I wasn't too keen on Sia Tolno’s concert in Cotonou until I had a pre-event encounter with the lady from Guinea-Conakry. It was a chance to interview her at the French Institute of Cotonou, during the sound check, that brought back fond memories of her bubbly stage acts that I had sampled elsewhere before, when she was a contestant at the Africa Star Conquest (equivalent to American idol) in 2008 in Libreville, Gabon. At the time she won many fans with her powerful voice, and arresting stage presence.
Three years later, she steps back onto the stage as the winner of the 2011 RFI Découvertes Award. Tolno's is a conquest of sorts. The Guinean Punk singer is scheduled to stage a series of concerts in 29 African cities, more than half of the continent's, this year until June.
Cotonou city was her first stop of the tour meant to introduce her new album My Life to the public. I spent some time with here. Here are excerpts.
How did your musical journey start?
I used to chorister for people experimenting with hip hop music. I also did traditional music and that’s how I learnt to sing in my language. I’m from the Kissi tribe that lives in the Forest Guinea. This region has a border with Sierra Leone, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. My father is a French teacher and we lived in Sierra Leone for a while, I studied there. That’s why I speak English better than French. During the civil war in Sierra Leone I came back to Guinea. I was about 15 years old at the time. I started singing in cabarets and doing covers of great singers such as Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba and Edith Piaf. These artists really influenced my music. That’s how things really started.
Music is not a job, it’s something I love doing, I Iove singing, it’s my medicine. When I listen to other artistes who sing with their hearts it touches me and helps me. Music helped me grow up. It kind of played the role of my mum and dad during tough moments.
Have you had many of these tough moments in your musical career?
Yes. Pursuing a musical career in Africa is not easy and that’s when you need the support of your relatives. If they’re not available, it becomes tough. My father is a strict man so communicating was not easy. Then I felt a bit lost. That’s why I decided to compensate this gap by having the most fun possible. And that’s why I enjoyed going back to Guinea and living among other members of my family. It was really joyful.
Because of war in Sierra Leone you had to leave and continue school in Guinea. How did these events influence your music?
War made me realize that life is short and because of that I cherish everyone; I consider everyone important. I saw rich people becoming beggars and very good people die. When you witness such things, life becomes more important. You’d rather spend some time with cheerful people because you’re conscious that anything can happen. That’s why in Guinea, I’m getting involved in national reconciliation. And now with this RFI award that I won, I intend on seizing this opportunity to address my African brothers and sisters, to remind them of African solidarity. You know we are poor in Africa and politicians are using this poverty to manipulate us. We need African awareness and I addressed the issue in one of my songs. We need to get conscious that God gave us everything and we have to take good care of our continent.
In which languages do you sing?
I sing in what we call “pidgin English” from Sierra Leone and Nigeria because people I rubbed shoulders with come from there. I also sing in Sussu (the most spoken language in Guinea), in my Kissi language and Mendi, spoken in Sierra Leone.
You took part in the African music contest, Africa Star in 2008. How has that influenced your career?
Africa Star was a school to me. I met wonderful people there. Thanks to this contest I met my producer, José Da Silva when he came with Cesaria Evora to perform live. I also met Pierre Akendengué (an eminent musical figure in Gabon) who is currently my musical mentor. He was our music teacher during the contest. There was also Annie-Flore Batchiellilys, a famous Gabonese singer, an adorable woman who shared her knowledge with us. We got along so well. I can say that Africa Star was the starting point for me. It is actually Pierre Akendengué who talked my producer into taking me under his wing.
After Africa Star, you recorded your first album Eh sanga
Yes. I had the chance of attending the Festival of Angouleme in France and for that I needed to have an album. That’s how I recorded Eh Sanga in 2009 with the arranger Manfila Kanté. The album is composed of different musical styles. We decided to work on a new album and My Life was then recorded and it’s the album that I’m serving during my African tour.
How do you feel about the idea of visiting so many African countries?
I am very enthusiastic. I staged a few concerts in Europe a few weeks ago. I’m raring to go meet African music fans; I have so much to share with them.
You’re on this tour with an orchestra. How did you form it?
Music got us to meet and we actually got along very well so we decided to work together.
There are two vocalists, two guitarists, a drummer and my conductor who is Mamadou Camara who was part of the band Kaloum Star that exists since the era of Sekou Toure. He is very experienced and every time I want to write a song, I seek his advice and when I go to perform in Europe, he accompanies me because he is kind of a guide to me.
Music evolves very fast these days. Do you think you might have to follow the trend as well and infuse some of the newer styles into your music?
I chose Afro Funk because that is my style and you can find many styles in it. Afro Funk is already a mix of soul, jazz and traditional music. It fits my personality. That's why I want to be known for that very style.
Any project after the African tour?
For now I’m just focusing on the African tour. This is my priority. I also have concerts in Germany and Holland. Then will come other African countries. In short, I am concentrating on concerts, meeting the public, getting used to the stage because it’s not easy..
Of all the songs on My Life, which are your favourites?
There are two songs that I love most. One of them is The Blind Samaritan. It is about a rich blind man with a golden heart who helps someone with vision but very poor. I wanted to show people that no man stands alone. We all have problems. We are all the same in the eyes of God. We should also be equal in the eyes of everyone. We have the same blood running in our veins. My belief is that the more you help people, the better you become. The other song is My Life (the title track). It talks about my past. I spent all my life singing in bars and cabarets without hope, I spent all my time making people happy while I was sad. All I got was wine and a cigarette; nothing more than that. My smile kept shinning on others but my heart made me cry, I used to pray to God asking Him to take me back to His peaceful home.
In short, the beginning of everything is difficult. And sometimes when you’re sad, you still have to make people happy. When you sing in cabarets for instance, there are many people watching you sing and they expect your music to enliven their lives, no matter what you’re going through. That’s what the song expresses.