by Erinn Fortson
Mariama Koroma has just put her 11 month year-old daughter to sleep when I reach her by phone on a Tuesday night in March. She later tells me that her first performance with Song Dogs was only two weeks before she delivered her baby. I imagine that motherhood is incredibly challenging for female musicians balancing their careers with raising children. “It’s tricky,” says Koroma. But like many other women in the industry, she makes it work.
Koroma considers herself lucky to have such supportive band members, which she credits for being a big reason she can multitask as an artist, mother, and wife. “I had a wonderful experience being pregnant with my daughter and performing as a musician,” says Koroma. My band mates were very supportive and helpful. It’s sort of like a family. They carried me all the way, so I owe those guys a lot.”
It’s been nearly fours years since Ryan McCloskey called Koroma and asked her to join Song Dogs. The band formed in 2009, recruiting the female drummer after watching Koroma perform on stage. “At the time I was playing as a percussionist in an all girl band,” says Koroma. “But that group started to fade out and then Ryan contacted me to ask if I wanted to play with his band. I said, sure, and haven’t looked back since.”
Song Dogs released their debut full-length album in December of last year. “Wild Country was produced by Bill Moriarty, who has also worked with such groups as Man Man, Lotus, and Dr. Dog. Song Dogs have upcoming shows scheduled in the next few weeks at local venues North Star Bar, The Legendary Dobbs, and Milkboy.
Mariama Koroma didn’t grow up listening to Led Zeppelin, Santana, and other similar artists Song Dogs name as influences. As a child living in Africa, Koroma’s interest in music was sparked by the sound of drums. She would watch male percussionists perform in her village, which then inspired her to explore this world of instruments further. “The men played the drums and the women danced,” says Koroma of her community. “So, I would go dance with the other women, but I was really interested in watching the male percussionists; how they moved their hands. I listened very well to the rhythms of the drum and picked it up just by watching the men play.”
It was taboo for women to be percussionists in Koroma’s village, so she had to keep her playing a secret when she began experimenting with these instruments first hand. “I had to hide to play because women weren’t allowed to play traditional African drums,” explains Koroma. To this day, I haven’t really seen African women play an African drum. “So, it was hard because I had to figure out how to do it. The only person I trusted to hear me play was my uncle. When I was with my friends, I would just bang on big bowl or something that made a lot of noise.”
Koroma has been in the states for a number of years now, immigrating to America as an adolescent. After she left Africa, her country was involved in a civil war that especially took a great toll on Liberian women. Koroma fled her homeland at a decent time and was able to physically avoid the tragedy that the war produced. “I look at life so differently than most people,” explains Koroma. “When you come from a situation like this, it opens your eyes to how joyful life really is. It teaches you a lot about how your life can be different in a second.”
Coming to America is what gave Koroma more liberty to pursue her passion in percussion. “When I came to the United States, that’s when I realized that I was free to play the drums; my whole world opened up. It was a journey and it’s still a journey. When I play now, it reminds me of this freedom, my homeland, and how I grew up. So, I have a strong bond with drums.”
Attending open mic nights in the states boosted Koroma’s confidence in her drum playing even more. Watching other singers and songwriters perform on stage inspired the musician to make her own mark and share the talents she was given with any audience interested in listening.
Koroma especially felt empowered by the female artists she watched on stage, because of the lack of female musical influence she experienced while living in Africa. “I didn’t have women musicians as role models growing up because men played the drums,” says Koroma. “When I went to these open mics nights, I would see a lot of different talents. I would watch the women who came to play, mostly young girls, that were original songwriters and think wow, this is great.”
As a successful and accomplished drummer in an all male band, Koroma can be considered a mentor herself, as her drive serves as inspiration to young girls chasing after their dreams. She has gone from covertly playing an African drum in her village to visiting classrooms and sharing her musical gifts to students. “One of the wonderful things about being a female percussionist is seeing all the women and girls who come out to my gigs,” says Koroma. “I want them to see that you can be a fantastic drummer as a woman. It’s sort of like I’m playing for them. I want to show them that the world is changing. There’s an African woman playing the drums and it’s ok.”