by Dr. Ruth M. Stone, Indiana University
Liberia’s Ethnic Groups
The peoples of Liberia come from at least sixteen distinct ethnic groups. Though each group speaks a separate language, people are frequently multi-lingual and have interacted with each other extensively in trading and political relationships over the years.
Some groups migrated from grasslands to the coastal forest region, beginning in the 1500s. Others like the African American immigrants from the United States came as free-born or formerly enslaved, and settled along the coast beginning in the 1820s. Immigrants came from Barbados and the West Indies during and after the United States civil war following an official invitation from the government of Liberia. Lebanese and Indian traders, however, have dominated the immigrant merchant group.
Over a century later, a large number of Liberians moved to the United States and Europe during the extended civil war from 1989-2003. Today they circulate back and forth to Liberia aided by air transportation and the communication possibilities of computers and cell phones.
The Kpelle and Loma have lived in the central and northern parts of the country and beyond into Guinea. The Gio/Dan people occupy the northeastern region, spilling over into Côte d’Ivoire, while the Krahn and Kru have filled in along the southeastern coastal region. Mandingoes as a trading group have moved in and out of Liberia from neighboring countries.
Musicians borrow extensively across ethnic boundaries and freely adapt songs they’ve learned from their neighbors. When musicians joined the National Cultural Troupe in Monrovia in the 1980s-1990s, they came from these various ethnic groups and brought their songs to teach one another, performing in the various languages from across Liberia.
Liberia: Past and Present of Africa's Oldest Republic http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/
Song Types Sung by Women in Liberia
Women sing songs throughout the life-cycle. They croon lullabies for babies, sing counting songs with children, and dance with young women who celebrate puberty. In sorrow they wail at the death of loved ones. In the rural areas women sing throughout the annual agricultural cycle as they hoe the ground to prepare for planting the rice fields or for pounding the harvested rice in the mortar in order to separate the grain from the chaff.
Liberian women most characteristically play the gourd rattle as an instrumental accompaniment, though a few of them also drum and play other percussive instruments (see the Sande Society entry below). They often clap their hands in complex patterns of accompaniment.
Women compose songs to express feelings of love, rejection, or political protest. Sometimes they sing choruses to accompany story-telling about a spider, clever children, or super heroes.
These soloists mingle Christian themes and indigenous images in their religious musical expression. Singing inevitably involves dancing as sound and motion mingle in these various song types. Very talented dancers become soloists who receive featured billing at performances in the village or on the stage as they interlock their movements with drummers who amplify their body movements.
Kpelle singers at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, Monrovia:
Is an organization to which all women in a number of ethnic groups in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire are expected to belong. It is a counterpart society to the Poro Society for young men. (The Poro and the Sande alternate sessions and never meet at the same time in any particular location.)
Young girls enter into the Sande Society and are initiated at various times during a period of three years when the group is in session. In the Sande, girls learn cultural traditions, proper customary behavior, and special performance skills. All of the initiates are expected to exhibit their dance skills at the graduation ceremony when they re-emerge after their period of education and seclusion.
Particularly talented performers receive specialized training as solo dancers and instrumental performers—primarily on the shaken gourd rattle. Some women also play the slit log instruments to accompany the singing and dancing during the Sande session. The community applauds the efforts of the young initiates at their graduation and welcomes them back with their new identities, particularly new clothes and names.
Music in the Wake of Ebola
Song became a critical part of the Liberian community response to the Ebola epidemic when it broke out in Liberia in 2014. Singers composed songs in various styles to warn people about the dangers of the disease, which were broadcast on the national radio stations and over the Internet. Choirs re-purposed religious songs in churches to help strengthen the people as the disease raged. And the medical teams sometimes began their shifts at the Emergency Treatment Units (ETUs) by singing and dancing hymns as they empowered themselves.
Music was uniquely absent at burials during the Ebola epidemic, when burial teams in personal protection equipment (PPE) worked in isolation to pick up the dead and take them to the mass burial and cremation sites. No teams of musicians or clerics accompanied these teams, except near the end of the outbreak. Only after the outbreak ended has music been restored as part of memorial commemorations that have been held to remedy this loss of music.
Liberians shared this music with their Liberian relatives and friends in the North American diaspora through mass media, circulating and re-circulating songs that helped to connect and console a globally dispersed group of people.
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/658608 (Article by Ruth M. Stone, “Ebola in Town,” Africa Today 63(3):79-97)
Women in the rural areas have long planted the rice fields and harvested the crops, while men have cleared the forest and burned the brush to prepare for planting. In the urban areas, to earn a living women have become market sellers of various produce as well as dry goods. As women have received a Western-style education, some have taken professional jobs as teachers, nurses, and office workers. They have also become legislators, cabinet ministers, and chiefs, and even warriors.
Madam Suah Koko is one of the most famous women to become a chief. She ruled in Bong County during the early 1900s. More recently the first female president of an African country and Nobel prize winner, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf headed Liberia for two terms from 2006-2017.
Gender violence has been identified as a significant issue, beginning in the post-civil war years and continuing to the present. It bears similarities to comparable problems identified in other parts of the world that are often exacerbated in times of stress such as a civil war.
People have moved in and out of Liberia for centuries, from the Mande migration out of the West African grasslands to the forest belt in the 1500s, to the Arab and later Portuguese contact with the Pepper Coast. The American Colonization Society (ACS) sent formerly enslaved and free men to Liberia to establish an independent country in the 1820s. The government of Liberia invited West Indians to settle. And immigrants came from other West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria. Finally the 21st century influx of Liberian immigrants to North America and Europe accelerated during the protracted civil war (1989-2003). At present, some people have returned to Liberia, sometimes leaving part of the family on each continent at any one time.
All of this movement is made possible by modern air transportation. The cell phone and Internet have also ramped up contact between people in Liberia and the diaspora as they share education, family updates, as well as music and culture. These innovations have facilitated remittances of money and goods back and forth between Liberia and the diaspora that includes Asia as well as North America and Europe. Clothing, food delicacies, and art have all been part of the flow.
Liberian Music in the United States
Liberian music circulates when it is performed by Liberian musicians residing in the United States, by Liberian traveling performers, and by aspirants from across the globe. They perform in the style of hipco (a Liberian form of hip-hop or rap), indigenous music and dance, as well as earlier historical genres such as West African café, Palm-wine guitar and highlife. Liberian adaptations of African American spirituals and gospel music draw people together. They share their art in intimate venues like restaurants, bars, or churches, as well as in larger settings like concert halls, and outdoor festival stages. They draw audiences, critique one another, and circulate their songs through social media. Using social media, musicians expand audiences who reside around the world and join them virtually. Indeed, face-to-face performances are only the beginning point for an artist who amplifies her or his effect with myriad possibilities that are multiplied as they are linked again and again. They sing of unrequited love, political protest, war, and epidemics that get shared on cellphones and websites as informal networks spread music quickly across the ocean and back, in the city and in the rural area.
While there were a modest number of Liberian artists living and performing in the United States prior to the 1980s, the civil war changed that. Many refugee artists immigrated, brought their talent, and performed their music across the continent and beyond. At present many individual performers and groups create events for Liberians and a broader audience of listeners.
NEWS COVERAGE LINKS:
Daily Observer: https://www.liberianobserver.com/
Front Page Africa: http://frontpageafricaonline.com/
All Africa/Liberia: http://allafrica.com/liberia/