In the past week both Liberia (26 July) and Egypt (23 July) have celebrated Independence and national days, and as I’ve said before, these landmark events are a good opportunity for my Monday Music post to explore the music of the celebrating countries. Egyptian music needs little introduction (think belly-dancing, for a start), but Liberian music is not so well known, so this post will focus more on Liberia.
I’m not going to completely ignore Egypt. There are two Egyptian-Australian musicians I’d like to introduce you to before heading for Liberia.
First, a local expert on Egyptian rhythms. Tarek Sawires makes, imports, plays and sells a range of Egyptian drums. You’ll find him at Glebe markets most Saturdays and also at various music festivals around Australia, such as Woodford each new year.
Second, Joseph Tawadros. His instrument is the Oud. If you live in Sydney you’ve probably already heard of him. If not, then as you can tell from this video, he’s worth checking out if he comes your way. This interview is worth a read if you’d like to know more about his collaborative approach to music – and his other talents.
And now for some music that, like me, you probably don’t know much about, because Liberia’s place on the world stage – musically, politically or otherwise – is, well, not very visible. Come on, what do you know about Liberia? Hmm?
Settled by ex-slaves – civil war – child soldiers – first female President in Africa (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) – that’s about it, right? If that.
Maybe one of the reasons we don’t hear much about Liberia is that it’s a very small country. With a population of around 4.2 million it’s smaller than Sydney, the city I live in (4.6m). It’s also a young country, with over half the population under the age of 25 (61% compared to 31% of Australians, or 34% of Americans, according to www.indexmundi.com, although the majority of LIberians are actually under 15 years old). This generation of teenagers and young adults are the first ‘post-war’ youth generation. Perhaps this youthful population is the reason why so much of the music I’ve found has been by, for, about young people.
This video on krumping shows how things have changed in the past decade since the end of the war: ‘Today the youth are not fighting they are dancing’.
And can they dance! This video of the wonderfully named Friday the Cellphone Man and his mates just gets better and better. I want a Liberian flashmob on the streets of sydney!
Friday the Cellphone Man’s online existence seems to consist solely of YouTube videos. I can’t find out anything about why he chose that name. His actual name means (born on) Friday and he used to sell mobile phones? He dances outside a phone shop on Fridays? Maybe I will never know.
They also get serious. This next song by a collection of Liberia’s most famous exponents of the Hipco style talks about what life is like in Liberia, and what needs to change. ‘We cannot go to the mansion to see the president and tell her about the ills in the society but it is only through our songs would she know how we feel‘, says one of the crew, producer X-polay. You can also find out more about it here.
And they definitely get sassy. This last song is about a Liberian version of parental discipline in which young people are made to squat and jump repeatedly, i.e. ‘pump tire’. ‘Do you know why Liberians can jump so high?’ asks the vocalist. That’s why.
The song is both catchy and in-your-face; simultaneously a challenge and a celebration. It reminds me of my post on Nelson Mandela songs just last week, where I wrote about a BBC journalist’s idea that the joyous grooves of the Specials’ Free Nelson Mandela inspired a generation of activists more than an angry protest song could have. I wonder if Pump Tire will inspire a generation of Liberian teenagers to abandon this and other cruel and unusual punishments when they become parents themselves? Or will they decide that the value of strong thighs, for a nation of dancers, outweighs child protection considerations?
Well that’s it from me for this Monday. I’ve had a wonderful week exploring Liberian music and I hope you’ve enjoyed my selection.
If you want to keep exploring on your own, here’s a couple more links: