THE LIBERIAN MUSIC

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 artist.

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 and others.

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 musical map.

Written, as quoted in the text, by Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh for The Perspective.


© Robert W. Kranz