Women in Liberia’s Traditional Music
MONROVIA – There can be no discussion on women’s contribution to traditional indigenous music in Liberia without the mention of the Liberia National Cultural Troupe. Since its establishment in the 1960s the troupe has been a microcosm of Liberian national cultural heritage. It recruited young talents from every part of the nation through its talent hunt expeditions to be groomed for services to the nation.
Report by Tecee Borley, Contributor
There is not a single woman traditional artist who has gone through the gates of Kendeja (home of the Liberian National Cultural Troupe) that had not benefited from the wisdom of this culture venture. Kendeja Cultural Center was given up during the regime of Liberia’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to American businessman Bob Johnson. Today a hotel stands where great and memorable talents were harnessed.
This troupe has given birth to the very best of traditional music icons in the West African Nation. Nimba Burr, Princess Fatu Gayflor, Marie Nyenabo and Ambassador Julie Endee are some of the names and faces that dominated the talent shows, state events and most importantly the airwaves.
Nimba Burr- Dubbed “Liberian singing sensation” hails from the Dan tribe of Northern Liberia. She led Liberian music during the 1970s, signing folk songs from both the Mah/Mano and Dan/Gio people. Nimba Burr came to prominence through the talent hunt of the Liberian National Cultural Troupe. By 1976 she became lead vocalist of that group.
Princess Fatu Gayflor also known as “the golden voice of Liberia” reigned during the 1980s. As a member of the Lorma ethnic group she received instruction in ritual and songs, and in playing the sasa (sekere) from the Sande Society. By the time she was twelve years old she joined the Liberian National Cultural Troupe where she was groomed into a stage performer. Fatu carries the titled Princess because she sings in at least ten local languages.
Marie Nyenabo nicknamed the “nightingale of Grand Gedeh” first learned to dance and sing when she was a young girl. She performed in celebrations and rituals in her native Krahn communities before she was recruited to the National Cultural Troupe. By the end of the war in 2003, Marie was a well recognized voice of traditional music on Liberian radios. She used her talent traveling across Liberia, inspiring people and facilitating dialogues to counter the evils of human trafficking.
One cannot discuss traditional music in Liberia without the mention of Ambassador Julie Endee also referred to as Liberia’s Traditional Queen. She has been in control of the mic since the 1990s. She was also discovered by Liberian National Cultural Troupe at a young age. Throughout the years of war in Liberia, Julie led the Liberian National Cultural Troupe bringing home many awards. She later established her own group of cultural performers called the Crusaders for Peace.
But, indigenous folk music that was so loved in Liberia maybe dying out. Most of the women who made it to stardom through traditional folk music owe it to the Liberia National Cultural Troupe. Today the National Cultural Troupe is a shadow of its glorious self- at an all-time low in talent hunt through local competitions, national and international performances and other ritual activities.
There are some who believe that the younger women who may be interested in the folk music do not need the National Cultural Troupe or the mentorship of legends to make the kind of impact the older generation made. However, Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism disagrees. Minister Lance Gbagonyon says “Mentorship is lacking. The older ones are not finding younger ones to mentor. They need to find people who will step into their shoes when they are no more.”
While the Deputy Minister is looking at the older ones, one of Liberia’s foremost musical pundits and broadcaster Chris Wolo says the younger artists are to blame. “There is a disconnect between the older generation and the younger ones. Women like Julie Endee and Nimba Burr are legends. No disrespect to the younger generation of traditional singers but those women reached places that we are yet to see them reach. They (younger ones) need to reach out to the legends and learn how they did it.”
Wolo says the problem is not only generational but also business (market), “Most young people especially women who are interested in singing folk songs/ traditional music have a big problem. That is so because this kind of music does not have a large enough audience. Young people are most interested in urban style of music. However, there is one young woman who is doing very well. MzMenneh has proven that you have to work hard to make young people listen to you.”
According to the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services , young people account for more than 70 per cent of the total Liberian population. This makes business for traditional singers difficult as most of them are interested in Hipco (Liberian Version of Hip-hop), Tracco (local languages in rap music) and Afro-Beat. Few are interest in Gbema.
MzMenneh is believed to be Liberia’s emerging queen of traditional music. In spite of all the odds she has been able to brave the storm. Some say it is so because she holds the view thatindigenous Liberian traditional and folk music is a way of preserving Liberian culture.
“As a Neo-traditional artist, I believe that music has traditionally played a vital role in African culture especially in Liberia as one amongst the oldest black settlements in our hemisphere. I value our strong African heritage and its importance in many aspects of our Liberian culture. As a Liberian artist, my goal is for the world to be able to uniquely identify Liberia the country, and her beautiful cultures and traditions. Also, ensuring we are upholding our traditional and cultural values for generations to come.”
There is a Liberian adage that says, “the future depends on what you do today” so it is with women in traditional music. Already an area of male dominance; if women do not work together, indigenous folk songs will be heard and seen no more on Liberian radio and television.