A Composer for Every Country: Liberia

Liberia, like Sierra Leone, is a country of two populations - the native indigenous tribes, and people descended from freed slaves who came to the area during the 19th century. In this case, the freedmen were settlers from the American Colonization Society. Founded by Robert Finley, the basic idea was to encourage free African-Americans to go to Africa. If your reaction is "That sounds dumb and is probably racist," well... That was kind of the reaction of just about everybody else at the time. Opposed by both African Americans, who had lived in the US for generations and didn't want to leave, and abolitionists, who quickly learned that the Society's motives had more to do with preempting slave riots than finding a workable solution to the end of slavery. In the words of Gerrit Smith, "This Colonization Society had, by an invisible process, half conscious, half unconscious, been transformed into a serviceable organ and member of the Slave Power."

Still, some 15,000 freed African Americans and 3,100 Afro-Caribbeans were settled in what would become Liberia. They created a flag resembling the US flag and drafted a constitution modeled on the US Constitution. Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected the first President. Missionaries began to go forth and spread the gospel. Things were looking ok, but you might be wondering, "Sure, this sounds fine for the settlers, but how did the locals take all of this?" The answer can be summarized thus: poorly. It turns out, the settlers brought more than their government's structure with them, they also brought US attitudes towards Native tribes with them. The Kru and Grebo peoples, in particular, reacted rather violently as the new Liberian government dispossessed natives of their land and excluded them from birthright citizenship. Indigenous tribes would not be granted citizenship until 1904.
Who were the Kru? As a tribe, they are indigenous to the eastern Liberia area, but they had also migrated and settled to various areas up and down the West African coast. More than anything, they were known for their sailing and nautical abilities. This made them valuable to European colonizers and slave traders, who often hired Kru onto their ships to act as navigators and sailors. The Kru, for their part, leveraged their expertise to stay free, and even developing facial tattoos to mark themselves as Kru to prevent capture by slavers. Since the early 1900's, the Kru have been one of three large indigenous groups of political sway, the other two being the Krahn and the Mano peoples.
More recently, Liberia has suffered two civil wars, the first lasting from 1989 to 1997, the second from 1999 to 2003. The inter-war years saw Liberia become a pariah state under the leadership of Charles Taylor who helped fund the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone's own civil war. I haven't gone too far into reading about this time period, but a lot of the strife leading up to 1989 had to do with the Cold War and reactions to corruption brought by US financial backing of the People's Redemption Council in 1980, along with inter-tribal conflict between the Kru ad Krahn. Coming on up to today, Liberia is again fully democratic in its election process, and has most recently elected former football striker George Weah in 2017.
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Music in Liberia is influenced greatly by gbema, which is local traditional music, and various strands of Western religious and popular music. One particularly popular genre is highlife, originating in Ghana and traveling along the West Coast in the 1950's. My reading suggests that while highlife is still played regularly, it's on the old-fashioned side of things. The younger generations have been more into a Liberian brand of hip-hop called hipco, or just co for short. Developing through the two civil wars and becoming increasingly popular since 2000 or so, hipco is full of social and political commentary, with lyrics directed at corruption and economic inequalities. While the lyrics are mostly delivered in English, rappers fold a local dialect called Kolokwa (hence "co") into the flow.
Our composer of the day is hipco artist Takun J (b.1981). Born in Monrovia, he lived with his mother and three sisters through both civil wars and started singing professionally when he was 17, releasing the single "We'll Spay You" in 2005. After relocating to refugee camps in Ghana and the Ivory Coast for a time, he returned to Liberia and released his first album The Time which spoke against corruption in the Liberian National Police. He was promptly arrested and beaten, but he soldiered on. The track I will share, "They Lie to Us," draws on his biggest musical influences, Bob Marley in particular. It's message and intent is crystal clear, and speaks for itself.

A Composer for Every Country: Sierra Leone

Continuing south down the West African coast from Guinea is Sierra Leone. Like Guinea, Sierra Leone is quite ethnically diverse, with sixteen different groups. The Temne and the Mende people form the largest percent of the population, each being about a third of the total. One ethnic group stands out compared to Guinea: the Krio. This group of people is the result of Sierra Leone's curious history as a British protectorate, and to understand where they come from we have to go back to the American Revolution.

You see, it turns out that chattel slavery is not just morally reprehensible and probably economically disadvantageous in the long run. It also causes national security problems (slave owners knew this, of course, given the universal fear of slave riots breaking out). So when the American Revolution started, a not insignificant portion of slaves joined the British army, some joining because, seriously, screw the slave owners, but many joining because the British promised emancipation.
After the war, the British lived up to their promises of compensation for the loyalty of these now-former slaves and relocated them to Nova Scotia. That didn't last long because it turned out there were just as many froth in the mouth racists in Nova Scotia as there was any other place on the continent, and that suddenly transplanting large groups of people from one location to another naturally causes friction.
At the same time, a number of freedmen had been relocated to England, with somewhat similar results. There was a big to-do about what to do with their "Black Poor," and, seeing that their plan to relocate certain sections of the British population to Australia was starting to really pay dividends, the British government proposed a solution the logic of which would make Patrick Star proud: they decided to take the freedmen from Nova Scotia, and the "Black Poor" (who, lets be clear, were also freedmen) and put them somewhere else. That somewhere else happened to be Sierra Leon.
Sierra Leon continued to be the location of choice for sending people liberated from slave ships throughout the 19th century. Due to the nature of the slave trade, the Liberated Africans came from all manner of locations and ethnicities. The end result was a new creole ethnicity, or "Krio," as they came to be known in Sierra Leone. Somehow, despite making up only about 2% of the population, the Krio language became the lingua franca, spoken by almost every ethnic group even though English is technically the official language.
Like every African country, there's more to say about Sierra Leone than its history with colonialism, but the downside of writing about a new country every week is to sacrifice some depth for breadth. More recently, Sierra Leone has been wracked by civil war and the outbreak of ebola and now the novel coronavirus. That said, the country is doing somewhat better than some of the other countries I've covered so far, at least as far as economics are concerned. That growth is tenuous, though, and a lot will have to go right to stabilize the country. 
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Today's composer is Asadata Dafora (1890-1965). I say "composer," but that really sells the guy short. He was also a dancer, choreographer, and operatic concert singer. He was born to a wealthy family in Freetown, where his father, John Warner M. Horton, was city treasurer. In 1929, Mr. Dafora went to New York. Given the Great Depression, it wasn't the best timing, but his talents as a musician and dancer eventually saw him through to success and the founding of his dance troupe, the Shogolo Oloba.
Asadata Dafora also had a remarkably productive collaboration with Orson Welles, performing in Welles' all-Black production of Macbeth, as well as co-authoring a radio play called Trangama-Fanga. Mr. Dafora's magnum opus, Kykunkor, is a dance/opera telling the story of a bridegroom who is cursed by a witch doctor and her groom's attempts to lift the curse. The opera was a literal overnight success, it's afternoon audience of 60 or so attracting so many people for the evening performance the concert venue had to turn people away (this may be exaggeration, because the numbers don't quite add up, but it's hardly my place to throw away a good story).
Unfortunately, I cannot find any recording of the work. In fact, I can hardly find any recording of anything Dafora wrote. But I did find this performance of his solo dance, Awassa Astrige/Ostrich, composed and choreographed in 1932.
Dafora is a really intriguing figure I had no knowledge of. It seems his legacy lives much more strongly in the world of ballet, where his work laid the foundation for future Black dancers and choreographers to be taken seriously in a (still) largely white profession. I hope his work sees a revival, because it sounds super interesting, and if it's even half as good as Awassa Astrige, it will still be worth revisiting.

A Composer for Every Country: Guinea-Bissau

Continuing along the coast, south of Senegal, is Guinea-Bissau. From Morocco down to Senegal, colonial French influence was very strong, but Guinea-Bissau was colonized by the Portuguese in the mid- to late-15th century in an attempt to control the gold trade, largely controlled by Morocco at the time. Before the Europeans arrived, Guinea-Bissau was part of the kingdom of Kaabu, part of the larger Mali Empire. 

I'm just now realizing this is the first time I've brought up pre-colonial geopolitics. The Mali empire lasted from about 1235-1670. Much of what we know about the empire comes from North African Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, Moroccan travelers Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus, as well as from local griots passing the history down through oral traditions. At its height, the Mali empire stretched from the Atlantic coast in Mauritania, down to include Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, inland into Mali (obviously), and out into parts of what is today Niger. 
If you, like me, are curious about the histories of places, you might be frustrated, like me, to find that Wikipedia articles tend to start discussion of the histories of West African countries at the time they were colonized, with a brief mention of pre-colonial times. Unfortunately, there aren't continuous written records of the area, and those accounts often conflict with what is told through oral traditions. I can't help but suspect this absence of historical account is exacerbated by unconscious bias creating a blind spot in what counts as "history," but that's a whole other blog I'm not qualified to write.
ANYWHOSOMES. Guinea-Bissau, ecologically, is a really intriguing place. Off the coast are the Bissagos Islands, and the coast itself is a mesh of waterways spilling out from the Geba River, creating a marshy area well suited to rice and cashew growing, as well as a number of mangrove swamps.
As for the people, Guinea-Bissau is very ethnically diverse, including Fula and Mandika speaking peoples, Balanta and Papel, Manjaca and Mancanha. I unfortunately hadn't the time to delve into all of them, but one thing seems to unite the country. Well. Two, maybe. First, Independence Day on September 10, 1974, the date the country separated from Portugal. And second: Carnival. Everyone knows of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, of course, but Guinea-Bissau celebrates the festival as well.
That's a lot to pack into such a tiny country, but West Africa's history, particularly its recent (past 400 years or so) history, was one of much social upheaval with the arrival of European nations.
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My composer for today is Karyna Gomes (I can't for the life of me find her date of birth. Sometime in the late-60's/early-70's I would guess? Maybe?). Born in Guinea-Bissau, she grew up with music all around her. In an interview, she said that her family, her neighbors, her culture needed little reason to start a party or to start singing. At 21, she moved to São Paulo, Brazil, and began working with musicians there to create a fusion of the music she learned and loved growing up with Latin genres. Today, she tours globally, and has one album titled Mindjer, which won two Best Singer prizes in Guinea-Bissau. 

A Composer for Every Country: Guinea

Guinea stands separate from Guinea-Bissau because Guinea was colonized by the French, while Guinea-Bissau was colonized by the Portuguese. Something I learned from reading about Guinea which hadn't popped up yet is the collapse of the French Fourth Republic in 1958. The founding of the 5th Republic saw Charles de Gaulle (of World War II fame) basically told the West African colonies: stay with us, or else. Guinea, under the leadership of Ahmed Sékou Touré, voted for independence by referendum and found out the "or else" part of the ultimatum. 

The French settlers pulled out of Guinea in a two month time frame, displaying just about the ultimate in human pettiness in the process. As The Washington Post reports, French "unscrewed lightbulbs, removed plans for sewage pipelines in Conakry, and even burned medicines."
Politics within Guinea after that became... complicated. Touré aligned the country with the Soviet Union, which, you know, makes a certain statement in the 20th century, and advocated a combination of socialism and Pan-Africanism. As you might surmise, this led to a certain degree of conflict considering the country was surrounded by countries still occupied by European powers. Not least was Guinea-Bissau, through which Portugal launched a kind of proxy war in an attempt to remove Touré from power. The Portuguese ultimately retreated after freeing a number of political prisoners. Before you go feeling bad for Touré, though, know that he followed that conflict with a huge purge, killing almost 50,000 Guineans and arresting and torturing many others.
At the bigger picture, there are three main ethnicities which hold the most political power now: the Mandinka, the Fula, and Soussou. There are quite a number of smaller ethnic groups which tend not to be well represented in the government. Though French is the official language, some 24 languages are spoken across the country. Religiously, the people are mostly Muslim, with a minority of Christians and indigenous traditional religions making up the rest.
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The composer I have picked for today is Mory Kanté (1950-2020). He was kind of a big deal, and I'm not just being facetious. I mean, I am a little, but seriously, his album, Akwaba Beach (1987), was the best selling African record of its time. Please do take a moment to remember Africa is a continent, not a country, to get a sense of how big that album was. One song in particular, "Yé ké yé ké," also became a number 1 hit song in Europe. It was the first African single to sell over a million copies in Europe.
Mr. Kanté was born into a Mandinka griot family. His father, El Hadj Djeli Fodé Kanté, and his mother, Fatouma Kamissoko, were among the most famous griot families of the early 20th century. Mr. Kanté also learned kora, balafon (relative of the marimba), and griot singing in Mali. In addition to being influenced by Islamic music, he became known as "The Electric Griot" for incorporating electric instruments and various pop and electronic dance styles into his traditional song writing.
Every country I read about, I find something surprising about how connected the world is. In this case, Mory Kanté's songs were the inspiration for at least two Indian Bollywood songs: "Tamma Tamma" and "Jumma Chumma."
Mory Kanté died of complications from various chronic health issues. Unfortunately, it was lack of medical care that did him in. He had been receiving treatment in France, but the outbreak of COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals and he could no longer get adequate treatment for his illnesses. It is a story I am sure we will learn is all too common in 2020.

Canon in the Smelting Pot: Takemitsu Toru

I was rewatching My Neighbor Totoro for the umpteenth time recently. My SO had requested to see it, and that's not a request you just turn down. Because Totoro. Seriously, have you seen it? It's so cute! 

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Anyways. We were watching, and there's a scene where the two kids are standing next to a Jizo statue, and my SO makes an off-hand comment that the statue was kind of creepy. Granted, the way Jizo statues are presented visually is pretty ominous looking, especially the ones near the end. But Jizo himself is far from a creepy figure in Japanese culture. He is a bodhisatva, one who has obtained enlightenment but declines to enter Nirvana to help others obtain freedom from suffering. Primarily, Jizo is a protector of children. The statues are all over the place in Japan, especially near temples, but also along roads and walkways because he also protects travelers.
Granted, Jizo does have a darker side to his story: children who die before their parents are unable to reach Nirvana, and instead are condemned to pile rocks on the side of the river of the dead as penance for making their parents suffer. Jizo goes to the riverbank to protect the children from wandering devils, hiding them in his robes until the devils go away. Not exactly light-hearted stuff you'd expect in a children's movie, but there it is. Can't exactly wish it away, especially since confronting death is a primary theme of the movie. Miyazaki don't pull punches. 
After my SO's reaction to a very common and what I can only imagine is a welcome figure in Japanese culture, it led me to wonder how many other visual symbols pass over the heads of American audiences when watching the film. The Jizo statues, divine yoshiro trees, references to Shinto purification rituals... There's a lot in there which is very Japan specific, and while great credit must go to team Ghibli for crafting a truly universal story, a great deal of the iconography is lost on American audiences. Heck, the quandary can be generalized to any literature crossing from one culture to another. Symbols that are taken for granted, or have a particular emotional resonance to them, are in danger of being completely overlooked or misunderstood. 
I bring this up in a music blog because the same thing absolutely applies to music from other cultures. It even applies to music of the official Western Canon, hallowed be its name. When is the last time you heard hunting horn calls outside of a concert hall? You may be able to recognize them intellectually, but that is a rather different thing than growing up with the sound emblazoned in your ears, filling your head with fantasies of the hunt and all its attendant luxury. Because remember... nobles owned the hunting grounds, and common people could be put to death for poaching the prey of the upper class...
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Takemitsu Toru could be considered part of the Classical Canon, I suppose, but surely not in the same way as Beethoven. I was curious and checked the NYPhil's program archives, and the last time Takemitsu's music was performed was back in 2015. Before that, Takemitsu's music wasn't really performed regularly by the NY Philharmonic, with the exception of Seiji Ozawa's appearances as guest conductor from the 60's-70's. A far cry from the obligatory litany of Beethoven symphonies that are performed everytime Beethoven's birthday rolls around. Or even when it's not Beethoven's birthday.
Right. So Takemitsu is known primarily as a figure in the 20th century avant-garde. It's curious. I wrote a research paper focused on Takemitsu in 2007, and all the papers I read made it sound like Takemitsu's great achievement was synthesizing traditional Japanese music with European music, a seemless integration and assimilation of disparate parts, a triumph of globalism transcending cultural boundaries. But that's not how Takemitsu talks about his music. Rather, he talks about his music in the language of Zen koans, in which the juxtaposition of irreconcilably different pieces defies logical interpretation, forcing one's consciousness into pure experience. Hardly sounds like "assimilation" or "integration" to me.
Also, every essay I've read focuses, naturally, on his music. That makes sense. But many of them mention, totally in passing!, that Takemitsu was also... a celebrity chef. He also wrote a Lovecraftian detective novel which he insists is untranslatable. Now. Excuse me when I ask, why oh why has nobody studied how Takemitsu ended up as a celebrity chef, of all things? It is easily the most interesting part of his biography! And why can't I buy his book? Come on, Simon & Schuster! Get on it! Ah well. Like all things crossing time and space, so many things are lost in translation...