Category Archives: Liberia/Africa

These posts will center on historical, social, and political stories, news and analysis about the West African nation of Liberia, as well as news info on Africa as a whole

Music 4 the Nxt 1 Black History Month Edition III: “Bra” by Cymande

One outstanding aspect of the musical climate of the late ’60s and early ’70s was the flowering in popularity of Black musical groups from parts of the Diaspora outside of the U.S.A. This trend was exemplified by acts and groups such as Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Manu Dibango, The Beginning of the End, Mandrill, T-Connection, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Hugh Masekela, and today’s subject, the Caribbean funk group Cymande. These groups, through their expansive African based rhythms and the incorporation of other grooves cultivated by Africans estranged from Africa, both paid tribute to deep African roots as well as exemplified the new flavors that had picked up in the numerous ports of call along the Transatlantic slave trade. Today’s song from Cymande, their classic “Bra”, is a song that has stood the test of time as a unique example of Caribbean Funk.

“Bra” is a song that derives it’s unique rhythmic effect from contrasting rhythmic feels. While the tempo is brisk, Steve Scipio played a bass line that pulled back on the time, while the horns long sustained notes create another feeling on top of that. You’re grabbed from the first notes of the intro, as Scipio plays a firm note on the first beat and another beat on the upbeat of beat 2. He’s only playing TWO notes in the fist bar of the pattern, but the feel and placement of them is enough to create a baseline the listener won’t soon forget. Immediately after the bass hits hard on the first beat, guitarist Patrick Patterson plays a sweet toned guitar slide followed by some fluttering trills, in a style very similar to the Curtis Mayfield guitar ballad style. The horn section then comes in on the upbeats, playing a very sharp, staccato arpeggio, walking up the notes of a major chord, then holding the top note of the chord for a whole two bars, before working their way down and sustaining another note. All of this is laid on top of Sam Kelly’s drums, which are playing a variation of Clyde Stubblefield’s stop and start drum groove made famous on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, with the rhythmic gaps/rests lining up with Scipio’s bass line. Working in concert with that are the conga drums of Pablo Gonsales. The result is a dipping, bouncing Caribbean funk groove with all the jerkiness of Island music, yet the pronounced “One” of mainland funk, with a sweet coating of melodic horns on top.

When the vocal comes in, the horns stop playing to give the vocals center stage. Joey Dee sings a tale of African redemption with a slight West Indian accent, with heavy reverb on his mic. “Time Has been lost for trying/we have been left outside/looking at passions dying/Emotions grow strong on time.” After which, the famous sing a long chorus is introduced, “But its all right/we can still go on.” Underneath the chorus the rhythm begins to get more active, as Scipio expands his bass line with class Jamerson/Rainey/Jemmont rhythmic business as Patterson also becomes more aggressive in his rhythm guitar strumming. The horn riff returns and on top of it all the percussionists start to spice up the groove with small rhythmic instruments, with the tambourine rattling like a snake for an instant. After the chorus the vital rhythmic bed continues on for a saxophone solo, under which the rhythm players introduce more variations. Midway through the song, the song breaks down to just bass playing along with percussion. The bassline on the break is an incredibly funky variation on the main rhythm, with the drums playing kick drums on all four beats and the percussionist teasing out melodic rhythms. The groove slowly builds up layer by layer until we get back to the top of the song for one last repetition of the main verse until the song comes to a close on a hard stomped out, “But its ALL RIGHT!”

“Bra” is a song that for a time I thought only my Dad and family knew, and I thought the group was African for the longest. Then in the ’90s Spike Lee used their songs on several movies of his that I enjoyed very much, including “Crooklyn” and “The 25th Hour.” I remember the first time I heard it on one of his films, excitedly showing it to my Dad and asking him what the name of that song was, because I’d heard it all my life but never knew anything about the group. It was later I found out Spike Lee’s connection to them made sense, because being a pan-Carribean group, with New York City’s strong Carribean influence, their music was very popular during the early day’s of Hip Hop, and “Bra” and their other fantastic hit, “The Message”, were considered early Hip Hop breakbeats that had even occasionally been sampled. Both songs are excellent examples of Post Civil Rights and Black Power era ’70s solidarity music, done by a group of Rastafarian funksters in England who’s origins spanned the Carribean. Their music as a whole very uniquely pulled together the Caribbean rhythms and Rastafarian ideology of Reggae with the hard edged vibe of American funk. Also there is much confusion over the title of this song, but “Bra” is simply the old school way of spelling a word that has been popular among Black people again in recent years, the shorthand “Bruh” for the word, “Brother.” This word is not only popular among American blacks (and now everybody else as well) but is also almost an official term of address in other Black countries, such as the great South African Hugh Masekela’s nickname, “Bra Hugh.” Also in Liberia where my mother is from it was a term of endearment, followed by the given name, for males you were close to. So the title of the song is in itself an example of the unique unifying ability of Cymande as a musical group that mustn’t be forgotten!



Filed under Black Issues, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History"), Social Timing

Dad, and two Jazz visions of Liberia

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

March 3rd, 2016 marks the seventh anniversary of my father, Herman L Hopkins Sr.’s passing. As I think about him on this day, among all of the experiences and memories I have of him, I’m drawn the most to talk about two jazz compositions by two Tenor men. Dad was a contemporary and a fan of both of these musicians, and I grew up hearing them. Coltrane of course is one of the most celebrated musicians in music history, and one who represented the zeitgeist of his times, with his deep, soulful probings, consummate technical mastery, and his Eastern spiritualism. Curtis Amy was more of a blue collar, hard working musician, but his move from Texas to Los Angeles reminds me of the migration many Black people made from the South to West Coast cities, my father being one of them. I tend to think there is something in particular in the sound of people like Curtis Amy, Wilton Felder, and others who made that South to West move that calls my Dad back to mind for me more than any other music I hear and enjoy.

One thing I can say about Dad’s life, is that music was a constant in it, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When Dad was young he played around with several instruments. My Grandmother Leona bought him a Piano, on which he learned to pound out some Boogie Woogie, and then a Trumpet, for him to better play the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. Dad played at them, but never got seriously disciplined enough to become a musician. No matter, music was still a huge part of his life anyway, on 78, 45 and 33 rpm records.

Dad joined the military in the late ’40s. He wanted to go into the Air Force to become a Pilot, and passed the Air Force test, but ended up going into the Army with one of his buddies who didn’t pass. His friends Parents vetoed his military aspirations, leaving Pops a 17 year old in the Army by himself. After he made it out of the Korean War, he joined Grandma Leona, His Aunt Mattie B, and several other relatives on the West Coast, first in Seattle, Washington, then in San Francisco.

The Bay Area in the ’50s was a vibrant West Coast extension of the “Chitlin circuit.” The West Coast of course does not have the cluster of big cities found on the Eastern seaboard, but The Black communities of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and their surrounding cities, as well as Seattle, were always tour stops for the national Black touring acts, due to their growing Black populations. In addition to that the Bay Area had a thriving Blues based music scene, centered in places like 7th Street in Oakland, and the Fillmore District in San Francisco.

At that particular time Dad was married to a special lady I call “Miss” Juanita. At first he lived with his mother Leona and her husband, Mr. Cliff, himself a musician, in San Francisco, but eventually he and Miss Juanita purchased a home in Menlo Park. Dad was attending school at San Jose State while working as a MUNI Bus Driver in the City, and then a Mailman.

Music was a huge part or his social life and leisure time. This was during the era of Hard Bop, and he built up a big collection of jazz, blues, classical, show tunes, R&B, and pop balladeer music. He also studied the Tenor Saxophone with a musician who sometimes subbed for the Duke Ellington orchestra. Sometimes he also M.C’d for nightclub acts, played percussion instruments, and did music reviews for the Sun-Reporter, a local Black newspaper. His career aspirations had shifted to Journalism and the Law by that time, but Music was still a constant thread through all he did.

I’m still not 100% sure of everything that led Dad to Liberia in 1959. I do know that he was very active in Civil Rights actions here in the Bay Area. This lead to him being a person watched by the Police. He told me of one final climatic fight with the cops, where an officer handcuffed him and tried to push him to the ground. Dad swung his handcuffed hands and cut the officer behind the ear. The Cop bled so much Dad was afraid he’d cut a major artery. After that he’d have trouble with the Police every time he went to the 49ers games at the old Kezar stadium.

I think the race based troubles of the times, Dad’s activism, and a sense of adventure all conspired to bring him to Africa. Some Bay Area natives who can still remember the ’50s sometimes get caught up in it’s relative integration. But there were still subtle forms of Jim Crow in existence at the time, which would come to full light a few years later when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Liberia was suggested by a West African transfer student. Africa as a whole was a great topic of interest among Black people in the ’50’s, an interest that would explode during the Black Consciousness era of the ’60s. More and more African nations had gained their independence throughout the decade and the old African American dreams of a dignified life in Africa were rekindled. Liberia was one of the original targets of those dreams, during the 19th Century. The African business student thought that Liberia would be a better country for my Father and Juanita to settle in. The basis of it was Liberia’s history as a country founded by American Blacks. The official language was English. The Constitution and flag were modeled on that of The United States. It even deeper than that, unlike the stories people generally hear about Africans, Liberians generally had a positive attitude about American Blacks. This was due to their history, but also to the steady stream of American Blacks going to Liberia over the years as soldiers, missionaries, Teachers and technical workers.

Liberia had several periods where it seemed a truly massive influx of Blacks would flow in from the Diaspora. Liberian officials were expecting this before the Civil War held up the prospects of freedom. Then during Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement, Liberia was the target of his repatriation schemes, until the Liberian government realized Garvey’s resettlement might mean a take over and loss of power for them. Liberia saw a great influx of American investment during and after World War II. It’s status as a Black Country in Africa with ties to America made it a common landing spot for American Black Teachers, trainers, missionaries and others. At one time during the ’70s, even The Black Hebrew Israelites were given refuge in Liberia before eventually settling in Israel.

The Hopkins family made a six month stop in Harlem with my great uncle Edward from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Dad told me his favorite album during that time was Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” featuring John Coltrane and another favorite, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on saxophone. I forget exactly why they were delayed so long in New York City, it might have been Visa problems, but by the time they got ready to board the boat to Liberia, all their funds had been depleted.

When Dad and Miss Jaunita got to Monrovia, they circulated well enough to get invited to President Tubmans inauguration. Another jazz favorite of Dad’s played there, the flautist Herbie Mann, who would make an album, “The Common Ground”, off his Liberian Hi-Life influences.

Although Dad went to Liberia to study the Law and be involved in various business activities, music was still a foundation. He was the M.C at an establishment called “The Playboy Lounge” (picking up the nickname “Playboy Hopkins), and ran another one called “The Tropical Hut.” He was also Music Appreciation lecturer at various High Schools in Monrovia. One of his biggest musical activities was serving as a DJ for the Voice of America’s “Sound of Jazz” program. One of the biggest perks of that gig was getting reels of the latest and clasic jazz releases and live performances. Eventually Dad and Miss Juanita got divorced, which is when he met my mom and they got married. But his love and appreciation for music continued on to the time I came around. He even promoted a disco-funk concert in Monrovia in 1979, bringing Brooklyn group, Crown Heights Affair to the E.J Roye building for a series of concerts coinciding with the OAU festival.

John Coltrane and Curtis Amy were two saxophonists he taught me about in the 1990s, both roughly around the same age as Dad and with very similar sensibilities. I know it really would have blew his mind to hear music that they recorded inspired by Liberia. Somehow, as much music of theirs as he had, their Liberia themed records escaped him. The fact that two musicians he admired were in some way inspired by the same country he was drawn to, shows that in some way, Liberia was meant for him, and other minds he admired were thinking along those lines as well. So I share these two songs in this blog , in memory of Dad, and as a tribute to Liberia.


Filed under All That Jazz, Autobiographical Musings, Liberia/Africa

I Like the Sunrise : Duke Ellington’s “Liberian Suite.”

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. image

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!

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Filed under Liberia/Africa, Music Matters

Riquespeaks on SoulSchool TV: Calvin Lincoln and Riquespeaks salute Joe Sample and the Crusaders

Last week was an excellent week for me as I taped my first appearance on SoulSchool Television, which aired in Vallejo, California as well as around the world wide web last Friday. The show was also repeated all weekend. Taping the show last Monday really started my week with a bang because it was fulfillng a dream I’d had for quite some time. I have already ran it down here on how viewing SoulSchool in my teens was something that helped me along the road of deeper music appreciation. Between my parents, Rickey Vincents funk book, my older hip hop heroes like M.C Hammer and Chuck D, and SoulSchool, I was able to escape the vapors of negative thinking and violence that was being sold in much of the pop music of that time period.

And there couldn’t have been a more apt subject to make my first appearance talking about. I’m sure many of you reading this are already aware of the passing of the great Joe Sample, keyboardist and founding member of the Crusaers, formerly known as the Jazz Crusaders. The Crusaders are a group who’s music I’ve always dug, being exposed to it in the home. But as the years have passed, I’ve found out more and more how essential they’ve been to music as session players. Members of the group played with Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Hugh Masekela, Hues Corporation, Bobby Blue Bland, Jimmy Smith, Carole King, Barry White, Seals & Croft and many many other artists. That list puts them up there as a truly dominating force of the 1970s music for me.

The Crusaders anthemic 1979 song “Street Life” is a landmark in particular for me. I grew up hearing the bright, brassy voice of Randy Crawford testifying, “That’s all that’s left for me.” When I was a kid, that song was some other kind of adult business. It was funky, bluesy, hip, jazzy, with a high gloss sheen and notes of sadness at the core when you licked away the sweet coating. It was one of my fathers favorite records, and looking back I could see why. In 1979 my dad was a 48 year old African American lawyer, naturalized as a citizen of the Republic of Liberia, where he’d lived for 20 years. He was on his second marriage and had five kids, unaware he had one yet on the way. But for me personally, I’ve always associated the world weary vibe of “Street Life” with where Liberia was in 1979. ’79 turned out to be a pivotal year in Liberian history, with a major civil disturbance known as the Rice Riots occuring that April when the President attempted to raise the price of rice, the staple food, during the midst of the world wide late ’70s recession and commodities squeeze.

What was going on however was more than a riot over the price of rice. It was a full blown revolution over the long years of rule by the descendants of the African American founders of Liberia. It was led by well educated young Liberians, many with a background partially in the ruling class and partically among the native people. These young men were schooled in the United States and Europe and witnessed the upheavels of the ’60s and ’70s and wanted to bring similar liberations to their home country. They began to question things like why their country only had one strong political party, why there was a boatload of money coming in from foreign concessions and yet poverty was rampant, and why the government ministers were the richest people in the land.

At the same time, the nation was prettying itself up to host the OAU, Organization of African Unity Conference, and also recieved a visit from President Jimmy Carter in that same year.

Mom and Dad were there watching the whole thing go down. My mother always told me a story about how the soldiers had set up a blockade during the riots. My father and my older brother George had gone to run some errand, Dad deeming it only safe for the two of them to do so under the conditions the country was in. She said something to the effect of Dad having moved a blockade and the soldiers harrasing them, until he flashed his credentials as an ex member of the Port Security, which was one of his first jobs when he got to Liberia.

My parents had the foresight to begin preparing to leave Liberia very soon after that. My grandmother, Ms. Leona Birden was falling into ill health here in San Francisco. Not to mention the fact that my brothers and sisters school fees at the American Consolidated School, the finest school in Liberia, were spiralling out of control. All of this and the political trouble gave him the impetus to get up and bounce, my family left a year after the Riots, in April of 1980. A week after they arrived, Dad is laying in bed in Oakland and he gets a phone call. “Your President just died”, he was told. “Who, Carter?” Dad replied. “Carters not your PResident, I’m talking about Tolbert, man.”

There is something about the mixture of celebration, joy and pathos in “Street Life” that represents 1979, what happened in Liberia, and also holds cautionary notes for what would soon happen in the black communities of America with the crack epidemic firing up a few years after that. The Crusaders, OG’s from Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas, could have told many a young brother where that broad and spacious road led. Chic’s “Good Times” has similar notes of pathos in it, with lyrics that speak of “A rumor has it/its getting late/time marches on/you just cant change your fate.”

So music from 1979 always has a strong place in my heart and mind. When I hear a “Shake Your Body Down”, or a “I wanna be Your Lover”, or a “Street Life”, those funky, funky, joyful records, I always think about the Babylonians or Nero partying on the eve of their destructions. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tommorow we may die.” But “Street Life” is a record that mourns just as much as it celebrates.

There is a tape I’ve desperately been trying to find among my dad’s music collection I hope to share with everybody as soon as I can find it. It’s a tape from Liberia in early 1980. A young girl calls in to the radio station and requests “Street Life.” The radio announcer, in typical African “it takes a village” fasion, chides her, “You be in the street huh? What you know ’bout street life.” The girl said, “nothing, I just like the song.” Me and Pops would always fall out laughing when we heard that. It was so Liberian, and so full of the old school concern for the young. The same thing folks here talk about when they talk about the neighbors discipling you when you did bad as well as the parents.

“Street Life” was a song Joe Sample wrote, and he also played on a version Herb Alpert cut of it that very same year. I will always thank him for it and his tremendous contribution to his times. Sample and the Crusaders didn’t let jazz critics set their sound, they always let the people and the audience be the barometer of what they were doing. And they were able to touch many people because of that.

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Filed under All That Jazz, Appreciation, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Moving Pictures, Music Matters

Hugh Masekela and Swinging Seventies Monrovia : Liberian Stories 2

The section of Hugh Masekela’s epic 2004 biography, “Still Grazing”, which takes his wildin’ journey through music, sex, drugs, politics and life to 1970’s Monrovia, Liberia, is Section III, entitled “Africa.” Masekela’s return to the African continent found him at a bit of a crossroads in his journey. After leaving his native South Africa in the early ’60s, Masekela had married and divorced the great singer Miriam Makeba, released albums that flopped, studied music in New York City, met and be friended most of the great names of BeBop, Hard Bop & Soul Jazz, made love to scores of attractive women, and become both a role model and a patron of young South African musicians and students in exile in the United States. In 1968, Masekela’s recording of South African composer Philemon Hou’s song, “Grazing in the Grass” went to #1 on the pop charts, becoming an international smash. Masekela promptly got to enjoying his success, but he was not able to follow it up with a consistent stream of hits, as his personal life and partying began to dissipate his momentum. He had brief marriages that failed, consumed copious amounts of cognac, cocaine, weed and opium, and gave the world protest music after making them dance. It was the writer Quincy Troupe, who would go on to write the autobiography of one of Masekela’s heroes, Miles Davis, who suggested he go to West Africa to check out the post colonial growth of the continent. Masekela , ever the adventurer, a master at creating a life wherever he found himself, took him up on it, and it gave him a greater education in Africa than he’d ever had before.

Masekela was not exactly an expert on Africa at the time of this move, although he was one of the musicians most highly identified with Africa in the western mind. In his native South Africa he’d grown up a fan of Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, of swing and bebop, which would only intensify when he traveled to the United States as a student. He was much more familiar at the time with the culture of African Americans than he was that of his neighboring African countries, many of which were still submerged in colonial dominion during his youth. The apartied government also had a part to play in this, as it could not afford to have the ideas and the spirit of freedom thriving in other African nations to mingle and inspire that already growing movement at home. People of African descent were seperated from South Africans, classified as “foreign natives.” When Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee went to South Africa to film “Cry, the Beloved Country”, they were listed as servants of the white director and kept away from the white population. “Isolating ethnic South Africans from Africans born outside the country drove a cultural and pshychological wedge between them that still exists today in the form of the most despicable xenophobia imaginable”, Masekela writes.

Masekela’s ex wife, Miriam Makeba, facillitated his pilgrimage to Africa just as she did that of Nina Simone. It was Masekela’s intention to form a group when he arrived, taking advantage of the new music being created on the continent. His first stop was Guinea, where Makeba and her husband Kwame Toure, known during the Civil Rights Movement as Stokely Carmichael. Guinea was a French West African country, dominated by Muslims, which had a communist governmental structure under President Sekou Toure. Toure was a gracious host, even showing tolerance toward Masekela and other artists marijuana smoking. Yet, in short order, Masekela began to spend an equal amount of time in a Monrovia which featured “round the clock bars, a thriving international tourist trade, and American currency.” This Liberia also possessed a typical enticement for musicians :”some of the most beautiful women I’d seen since my return to Africa.”

Masekela was invited by President Tolbert to Liberia to raise money for his “Higher Heights” project. “Total Involvement for Higher Heights” was one of the trademark programs of President Tolbert, taking over after the long reign of President Tubman. The program involved a fundraiser called “Rally Time”. The Makeba/Masekela concert was to be a fundraiser for that program. Masekela said they turned the football stadium out, with him playing several encores of “Grazing in the Grass” that kept folks dancing. Miriam Makeba had to repreat her smash hit “Pata Pata” several times for the Liberian audience on that day.


Masekela was put up in a suite at the Ducor International Hotel, “on Monrovia’s highest hill, with a breathtaking view of the city and the Atlantic Ocean.” The Ducor Hotel and its fabulousness was one I’ve heard many stories about, both from my Liberian parents and even from people in the Bay Area who had visited pre war Liberia. Masekela also mentions several prominent Liberians of the time I grew up conscious of, everyone from Cecil Dennis, to “Chu Chu” Horton, who was a close friend of Masekela, to finance minister Steve Tolbert.

One of the things my mother was always proud of that rarely gets spoken is how much aid Liberia gave to black South Africans in the anti Apartied struggle. In this particular instance, Masekela was granted Liberian citizenship and a passport after his performances by President Tolbert. This was very crucial to Masekela at this time because after his defection from his country and his outspokenness against the oppresion occuring there, he was a man without a country to a large degree. Tolberts bestowal of Liberian citizenship on Masekela made it easier for him to travel and move about in the world.

Masekela quickly settled into the unique and bustling pre war Monrovia scene. He describes a city that never went to sleep, where people partied around the clock. He also had a large number of South African friends around him there, including the composer of his biggest hit, Philemon Hou. He also noted the conditions that would eventually lead to the calamnity Liberia would soon face, the deep social cleaveges between the descendants of the freed blacks from the United States and the indigenous African population. But at the same time he and other people observed this class division, it by no means stopped them from enjoying what he and other Africans of the time refered to as “Small America.”

The women he met there didn’t ask for taxi fare, like the Congolese women who’d come up disadvantaged under colonialism. The women he met had their own cars and jobs. Despite the class differences between the old “settler” families and the rest of the population, Masekela noticed that the country was informal and everybody knew the big shots, because rather than isolating themselves, they associated freely with everybody. Despite what he felt was oppresive, he met a society that seemed to have a sense of unity as well. He also made note of Liberian slangs such as referring to everybody as “my man!” or calling females “my child”, which makes me think of my dearly departed grandmother, and my dad, who’d always use “my man.”

While traveling to Nigeria, Congo, and several other African countries in search of band members, Masekela would split his time etween Monrovia and Conkaray, Guinea. While Guinea was a country of Islam and strict Marxism, Monrovia featured an African version of Westren freedom. Despite the difference in style however, he saw Toure and Tolbert as very similar, one capitalist, one communist, both autocratic.

Masekela was very influential in one of the greatest symbolic moments in the history of the African diaspora, the Muhammed Ali, George Foreman title bout known as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, in Kinsasha, Zaire, and Liberian money was key in making it happen. Stephen Tolbert, the brother of President Tolbert, and finance minister, a man reputed to be Liberia’s richest self made man through his involvement in the fishing industry, provided $2 million to make the music concert happen. That music concert was featured a few years ago in the film “Soul Power”, and featured luminaries such as James Brown, BB King, The Crusaders, and Miriam Makeba. Amazingly, the Rumble In the Jungle, where Muhammed Ali proved himself once and for all the “greatest of all time” by defeating the heavily favored Foreman, was made possible by Liberian money, or should I say, Liberian U.S dollars. Tolbert never recouped his investment due to the trickery of the promoters and also ended up dying in a plane crash.

The African section of Masekela’s book is full of other interesting incidents in Liberia, adventures with ChuChu Horton, stories of his South African friends studying in Liberia, fights in Krutown, and general rabble rousing and hell raising. One of the most poignant however, is when he brought his mother to Liberia. Masekela had not seen his mother since he left South Africa, and he brought her to the U.S and then to meet his family and see his house in Liberia on the beach. She had the time of her life, and she was even able to meet President Tolbert. This was very special to her, because her own government in South Africa treated her as a non human, but in a black African country, she was able to meet the President due to the importance of her son. “My mother was very touched and inspired by the fact she had dined with an African President, something that was utterly impossible in her own country.” And that is something that I believe Liberia provided for many within the African diaspora, from parts of Africa and the New World as well, an example and hope to one day enjoy the self governance Liberia had been struggling to maintain since her founding.

Masekela’s time in Liberia ended as many people’s, when Seargent Samuel Doe took power in 1980. His wife and child remained there for some time, but Masekela ran out of the country when he was instructed to go see Doe at the Executive Mansion, knowing he’d been friends with so many people in the old order.

“Still Grazing” was a very important book for me personally. My family left Liberia shortly before the coup. I saw pictures of Liberia in the ’60s and ’70s and still have a great deal of family that lives there. The names I encountered in the book, I was surprised to find I knew all of them as if I was there. It seems somehow my parents stories about Liberia had seeped deeper into me than I’d realized. They always spoke of Liberia in joyful terms, as if they’d had the times of their lives living there and would never find such joy anywhere else. But for me, I’d never quite read a history of the particular times they’d lived in, especially that time period of the 1970s that led up to the war. “Grazing in the Grass” is an important book for Liberians to read, both young and old. It’s one thing to have a Liberian testify to how things used to be in the country, but it’s a whole other thing for a person who was a guest and naturalized citizen to speak to it. Though Liberia had its social and economic problems as governments and people do, it also had and has something very special. “Still Grazing” was the first book that captured the history of 1970s Liberia for me in a personal style and it’s as valuable for that as it is for its portraits of South Africa, the 1960s music scene and Hugh Masekela’s incredible life.


Filed under All That Jazz, Book Recommendations, FUNK, Liberia/Africa, Rearview 20/20 Hindsight (aka "History")

Liberian News Abroad: Forbes Magazine in L.I.B

cover of Forbes December 2, 2013 featuring Liberia

cover of Forbes December 2, 2013 featuring Liberia

My father started my awareness of Forbes Magazine. It was one of several business publications he subsribed to in order to maintain his base of knowledge on world business trends, knowledge from which he hoped to extract information on new and current business approaches on the African continent. This also included magazines such as “West Africa”, “African Business Times”, and several other foreign magazines who’s subscription prices were prohibitive, but were avaliable at DeLaurers news stand in Downtown Oakland. Very rarely would these magazines however, contain specific information about Dad’s country of expertise, the Republic of Liberia. At that particular time, Liberia was in the midst of years of Civil War and upheaval, a descent that was both rapid and long lasting, and took the country from one of the worlds fastest growing economies to one of the worlds lowliest. With this history in mind, it is hard to express how shocked and delighted I was to find President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on the cover of this months Forbes magazine, joining international luminaries such as Muhammed Yunus, Bono, and Bill Gates. The theme of the article was Entreprenuers ability to lead efforts to reduce extreme poverty in the devloping world. Knowing Liberia, this thinking is particularly fascinating.

The old Liberia, was both relentlesly capitalistic, and intractably politicized. Over his many years in Liberia, Dad launched many entreprenuerial ventures, but most were hampered because his religion precluded his involvement in politics. J. Gus Liebnow’s classic and essential book on the Liberian political system, “Liberia: The Evolution of Privelege”, documented how Liberian Entreprenuers independent of the True Whig Party political system faced a tough road in the old Republic. The governement was commited to a slow pace of societel change that prioritized the stability of the ruling class as it’s primary goal, with development lagging second. They sought development, but not in a manner that would empower opposition to the establishment.

Forbes in Liberia

Forbes in Liberia

The tearing down of the old power structure has left the nation in a unique position, which Forbes documents. The old capitalistic orientation remains, in a country that relies heavily on foreign direct investment, concession agreements, and foreign expertise in order to develop it’s resources, the “Open Door Policy” of President Tubman remains. Liberia was never one of those African states that went in for communist redistribution. However, in the vaccum of skills, services, there is perhaps an oppurtunity for Entreprenuers that did not exist in the old Liberia.

This past summer, Liberia recieved the benefits of being the focus of Forbes Magazine’s second annual Forbes 400 summit on philanthropy, a gathering of 150 billionaires and near billionaires. In October of 2013 year, many of these well heeled individuals took up a three day mission to Liberia in order to survey Liberian business efforts, assist entreprenuers, and leave programs in place to aid entreprenuers in reconstructing the nation.

Several interesting businesses operating in Liberia were featured, and assisted by panels of some of the top entreprenuers in the world. The article mentioned entreprenuer Scott Gilmore, who’s company Building Markets maintains a database on local businesses that connects them to investors. He was advised to go beyond merley compiling information and beginning to bankroll businesses. The suggestion ended in Gilmore actually deciding to partner to launch a $50 to $70 million fund to fund investors, with Building Markets serving as both consultant/go between and investment bank.

The article also featured an entreprenuer by the name of Chid Liberty, a young Liberian in the clothing manufacturing business. Some companies advised him to specialize in designing unique clothes as well as producing them for American companies, while others encouraged him to simply work on attracting more business to manufacture foreign designs. As an example of some of the difficulties in Liberia at this time, Liberty’s production operations in Ghana are successful, while he’s had to shut his Liberian factory down for a year while he plots a way forward, but he was able to secure over $1m investment.

One of the most promising and useful projects in the article, was Raj Panjabi’s “Last Mile Health.” Panjabi is a Liberian doctor, based in the United States, and a faculty member of Harvard U. He’s developed an innovative and severly needed local health initiative, designed at providing health services in the interior, which the Liberian government has struggled to do ever since it’s inception. His program trains people to serve as front line health workers in remote villages and pays them a living wage as well as performance based incentives. To demonstrate how Entreprenuers can do things politicians can’t, President Sirleaf was unaware of the program. He was advised to use mobile technology to bypass the logistical issues inherent to the situation. Panjabi has developed a plan to reach over 150,000 patients at a cost of $10m. This plan has garnerd both the support of the Liberian government as well as attention from the UN. “The Forbes summit put Liberia on the map in a big way”, Panjabi said, and his usage of the phrase “on the map”, was all I needed to know he was a Liberian for true.

Dr. Raj Panjabi's potentially revolutionary Last Mile/Tiyatin Health project

Dr. Raj Panjabi’s potentially revolutionary Last Mile/Tiyatin Health project

For Liberians and friends of Liberia, Forbes December issue is a good outside/worldwide story about efforts to uplift our country. The most immediate positives are the focusing of world attention toward Liberia’s efforts to rebuild herself, invluding the valuable and lifesaving resources being attracted to the country by people such as Dr. Raj Panjabi. The other thing to take note of is the entreprenurial, do for self spirit Liberians continue to display in these rough, frontier like days, in effect, a rebirth or refounding of the nation. All Liberians must accept in some form or fashion at this time, the call to build, or help build, SOMETHING. As Forbes demonstrates, the world is watching, and willing to help, and move past aid into the realms of economic trade.

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Filed under Liberia/Africa, Rappin' about Rappin', Social Timing, Wind Tests-cultural trends and currents

Liberian Stories : Nina Simone’s Liberian Life

Think about this: If you’re a black American musical star, critically acclaimed but still relegated to performing for audiences of “hip” folks, “in the know”, thirtysomething, with a young child and a record of political activism through both song and deed that has begun to make life in your home country uncomfortable, where do you go to find some semblance of peace and home? Many in the States might think somewhere in the Carribean, or Europe. Nina Simone lived in Barbados, and ended up spending many years in Europe. But in between that, she lived in the oldest republic on the continent of Africa, the Republic of Liberia.

Liberia has both gotten much bad press and suffered much in real terms over the last three decades. The story that is rarely told however, is of a Republic that stood for 147 years from 1847 to 1980, without major disturbance or Civil War. Liberia is a country who’s population is made up of 16 ethnic groups including the Grebo, Kru, Kpelle, Mandingo and Bassa, descendants of freed blacks from the United States of America, descendants of captured blacks freed from slave ships headed to the new world, and blacks from various nations and territories in the Carribean. When Nina Simone stepped off a Pan Am Jet at Robertsfield International Airport in the mid 70s, she was stepping foot in a country that had a post war economic growth rate second only to Japan’s, spurred on by President Tubman’s “Open Door Policy.” It was also a country on the door step of it’s first successful coup d’etat.

Nina Simone was already a highly regarded artist around the world by the 1970s. She had a classical and gospel trained background and was highly regarded by jazz audiences as well. She was also known for being highly outspoken and active in the struggle of black people for human rights. Her song, “Mississippi Goddamn” was a classic of Civil Rights protest music that got her banned in the state sung about, and another song, written with the great Weldon Irvine, “Young, Gifted, and Black”, became a similar anthem during the days of Black conscisousness and Black Power, taken to even higher noteriety by the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. By the time she went to Liberia she’d been friends with various figures in Civil Rights and Black Power movements, married and divorced, and lived in Barbados. She also had income tax problems.

It was Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer who was very vocal both on apartied in her native country, as well as segregation in America, who suggested she go to Liberia. Makeba was herself by the early ’70s based in the West African nation of Guniea. She was also married to the man who laid the phrase “Black Power” on America, Stokely Carmichael, now calling himself Kwame Toure, a name in tribute to African leaders Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Sekou Toure of Guniea.

Makeba, a good friend of Simone, was going through similar repression in the United States for her outspoken political stances and her marriage to the government watched Carmichael. It was she who specifically suggested Liberia as the best country in Africa for Simone to reside.

Simone explains Makeba’s reasoning:

“Liberia and America were connected through history in a positive way, and Liberian culture and society reflected that. It was a good place to start for any Afro-American looking to reconcile themselves to their own history.”

At that point, Ms. Simone’s story became personal for me because it was my family’s. My own father, Herman Hopkins, was told the same thing in 1959, which led to his own move to Liberia. He would remain there until 1980, moving back to the Bay Area of California one week before the coup that toppled the old regime. He was granted Liberian citizenship in 1962 and married my mother, Dorothy, a Liberian, in 1964. So Ms. Simone’s story has great personal resonance for me, put yourself in current America, looking at Liberia, a post conflict country struggling to heal itself, part of many people (Anthony Bourdain)’s stupid Africa jokes, and it takes me back into a time when a Black American could actually consider it BETTER to live in Liberia than in the U.S of A, which an Elijah Muhammed or Pat Robertson would both describe as Babylon the Great.

Dad said it was a Nigerian acquaintence in college who suggested Liberia as the perfect country to satisfy curiousity about Africa. Nina Simone elucidates the reason an African American would hear that suggestion in this way:

“She (Miriam Makeba) was smart enough to realize that modern Africa might overpower an innocent African American like me, and so for my first step she chose Liberia, a place where I could relish the differences and yet feel secure with the similarities.”

Simone goes on to paint a moving portrait of Liberia in the 1970s, argurably it’s last period of prosperity, and also details how Africa in the form of Liberia was very personally gratifiying to people like my dad, his American friends such as Oliver Campbell, Hardy Mathews, John Reeves, Walter Smith, and Cyrus Peters, even though they were not stars. Dad always reminded me after those years of the Indian father character in Denzel Washington’s “Mississippi Massala.” His whole time back in what was supposed to be his “home” of the U.S, he was thinking about how he could get back to where he could function the best, Liberia.

Simone entered Liberia in the early ’70s in the early days of the transition from President William V.S Tubman, to President William R Tolbert. She said she was given a grand welcome in Liberia, and most people she encountered had at least a few of her records. Nobody asked her to perform, nobody asked her to do any benefits for poor children, she was welcomed into Liberia to enjoy Liberian hospitality, as she understood it:

“Liberians are naturally affectionate, open people, proud of their country, and the fact that a famous black American had decided to come home-which was what they called it, to stay, meant something special to them.”

Simone was not the first black American to fall under Liberia’s spell. Bill Russell, from my hometown of Oakland, California, 11 time NBA champion, also had a strong connection to the country in the 1960s. Russell would go to Liberia every summer to check on his rubber farm, in the care of a Mr. Clareance Holder. It was his plan to emigrate to Liberia at the end of his playing career. Ms. Simone describes the feeling thusly:

“I wouldn’t have believed it before I arrived, but Liberia did feel like home and I loved everything about it.”

“Liberia was a release; after all those years of being a wife, mother, activist and star all at the same time, I was just a mother with her child happy in school and nobody looking over my shoulder telling me what to do.”

Suddenly Ms. Simone went from struggling within the society of her birth to having a place amongst the top of Liberian society. Miriam Makeba selected six wealthy Liberian men for her to choose from to find a new husband and romantic partner.

Simone’s song “Liberian Calypso” immortalizes a famous experience she had in Liberia. She was at a club called “The Maze” in Monrovia, a small club frequented by what we call in Liberia, “the big shots.” She was sitting up drinking champagne and she said the music and the champagne got good to her. The music was mostly from the U.S, being the mid 70s one could imagine it was the hottest of soul and funk that had made it overseas. Simone got up on a table and stripped until her brown skin was bared completely naked, and the big shots of Liberia got a hell of a kick from seeing the Princess getting down “in the raw.” She was afraid she would get kicked out of the country, but she found out President Tolbert himself went to the club the next day hoping to catch a repreat performance. To which Simone thought, “This is my kind of country.”

Her time in Liberia also had permanent effects on her life in various ways. One was a reconnection with her estranged father, who had passed some years ago. She says she was taken to a very well dressed witch doctor, in a suit and tie, normal looking, who showed her a method of communicating with her father. From then on, she called upon her dad in times of need.

She had a great romance with Liberian newspaper man C.C Dennis, and just missed dying as his wife in the 1980 coup. She eventually moved on to Europe and continued her carrer there, but she always wanted to return to Liberia, and it held a special place in her heart.

Ironically, Simone was in the same position many who lived in Liberia prior to the disturbances were in. Her Liberia was gone, even as she lived on. This is a reality Liberians born and native to the country had to face as well. A little peek of the problems Liberia would have was spied in one scene where 17 cops came to her door attempting to have sex with her because they were jealous she was with a foreign national. However, also indicitave of the old Liberia was that she was able to drive them off, and they were sternly reprimanded by a big shot woman the next day. But such lawlessness of the poor police and military class would become common during the next thirty years of social upheavel, and continue to be a problem now.

Simone kept a copy of the video tape where Cecil Dennis, the son of her Liberian boyfriend, and the other officals of the Tolbert government were executed by firing squad on the beach in April of 1980. From time to time after that, when she wanted to remember those days, she’d pull it out and watch it. Though it may seem morbid, for her it was a means of remembering the people and times she had in Liberia. Something I saw my father and many relatives do as well. And so, life in Liberia became another flavor in Nina Simone’s brew that she served with sass and class, to audiences for the rest of her natural life and beyond.

All quotes taken from Nina Simone's memoir, "I put a spell on you."

All quotes taken from Nina Simone’s memoir, “I put a spell on you.”


Filed under Book Recommendations, Liberia/Africa