Freetown — As I sit on my flight back to Sierra Leone from a visit to Ghana, a Nigerian trader sitting next to me starts cursing about Freetown. "This place is such a noise! When I come to Freetown I cannot hear my own thoughts." When I tell him that I am doing a study on popular music in Freetown, he laughs: "So, you are studying noise?" (Source: RNW)

A Canadian NGO-worker once said to me: "People here don't know how to play with timbre and dynamics. No crescendo-decrescendo-crescendo, it is just always loud. Fortissimo forever. Just like the city."

Urban ballet

During my first weeks in Freetown, I stayed in a cheap hotel right next to Freetown's most bustling intersection, the so-called PZ. In terms of sounds, the area appeared to me as one big confusion of humans and animals, of trolleys, cars, motorbikes, busses and trucks; a spectacular urban ballet. As I joined in the performance myself, I could not keep with the rhythm, stumbled, bumped into people, and got hit by passing cars' side-view mirrors.

Outsiders, either short-term visitors, expatriates, or newly arrived research students, are prone to misunderstand, or just not to see - and hear -, the messages and meanings transmitted in a given expression or sound. However, soon my perception of the city began to change. I started to familiarise myself with the streets and places in downtown Freetown. I began to understand the basics of central Freetown's urban ballet and learned to sidestep passing cars and people at the right moment. I also started to accustom myself to Freetown's sounds.

Goat soup

At the goat soup bar music is nevertheless played at a deafening level. Two large speakers frame the small space while the cook serves simultaneously as a DJ. As I asked him why he played the music that loud, he replied with another question, asking me if I did not like the music. The other present customers, including my Freetonian companions, showed not a whiff of nuisance but ate and chatted apparently unhampered by the loud sounds.

Financial means

In the following weeks, I asked the same volume-question in several other places. All answers I received were tellingly vague, such as: "because we like it", "for people to hear", or "why not?" The loudness was not perceived as too loud, noisy or disturbing.

As Freetown's music volume-phenomenon bears no emic explanations, I came up with various possible explanations: Music is played out at full volume because it attracts attention and creates curiosity. And the louder it is played, the clearer and further it sends out these meanings. The connection of loud music to wealth, business and special occasions also points towards a possible explanation - either somebody can afford to pay for the loud sounds, that is, for the medium and the required electricity, because he or she has the financial means to do so, or somebody can afford it because his of her business requires electricity, or a special occasion leads to the suspension of the norm when loud, electricaally amplified sounds are rare. Once one or several of these factors apply, the music is often, if not always, played in full volume. Furthermore, we might also speak of a sort of adjusted technological imperative - once the music technology and its prerequisites (mainly electricity) are available, people will inevitably make full use of it.

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