Music During Wartime
To the Berklee students gathered for a recent clinic, music lessons often focus on scales, chords, pitch, rhythm, and harmony. But with Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew—an eclectic hip-hop group from Sierra Leone supported by a band that includes two Berklee alumni—in the role of teachers, it was less about the math of music, and more about the messages: war, courage, art, forgiveness, and love.
Bajah and A-Klazz were just kids in 1991 when civil war broke out in Sierra Leone. It tore apart families and communities. It defined everything about every day.
“When then the war broke out in my country, a lot of young friends like me, they became military soldiers because it was the only way to survive,” said Bajah. Their song “True Life of a Soldier” is about the children who were taken from their homes, given drugs, and taught to fight on the front lines as proxies for the real architects of the war.
“We decided to go around to different areas to sing peaceful music to help people forget about all these wars,” he said. “It wasn’t that easy. In Africa you don’t go to college to learn music, it’s just a natural thing. We played on the street—some people gave us cigarettes because not everybody has money to give.”
They quickly formed what they called the Dry Eye Crew. In Sierra Leone’s krio language, “dry eye” is an expression that means “being bold.” It means no more crying. Their name and their music carried the message that even if you’d been hurt by the war, it couldn’t be undone. People must dry their tears and find forgiveness in their hearts so that the country might pick up the pieces and rebuild.
“People really believe in us. We are revolutionary musicians in our country,” said A-Klazz. “The reason why they believe in us is because when they were in pain and distress, we were the ones who took up the mic and started singing peace music, music that made them feel like all was not lost, that there is a place for forgiveness. Imagine, someone who hurts you, burns your house, amputates your kids right in front of you, your husband, your wife, and you turn around again and you see them going up and down the street. So we took up the mic and tried to tell them: ‘There’s nothing you can do with them right now. Just accept them back as your brothers. Let us all just keep on going.’”
They also spoke out against the politicians who filled the vacuum left by the fighting. When they saw corruption, they again took up the mic. They let the leaders know that they should cease their empty campaigning and do the right thing for the people, who were urgently in need of shelter, food, clean water, schools, and jobs. For this, they were labeled enemies of the state, and were forced to leave Sierra Leone.
Bajah and A-Klazz are supported by two Berklee alumni, guitarist David Bailis ’04 and drummer Chris Flueck ’95. Each spoke to the unique aspects of playing African music.
“The feel is first and foremost, right?” said Bailis. “It’s getting a feel for listening, for what’s happening with the vocalists, and vibing with that. But one of the most central things beyond that is just part writing and getting in touch with crafting a song with minimal chords and making it so you have a whole world of things you can go into beyond that.
Flueck encouraged students to think of everybody in an African band as a drummer. “They think they’re playing a bass and guitar and we let them believe it but really they are drummers, they just play notes,” he said. “If you’re interested in drumming you should go to Nigeria or places like that where each drum beat means multiple things for multiple functions. It’s sacred music, it’s spiritual music. It’s not just like you’re banging on the drums and you’re a superstar. It’s a serious, respected discipline.”
A student in the audience had a question for the band. “It’s more philosophical about your message,” he said. “Your testimony is inspiring. How out of something so horrible, you were able to use music to preach love and community and educate. My question is: In the music industry I see a lot of music that glorifies money, drugs, and sex. What is your take and how do you deal with that when you’re out making music?”
Bajah said that they try to not let money corrupt them. “I don’t know why [in the U.S.], as soon as the stars make money it’s all about showing off. Maybe it’s because they’ve been struggling for so long. Where we’re from we got a lot to help. I’m not just talking about my country. Some people just think about themselves. But as musicians we think broadly. It’s a universal thing. We want everybody just to feel comfortable. We don’t want to be the richest men. We just want everybody to feel free. I think they have their own perspective because this is the Western world. We just want to play positive music and be good to everybody, not look all bling among the rest. We want to keep it a peaceful world.”
To close, Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew asked everyone in the room to get up and, in the interest of “creating universal love in the world,” dance and sing with them. And they did.