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.
Old habits die hard. While in Virginia, he continued playing guitar and took up the dulcimer, but in 1979, Tee-Jay’s musical ambitions were once again shunted aside as he departed for a banking career in England. Finding himself in the company of expat African musicians though, Tee-Jay soon quit the bank and finally devoted himself full-time to his passion.
Tee-Jay has released numerous recordings, but the most widely available one he made with his band Rokoto — 2002’s “Rokoto Make Me Dance Dance,” a compilation of three prior albums. The music is not specifically maringa, but it leaves little doubt as to his ability to move butts on a dance floor.
In the past couple of years, perhaps lamenting the decline of maringa’s popularity, Tee-Jay has spent less time with the electric guitar and has gone back to his roots with the acoustic band Palm Wine A-Go-Go. Butt-shakin’ it ain’t, but it’ll still keep you moving.
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