Tag Archives: Miriam Makeba

Farewell, Bra’ Hugh

The world lost one of it’s greatest musical ambassadors of Pan Africanism the day it lost Hugh Masekela, known as “Bra Hugh” in South Africa and much of the world. One of my best-received blog postings on “riquespeaks” dealt with the history of Masekela in Liberia during the 1970s. As exciting as that period was for me personally, it was only one small portion of the truly incredible life Bra Hugh led.

Hugh’s South African origins put him in a unique position to understand the African diaspora, and he parlayed that into one of the most unique bodies of work in musical history. His musical journey through life started in South Africa and took him to the United States, both New York and Los Angeles, Lagos, Nigeria, Ghana, Zaire, Guinea, and many other points along the Transatlantic world. He parlayed this unusual cultural fluency into a songbook that covers a wide array of Pan African experiences, such as “Stimela”, “”African Secret Society”, “Grazing in the Grass”, “Bring Him Back Home”, “Mama”, “Mami Wata”, and many others. He utilized his fellow South African natives such as Philemon Hou (the composer of “Grazing in the Grass”), as well as Los Angeles by way of Houston, Texas musicians The Jazz Crusaders, and at other times, the Ghanian musicians who made up Hezbollah Soundz. Truly I can not think of too many other musicians who have covered so many points on the African diaspora as Bra Hugh.

It all began as a young jazz loving man in South Africa. Hugh, born in 1939, was a youth during the years that the Apartied system began to become more strictly codified into law. The Apartied system itself was inspired by the Jim Crow system in America, and also had many things in common with the suppression of Indigenous people in the States. One of the insights I got from his autobiography that surprised me was that, looking at American movies that featured Black people way back in the ’40s and ’50s, Hugh and his compatriots viewed the United States as a progressive place where Black people had freedom, as the thought of white Boers making movies that featured Blacks was totally inconceivable at that time. He would soon get the chance to come to America and see the strain of racism that influenced that of his country.

Masekela grew up in the unique position of being an African who had a strong connection to the culture of African Americans, through the language of jazz music. He was a huge Louis Armstrong fan, in addition to following the newer be bop school as represented by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He actually received a trumpet from Louis Armstrong himself, mailed all the way from the States to South Africa. Eventually, he was sponsored by Harry Belafonte to come to the States to study music, and he would come to be mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, another one of his childhood trumpet heroes.

Of course, now would be the perfect time to mention his relationship to Mama Africa, Mariam Makeba. Mariam was actually several years older than Hugh and it seems their relationship was more of an infatuation on Hugh’s part in the beginning. But Miss Makeba played a pivotal part in Hugh’s life, setting up his connection to come to America, housing him when he got here and in general, teaching him about the facts of life. Eventually, this would include their famed marriage, which also put him in a rarefied jazz club, along with great artists like Max Roach and Miles Davis, in terms of being a jazzman and having a wife that was a well renowned creative force in her own right.

Makeba facilitated life in New York City for Hugh, where he studied music on scholarship from Belafonte and immersed himself in the early ’60s jazz scene. The early ’60s was a fertile creative time for jazz, although not the absolute height of the music’s popularity commercially. During that time period, representatives of every school of jazz existed, from New Orleans trad, to Swing, to Be Bop, to Free Jazz, Soul jazz and the different schools that would dominate the ’70s, including fusion. It was a somewhat daunting environment to learn in, with the music existing and yet going through so many changes. It was Miles Davis, himself a searcher for new forms who told Masekela, “Don’t try to play the shit we playing here. Take what you learn here and do what you know from over there (Africa) and do some shit that NONE of us can play.”

That is exactly what Masekela did when he recorded Philemon Hou’s “Grazing in the Grass.” The lazy, funky instrumental, replete with cowbell and a beautifully soulful melody, became one of the signature hits of the late 1960s. Masekela took that success and hit the very heights of the entertainment industry from a social standpoint, marrying Cab Calloway’s daughter and hobnobbing with stars like Sly Stone.

Masekela was in a very precarious position however, and as the open nature of the ’60s passed on, it was very hard for him as a South African banned in his own country to sustain hits in the United States. He covered all the bases, and yet lacked a base of his own at the same time. And his music began to become more and more political after the feel-good triumph of “Grazing in the Grass.”

So he took his music to Africa, and what he did there was very unique in its time and even today. He left the United States and put his musical celebrity behind trying to bring African music more to the forefront. His ban in his home country of South Africa facilitated his development as a Pan Africanist musical impresario, as he began to focus on West Africa during the ’70s. He worked with Fela Kuti and recruited bands from the West African region. The albums he recorded during the ’70s with Hezdollah Soundz, and on his own record label with Crusaders producer Stewart Levine, Chisa, are all worthwhile Afro Funk workouts that could easily satisfy modern crate diggers.

Hugh also cast his personal lot in Africa at that time, living in Guinea and Liberia. He also was instrumental in organizing the concert that paired with the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, featured in the movies “Soul Power” and “When We Were Kings.” The concert was even more of a Pan Africanist festival in its planning than what it eventually turned out to be, as the list of artists that didnt make it included Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. Hugh was cheated out of the proceeds of that concert by Don King, but the achievement of putting it on still looms large in Pan African history.

Hugh never again had a hit like “Grazing in the Grass” but that does not negate the body of work he made that was largely autobiographical, especially when you listen to songs such as “You Told Your Mama Not To Worry”, and “The Boy is Doin’ It”, which detail his long life away from South Africa. As the tide was eventually turned against Apartheid, Hugh was a key musical fighter in those battles as well. Re-examining his body of work will unearth a treasure trove of musical bounty.

His autobiography “Still Grazing” is one of my absolute favorite books and one I recommend to any fan of his, lover of music, Pan Africanist, historian of the ’60s-80s, and every bibliophile and lover of a good story. One of the things that struck me was the similarities his life had to that of his hero Miles Davis, although their personalities were rather different. But they had many interesting parallels and points of intersection, from Miles advice to play a mixture of American Black and African music, to their marriages to powerful female entertainers that they both tried to downplay ( Hugh to Mariam and Miles to Cicely), their drug addiction, the turn they both took away from pure jazz into a music that fused R&B and rock with jazz, and they also had many points of intersection in New York City, even dating some of the same women, and the impact Hugh had on Miles during Miles silent period, playing at the Nightclub Mikell’s. It also has much in common with that other jazz trumpeter who made it big, Quincy Delight Jones. All of these make for complelling reading and a story that brings a wider view of Jazz and popular music in the changes of the 1960s.

Mainly, when I think of Hugh’s life, I’m happy for him more than I’m sad that he passed. He survived both Aparteid and the pain of being away from his country for 40 years while also making music and recieivng love from many people. And he lived long enough to see majority rule return to South Africa and to serve as a respected cultural ambassador for his country, spending the last 20 plus years at home in South Africa. It all adds up to one of the most incredible lives imaginable and one we should be happy was set to music.


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Thoughts of Mandela (Madiba) on Riquespeaks Mind 1918-2013


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, known affectionatley to South Africans by his clan name ‘Madiba’, which carries warm fatherley connotations, was one of the transcendant figures of the 20th Century who left us to join the ancestors, 14 years into the 21st. His death, at the grand age of 95, inspired in me a few thoughts, about his life, the impact of it on South Africa, the rest of Africa, and the world, as well as the similarities and differences his struggle bore to other such struggles against racism and colonialism in the United States, the Carribean, Africa, Latin America, India, and so on. What I came away with is a truly exceptional and inspirational person who the study of will enrich my understanding of humanity as a group and the potential of the human individual for as long as I live.

Being from the Bay Area of California, Oakland in particular, I’ve been steeped in a real politik, no nonsense, militant black school of thought and opinion. The common view among my mentors in this area has been the admittedly truthful belief that the entrenched power of whites in South Africa did not end when Aparteid laws were taken off the books and Nelson Mandela ascended to the Presidency. Of course, this is true, as racism, racial oppresion, and economic and educational disadvantages have not disappeared from American society after the major laws and movements designed to eliminate or lessen racial prejudice and oppression in the good ol U.S of A. However, one who would arrogantly dismiss the various lessons that can be learned from such a rich and incredible life spent in both militant activism and official governmental elected leadership would be quite foolish.

Mandela’s life is interesting to me because as a Black American child of the ’80s and ’90s in America, he was a link or a peek at the old days of the struggle for racial equality, a struggle we did not grow up in, and that, although the major battles of were only a decade or so before us, American consumerism and advertising made seem as far away from us as slavery itself. Of course, the ’80s and ’90s had their own racial upheavels, and when I reached my adolescence I would see my first major racial riot that carried the potency of riots in the ’60s, ’40s and ’20s (the LA Rebellion).

The Black struggle in America as a whole though, was in a murky, somewhat undefined place in the ’80s and ’90s. The major, great leaders of the ’60s were either assasinated in the 1960s, or had lost their credibility due to a combination of the American propaganda machine and their own inability to manage their lives tightly in light of those attacks. The Black leaders who thrived in that polarized time of Ronald Reagen, a Pharoah who “knew not Joseph (or in reality, knew Joseph and didn’t like him, were all seen as polarizing figures. Eventually the mainstream press painted them as American charlatan ghetto hustlers who were simply out for personal attention, and many black people agreed with this depiction. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton were seldom respected as “selfless” or self sacrificing leaders in the way their forebearers were. They were attacked in the white community for being “oppurtunist hate mongers” who were keeping alive embers of a racial fire they would have you believe was long since contained in these United States. But the leaders of old faced this type of skepticism from outside of the community as well. The difference with post Civil Rights leaders is they didn’t represent the black community as comprehensively as those of old. Of course, such is to be expected, as the eliminatination of segregation laws took away the great uniting force in the black movement. While there was always disagreement in the movement, it splintered even further into urban issues, womens issues, crimminal justice issues, educational concerns, jobs, protecting governmental benefits, and so on.

One of the reasons I think the South African struggle galvanized black support in the United States and other black countries where African peoples had achieved independence, was the clarity of it. As Stevie Wonder said “It’s Wrong (Aparteid)”. South Africa’s racial brutality, obstincence, and attempts to keep blacks in a subservient position in neighboring countries in addition to its own, inspired recollection of the worst days of slavery and segregation, and then some. At times, the South African situation reminds me even more of what Native Americans faced than African Americans, because South Africans faced constriction, pass systems, extermination, germ warfare smallpox, and outright war and violence on their own historic homeland of their birth. Like Native American’s, they had to contend with a group that wanted to live on, benefit from, and dominate their own homeland. Amazingly, what happened to the Native Americans in the United States was averted by the South African people, the other African states, the African diaspora, the Eastren block countries, and later, the rest of the world as a whole. Despite the seeming inevitability of this outcome, the racial violence was brutal and intense, it was almost like watching the Belgians in the Congo or the Europeans taking over the States from the Native Americans in real time. One of those things you wouldn’t concieve could happen in this modern age. I think this sparked something visceral in people like Black Americans, as well as Africans, and other colonized peoples who had this in their history. Some within the African American community feel Blacks were in no position to throw such support at South Africa, being so close to the days of legal discrimmination, and still faceing it. But the larger world picture and the larger winds of history demanded such attention I believe, as there were few people of any race who could watch young Africans throwing rocks and sticks at tanks and not want to join in on the struggle, in the same way the news footage of blacks getting hosed down down South or Martin Luther King’s death sparked emotions. It was almost like the writers and American’s who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, a cause that ralied peoples sense of justice and what was right.

Mandela faced some of the same things Civil Rights leaders here faced as well however, as he spent all those years in jail, the mass struggle got even more militant and the younger leaders did as well. It went from Mandela and the ANC’s militant arm carrying acts of sabatogue against the South African industrial machine, to students fighting policemen and traitors getting doused in gasoline after being wrapped in tires (necklacing). At the time the South African Apartied government got ready to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC, they NEEDED HIM. They needed the gravitas he still carried with him, to prevent a Civil War that would not only be heavy in bloodshed, but that South Africa, which had always enjoyed heavy support among the Capitalist countries, would not have world support in. I’m sure Fidel Castro and the USSR and other African countries were waiting to pounce on the Apartied government in a military sense as well. The South African government was a rich white speck in a sea of black.

Mandela had to come out of this and literally save the nation. He had to hold back a nation of millions who had every right to be mad and also had greater and greater world support, but was still lacking in resources, and he also had to ensure the support of the white minority without selling his people out. He didn’t go the route of Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin, in demanding whites resources, and its probably the reason South Africa is doing better than Zimbabwe and Uganda today. Mandela did this after living out an almost biblical arc. He was like Moses, spending 40 years in the Wilderness. In the Bible, Moses was primed and ready to be the savior of the Hebrews when he was 40 years old, a Prince trained in all the knowledge of Egypt who would make his brothers do right by one another. But God made him wander another 40 years until his temprament was smooth but iron hard. Mandela was a man who actually lived that type of story, which is what makes hiim such a towering figure.

Mandela’s ANC was almost in a position the NAACP or SCLC faced in SNCC and the Black Panthers and NOI, or that Booker T Washington’s Niagra Movement faced from DuBois NAACP, or that DuBois faced from Garvey’s UNIA. As black oppression continues to be persistent and long lasting, there is always a new wave of young people and leaders who seem more militant, and who seems to have mastered the urgency of the times better. It’s amazing that Mandela survived to ride this out and become the official leader of the Nation. Of course, maybe the South African government felt the seventy year old Mandela was the most moderate and sensible voices, the only one who would allow them to live and survive at all. But the ANC was invovled in some very heavy activities when Mandela was in jail as well, the intractability of the Apartied system and the way it was written into law made it impossible to fight without stern resistence and violence, which is what Mandela himself pointed to as the main difference between him and Dr. King’s struggle.

But the very fact that Nelson Mandela was alive into the 21st Century amazes me. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evars, Malcom X and Huey P Newton, all leaders younger than Mandela, never lived to see Mandela elected President in South Africa’s first Democratic elections. In the United States, a country that has had its own racial problems, but proclaims Democracy, our major black leaders were either killed or defanged. Looking at Mandela only makes me wonder what would have happened if Dr. King, possibly our leader with the most gravitas, had survived. What would he have done with the tensions of young blacks in the 1990s? Or, in a country that constantly sells pretend changes, would his name have been tarnished into irrelevance by those who wouldn’t want him to have such power? Dr. King, Abraham Lincoln and JFK were all put to death. It’s an interesting thing to think of, in terms of the various nature of repression in accordance with different countries, different conditions.

Maybe even though South Africa’s repression of the African was even more intense and brutal than the blueprints they borrowed from the United States, Nazi Germany, and other colonial powers, the fact that Nelson Mandela was an African in Africa somehow always saved him. The South African police state most likely needed to preserve Mandela and his ANC brethren, in order to prevent further violence, and at the same time, wanted to keep them away where they could not plan, influence, and inspire. These men kept their strength up and survived that ordeal. At the same time, the South Africans assertion that striking the shepards would scatter the sheep was mistaken. The South African people responded with even more direct action. Mandela was a great leader, but also, his people were able to thrive and keep up the struggle without his great leadership, a great accomplishment. But then, under such terrible racist brutality, did they have a choice? The people kept the pressure up so heavy to the point where the “moderates” or those with sense were probably begging for the ANC and it’s focus on Democracy and fair elections back.

Mandela himself is a man who does not fit easily into boxes. Although he was known for non violent protest, and for encouraging his people to eschew violence in favor of elective politics, he was also a figher, a man who literally trained in boxing. His legal career was also that of a fighter. Ultimatley, his struggle was different than the struggle of the ’60s in America, in that his absolutely required violence, like the days of Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Civil War.

Mandela lived long enough and was relevant to so many permutations of the struggle in his country, that he was able to be, in American terms, analogous to Dr. King, Malcom X/Stokely Carmichael/Huey P Newton, Thurgood Marshall, and Barack Obama at different times. You could say he started as a Thurgood Marshall figure, attempting to win blacks rights in the courts. When that approach revealed his limits, he staged bus boycots and acts of civil disobedience in the mold of Dr. King and Dr. Kings influene, Mohandes K Ghandi. When the police state impended his ability to protest peacefully, he became a militant, even going further than Malcom X and Stokely in carrying out militant actions. He actually went to Ethiopia to recieve military training. He suffered a lont time in jail and was able to come out to be an elected, political figure of reconcilliation like Barack Obama. He advocated peace when he was an older man and peace was the most pragmatic thing to do to preserve human life, but in all, I see a man who was willing to do what ever it takes, a man who lived Malcom X’s famous credo, “By Any Means Necessary.” He was a unifiying figure, a man who got along with Fidel Castro, and eventually, America as well, after spending years on the terrorist list.

South Africa contains interesting similarities and differences to the American struggle. Obviously, the strongest difference was the Dutch and Englishmen of South Africa were totally surrounded by Black Africans. In the United States, the black population was carefully controlled so as not to overtake or equal the white population. This created a desperate evil in the white South Africans, which would only be matched in the U.S in an area like the American South where black numbers were comparable to whites, or in the destruction of the Native AMerican communities. But, in contrast to other African countries ruled by indirect rule, the South Africans had greater expsure to whites and Westren culture. If you look at pictures of South Afria during the 1950s, it looks almost exactly like pics of Black southerners during that time period. You see black sartorial grace in Western dress. But somewhere in there, I do believe African Americans can recognize elements of their situation in Apartied more than they can other colonial situations in Africa, and the cultural exchange has often been strong, the jazz culture of the 20s through the ’40s was a strong influence on South Africa, and I also found in South African history a hope among the blacks that the country would imporove after World War II, which is a similar hope we had here in America.

All in all, Mandela was always about unity. One of the key things he did was to deemphasize tribal affiliation, which is something that has hurt Africa, that is part of the reason Africa is in the position it is in. Tribal affiliation almost kept Apartied going in South Africa. His views also grew to include unity with Indians and others who were struggling in South Africa. Later he grew from a figure who’s unifiying force was seen as a unifying force in the world. This unity was not based on lofty ideological points, but is one he grew into progressively, seeing the practical values of peace and unity. Mandela also looms large as a personal example. Here is a man devoted to exercise and discipline in his life, who went from a lawyer with middle class aspirations, to a non violent activist, to a militant commander on the run, to policial prisoner, to savior of his nation, to President of that nation, to an International symbol of Peace. He had a great ability to change, to see the current situation, and to grow. He was a great personal example of dignity and self control. Like one of my other heroes, Miles Davis, boxing was a symbol of that self discipline, his hero and example, both in boxing and racial/political matters being the great champion Joe Louis. He was a figher who knew when to stopped fighting and never ended his fight on the INSIDE. For this, he sacrificed family time and so much of the normalcy regular human beings enjoy, most likely even including the desire for revenge. For that I say THANK YOU and I’m happy he has now gone to rest in peace.

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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