William V.S Tubman assumed the Presidency of the Republic of Liberia in January of 1944 with the end of World War 2 still over 18 months away. The nation was 3 years away from it’s Centennial, which was no meager accomplishment. The small nation with it’s delicately balanced population of repatriated peoples of African descent and Africans indigenous to that land had struggled to maintain it’s reason for being, black political independence, on an African map that featured a mere two shapes not administered by the English, French, Portugese, Dutch or Germans : Liberia and Ethiopia. And Ethiopia itself had just been mired in a tragic yet heroic battle with fascist Italy. Only Liberia and Hati existed as Black governed constitutional republics.
Liberia’s position in this reshuffled deck of cards was a vital one that was growing in importance, with Firestone National Rubber already on year 18 of a 99 year lease by 1944. Because of that lease agreement and the low cost rubber it afforded the Allies, Liberia and her underpaid rubber tappers were a part of the American war effort just as surely as the soldiers on the battlefield and the industrial workers cranking out tanks, planes, guns and bombs in the repurposed American factories.
The weakness of the European world powers in the wake of the calamity would pave the way for the United States position as the dominant world power. The inability of these colonial powers to maintain their possessions would also pave the way for the anti colonial movement and the creation of new African states. President Tubman understood these forces and sought to take advantage of them in order to move Liberia forward.
Liberia’s position was unique, being more closely aligned to the new world power than any other African nation. For the preceding 100 years of Liberian independence this relationship produced little of tangible benefit, as the white supremacist guardians of power in the States had no interest whatsoever in assisting Black governance’s viability. Ironically, the new countries that had suffered the indignities of colonial domination would receive more in the way of roads, hospitals, schools, health care and education than Liberia ever would from the U.S.
But President Tubman more than understood the game. He sought to invite U.S development not through the humanitarian missionary’s who had always rendered brave and selfless service to Liberia. He sought to open up Liberia to foreign business investment, which would sky rocket in the new post war business investment climate. Part of this out reach to Liberia’s “step mother”, the United States, would be directed at the sons and daughters of Africa in America. There is a famous Jet magazine with an open letter from President Tubman admonishing Black Americans to remember Africa. And for the 1947 centennial he would commission two great black artists to produce works to represent the history and the potential of the Republic, Melvin B Tolson, the famous black poet was commissioned to write an epic poem on the founding of Liberia he titled, “Libretto for Liberia.” Liberia would also commission a musical suite from a man who’d already been recognized as the most advanced composer and progressive practitioner of African derived musics in the world at that time, Edward Kennedy Ellington, the “Duke”.
The Duke was already recognized as the most original and diverse Black composer in American history to this point, and was also beginning to be recognized as the greatest and most original American composer of all time, a position that increasingly became chapter and verse as his career progressed. His music was seen as a totally original combination of Afro Diasporic rhythms, Black traditional melodies, Afro forms like the the Blues and the rhythmic vamp, blended with European harmonies, and forms like the musical suite. Yet, even his advanced harmonies often contained notes of dissonance, and it seemed everything he did musically, including his percussive piano style, retained a strong “Negro”, African origin. By the time he received the commission to do “The Liberian Suite”, he’d already been in the music industry almost 25 years, with his hits, “It Don’t Mean A Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing”, “Black Beauty”, “Black and Tan Fantasy”, “Creole Love Call”, “Caravan”, “Don’t Get Around Much”, “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me”, Take the A Train”, and many more already staples of jazz and pop music, as well as American life.
Ellington in particular had a reputation for the specific ability of his music to represent African American life, from the disembarkment from the slave ships, on through cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and rice fields, through the black triumph of the Civil War on to the position of Black people in the cities in the modern era. His titles and music , “Black Beauty”, “Harlem Air Shaft”, “My People”, “Black, Brown and Beige”, “Drum is a Woman”, Creole Rhapsody”, very specifically covered topics of Black pride and what was then called “Negro life.” Ellington was what was known in the ’20s as a “race man”, an individual who had devoted his talents and voice to the sophisticated, deliberate progress of the Negro race, all over the world. He had been raised with this strong sense of racial pride by his parents in Washington D.C, where there was a strong educated black community even in the years after the Civil War. During his 1920s residency at the Cotton Club his orchestra provided the music for scandalous dance shows featuring lightly tanned female dancers doing dances in jungle outfits and settings for Jazz Age white patrons. He came up with an imaginative style called “Jungle Music” by some, featuring the powerful growls of trumpeter Bubber Miley. This music with it’s reimagining of Africa was hailed as a major musical innovation.
Make no mistake, getting Ellington to compose music for the Liberian centennial was a major coup for the nation that deserves more attention. Liberia was getting possibly the freshest and most original composer recording music at that time. It was also however, a special opportunity for the Duke. Ellington premiered his extended suite “Black, Brown, and Beige” at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and it was met with condescending criticism, mainly of the sort that jazz was not a music suited to demanding longer forms. “The Liberian Suite” would be not only Ellington’s first international commission, but also his first commission from a Government of any sort. The suite was performed at Carnegie Hall twice, but to my knowledge has yet to be performed in Liberia itself.
The suite begins with the beautiful hymn like ballad “I Like the Sunrise”, performed by the Ellington bands velvet voiced Baritone, Al Hibbler. The song was meant by Ellington to invoke the yearning for freedom and independence of an enslaved person in America, with the land of the rising sun, Africa and the east, being the symbol and focus of hope. This song is therefore a theme song for those hoping to find freedom in Liberia, which if we study history closely, includes many more people than the Americo Liberians of the 19th century. It also includes tribes like the Fanti, Mandingo and other tribes, West Indians, many people from other parts of Africa during the times of colonial domination, and many other Black Americans who came to Liberia in the almost 170 years since it’s original founding. Ellington is writing of Liberia as a land of hope, promise and freedom from soul draining bondage.
The song begins with a beautiful trumpet obbligato and features quiet restrained backing as Hibbler sings of the promise of Liberia. This song has also been interpreted over the years by people such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
The rest of the suite is instrumental, organized around 5 “Dances'”. Ellington here uses the motif of rhythm and dancing as both a vital connection to Africa, her music, and the idea of freedom contained in the Liberian story. The music is a combination of bluesy themes, solo’s from his band members, and Afro Diasporic rhythms channeled through Latin America and the Caribbean. My personal favorite is “Dance No. 5” which has the most infectious, funky bass figure of the whole piece.
“The Liberian Suite” is a unique musical accomplishment for Liberia, Duke Ellington, and the African diaspora as a whole. Here a small black nation, as old as a long lived human, recognized and commissioned an extended work from an American Black artist who’d go on to be recognized as one of the greats of all time. Liberia proved here to be a sponsor of black talent from all over the world, it was a small symbolic glimpse of the grand dreams the nation has always nurtured. “The Liberian Suite” then should by no means be confined to the margins of history, but it is up to Liberians to embrace it and make it their own. For instance, it would really be an honor to have Wynton Marsalis, an artist who considers himself the heir to Duke’s musical legacy, perform this suite with his Jazz At the Lincoln Center Orchestra at a gala affair in Monrovia in the near future. It would also deepen the piece if it’s performed in collaboration with African musicians, as Marsalis did with The Ghanaian musician Yacub Addey in his “Congo Square” suite. It would also be a point of pride if this suite were added to the music curriculum in Liberian schools, it could be studied and integrated with indigenous music to form a kind of classical musical language for Liberia. Because my fondest hope of all is that the Liberian bicentennial, Liberia itself would have produced it’s own Duke Ellington to compose music that reflects the nation and where it will be in 2047. That Liberian musician will be faced with a great task I hope they are well prepared for, both honoring the nation in sound and following in the foot steps of the great Duke Ellington!