Sweet Liberia: Pre-War Songs

The 1950s saw the first recordings of the Liberian singers who borrowed styles from neighbouring countries – including palm wine from Sierra Leone and highlife from Ghana. An important name from those days is Howard Hayes, a blind pianist who wrote and performed catchy tunes in any style he could lay his hands on: palm wine, calypso, even ragtime.

As time went by, however, American styles – R&B and rock’n’roll – increasingly dominated the airwaves, and it was left to Molly Dorley and Anthony Nagbe to kick-start a real African music scene in Liberia.

Dorley’s band, the Sunset Boys, became popular with songs like “Grand Gedeh Oh! Oh!” (his 1969 birthday present to President Tubman), and Nagbe’s Tejajlu Musical Group performed local songs in indigenous languages. Other popular outfits in those pre-war optimistic years were Zack and Gebah, responsible for a patriotic ballad called “Sweet Liberia” and the band Liberian Dreams, which recorded the famous song “OAU Welcome to Liberia”.

In the 1970s and 80s, army musicians Robert Toe and Jimmy Diggs made names for themselves, recording cassettes featuring a combination of local and international material. Diggs sang in his native Gbandi language – quite unusual for Liberia in those days. Then there was keyboard player T. Kpan Nimely, who set up the Monrovia Brothers with guitarist Donald Cooper. Again, they played a mix of reggae and highlife, peppered with Afro-rock and something they called “discolypso”, described by the Ghana-based music journalist John Collins as “a disco or funk version of Sierra Leone’s popular maringa music from the mid-70s”. Nimely died in 2005.