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item5Sorie Kondi was born in the village of Mangiloko, near the city of Makeni in Sierra Leone, West Africa around the year 1968. His actual birthdate is not certain because there is no official record of his birth. His country ranks as one of the three poorest countries in the world in terms of infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, health care, and infrastructure. He never went to school but began to play the kondi, a traditional instrument of Sierra Leone as a teenager. It was apparent early on that he had a special talent for music, and by 1984 he started earning some small money by playing at ceremonies and travelling to nearby villages.

Being born blind in such a poor country and never receiving any formal education would seem like enough hardship by itself. But then his life was uprooted in 1996 when civil war forced him to leave his home and seek refuge in Freetown. Despite the ongoing war, he began recording his first album there in 1998, and finished it after 4 months. But on January 6, 1999, the rebels staged a brutal assault on Freetown called Operation No Living Thing. Almost all the city’s residents fled to the bush. Sorie was abandoned, forced to hide inside his house for 5 days while much of the city was looted and burned down. When the dust settled, the master tapes had been lost and his career plans derailed. He decided to remain in the capital city, in a neighborhood called Fourah Bay, renting a one-room shack perched on a dangerously steep hill (dangerous, that is, even for a sighted person).

Having lost his chance to commercially release a cassette, Sorie Kondi made a name for himself (literally, he adopted the name of his instrument as his surname) as a street musician. Unfortunately, this profession doesn’t bring in much money in a country where almost everybody is living in poverty. But a trip in 2006 to the Lungi region, across the bay from Freetown would provide Mr. Kondi with a golden opportunity to put his career back on track.

By chance, an American recording engineer named Luke Wassermann, spotted him playing his kondi, and was immediately impressed. The next day Mr. Wassermann asked to include him in the anthology of Sierra Leonean music he was working on, and they arranged to record a live performance near the chief's compound in Tintafor. In February 2007, a prominent Tintafor businessman by the name of Ishmael Sesay heard this recording and liked it so much that he decided to offer Mr. Kondi the chance to immediately release it inside Sierra Leone. Mr. Kondi was thrilled with the offer but said that he thought an album recorded in a studio with other instruments and backup vocals would be more appealing to the local market. So he asked Mr. Wassermann if he could do this for him. Mr. Wassermann agreed, but at the time he didn't actually have a studio. A couple of months later though, he rented a 4-bedroom house, converted the parlor into a control room, and invited Mr. Kondi to come stay at the house/studio until the album was finished. "Without Money, No Family" was released in July 2007 by the Cassette Seller's Association of Sierra Leone. That same month, Mr. Wassermann returned to the United States and released the original live recording as "Music of Sierra Leone, Vol. 3" on the EarthCDs label.

All of these recording opportunities certainly served to boost Mr. Kondi's morale, but the bottom line is that he continues to live in destitute poverty, struggling to find his daily bread. He certainly has the potential to earn money from his CD/cassette releases, but he desperately needs a promoter to invest in his career. In Sierra Leone, artists earn most of their money from album launchings and live performances in foreign countries. The royalty from each cassette sold is only Le 540, the equivalent of about US$0.18 -- the manufacturer and distributor keeps most of the money.

Sorie Kondi is a musical genius and a cultural treasure, able to sing in four different languages (Loko, his mother tongue, Temne, Krio, and English). He is also an innovator; he taught himself how to play a little-known traditional instrument at the age of 15, later electrified it, and developed a unique style of playing it. But lamentably, it seems that fate has been particularly cruel to him. Hopefully with this second chance at a recording career, he will finally earn the recognition and support he deserves.