Liberian Superstars now sing for peace in Philadelphia

{By Samantha Melamed, Inquirer Staff Writer}

Vocalist Zaye Tete (center) of the Liberian Women's Chorus for Change dances to djembe drummers during rehearsal at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. (AARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer)
Vocalist Zaye Tete (center) of the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change dances to djembe drummers during rehearsal at the Philadelphia Folklore Project. (AARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer)

During 14 years of civil war in Liberia, more than 700,000 residents fled the country. One of the nation’s most popular singers, Tokay Tomah, went in the opposite direction.

Through the ’90s, she waded into the smoldering remains of the war alongside U.N. workers, visiting combatant camps to sing for peace.

It was terrifying work: Soldiers were high on cocaine and other drugs, and it seemed anything could happen at any time. Still, she saw it as the most direct path to reconciliation.

“We believe that music brings people closer together. It sends a message faster than even the telephone,” said Tomah, 47. “We used the music to talk to the fighters and say: Lay down your guns. We can’t continue to kill one another.”

Today, Tomah lives in Upper Darby. And she and four others – each, like her, a Liberian singing sensation and social-justice activist – have formed the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change.

She’s still singing for peace.

But the venue is different: Now, they perform at parks, churches, and, Saturday, at World Cafe Live. And they have a new mission: persuading Liberian American women to take a stand against domestic violence. The chorus has partnered with Women Against Abuse, which runs shelters, a hotline, and a legal center.

“Our aim and objective is to encourage the Liberian women to speak up,” said Zaye Tete, 56, of Southwest Philadelphia, a member of the chorus. “In Liberia, traditionally, we are brought up to stay at home and take care of our children. Women are told not to speak out. Now, we are in a different society. So we got to speak up and do things for ourselves.”

On a recent Friday morning, the group gathered to rehearse – carving out time from the lives they’ve built here, raising kids and working jobs in group homes, hospital environmental services, and home health care.

As their band, a trio of djembe drummers, laid down a rhythm, the chorus began – joyful, call-and-response songs in the languages of Liberia’s 16 ethnic groups.

It was a humble setting, in the narrow lobby of the Philadelphia Folklore Project in West Philadelphia.

 

But there was serious star power present, said Toni Shapiro-Phim, director of programs there.

“Each of the women was, on her own, a superstar recording artist with her own fan base back in Liberia,” she said. “It’s like having Beyoncé and J. Lo singing together. They were that popular there.”

Four of the women have known each other since they were 10 or 11 years old, when they were selected to be taken from their villages to Kendeja, an artists’ village outside the capital, Monrovia, to become part of the National Cultural Troupe.

“Any time a president came to Liberia, we performed for them. We performed for President Jimmy Carter,” said Fatu Gayflor, 51, who was the lead singer of the Cultural Troupe and who is now the chorus’ artistic director. “We were the No. 1, the popular one in the country.”

Gayflor was 10 in 1978 when she arrived at Kendeja. In 1985, she left the village to start her own group, Daughters of King N’Jola, and to get married.

But in 1990, while she was visiting Ivory Coast to record her third album, war erupted in Monrovia. She had left her 2-year-old son there with family. She never saw him again.

The artists from Kendeja dispersed in the war. But each of the women in the chorus continued to sing.

In Gayflor’s case, that meant performing for refugees in camps in Guinea and Ivory Coast.

“People were so depressed from the war,” she said. “Going to them and performing, it started to revitalize their belief that one day there will be another Liberia to go to.”

Tete was also in refugee camps. She described how exiled Liberians struggled to get enough to eat, and how orphaned children resorted to prostitution to survive. So, she, too, began performing. She also started a school for children in the camps to learn traditional music and dance.

“We would take the children from the street, and they were practicing with us every day,” she said. “We’d tell them the importance of our culture.”

It was 2004 when Tete finally made it to Philadelphia, where the Liberian community is estimated to exceed 10,000. She never stopped performing for her fans, now scattered around the world.

Gayflor and Tete each worked individually with the Folklore Project before bringing in Tomah, Marie Nyenabo, and Yomo Payne two years ago to start the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change.

Ruth Stone, an ethnomusicologist at Indiana University who has done research in Liberia since 1975, said there was a long history of music-as-activism in that culture.

 

“In this country, we often think of music as being entertainment. For them, it’s pretty serious stuff. They use it in ways that help build community.”

The chorus sings original songs and imposes new messages on traditional ones. Along the way, they’ve reconnected with longtime fans by social media and in person. Sometimes, the terrors of the past sneak up on them.

Tomah recalled a tour in North and South Dakota. She met a man there known during the war as Double Trouble.

The first time she met him when she was singing at a combatant camp, she said, he was brutally assaulting his wife in public while others stood around, afraid to intervene. At the time, she tried to reason with him. Now, he told her, he was seeking to start a new life, care for his family, and eventually send for his wife and children. He thanked Tomah for setting him on a better path.

With support from the Philadelphia Folklore Project and a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, the women’s chorus spent a year interviewing Liberian immigrants about their challenges. They heard over and over about physical, financial, and emotional abuses.

“The living condition here is different,” said Gayflor, who lives in Upper Darby. “It’s fast spending, fast moving, compared to where we come from. Some people don’t know how to handle the stress of living here. That brought problems in their homes.”

They turned to Women Against Abuse, which trained the singers in the dynamics of intimate-partner violence and the services available.

Azucena Ugarte, director of education and training for Women Against Abuse, said it had traditionally been difficult to reach immigrant communities because of language barriers, cultural differences, and the fear the agency might report undocumented victims to immigration authorities.

“Also, the members of the community may not know that domestic violence is against the law in this country,” she said. “They may not know that there are experts and free services.”

The singers have helped build trust between the nonprofit and community members, Ugarte added.

“If people don’t know who we are, they see us as strangers coming in. It’s very different,” she said, “when it’s leaders within the community that are bringing the message.”

Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change

7:30 p.m. Saturday at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St.

Tickets: $12.

Information:http://philly.worldcafelive.com or 215-222-1400.

smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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About Cholo Brooks 15829 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.