The video for “Odju Watcha,” the first single off Sia Tolno’s latest release My Life makes it clear that Tolno is a woman with vibrant personality who can’t be ignored. Featuring her directly calling out the audience and dancing menacingly while lighting up the shots with a captivating eye and smile, Tolno is an immediately enticing character who deserves attention.
Born on the border between Sierra Leone and Guinea, in the town of Gueckedou. She grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where her father taught French. Her harsh, violent relationship with her father makes up an important part of her identity and is discussed on the song “Toumah Toumah.” She moved in 1995 to escape diamond mine warfare, and lived as a refugee for the next five years. After finally settling down in Conakry in 2000, she worked in cabaret until being discovered by an international audience. Her new album, My Life, is an autobiographical tale of suffering and female resilience. While the compositions are strong in themselves, it is her star power, displayed with a swagger from a woman who has faced incredible obstacles and surmounted them, that truly makes this record notable.
One immediate example is “Malaya,” a song that describes the hopeless life of a cabaret performer, echoing Tolno’s own experience as a singer in Conakry, the Guinean capital city. The word “malaya” (help me) is repeated five times in a row each chorus by a group of singers, and the three syllables grow heavier with each recitation, dragging almost a full beat behind the tempo. In the depths of despair, the singer prays for death, calling on God to ‘take me back to my peaceful home.’
“Di Ya Leh” opens with a cyclical guitar line alongside soft cymbal runs and registers as another darker track than the celebratory, anthem nature of other tracks like “Odju Watcha.” In many ways, “Di Ya Leh”, sounds like a cry of desperation – a prayer. She breathes deeply when singing the chorus, exhaling a last call for help. Tolno is joined by other singers who repeat the words “Di Ya Leh”, which translates to “Don’t desert me”.
In “Polli Polli”, the mood shifts dramatically to an all-out celebration of feminine pride and calls on listeners to “shake yo’ booty.”’ Like “Odju Watcha,” Tolno has made a fabulous video accompaniment. On screen, she has a style which simply draws you in: It begins with her face close up against the picture plane, awash with a bright orange glare. As the beat drops, she thrusts her shoulders and arms back as her chest comes forward, dancing and directing an intimidating stare into the camera. However, a subtle smile breaks through her façade and she glances off as if someone has just said a joke or a friend has just entered the room. That smile sets the tone for the video and the song, one of jubilation while at the same time a declaration that she will not be messed with by the evil womanizers described in the lyrics. Tolno and other women show off un-choreographed dancing, as their passion bursts out into their bodies. The intensity builds until a final hit ends this defiant shout of a song.
Ultimately, Tolno’s music is defined by vivacity and hope that thrives off her difficult past, approaching even the darkest subjects with an uplifting, pop sensibility. Her message is clear on My Life and may be most exemplified in the final song, “Shame Upon You” as she states “I’m not a woman who’s afraid.” We never doubted it.
Check out Tolno on our program The Mixtape Special.