We Famous | In Conversation With Chief Boima Of Kondi Band

Four years after the release of their debut album Salone, the Sierra Leonean band returns with a new album, We Famous.

by Celine Angbeletchy - Published on 24/09/2021
Chief Boima. Photo by Taliesen Gilkes Bower

The Kondi Band have done it again. Breaking musical, cross-regional and generational barriers, even through a global pandemic, Sorie Kondi, Chief Boima and Will LV are back with a new ten-track album called We Famous.

Recorded while touring in Belgium, Spain and Canary Islands and produced remotely between Los Angeles and London over a period of four years, the record is a mesmerizing musical journey, a humble—and well deserved—celebration of their incredible experience as individuals and as a band, and a reflection on touring and on the internationalisation of the Kondi Band.

Kondi Band. Photo by Alexis Maryon

Named after Sorie’s instrument, a custom-made 15-pin thumb piano, the kondi, the trio is definitely one of the most exciting projects in the global music scene and their story is so fascinating and serendipitous, it may well be the plot of a film.

Sorie Kondi was born blind in Freetown and his life and career were marked by the civil war that took over Sierra Leone in 1991. A pure musical genius, he recorded his first album in 1998, but during the brutal assault on Freetown called Operation No Living Thing staged by rebels on 6th January 1999, the city was looted and burned down and the master tapes for his album were lost. Nevertheless, he started travelling to local villages and managed to build a name for himself as a street musician. It took eight more years before Sorie could release his first studio album Without Money, No Family, thanks to an American recording engineer named Luke Wassermann that spotted him playing his kondi in the town of Lungi, near Sierra Leone’s international airport.

The incredible richness and soulfulness of Sorie’s singing and playing that had captured Wassermann’s ear in Lungi, also caught Chief Boima’s attention as he came across the video for Without Money, No Family on YouTube and decided to remix the track.

Sorie Kondi. Photo by Dominique Fofanah

When the bootleg started circulating online, Sorie’s manager reached out to Boima, and thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, Sorie could finally tour internationally for the first time in 2012. That’s when the foundations of the band were laid and their impromptu on-the-road jam sessions became the seed for their acclaimed debut album, Salone.

Music producer, DJ, writer, and cultural activist, Chief Boima is the managing editor of the influential blog Africa Is A Country and the founder of the platform International Black. He runs a radio show on Giles Peterson’s Worldwide FM, also called Africa Is A Country, where he dives into the music and cultural politics of the African continent and beyond by exploring and investigating global regional sounds.

Will LV (from the electronic production duo LV), who had remixed and produced one of the songs in Salone, joined the Kondi Band following their 2017 European tour.  They had met through Boima’s roommate, the Berlin-based techno producer Lamin Fofana, and as the first sessions for the second album started when they were touring, he naturally joined the production team.

From the opening track We Famous, to Shake Your Tumba, to the lead single She Doesn’t Love You featuring Mariama Jalloh and the groovy It’s God’s World (So Don’t Do Bad) featuring Sweatson Klank, the new record is a colourful array of electronic vibes and dance floor reminiscences accompanying Sorie’s extraordinary kondi riffs and stunning vocal timbre. A truly exceptional body of work that aims at reaching as far out as possible, widening the focus from East End Freetown, Sorie’s neighbourhood, by breaking down geographical, social and linguistic barriers. As Salone did four years ago, We Famous will certainly bless our playlists for a very long time.

We met Chief Boima in a delightful zoom call to find out more about the new album, the band’s story and the creative process behind their unique sound, but also to delve into Chief Boima’s journey and cultural work, from growing up as a Sierra Leonean-American in the midwest, to getting into cultural activism, to creating International Black and digging the sounds of cities around the world for Africa Is A Country Radio.

GRIOT: We Famous is out. You recorded this album over a period of four years and it feels like we used to live in a completely different world then. So much has happened. What was the journey of writing this album like compared to Salone?

Chief Boima: Well, the first album I would say took ten years, so it’s been much easier in that sense. Salone started on a whim. It was 2011, Sorie’s manager called me when I’d just gotten back from Freetown and asked if I wanted to work with him. The initial thing was like: “Well, what can we do?”. We just decided to bring him over to the States to play some shows because he wanted to do that. He knew his music was circulating and so I helped them do that. Then, just kind of taking advantage of him being in my house for a month, we recorded the initial sessions for Salone. And then it was just me with an idea of like: “Okay, I have these sessions, how can I make this a project?” That was really slow going: talking to the different labels; talking to friends; getting all the producer collaborators on board; learning how to mix and how to produce as I did it; doing different sessions around the world from London, to Texas, to New York—I was living in Brazil at the time. So that was a much more involved and slow experience and this was more: “We have a new project and we want to get it out.” It was ready a while ago, covid slowed it down a little bit, but also the distance between Will, my co-producer in London, and myself.

The opening track is a bold statement and it’s the title of the album. Tell me about it. What is the spirit of ‘We Famous’? What are the themes you explore?

Believe it or not Sorie has another album actually called We Famous, but in his local language, Loko, which is Thogolobea (the Thogolobea remix was on Salone). It means that you have a good name, people know you, they respect you. It kind of illustrates Sorie’s attitude about his career: I have a good name, people enjoy me. And part of it is having reached out to me in the first place, like: “Listen I have a good name, I have to go out, take advantage and tour.”

The opening song is what inspired the title, it’s a reflection on touring. He started singing it in english, putting our names in it, saying: “We’re all famous. We’re on the road now. We’re doing this”. So for him, for me, a lot of this album is a reflection on that experience, on the internationalisation of the Kondi Band. I think that’s what that statement means. Sorie comes from very humble backgrounds, I have worked my way independently in the music industry and Will as well, so the statement “We famous” seems braggadocious, but it’s really coming from a place, considering Sorie’s background, of pretty much humility but wanting to also get your due and get your respect. For him he’s accomplished so much in life that it’s just a matter of fact statement.

What about the other songs? Is there one in particular that you worked on conceptually that contributed to enriching the production process?

I think for sure the lead single She Doesn’t Love You. In general Sorie’s content is very much focused on local themes and what’s happening around him in his neighbourhood, so his lyrics are almost like parables. The moral of the story is if a woman is not interested in you, then money can’t buy her affection. He’s like: “It doesn’t matter, if she doesn’t love you, it’s her choice.” I approached Mariama Jalloh, who’s a Sierra Leonean singer from Germany but also spent time in France and I asked her to interpret that from her perspective, that’s how it came together. So I think that’s a theme of just widening the focus from East End Freetown, Sorie’s neighbourhood, to try to expose the world to some of these things. Previously we’ve been using the actual lyrics for the titles, like Thogolobea or Powe Handa Blingabe, in the language that Sorie sings in. In this album we decided to use the complete English translations to say “this is the meaning of the song” in the title, so there’s no question or wondering what the content is about.

Mariama. Photo by Carys Huws

What about the writing process? Do you always start from Sorie’s recordings? Or do you sometimes make your beats and send them over?

We have some sessions that are not on the album of Sorie playing along to things we’ve produced. The spirit of this project is to focus on Sorie’s compositions, but you know we have time on tour on off days when we just sit around and play around. Sorie has a surprisingly wide eclectic range of tastes, but we didn’t include that on the album.

Listening to the album a wide and colourful mix of electronic influences emerge, from disco, to dub, and even dubstep in Shake Your Tumba. What are your dance floor inspirations? How did they evolve over time?

Actually growing up in Milwaukee, which is about 80 miles away from Chicago, it’s something that I wasn’t really conscious about as a youth that electronic music is very prominent here. They’d always have a house music section, on the local hip-hop record stations, but I just didn’t know it as house. So for me electronic music was part of the city fabric in a strange way and very much oriented around Black culture in the city. Then when I was in high school rave culture came over here, it started to become more mainstream and I was removed from that. I completely consumed my electronic music in an urban environment, not going to warehouses, not going to raves in the fields. It was just at the local club, people dancing, at birthday parties, these kinds of things, but it expanded my tastes. That actually got me very interested in the idea of regional music, so when I was living in California I got very interested in this idea of US regional music and then obviously, having African roots, expanding that internationally. That’s really where my work started: I started just looking at blogs and learning about different regional musics from Panama City, to Freetown, to Dakar and I started travelling and getting to know these places. That’s been my exposure to global electronic music.

Are there any particular genres, or movements that you’re following at the moment?

A lot of the digging that I do is for my radio show on Worldwide FM, it’s actually been really fun. A new way to dig for me is narrowing on a city, so I’ve been learning about cities through music. I was reading the Ten Cities book project and I learned a lot about Lagos. Lagos is very influential in pop music today and afrobeat is everywhere, but what’s fascinating to me is that it has its own histories and that’s not often talked about when talking about afrobeat. It’s kind of this blanket African thing, but if you don’t know about Fuji music and Juju music and the class dimension, the geographic dimension of these musics, then you’re missing so much of the story. That’s what I’ve been doing: going in. The same thing in Johannesburg, Cape Town… So it’s not really genres, but sounds of the cities that I’ve been digging. My Dakar show was probably the most surprising, I was very impressed with what they’re doing in Dakar right now.

Chief Boima. Photo by Taliesen Gilkes Bower

Was Sierra Leonean culture part of your upbringing?

The community I grew up in as a very young child was focused around people who had come to the States for education, so there was a significant community, we didn’t have our own neighbourhood, but we were scattered around the north side of the city. We’d always have house parties, community gatherings and picnics, these kinds of things, like any immigrant community. I was immersed in that and we would also travel to other cities where there’s a bigger population like Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and that was my experience with it. I think I wasn’t as interested in it as a youth because I took it for granted, and when I left home, I missed it and I sought out traces of it. I came across a Senegalese restaurant/nightclub in San Francisco that kind of adopted me and made me an honorary senegalese. Actually they helped me get to Freetown the first time, the owner of that club sent me to visit his sister in Senegal and I used that opportunity to visit Freetown for the first time in 2006. My growing up coincided with our war, so I did have plans to go but they were canceled.

Your work reaches further out the musical realm, especially with regards to spreading and championing culture and cultural production globally. Challenging representation is fundamentally what has always pushed us to do the work we do at GRIOT. What pushed you in that direction? Why did you decide to found Africa Is A Country?

Initially I just got interested in music, but I believe that the motivation to do the cultural work really also came from representation. The largest race in our city is Black, African-American roots in the south of the Unites States, African descent, but obviously via histories of the transatlantic slave trade, which are very different than recent immigrant relations. I grew up identifying as a Black American, but with different cultural roots and feeling like a lack of representation in my own community, that community that I was motivated to bring out. What’s funny now is that’s completely changed. It’s hard to tell someone who is a teenager now that there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be African, it’s definitely changed. But then as I got older, and also moving to the west coast where people don’t know a lot about the midwest, there was also this thing about representation and also understanding different experiences and trying to represent for unrepresented voices.

Then my first trip to Sierra Leone in the post war period, the country was starting from scratch and representation was an issue, but it wasn’t the only issue. It was getting food and finding opportunities, really much more basic needs. I had been involved with activism for those other reasons and that’s when the Africa Is A Country work was born, also looking for some sense of social justice in the world, having met, befriended and become a part of Sierra Leone in a new way, of people who had been through a really devastating situation, and in wanting to do my part to help never make something like that happen again.

Was it a smooth journey or did you find many obstacles along the way?

I think it was difficult growing up for myself with identity and what does Blackness mean, is it the things that my peers are into or is it the things my relatives are into? They’re different competing concepts. Once I got to San Francisco and Sierra Leone in my early twenties, it very much solidified and became a mission. Things became very clear after that point, I started to learn about economics, politics, these kinds of things, and it became very clear.

Was writing a passion of yours?

No, it was something that I felt was necessary to do the work that I wanted to do. It started through the blogging communities, starting on comments and seeing that these communities were forming and not really understanding the whole picture of what I had experienced until that point. So yeah, the representation came in and it turned out that I know how to write, so I just kept doing it.

Do you have a goal or do you see it as a big work in progress?

Yes, I think I do have a goal. I think it’s shifted, and my work has shifted. For example, the Africa Is A Country radio show has been really about trying to do more in-depth narratives about places and people that go beyond the easy commercial shine that people try to quickly turn a profit from or quickly get some advantage from. So: “Burna Boy is big, let me start a afrobeat night in my city, and let’s just put a bunch of African people in a room or people that are interested in African culture.” That’s not the type of work that I’m interested in anymore, I engaged in that in its time, but I’m still trying to expand the narrative and complicate things more, always!

Are you going to tour? Or planning to? What happens when the album is out?

I’m nervously thinking about it. Womex is in October in Portugal and I’m scheduled to make an appearance. I’m watching the numbers, as they say another wave is coming on this part of the world. I’m fully vaccinated and lucky to have that advantage, but I know that Sorie probably doesn’t have access to the vaccination. He’s older and I don’t wanna put him in danger, so we’re just waiting to see how things shake out, but I’ll be coming to Europe in October and hopefully see how things are when I’m there.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

All my projects have been filtering either through Africa Is A Country or through the radio show, but then the International Black Platform that I’ve created is where I filter all my production work. We just released El Individuo’s album, 2020 Escribo, he’s a Cuban rapper and we’re talking to some people about doing a release of music from Suriname. Then the Cali Quilombo project which is inspired by marronage in Brazil and kind of transporting that to California. We just soundtracked an art show in LA called The Parable, so there’s things happening.

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I’m a very eclectic person with an obsession for music, writing and sociology. I was born and raised in Italy, but London has been my second home for over a decade. Here I make music, DJ, write, dance, sing and bake.