Maybe it’s the lyrics. Sierra Leone’s Sia Tolno is a gifted singer; her songs are snappy, the musicians backing her up are skilled, their arrangements complex yet never overbearing. Why, then, do several of the 12 tracks on her debut full-length for Lusafrica, My Life, fall just a little bit flat?
It’s not something you notice right away. The album kicks off with “Blamah Blamah”, a lively stew of percussion and rhythmic guitar picking, relying on Tolno’s powerful voice to motor it along. The presence of balafon (xylophone) is always welcome, and its lilting voice does much here to lift the opening track and inject it with verve. As in many of the subsequent tracks, “Blamah Blamah” incorporates electric instruments, traditional rhythms, backing vocals, and hints of rock and pop, all delicately balanced by French producer Francois Bréant. It’s a strong start to the record, and it sets the bar pretty high.
Intermittently throughout the album, though, the pattern of “English lyrics=weakest link” holds true. It’s worth pondering whether this is because the lyrics themselves are less inventive and interesting than the music, or because they interfere with this listener’s expectations of Afro-pop. (It must be said, though, that the Anglophone lyrics of, say, The Lijadu Sisters rarely pose this problem). Whatever the cause, tunes like “Shame Upon U” come off as faintly hectoring, and “Blind Samaritan” is more than a little didactic, as is “Polli Polli”, with its admonition that “Woman is the pillar of the nation / Educating one makes the whole world wise / That’s how it works every day and night”.
This isn’t to say that Tolno should avoid singing about issues or the everyday realities that surround her. Such message songs, however, contain a certain built-in preachiness that they need to overcome, which the other tunes aren’t hampered with. (Or perhaps they are, but it passes unrecognized by me.)
There’s plenty of good news, though. “Odju Watcha” benefits from an irrepressibly catchy melody, solid backing harmonies, and plenty of lively instrumentation, including a rippling bassline that carries the tune along on a frothy wave. “Kongossa” and “Tonia” clock in at over five minutes each, so both tunes have time to establish their groove and then milk it a while. The former establishes an upbeat reggae vibe, while “Tonia” mines a quieter vein, utilizing a surprising accordion and Latin flavor.
“Toumah Toumah” is another highlight, a low-key but very pretty song built of Tolno’s sultry vocals weaving over a bed of guitar picking and modest percussion. When the song builds to a crescendo, the sense of release is palpable. “Di Ya Leh” is another tune built around a relatively restrained sonic palette, although still a very full one.
Tolno has a heck of a voice, and she is surrounded here by gifted musicians; the fact that this reviewer wasn’t compelled by all the tunes shouldn’t put off aficianados of African pop or female vocalists. There is undeniable skill on display here, and if you don’t mind the preachiness of the message songs, there is much to enjoy.