Words by Peter Culshaw
Sia Tolno was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Life for her was no bed of roses: her father was a violent man; her family was forced to leave their country by the civil war; and she ended up working in the harsh world of Conakry nightclubs. The inspiring thing about this album is how Sia Tolno now stands loud and proud among the tradition of powerful African women such as Angélique Kidjo and Miriam Makeba. This, Tolno’s fourth and most ambitious album, is her take on Afrobeat. Her collaborator here is Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s legendary drummer and co-architect of Afrobeat. Some 40 years after he set the original Afrobeat template, Allen still seems to have the same fresh energy as ever and the duo have rounded up some top-notch musicians for their band.
The album deals with plenty of tough subjects, from female genital mutilation to the story of a couple of African migrants found dead in the undercarriage of a Belgian airliner. One heartfelt number, ‘Rebel Leader’, is an attack on Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president and convicted war criminal. Some of the songs are perhaps too close to Kuti and Allen’s original blueprint, particularly in the brass arrangements. It’s only when Tolno veers more off-piste, on the gospel-tinged ‘Manu’ for instance, or on the highlife-tinged ‘Mama’, that we really hear her own voice, as opposed to a brilliantly realised re-make.