Sia Tolno

My Life

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Make no mistake: suffering does not have to result in great art. It can result in really lousy art. But it's also true that in the hands of a great artist, suffering can be simultaneously expressed and transcended, and Sierra Leonian singer Sia Tolno has achieved the delicate balance between self-expression and universal uplift that alone is capable of creating that kind of magical result. Drawing on her experiences as a victim of abuse, economic privation, and exile, she has written a set of songs that depict her trials without flinching, but that focus on her joy at having emerged from them. Opening with the rhythmically complex and soaringly beautiful "Blamah Blamah," Tolno sets the stage for the rest of the album: her sweetly rough-edged voice will be answered by densely harmonized female backing vocals and supported by instrumental accompaniment that draws alternately on Congolese rumba rhythms, desert blues, and European dance patterns; the lyrics will alternate between Creole and standard English. At its best, the music is hypnotically funky ("Blamah Blamah," "Odju Watcha") or smokily sad ("Di Ya Leh," "Malaya") or jazzy ("Ayiboh") or even reggae-based (the lovely "Kongossa"). When not at its best it can get a bit tedious ("Polli Polli," which is way too long for a one-chord composition), but even when not at its best, Sia Tolno's music is consistently attractive.

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