Last Friday [22nd June] marked exactly 15 years since he departed this world. But Amara Shain Kabba, one of Sierra Leone’s all-time best musicians, left an indelible mark on the West African reggae scene hitting platinum in 2003 with what is perhaps his best album, ‘Confront It’.
Amara was highly celebrated both in Sierra Leone and beyond. He lived in Holland where he recorded his album and later returned home with his family in May 2003, when his life tragically ended.
The late musician’s wife and daughter were in Freetown last week to commemorate his death anniversary, which took place at the Negus Nagas Complex in Grafton. The Kabba family narrated the life of the legend and how they are working to keep his music alive.
Amara Kabba was born in 1962 in Makeni, northern Sierra Leone, to a Madingo father and a Temne mother. He was the second of three sons in the family. They grew up with their father – a composer and folk singer, who used to play the accordion and other instruments. Their mother used to sing along with their dad. There was always music around them.
Tragically, the siblings lost both parents at early ages. This affected their upbringing and education. Amara left school for music. He started playing the wooden guitar and the accordion he inherited from his father – Kabineh Kabba.
Amara later joined the Bintumani Hotel as a musician as part of the Rockers Group. He was a guitarist and singer in the group. He would later join the Sierra Afric Dance Band, through which he released his first single: ‘Eastern Paddle.’ Amara at some point left for Conakry in neighboring Guinea where he played alongside Bongi Makeba, daughter of South African anti- Apartheid campaigner and music legend, Miriam Makeba. Amara would later return home to continue his music.
In the mid-1980s, Amara and his elder brother, Nfagie Kabba, established the Kabba Brothers (music group). They recorded 3 (three) albums which had popular songs, including ‘Tamaraneh’ and ‘Lef Bad Heart’. Their music made waves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In
1993, they were invited by their music promoters to perform at the London Summer Afro-Reggae hit concert in London. From there Amara left London for Amsterdam in Holland where he studied Music and Recording Engineering, leaving his brother, Nfagie in London.
Amara settled in Holland after seeking asylum and continued his music as a solo artist. He chose reggae music instead of their usual goombay and founded the Shain Band. He started doing live band performances and later recorded many songs.
In 1994, Amara Kabba met with Anne Marie Tiebosh, a Dutch, in Holland. After the Sierra Leone civil war, the couple alongside their 4 years old daughter – Khadija, decided to visit Sierra Leone in 2003 for the first time, after Amara had already compiled his ‘Confront It’ album.
Amara arrived in Freetown in May 2003 and was joined by Anne Marie and Khadija two weeks later. The ‘Rastaman Confront It’ album had been launched in Amsterdam, at the Dutch Pop Institute, before they took off to launch it in Sierra Leone.
Anne Marie narrates that Amara had already popularised his songs before they joined him in Freetown.“People appreciated the songs, and they were playing all over the place. That was a good experience.” – Anne Marie Tiebosh Kabba, recalls in an interview with SaloneJamboree.
Anne Marie who was pregnant with Kabba’s second child [later named Amaria Shine Kabba] at the time, also explained how the local media helped promote his music. As the preparation for the album launch was gaining momentum, the family decided to have fun and relax with friends around town.
One fateful Sunday, on 22nd June 2003, they hosted a chilling and entertainment gathering at the Lumley Beach, inn the west end of Freetown. “We were having fun with friends and fans of Amara. We gave drinks and food to everyone. Amara was seated on the rock playing his music with his guitar. Everyone else was singing and dancing with him. After few performances,
Amara asked me to go swimming. I refused because I couldn’t swim. I was pregnant and also had 4 years old Khadija with me,” Ann Marie recalls.Amara and a friend eventually went into the water to swim, she narrates. After sometime, they heard Amara crying for help.
“He was trying to keep his head up. The boys playing football at the beach went to help him out, but he had already drank too much water,” she explains.
His rescuers eventually brought Amara out of the water, alive, but helpless and weak. He was taken to the hospital, where the doctor advised the wife to go home and have a rest. When Mrs Kabba returned to the hospital the following morning, the bed where she’d left her husband was empty. He had died, she was told.
“It was devastating! But I had to be strong. His songs started playing all over again and again, in taxis, radio, etc. People were saying good things about him,” Ann Marie says. The ‘Rastaman – Confront It’ album was well sold out, and Anne Marie used the proceeds to complete a studio Amara had started in Amsterdam.
According to Anne Marie, the album had been self-recorded and produced by Amara in the studio in Amsterdam. The album contains popular songs like ‘Lady on The Road’, ‘Rastaman Confront It’, ‘Sun Shine’, ‘Conquer’, ‘Waiting’, ‘Two to Tango’, etc. It delivers messages of hope and love. Those messages resonated well with the Sierra Leanean community, especially after coming from a decade long bloody civil war.
Ann Marie tells me that Amara had already recorded many songs he left unreleased. She and her daughters [Khadija and Amaria Shine Kabba] are planning to release them. “Amara’s songs are the properties of his daughters,” she said.
Anne Marie has since established the Shain Foundation following Kabba’s passing, to honor and promote his legacy. “Shain was the band founded by Amara, and we want to maintain his
legacy,” she said. The foundation promotes peace and live music. “That was Amara’s dream,” Ann Marie said. She said the foundation holds an annual music performance to commemorate and celebrate Amara’s life.
According to her, last year’s event attracted the late Sierra Leonean Bubu King, Ahmed Janka Nabay, who performed Amara’s songs on stage in Amsterdam, including like ‘Tamaraneh’ and ‘Paddle’. Nabay, who died in March this year, was Amara’s childhood friend. They sang together with about 30 years ago. They stopped seeing each other when Amara went to Europe. Together the two had a song called Combination.
Amara’s younger daughter – Amaria Shine Kabba, who is also a musician, has recorded the cover of Amara’s and Janka’s ‘Combination’ song as a tribute to both of them. The song was released on the 22nd June 2018, on the anniversary of her dad’s death.
In a statement, Shain Foundation and Culture Radio in Freetown disclosed plans to host an Open Mic event for reggae fans to do artistic performances at the Negus Nagas Complex in Grafton on the day.
Khadija also told me how she is helping to keep her dad’s vision alive. “We run the Shain Foundation to promote peace, love and unity which was what my dad portrayed in his music. He gave messages of hope and love. We will ensure that his dream is kept alive,” she said, adding: “We will release another album for him after 15 years.” Khadija recalls the love her dad used to show her and the good things people talk about him. “I can remember my dad as a funny kind of person who always showed me love. He used to spoil me,” she says.
Khadija is a university student, studying Community Science in Holland. She has been in Freetown for the past two months. Amara Shain Kabba lives no more, but his songs and arts do. His good stories are being told day by day. One of his best friends, DJ Base, a radio and TV presenter, has always been running tributes to the deceased. He plays several of the interviews he conducted with Amara before his death.
By: Ibrahim Sorious Samura