Lost Liberian 45s from the 1960s

Posted March 4th, 2008 at 11:28 pm (UTC+0)
13 comments

The 1960s were a time of optimism, relative prosperity, and rapid growth in Monrovia, the ocean-side capital of Liberia. For almost one hundred and fifty years the city had been the economic, political, and social hub of the ‘Americo-Liberian’ community, who had governed the country since July 26, 1847, when the independence of the Republic of Liberia was officially declared. (‘Americo-Liberians’ are the descendants of the freed African-Americans who crossed the Atlantic, in the 1800s, and settled in the ‘Promised Land’; the name Liberia stands for ‘liberty’, and the country’s motto is ‘The love of liberty brought us here.’) In the years since 1822, when a ship sponsored by the American Colonization Society, first landed in this natural harbor, Monrovia had become one of West Africa’s more cosmopolitan cities. By the early 1960s, the city was home to an educated, budding middle-class of ‘Americo-Liberians’ who rubbed shoulders, in Monrovia’s bars and ballrooms, with members of the city’s Lebanese, Armenian, Greek, and American communities.

The urban dance music of the time reflected the Americo-Liberians trans-Atlantic cosmopolitanism. (In the early 1960s Americo-Liberians still had no interest in Liberia’s ‘African’ music. The Liberian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, almost exclusively featured North American music.) At their frequent performances, at the Ducor hotel ballroom, at the Saturday Afternoon Club (a sea-side dancing hall in the Palmgrove neighborhood, generally called the SAC), or at the Mama Rena dancehall, bands like J. Richard Snetter’s ‘Melody 8 Dance Band’ kept their fans entertained with a repertoire of American Soul and Country covers, Twists, Foxtrots, Cha-cha-chas, Highlife, and the occasional Calypso.

Recorded in 1963, ‘Amour in Twist’ is an instrumental dance number driven by a loping upright bass and the conga player. This song features a nice guitar solo and a charmingly sour saxophone break.

The B-side, ‘West Point Calypso’ was composed by J. Richard Snetter, and features the vocalist Abrom Robinson, who sings of the dangers of Monrovia’s West Point neighborhood, which was home to the city’s nascent gangs.

By the mid-1960s Monrovia was demographically and musically changing, as thousands of rural migrants, growing weary of working on up-country rubber plantations, started to move to the capital. These migrants brought their musical traditions with them, and once settled in Monrovia, soon discovered new musical styles. One of the first musicians to break away from covers of American songs and record ‘Afro-Liberian’ music was Morris Dolly, from Bomi County, not far from Monrovia. A member of the Golla ethnic group, Dolly was also one of the first artists to sing in several different Liberian languages. In 1977 he gained regional recognition, with the performance of his song ‘Who are you baby?’ at the Festival of African Art and Culture (FESTAC), held in Lagos, Nigeria. Morris had another big hit in the mid-1980s with ‘Osia’, and passed away about five years ago.

This next song is a great example of his Merengue-Highlife music, a style that was inspired by the coastal palm-wine music of the Kru, and the Merengue guitar grooves that were introduced to Monrovia by Congolese musicians. (There is a neighborhood of Monrovia called Congotown, and there were several Congolese groups who performed in Monrovia throughout the 1960s, including the famous trio Ryco Jazz, and lesser-known groups like the Congo Star Band. Leo recorded a full set of the Harlem Band from Kinshasa performing live at the Roxy nightclub, in downtown Monrovia, which I’ll feature at some point.) I love the guitar playing on this track, and I’m a sucker for any song with whistling.

Richard Walker was a member of Morris Dolly’s ‘Sunset Boys’, and is also from Bomi County. His biggest hit was ‘Kakaleka’, a song he released in 1992. His recordings are less polished than Dolly’s.

On these next two tracks he his backed by a great guitar player, bass and percussion. This 45 was produced, probably in the later 1960s, by Solomon’s Music Center, which was a record store located on Mechlin street, near Broad, in the heart of downtown Monrovia.

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    Richard Walker ‘Martha Cobo’

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    Richard Walker ‘Mullaa’

Solomon’s Music Center seems to have specialized in ‘roots’ music. Harris Sarko, from Nimba County in eastern Liberia, who started his career with the Liberian Police Orchestra, was one of the artists who created a gloriously rough style of dance music called ‘Nimba Disco’. This was the kind of music that up-country migrants danced to at the ‘Fence Affair’ playgrounds, or at afternoon dances at the ‘Booker Washington Institute’. This pressing is not the greatest, but it gives you an idea of how this group could drive an audience wild.

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    Harris Sarko ‘Jiba’

This last song is one of the most entertaining West African singles I have heard. As many CD compilations have demonstrated, there were many groups throughout Africa, in the 1970s, who were inspired by James Brown’s music. And given its deep ties to the American south, it is not surprising that Monrovia was perhaps the first African capital to fall under the spell of the ‘Godfather of Soul’. (“West Africa’s ‘James Brown’”, as Sierra Leone’s Geraldo Pino was nicknamed, brought his Heartbeats group to Monrovia for two years [1962-1964], before moving on to Nigeria, where his Afro-funk repertoire famously influenced Fela Kuti. Leo made the only recordings of the Heartbeats from this era.)

Unfortunately, I have not been able to learn anything about Amos Koon. Again, this pressing is pretty lousy, but the music is worth hearing. If you have ever played in a middle-school garage band, this loose recording should bring back memories.

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    Amos Koon ‘Stage Dance’

Special thanks to Mr. E. Tonieh Williams, co-chairman of the Liberian copyright board, and Mr. Ted Roberts, of the Voice of America, for their help with research.

13 Responses to “Lost Liberian 45s from the 1960s”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Matthew, another excellent chapter on your fantastic blog.
    I enjoyed every song on it. Your blog is like a continuation of John Storm Robert’s Original Music label.
    I hope you will also surprise us with some Ghanaian music from the VOA-vaults in the near future.
    Thanks again.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great article well written and very intriguing !!!! great pics as well.
    by arul vigg.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks very much gentlemen for the feedback!! Dr. Frank it is nice to hear from you. We do have quite a few old reels of Ghanaian highlife… I think most of the reels are compilations that were passed to us by Ghanaian radio in the 1960s, and we have also got a handful of Ghanaian 45s. Leo made some terrific unreleased field recordings from the 1960s. I have got to start making some sense of all these recordings and I will post the best tracks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Morris Dorley died of alcholism related illnesses during the civil war,
    around 1992, brought on by depression, at VOA camp, which was an IDP camp
    (Internally Displaced People Camp) located where the old Voice of
    America transmitting station was located. He was half Gola, and
    Morris Dorley is the name that he was given in school as a child. He
    also appears under the name “Molly Dolly” which is closer to the
    Gola pronunciation of his name. After working with Liberia’s first
    recording studio, ABC Studios in Waterside market, he went on to
    record at Faisal Helwani’s Studio 99 on 5th street in Sinkor in 1982.

  5. Anonymous says:

    wow. THIS WAS INTRUIGING!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Had the pleasure of listening to Morris Dorley as a young kid when
    he would stop by our house to play a few songs for my dad. We
    really enjoyed these occasions. Whereas I have been able to get
    listen to most of his songs, the one that I’ve not heard lately is
    entitled, “The superintendent of Bomi…” A. B. Andersen, of course
    was the superintendent then. If you have this song and could make
    it available for listening, I would be very appreciative. Thanks

  7. Jim McCann says:

    Greetings! I am working on a book about my time in Liberia in the 60′s, and your blog is helpful.
    One of my favorite Liberian 45′s at the time was “Mr. Mosquito” by the Honorable Melinda Jackson Parker. It was very silly and funny. Have you ever heard it?

  8. Earl Burrowes, Sr. says:

    A belated thanks for sharing some of Leo’s amazing recordings. I interned with him in 1963 at the VOA recording studio – then located across the street from the US Embassy – and to this day remember him very fondly. He was also an amazing artist and when I completed my internship he did a sketch (cartoon) for me that I treasure till this day, It’s a cut-away of the office building showing him (Leo) turning up the volume on a speaker that is vibrating the office above him when his boss (Noon) is rattled reading a quivering newspaper. True Leo sense of humor.

    By the way, In the first recording of Melody 8 (Amore in Twist) I hear John Feweh Sherman on the guitar. John, who later became Minister of Commerce Industry and Transportation, and I were college classmates and he played for Melody 8 regularly to supplement his family income. He was executed by the military junta on April 22, 1980.

  9. Jim McCann says:

    One of my favorite 45′s from Liberia in the 60′s was “Mr. Mosquito” by the Honorable Melinda Jackson Parker. I would love to be able to hear it again. My favorite bands in the late 60′s in Monrovia were The Fabulous Shades, The Soul Messengers, Melody 8, the Fantastic Juniors and Liberian James Brown dancing with Wickie Padmore’s Band Revenge. They had a great show at the Gabriel Theater

  10. The writer of this story about the music scenes in Liberia from the 1960s to 1992 made a huge jump for reasons I am yet to know. How Studio One came from Ghana, owned by Faisal Halawani, and settled in Sayetown in the early 1980s with its eight tracks machine, only to help talented Liberian artists to do track recording dubbed on cassettes is not mentioned. It was with help of Voice of Liberia Band, with the help of Wilmot Stubblefield, Jeffrey Gbatu, Dr. Naigow of LBS, Voice of Liberia Band, after touring most of West Africa, went to Accra to do recording and encouraged Faisal to relocate to Monrovia. In 1983 VOL came with a smash called Azegeblin, later Music Makers came up with Tumba, which took over the country.

    Before that all Liberia had was a mono track recording stereo for making singles and LPs, the recordings were all on a single track!! The Indians had control over all of that, with Superb Sound and the Swanzani Brothers competing for the market.

    Indigenous was almost a death warrant for aspiring artists, except for musicians who were paid by the country for tourist attention, culture center, the police and the Army bands. I give lot of credit to the leaders of those agencies, for they tried to let Liberians at the time know that we were living in a country with rich ethnic backgrounds. Do you even know Jones Doupoe, Pappa Jerome, Tenkpa Nemeny, the Sherman Sisters ( who sang Bassa Love Is Sweet? Whats about Andrew Joe Boy and Yatta Zoe? Did you for get sister Miata or what?

  11. Earl Burrowes, Sr. says:

    With regards to Liberian ethnic music, Leo Sarkesian of the Voice of America has, to date, the largest collection in the world. Unfortunately that music has taken a back seat to more contemporary music. The beauty is in balancing all of them because out of one, sprung the other…

    • Dr. Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      Hi Earl,
      You make an excellent point. I try to balance them in my weekly radio show and I can tell you, it takes a lot of careful listening to tempo, style, mood, energy, and sound quality in order to produce a good mixed show of old/new, traditional/contemporary, electronic/acoustic. Listen to one or two of my shows “Music Time in Africa” right here on the VOA website and let me know how you like it.

      Best,
      Heather

  12. In fact, all I have at this point is to thank you for taking your useful times to reflect upon the traditional values of Liberian cultures that most Liberians and foreign nationals take for granted. I will be very happy to send you a copy of my book on the same subject, soon to be released. The title of my book is: Liberian Culture Volunteers.

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Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the Africa Music Director for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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