Telem Uncommon Sounds artists are pioneering a new wave of fresh sounds in Sierra Leone. With a revolutionary and unconventional style, Telem artists are blending existing genres like Bubu, Gumbe, and Milo jazz with experimental new techniques. Influences include Jazz, Blues, Neo-Soul, Bossa-Nova, Afro-Jazz, and Funk – and the music is blended with odd sounds, frequency manipulations, polyphony, recordings and just about whatever else can be imagined. Unbounded by the rules, Telem artists are a collective of creatives expressing a side of Sierra Leone that the world has not seen before.
“Telem” means “safe space” in the Temne language in Sierra Leone. When children play tag, the people being chased are safe if they get into a circle drawn on the ground and yell, “Telem!” As long as they are in the Telem, they cannot be touched.
This was the core idea when Telem Uncommon Sounds was founded in 2021: a safe space for creative experimentation, in a context where Sierra Leonean musicians are often encouraged and incentivized to make music that sounds like it comes from Ghana or Nigeria or South Africa. Since its founding, Telem has offered workshops and retreats in songwriting and music production, it has staged various performances featuring original work by new artists in Freetown, and it has built capacity in the local music ecosystem to ensure that more Sierra Leonean musicians are on global stages and channels.
In February of 2023, Telem conceived of a “Music Futures Exchange Program” designed to engage Sierra Leonean musicians of incredible caliber and innovative musicianship to participate in workshops, artist exchanges, and performances with musicians and music organizations in the United States – followed by a reciprocal exchange where US-based musicians would come to Sierra Leone to explore music styles from the region, expose themselves to creative innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities, and experience cultural heritage immersion through music.
In May 2023, Telem musicians were accepted into the Global Musicians Workshop, and traveled to the United States in August 2023 for a week-long artist exchange with talented musicians from all over the world. World-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma conceived Silkroad in 1998 as both a touring ensemble, comprised of world-class musicians from all over the globe, and a social impact organization working to make a positive impact across borders through the arts.
Telem artists are the first ever to join GMW from Sierra Leone and this year were the only Africans in the 70-person workshop. In addition to the workshop, Telem was featured in public community engagement performances in Boston, New York, and the Washington, DC area, with a very successful “Telem Tour 2023.”
Upon return to Sierra Leone, Telem leadership was determined to reinvest our experiences and relationships back into the Salone music ecosystem, so we designed and launched “Telem Week 2023,” a 7-day songwriting retreat and 2day performance festival in November 2023, modeled on our experiences with GWM and adapted to our goals and environment in Sierra Leone. We were privileged to host three musicians from Jamaica, who traveled specifically to participate in Telem Week activities, opening a new channel of musical exchange between Africa and the Caribbean.
What follows is a narrative of our experiences of Telem Week 2023 – alongside some reflections on where we would like to head next, not only doubling down on our efforts focused on the music ecosystem but also expanding to transform Sierra Leone’s creative sector more broadly.
A 7-day workshop at the Tokeh Beach Resort
A major goal of Telem’s work is to support Sierra Leonean artists to make their own original, experimental music. To do that, it helps to have diverse musicians, physical space and instruments, and dedicated, semi-structured time to experiment, iterate, and refine.
Our week-long songwriting retreat was designed to do just that. Each day, our artists blended in different “bands,” facilitated by faculty artists and powered by a music producer. Bringing together live instruments, singing, rapping, and music production; these bands came up with new songs – that we then shared to the large group in community meetings for feedback.
Engaged were 10 Sierra Leonean artists, 3 Jamaican artists, and 6 faculty artists from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and the United States. In addition to facilitating bands, faculty members offered interactive workshops on different topics and 1:1 coaching to individual participants.
Our community meals were a time to bond together, discuss new musical ideas, and laugh and relax. This social time also made our performance flow with the authentic connection we felt among ourselves. Creativity can’t be programmed, so that’s why we hosted nightly jam sessions with our retreat community. In a fun, open, and interactive setting, our musicians had the opportunity to just explore wherever the melody took them. We opened up one of these sessions to locals, fellow resort guests, and beach wanderers at sunset at Tokeh Beach Resort.
About the Performance Festival
Two completely different shows, featuring faculty and participating artists.
One of the core goals of Telem is to provide performance and listening opportunities for musicians to share experimental sounds – and for audiences that love new music to get a fresh fix. The culminating moment of Telem Week was 2 completely different shows at local venue LACS Villa, featuring faculty artists on night 1 and then showcasing the 10 new songs from our participating artists on night 2.
At Telem, we work as a collective of co-equals, so we all backed each other up on live instrumentation and singing for both nights. It was by design that we planned a 2-night performance festival immediately following our retreat. The kind of intensity that an expectant audience brings to a music workshop can be extremely helpful in driving creative focus. In order to make it work, we needed lots of rehearsal – including a final rehearsal held at our venue the night before our first show. This is where we perfected every note, finalized the set list, and made sure our sound equipment was on point.
Throughout the retreat and performance festival, we had embedded with us a 2person videography and photography team, charged with documenting the entire process and developing short videos to share on local TV channels, in order to spread the experience of Telem Week beyond those physically present for the events.
These are the moments we as creatives live for – sharing what we’ve made together in partnership with a receptive and engaged audience. It was incredible to have a packed house both nights – a strong signal of how much support there is locally for experimental and original sounds from Sierra Leone.
A story of cross-sector collaboration powering music sector revitalization in Sierra Leone
They say, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and the organizations that have partnered with Telem over the last 2 years demonstrate the kind of cross-sector collaboration behind uncommon sounds that will help transform our music ecosystem. From the philanthropic, telecommunications, financial, touristic, entrepreneurial, governmental, and media sectors; Telem has been blessed with partnerships that are supporting original music production, live performance, creativity workshops, online content, and the simple but powerful confidence in our artists’ creative voice.
We give thanks to: Africell, the Aurora Foundation, the Balanta Academy of
Music and Performing Arts, Creative Hub Africa, Fambul, Hello Sierra Leone,
Kushe Salone, Metro/K3 Telecom, LACS Villa, Mina Meetups, OG Records,
Orange Sierra Leone, Plant Lover Freetown, Rokel Commercial Bank, Sierra
Leone Commercial Bank, Tokeh Beach Resort, the Rockdale Foundation, Zo
Studio, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the Embassy of Sierra Leone in Washington, DC, the Honorary Consul of Sierra Leone in Jamaica, and Anonymous donors.
Telem Week 2023 Follow-Up Q4 2023 – Q1 2024
So much original, high-quality musical and video content came out of Telem Week. We are working now to:
Publish a compilation album of retreat songs that can be distributed to
Spotify, Apple, and all global platforms where listeners get their music
Distribute video content of retreat and performance festival on a new local.
“Telem TV” channel, through a partnership with Metro/K3
Host a creativity workshop using live songwriting for the Africell Team Retreat in January, enabling musicians to use their musical skills for novel commercial uses and enabling the organization to deepen its capacity for creative skills.
Engage in strategic planning for our 2024 activities.
Three key components of our work – training and capacity building, performance, and ecosystem investment – remain crucial to nurturing creative experimentation in the arts. Our work in 2024 will continue to expand programs that we have already started, such as songwriting retreats for new artists, the Women’s Songwriting Circle and Open Mic nights with Creative Hub Africa, Secret Sessions shows that build audiences for new music in Salone, music business trainings with technology and distribution partners, and global exchange opportunities.
The core team of co-directors has so far undertaken all efforts to bring this work to life in a volunteer capacity. We would like to bring on a paid project manager who can (1) provide administrative and logistical support to Telem programs; (2) identify and coordinate fellowship and exchange opportunities for Sierra Leonean musicians; and (3) support and engage our growing Telem family on online social media channels.
you can, to support a thriving ecosystem of creative experimentation in Sierra Leone.