The Life of S.E. Rogie

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S.E. Rogie was born Sooliman Ernest Rogers in the town of Fonikoh, in the Pujehun District of Sierra Leone in 1926. Rogie would become one of the most recognisable figures within the Palm-Wine music genre, which was popular throughout West Africa and named after an alcoholic drink made from the sap of different palm species.

At the beginning of his career, Rogie worked as a tailor to afford studio time to fund his passion. By the mid-1950’s his music had garnered enough recognition to record at Adenuga and Jonathon, the highly revered studio in the country’s capital, Freetown. With the earnings he made from those recordings and some additional support from an affluent backer, he managed to buy recording equipment to release music from his own label ‘Rogiephone’. This ability to bypass major labels gave him more creative control over his releases. His repertoire was performed in four languages with English and Mende, the native tongue in southern Sierra Leone, often being switched between during different verses. Rogie’s discography deals with a great number of subjects including unrequited love and the perilous pursuit of romance, prophetic teachings and moralistic tales. His music also acts as a documentation of social history and was especially effective in capturing the zeitgeist of Sierra Leone during a period of immense change during the early 1960s.

Sierra Leone broke away from British rule at the start of the 1960s and would become the Republic of Sierra Leone a decade later. On the 27th of April 1961 the nation’s independence was marked with a vast celebration and visit from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. This relinquishing of colonial power to the Sierra Leonean people meant the country was inundated with a great sense of optimism for the future of the nation. Accompanied by a portrait of Rogie in his youth, the date of Sierra Leone’s independence is included on the front cover of one of his albums, ‘The Sounds of S.E.Rogie’, which show us the immense importance of this day to him and the people of Sierra Leone. Other events documented in Rogie’s music around this time include Constance Cummings-John appointment as Freetown’s first mayoress in 1966, Sir Albert Margai’s election win to become prime minister of Sierra Leone and William Tubman’s appointment as the 19th president of neighbouring country Liberia.

In contrast to the more polished releases recorded later in his career which introduced more of an emphasis on keyboards, horn sections and backing singers, Rogie’s 60s oeuvre has an incredibly raw sound. There are many imperfections in these recordings but the flawed, rough around the edges nature of them, provides them with a unique and otherworldly feel. Two guitars working in tandem, producing graceful cyclical patterns; rhythm and lead oscillating together in gorgeous jangly tones through crackling vinyl. It becomes difficult to place exactly what instrument is being played through the wall of sound. Electric guitars played high up the fretboard create a steel drum like effect. Perhaps most consistent in all of these songs is Rogie’s powerful voice, piercing through the instruments that are in use.

Promotional flyer for an S.E. Rogie gig in North Finchley, London

In many of these tracks the percussion sections were performed using an assortment of makeshift instruments. The most cited examples being bottles, ashtrays and pots that were bashed into simple, yet incredibly effective drum patterns. On occasion he sang without his band electing to use only his acoustic guitar to produce slower, more traditional folk blues songs like ‘I Wish I Was A Cowboy’ and ‘A Time In My Life’. These tracks were influenced by his love for country music. The rawness of these tracks, made in the 1960s, establishes an intimate atmosphere between Rogie and the listener, as though he was performing live in an intimate venue in Freetown. The music of Rogie gently floats through the air, flowing as smooth as mellow palm wine.

Rogie’s exploration into the naivety of youth and the hardships of romantic relationships were often drawn from his own experiences and the people around him in Freetown. ‘Please Go Easy With Me’ for instance, was apparently written after Rogie watched two youngsters dancing together in a hall and listened in on their conversation. ‘She Caught Me Red Hot’ describes an affair between Rogie and a woman as he attempts to sneak a kiss from her beneath a ‘shady mango tree’, before he is caught in the act by his girlfriend. This track is just one example of where we hear him adopt a higher pitch to represent the woman’s side of the conversation. ‘Man Stupid Being’ on the other hand has Rogie on the receiving end of conniving tricks, as he warns young men to heed his advice and approach love with caution.

His romantic misfortune is further explored in his most famous song, ‘My Lovely Elizabeth’. The woman Rogie pines for in this track was actually named Zouma, not Elizabeth, but he predicted the potential commercial success in anglicising her name and choosing the name of Britain’s monarch. Zouma and Rogie had been in a relationship until she left him for his best friend. One night when he was lovesick and unable to sleep, he composed the song as an attempt of alleviate his heartache. This had a bittersweet effect for Rogie, as his close friend James Walton Ingham relays, ‘Rogie used to get so into his songs, that he would relive whatever memories were associated with them, it was because of this he found the song incredibly difficult to play live’. By the song’s conclusion Rogie’s singing turns to wailing, capturing his forlorn pain the listener can empathise when hearing his futile plea for her to ‘come back to your loving Rogie’. James took a recording of Rogie performing in Leicester Square in front of hundreds of his fellow countrymen at a celebratory gala event to mark the 40th anniversary of Sierra Leone’s Independence in 1991. In the recording, before Rogie has an opportunity to finish introducing the track name, the audience erupts into applause and begins singing along with every word, drowning out Rogie’s voice from the recording. ‘He had thought his music was long forgotten, but from the moment he introduced Elizabeth, and everyone joined in, he realised his importance in Sierra Leonean history… it was a reminder that even decades later his music lived on’.

S.E. Rogie and James

Despite the recognition and acclaim he received in his home country, Rogie struggled to find widespread commercial success throughout the rest of the world. He moved to America with the hope of establishing his credentials with a wider audience in the early 1970s, but after spending 15 years in California and having to work as a pizza delivery man to make ends meet, he departed for London in 1988. After being invited over to London by legendary DJ Andy Kershaw, Rogie bought a house in Finchley, North London.

During his time in London, James and Rogie formed an unlikely friendship. ‘I stumbled across a performance he was doing on ‘Sound of the World’ an old BBC show late one night. Rogie was sat there in traditional clothing playing ‘Please Go Easy With Me’ backed by a drum track looping from a boombox. He had this huge smile on his face whilst performing and he was rocking on his chair along to his guitar rhythm, it was incredibly infectious. That performance is still up on YouTube, if you look for it you’ll see exactly what I mean. At the time however you couldn’t just go online and find anything in seconds, I had to frantically search through crates of records until I found his music’.

After then managing to track down his music in a record shop, James set about learning to play and sing along. James went along with his girlfriend at the time to watch Rogie play a small venue in London. ‘After his performance, I asked if I could play his guitar and he rather disinterestedly handed it over to me. I played away as he sat there signing autographs for the other audience members until he realised I was playing one of his songs. He immediately stopped what he was doing and looked completely shocked’. Their friendship blossomed from that moment with Rogie inviting James over to his house to teach him the proper techniques to master Palm-wine guitar. 

James was eventually hanging out and performing with Rogie and his friends, all whilst he was enrolled at Wimbledon College of Art. ‘We’d turn up at these venues hidden away in some tiny pocket of London, me and a group of 5 or so middle-aged African musicians and me, a white boy in his early 20’s. As soon as the bloke on the door saw us they’d always have to tell him ‘he’s with us’. 

Rogie passed away in 1994. He had flown to Russia to perform against medical advice from his doctor, following a heart bypass surgery. Whilst performing, he lost consciousness and was rushed in an Air Ambulance from Estonia to Lewisham Hospital, where he failed to recover from his ill health. His sudden death came as a shock to his friends and fans. He fulfilled the age-old axiom of dying doing what he loved. James memorialises Rogie’s philosophical outlook on life, remembering his friend with unwavering fondness. ‘His catchphrase was ‘don’t sweat it’, I tried to remember this whenever things grow unbearable’.

In recent years Rogie’s fanbase has grown, partly due to New York indie band Vampire Weekend sampling the guitar riff from ‘Please Go Easy With Me’ in the track ‘Rich Man’, from their 2019 album 'Father of the Bride'. This, coupled with the inclusion of his music in various TV shows and movies means that the spirit of Rogie and his music continues to live on; new audiences are still coming to appreciate his work.

S.E. Rogie (1926-1994)

Words and interview by Jared Phanco. Accompanying images are from online sources and the personal collection of James Walton Ingham.

To learn more about S.E Rogie, please visit his website.

Discography: Please Go Easy With Me , I Wish I Was a Cowboy , Man Stupid Being