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Sia Tolno biography
After the 2009 record Eh Sanga, My Life is Guinean singer Sia Tolno’s second album on the Lusafrica label. First, we should point out that the “Life” in question has been no bed of roses. Sia had a violent childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Later, she was forced into exile when the civil war made life there impossible and learned the ropes in the harsh world of Conakry’s nightclubs. Now Sia Tolno’s extraordinary experiences have given us an equally remarkable album. Her vocal talents are extraordinary too and she has been compared to Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Tina Turner. The 12 songs on the album were recorded in Mory Kanté’s studio in Conakry with the musicians who accompany her on stage. The arrangements are by François Bréant, famous as the producer of two legends of African music: Thione Seck and Salif Keita. My Life sums up the troubled existence of a woman who once dreamed of being a lawyer, and some of its songs burn with all the passion and flamboyance of a courtroom plea, calling for a better life for African women and protection for child victims of abuse, whether in the home or outside it. It also features love songs from the radically sincere Sia, who says herself that her heart is “unreserved”. My Life straddles a cultural crossroads where Africa’s Kissi, Mende and Sosoxi languages meet English and Creole, and Mandingo music joins forces with forest chants, funk and rumba in a slice of life that is a celebration of living - a great victory for Sia, who has managed to turn painful experiences into moments of intense joy and pure emotion.
Sia was born on the 21st February 1975 in Guéckédou, a Guinean city near the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Her father taught French in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and it was there that she spent most of her childhood, which was far from idyllic. Beaten by her extremely severe father and persecuted by two stepmothers who bullied her relentlessly, Sia kept to herself and tried to make sense of her constant ordeals in writing. “I don’t remember a single day that went by without a fight, suffering or sadness. I began to write stories because it was the only way I could escape from that burden for a while.” She was a gifted pupil and performed impressively in drama lessons at school. At 19, she passed her baccalaureate despite having fled her home to stay with an uncle in an apartment shared by thirty people. “Eating, sleeping, dressing: everything was difficult.” Then Steady Bongo, a singer looking for a backing vocalist, got in touch and Sia made her début in the world of music while studying information technology. Sadly, the experience was short-lived. Fighting raged between local warlords as they battled for control of the diamond mines. The conflict lasted from 1991 to 2002 and claimed 100,000 to 200,000 lives, including those of many child soldiers recruited by force. It also displaced about 2 million refugees. Sia was forced to escape from Freetown and Sierra Leone in 1995. For a while, she found shelter in her birthplace, Guéckédou, on the other side of the frontier, but then it too fell prey to fierce fighting and was partly destroyed by bombs. The terrible tragedy inspired her to write many songs and organise benefit concerts for the refugees with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the French Embassy.
Sia finally found refuge in Conakry at the start of the new millennium. There, she met up with musicians from Sierra Leone and got a job at the Copains d’Abord, a famous nightclub in the Guinean capital. This was a happier period in her life. She gained a following with her powerful, warm, expressive voice and a repertoire she adapted to suit her personality. It included standards by Tina Turner and Whitney Houston (some people nicknamed her Whitney), as well as Edith Piaf. The singer was at home in this world of the night where everyone valued her talent, professionalism and personal qualities. “I made friends with prostitutes and ‘respectable’ people. They all liked me. I grew more confident and realised just how much I was only really happy when I sang.” Finally, she got the chance to record a cassette and it sold quite well. This success was even more remarkable since it featured her first original songs in Kissi, the language of her ethnic minority. Although Guinea is a musical country, it is hard to make a living as a singer there, especially if you are not part of the griot caste. Unwilling to remain trapped in the cabaret circuit, Sia began to work in the palm-oil business between Guinea and The Gambia. This was simply an interlude, though. Two years later, she went to Libreville, Gabon, to represent Guinea in the final of Africa Star, the African equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest. She came third. While she was there, the singer Pierre Akendengué introduced her to José da Silva from the Lusafrica label. After a few demos, he had her record the 2009 album Eh Sanga (Suffering), a first record produced by legendary guitarist Kanté Manfila, former musical director of the Ambassadeurs and Salif Keita’s mentor. Sia appeared in Paris as the guest of Cesaria Evora at the Grand Rex (November 2009) and then on stage at the Bellevilloise.
My Life tells of this nomadic, stormy, rebellious life made of twists and turns and sudden fast straights. It displays all the affective wealth of a woman who has fought to survive and has had to suffer to create. It reflects her phenomenal ability to adapt to circumstance and different social circles, while refusing any restriction of her freedom. Applied to her art, this gift has allowed her to move freely on the great avenue of African music, paved with the beats of village dances, the rolling rhythms of the ocean, Mandingo harmonic subtleties and the vocal constructions of the forest. Balafon, Hammond organ, sax, Fulani flute, electric guitar, accordion and kalimba form a dazzling, often exuberant and always perfectly executed canvas on which she expresses her unbridled, infectious moods. Sia says she has “no right to be sad” and the joy she conveys on Blamah Blamah or Aya Ye turns hungry, almost ferocious. She has never given up on either loving or being and slips into sweet melancholy on Tonia and Di Ya Leh. Meanwhile, memories and consciousness of the present collide and merge. On Odju Watcha, the citizen of a continent where rights are flouted and democracy abused speaks out, asking “When will the blood stop flowing?” Her voice soars over the backing of a female choir as if her individual destiny could only be meaningful when weighed together with the fate of all the other women of Africa and the world. Like Sia, many have suffered the domestic violence of Toumah Toumah and many will identify with the fighting spirit of Polli Polli, where she alludes to a universal truth with these essential words: “Women are the pillar of the nation; educating one makes the world wiser.” Like her elder sisters Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo and Oumou Sangaré, Sia Tolno makes her private battle everyone’s business and turns her joy in battling fatalism into a generous delight in sharing. My Life leaves its listeners stronger and more alive.