Saramaccan Sound (Suriname) – Where the River Bends Is Only the Beginning




Saramaccan Sound (Suriname) are a brother duo – Dwight Sampie and Robert Jabini – who write and perform flowing acoustic songs sung in Saramaccan, the language from the Americas with the most African elements. Their debut album was recorded in situ by Grammy winner Ian Brennan (Parchman Prison Prayer, Ustad Saami, The Good Ones) along a remote riverside in the Amazon region of Suriname. The lyrics are topical and reference everyday strife such as the rising tides and floods in the area due to global warming.

Their bone raw songs and performances evoke heart-worn longing, a deep sense of place and a strange familiarity. As if Merle Haggard had been raised in the Amazon rather than Bakersfield.

“Where the River Bends is Only the Beginning” is the 12th release in Glitterbeat’s acclaimed Hidden Musics series.

I cut down a tree.
I made two boats.
They will carry me to the sea.

Entering the rainforest— the lungs of the earth— we rode up-river to settlements reached only by boat. We passed villages swallowed whole. Many of the still existing towns may soon not be here— submerged down river from the dams or drowned by the rising tides.

The singers we recorded, Dwight Sampie and Robert Jabini, were Saramaccan. Linguists consider the Saramaccan language notable because its vocabulary is based on two European source languages, English (30%) and Portuguese (20%), and various West and Central African languages (50%), but it diverges considerably from all of them. The African component accounts for over half of the vocabulary, the highest percentage in the Americas.

“We come from one belly. All from the same mother…” was a lyrical theme.

A village alarm bell was rung the first night we were there. We were informed this was a bad sign, a notice that someone from the village had passed while in the city.

One group took us to the river’s edge where they performed death rites that cannot be conducted in the village lest the risk that some people will be taken by the spirits. The musicians broke twigs from a mangrove tree, fashioned percussion instruments, and used them to wake the dead.

Groups of Rastas regaled us with beats and chants, the lead drummer bursting with polyrhythms like an Art Blakey prototype. The fact that their language includes an implosive sound no doubt must help lend itself to such complexity.

Acoustic guitars were the rule, though. With nylon strings being mandatory since steel strings almost immediately rust due to the humidity of the region.

The main writer, singer and mentor was Robert Jabini, a military man, who stood less than 5’ 6’’ but with an opposing build. His gym, a lifetime of hard work.

With his mournful melodies and handle-bar mustache, it was as if Merle Haggard had been raised in the Amazon instead of dusty Bakersfield. You can almost hear the humidity seeping into the microphones.

And as so often was the case, the best songs emerged only after we were done recording. The equipment had to be setup three separate times and brought to the men on the front-porch, as they sang almost non-stop throughout the night, growing freer as the bottles of rum were drained. Finally, they concluded with a song written on the spot about their brotherhood — “One Mother, Two Hearts.”

For hours after the sun had gone down following the official, daytime recording session, The brothers continued to trade songs on a neighboring front porch. On two occasions, such beautiful sounds echoed out that I was left with little choice but to unpack the gear, lug the microphones to where they were, and set up anew.

“We Lost Someone Close to us Again” was recorded in one of those quiet and intimate, on-the-fly moments, where many of their strongest songs emerged, almost as an afterthought.

— Ian Brennan