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Sierra Leone might be most closely associated with blood diamonds and gruesome images of civil war, but it is also the home of palm wine music, a happy, bubbling style of guitar picking. Palm wine music, or maringa, as it’s known inside the country, combines calypso with local melodies and rhythms and is in part a result of roaming Portuguese sailors landing on African shores bearing guitars. The uplifting feel of this music has been extremely influential in West Africa, particularly on the better-known styles, highlife and soukous. The music gets its earthy name from the fact that musicians and listeners slugged cups of fermented sap from the oil palm at performances, but if maringa was once the life of the party it is nowadays something of a dying art.

Abdul Tee-Jay, who will play in Tokyo this month, left Sierra Leone nearly three decades ago and has since experimented with various musical styles, instruments and careers. These days he’s bent on keeping the happy music of his homeland alive. Hailing from an academically minded family in Freetown, Tee-Jay’s parents just barely tolerated his playing maringa with local bands, but in 1974 his career as a local musician ended when his parents sent him to the United States for college.

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