A variety of musical genres exist within the many cultures of West Africa. People play many different musical instruments -- drums, cowbells, shakers, string or wind instruments. This recording focuses on four basic musical genres found in Liberia -- traditional music, Liberian songs, Christian songs, and popular Highlife music. This music can be categorized
as either traditional or a blend of traditional and Western. Within these different
genres are common West African musical elements such as call and response between the lead singer and chorus; polyrhythmic percussion and vocals; ululation (a vocal trill); and vocal and instrumental repetition.
Performances of traditional music, which uses the specific instruments, rhythms, melodies,
and dances of a particular ethnic group, take place within various social contexts. Some may occur publicly at large community celebrations and events, such as weddings, naming ceremonies, or royal processions. Other performances may take place within private contexts, such as lullabies sung at home, children's play songs, or work songs.
Christian music was originally introduced by Americans who came as missionaries to Liberia. Each ethnic group then adapted the music, changing it slightly to fit their own musical systems. Liberians have created their own Christian songs which they sing in their native
languages. They combine Western choral singing, and its emphasis on harmonies, with the
West African call and response. Many of these indigenous churches also incorporate
traditional percussion instruments, rhythmic patterns, and dance.
"Highlife," one of the many popular musics in West Africa, emerged in the late
1950's. It combines Western and African instruments, Latin American dance rhythms, and
traditional West African melodies and lyrics to create a unique new sound. Although there is some dispute as to its exact origins, most people agree that Highlife music originated from
the use of traditional songs of West African coastal peoples of Ghana, Sierra Leone, and
Liberia (particularly the Kru). Although a number of musicians have written and recorded Highlife songs, E.T. Mensah, a guitarist from Ghana, developed and popularized the Highlife sound in West Africa in the late 1950s.
Like many aspects of its very rich tapestry, Liberia today is blessed with many gifted and talented musicians. From Grand Gedeh to Lofa; from Cape Mount to Cape Palmas: the
country's tapestry shows a richness and diversity that is yet to be harnessed to its full
potential. But sadly, the continual corrosive effects of its politics have done more harm
than good in elevating Liberia's cultural landscape to much greater levels.
In spite of this, Liberia has had many talented musicians; foremost among those was Molly
Dorley. As a teenager, I [Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh]recalled listening to his music - when
listening to that "type " of music wasn't in tune with the times. Dorley's music
was a struggle against the tide in a country that suffered a duality of personality -
wanting to be a Western country in an African land (the formation of Liberia as a nation
-state is a subject matter already extensively covered on the pages of this magazine, which
I [Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh] don't intend to further discuss). But Dorley's music give impetus
to the first recorded expression of Liberian cultural music, which was repressed like many
other aspects of its African culture by the ruling political class.
Such songs like, "Who are you baby, oh!" and "Grand Gedeh County Oh! Oh!
" (a song Dorley sang in 1969 during President William V. S. Tubman's 74th birthday
celebration in that county), which marked the beginning of Liberian music appreciation.
Dorley wasn't only a genius, he, like Anthony "Experience" Nagbe of the renowned
"Tejajlu" musical group were pioneers who were proud of their indigenous
backgrounds, therefore, elevated their "native" languages through the rhythmic
cadences of their music.
Dorley and Nagbe did their best to write and perhaps produce their own music the way they
knew best. They performed not for the love of money (because they never had or got any in
the first place), but for the love of their culture and profession. They entertained and
sang from the Liberian experience, which inspired others who followed in their footsteps.
Yet, Dorley and Nagbe's brand of music, and that of other Liberian musicians wasn't popular
among the young adults of our time, including many older folks. Many of those young adults
would tease others regarding the Dorley and Nagbe's style of music, but would take pride in
reciting the lyrics of rock and roll, rhythm and blues by artists in the United States.
They made fun of Liberian music and referred to it as "juju or cane juice music.
The premier radio station, Liberian Broadcasting Corporation (ELBC) didn't help this
situation, either. For example, ELBC had a radio program, which was called "Name That
Tune," I [Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh] believe, it was hosted by Sherman Brown. The program
awarded monetary compensation to contestants who correctly gave the names of Western
artists and their music. However, I [Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh] am not aware of a show on ELBC
that awarded a price to a contestant for correctly naming the tune of music by a Liberian
From that time up to the present, Liberian musicians have encountered countless obstacles
to have their music heard on the Liberian airwaves. The lack of financial and moral support
from the private sector, uninspired and unpatriotic government officials who would rather
use these local artists for their personal and official matters, have hindered the growth
of Liberian music. As a result, Liberian music has become an endangered species with no
dominant Liberian artist with star power and crossover appeal whose music transcends
cultural and political boundaries to go against the ever-present African musical giants
like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the Congo, to make our music what their music and
their artists are to the Liberian people.
Liberian music, even in 2001 competes for the airwaves not only against Western music on
Liberian radio stations, but also against music from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Congo
Regrettably, the lack of support for Liberian music continues, as artists like Zack and
Gebah formerly of "Gebah and Swaray;" T. Kpan Nimely, Fatu Gayflor, Anthony
"Experience" Nagbe of the musical group, "Tejajlu" Nimba Burr; Miatta
Fahnbulleh and others, either had to disband or move to other countries for greener
pasture. Sadly, Morris Dorley and Tecumsay Roberts passed away without gaining the
recognition they deserve for their contributions to the unique style of music we refer to
today as Liberian music.
I [Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh] would hope that the business community, the private sector in
general, the Liberian school system, DJs, others in the music industry, and ordinary
Liberians support Liberian music. With this kind of support, workshops could be set up
through out the year to help aspiring artists - by assisting them to write, produce and
develop all that it takes to be the best in their chosen profession. The business
community, the DJs and others will not only give financial support to the industry, but
they could also scout and groom potential talents who will eventually put Liberia on the
Written, as quoted in the text, by Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh for The Perspective.