SIERRA LEONE: Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana - S. E. Rogie
Humorous, uplifting, and endearing - this palm wine record is the perfect accompaniment to a relaxing day in the sun
The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours arguably are three of the most iconic album covers of all time. Whilst all three pieces of artwork instantly recognisable and emblematic, for my money none of them quite tell the listener what to expect quite as well as S.E. Rogie’s beaming smile on the front of the marvellously-named Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana record does. The simplicity of the image that emits such an immense sense of warmth is mirrored by Rogie’s music that does the exact same thing.
“...Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana reminds us to enjoy the little things in life and to try to stay grounded and present in the joy that they can bring. ”
Hailing from a nation with an immensely turbulent past, Rogie’s music serves as a total antidote to bleak associations of Ebola, civil war, and blood diamonds that outsiders are likely to immediately think of when Sierra Leone is mentioned. Rather, what Rogie does is introduce the uninitiated to a genre that transports its listeners to a joyous place – palm wine music. Appropriately named after palm wine, the national drink of Sierra Leone (known as both ‘poyo’ and ‘mampama’ there), which one can imagine sipping on whilst kicking back to this record in the sun on a lazy Sunday afternoon, the genre was popularised in the 1950s by Ebenezer Calendar. The musician (and trained coffin-maker) took and rearranged Caribbean styles such as calypso often using Portuguese guitars introduced by the early sailors.
The lilting rhythms of the genre influenced both Congolese soukous and Ghanaian highlife a great deal, but were it not for Rogie the genre would perhaps never have got the recognition it deserved on a global stage. In some respects, Rogie’s album was a long overdue, albeit immeasurably effective, tool to put the world’s roundest nation on the map in a positive light. The album radiates ‘good vibes’ and does so in such a simple manner. It strips music back to its basics and does so brilliantly. Many of our Album of the Weeks thus far on the site have waxed lyrical about the genius of complicated compositions such as Icelandic post-rockers Sigur Rós’ sublime Ágætis Byrjun or Turkmen jazz-prog fusionists Gunesh on their inspired self-titled effort. Yet, whilst albums like this certainly earn their praise, there is something to be said of the straightforwardness of Rogie’s blissful call and response vocals alongside his fingerstyle laid-back acoustic guitar sound.
His record is made all the more amiable lyrics sung in the joyful linguistic mixture of English and Krio (Sierra Leone’s pidgin language). Songs like A Time In My Life lyrically share a lot in common with a stereotypical American folk or blues track, in its rather wistful albeit upbeat style. My favourite track Nor Weigh Me Lek Dat never fails to make me smile, but it is not head and shoulders above the rest of the album which is littered with soul-enriching tracks like the song Koneh Pelawoe, which arguably showcases his guitar talents best, or the incredible Dieman Noba Smoke Tafee, which shares a lot in common with the music of Congolese legend Franco.
Rogie’s untimely death came soon after the release of this record and though this is of course deeply tragic, listening to this album I am reminded of how fortunate we are to live in a world where records like this can survive the test of time and end up on my lap. I am so pleased that someone of Rogie’s talents managed to leave behind this album as part of his legacy before his passing as it brings immense joy to its listener. In his younger years, Rogie trained as a tailor; to me it seems that in musical terms he honed his skills learning how to make that soft comfortable jumper that we all love instead of a fashionable dress or suit. Sometimes in life it is easy to get bogged down in the complexity of everything, but Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana reminds us to enjoy the little things in life and to try to stay grounded and present in the joy that they can bring.