Music and dance in Liberia in the 1930s

Graham Greene took a Journey without Maps in the mid 1930’s to Liberia. “I examined the usual blank map on the wall, a few towns along the coast, a few villages along the border.” One other map Greene saw had the interior of Liberia inhabited in part by “Cannibals”. The mapping of a smaller world was really only partly complete.

Liberia is an oddity among African states as it was partly colonised from the Americas by C19 freed slaves, some of whom bore a close resemblance to the slave owners. By the 1930’s the descendants of these freed slaves numbered around 15,000 people who exerted a degree of colonial control over the lives of 1 million tribal Africans. The Government, such as it was, was funded mostly by revenues paid by Firestone Rubber for the long term lease of vast areas of land used as rubber plantations. The Afro-American elite had recently been sanctioned by the League of Nations for engaging in “labour hire” practices regarded as being close to slavery.

The roads were almost non existent but Europeans could be admitted on “Explorer” visas. Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene took a month to travel 300 miles overland from the border with Sierra Leone down to the coast, often by guesswork, supported and sometimes carried by around 20 local “bearers”.

Greene’s description of “Music at Night”

That night Gissi, a Buzie man, came up to play the harp. A row of black heads lined the verandah, while he sat with dangling legs picking out of the palm fibres light melancholy monotonous music, beautifully superficial music, which just tickled the surface of the mind, didn’t tiresomely claim any deep emotion whether of grief or exaltation, the claim which fixes strained masks on the faces in a concert hall. This was the music of a cigarette box; it was sad but it didn’t really care, everything would always be the same. The little recurring notes plucked with four nails died out and began again unvaried against the night, the black faces the hurricane lamp and the moths that drove by in swarms to shrivel their wings against it. ….

The goatherd came and danced, stamping and flinging out his arms, and one by one the men came out of the dark and on to the verandah, into the lamplight, hurling themselves this way and that, sending the shadows flying from their arms and legs. Their faces were strange but soon they were to become familiar, for these were the labourers who Vande, my newly appointed headman, had found for me, to carry fifty pound weights for four weeks on end, for three shillings a week and their food. It sounded to stranger next door to slave labour, but these were not slaves stamping up and down with a controlled wildness and an unconscious grace. …

They didn’t speak a word as they swayed and stamped; each improvised, dancing alone with no reference to the others; it was only the music and the shadows which lent them unity. I was to see these improvised dances again and again during the long trek. The slightest hint of a tune would set them off; if there was no music someone would tap a twig on an empty tin. They were more easy to appreciate than the communal dances. They had obvious dramatic qualities and one could see hidden under the personal idiosyncrasies the germ of the Charleston. But to the native, I suppose, the communal dance was on a higher, more subtle level; only one hadn’t oneself got a clue to their appreciation. I saw such a dance in the village. A band of youths with drums chanted an air, while about seven boys shuffled in a small circle with their hands at their sides, one foot forward, the other brought up beside it, then forward again. Presently three girls joined them and the circle became smaller than ever; a girl’s nipples bulged against the back in front, her buttocks were pressed by the girl behind. Round and round they went to the monotonous beat, a snake eating its own tail.     ……

More recently the Financial Times interviewed Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia’s President since 2007 about the difficulties of governing a country with a recent history of large scale civil war and the Ebola virus.


About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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