s music, not least because it gave artists plenty of material to sing about or to omit singing about, which was a statement in itself. As president Kabbah declared the war “don don” in 2002, developments in the local music scene had already anticipated the general mood of euphoria and expectation that came along with the conclusion of peace. In 1999, the so-called “godfather” of Sierra Leonean music (Jimmy Bangura) launched his recording studio and took up the cudgels for many young musicians. Both the proliferation of new media (esp. radio stations) and increasingly affordable new technologies helped to trigger the subsequently emerging post-war boom of Sierra Leone’s local music. As politicians (re)discovered the enticing powers of popular music in the run-up to the 2007 elections, the boom reached its peak. Politicians benefited from the influential mediums of expression musicians made available while musicians benefited from the equally influential mediums of power (and money) politicians made available. However, after this successfully staged mutual assistance, the audiences started to turn their backs on local musicians. As an influential music seller expressed to me, music-politics were “don don”. With the downturn of Sierra Leone’s (politicized) popular music, internationally produced music of a rather profane (and often carnal) character captured the scenes and markets.
In this paper I (roughly) discuss these developments as they unfold in Freetown, the focal point of Sierra Leone’s popular music. Furthermore, I reflect on the question to what extent, and how, we can “read” developments and changes in Sierra Leone’s popular music as reflecting, enabling and defying other (social, economic, political) developments and changes.