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Liberia – It’s People and Culture

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Liberia rejoices in a cultural heritage whose diversity and dynamism enriches the nation´s life in all its aspects. After an inevitable period in which the vitality of the nation´s own cultural traditions was weakened by Western influence, the nation´s arts and crafts are thriving as Liberians increasingly come to value their own indigenous cultural expressions while at the same time drawing on the best of Western culture to produce a healthy and exciting eclecticism.

Liberia´s National Culture Troupe, for instance, offers plays and dances based on traditional Liberian themes both at home and abroad, under the encouragement of President Tolbert, initiator of the annual National Art and Culture Festival. On Liberian television and radio, African drama and music have an honored place, while Liberian writers, encouraged by the country´s rapidly rising level of literacy,are increasingly finding a voice.
Literature in Liberia began soon after the nation´s inception; the first Liberian novel, Love in Ebony, was written by Charles Cooper in the late 19th century. The many creative writers who have followed Cooper include R. Tombekai Dempster, the first Liberian poet to be represented in an anthology of African verse, Peter Dorliae, whose collections of folktales give traditional Liberian stories a modern form, and the prolific novelist and poet Bai T. Moore. Liberia´s younger writers are working towards a new synthesis of the traditional style of African storytelling with a realistic analysis of their society – a fertile trend which promises much for the future of literature in Liberia.
Though English is, of course, the official language of Liberia, it is by no means its only one or even its first written language — for the Vai and Bassa tribes had developed their own alphabets and written languages before the arrival of the first settlers from the United States, and were among the first black Africans to do so. Realizing the importance of the contribution these varied tongues make to the depth and diversity of Liberian culture, especially as the repositories of an ancient oral literature, Liberians are taking active steps to ensure the preservation and continuing vitality of the tribal languages.

By the same token, the gradual process of integration and unification has given rise to an upsurge in interest in tribal culture for its own sake and as a continuing reminder of the nation´s roots. It is in dance and music that indigenous artistic expression reaches its greatest heights, each tribe having its own ritual dances and musical forms to celebrate major occasions. All are founded on the skill of the drummers, weaving their intricate and ancient pattern of rhythm. In some areas, the great war drums can still be heard, the players standing on platforms to play their huge instruments. So, too, can be the famous `talking drums´, so called because the drummers can alter the pitch as they play by tightening or loosening the drum heads. This fundamental beat is often completed by the sound of reed rattles and bells, while some tribes add melodic line with horns or types of string instrument, some of which have gourds for sounding boxes. There is also a long-standing tradition of vocal music, of which the Kru choirs with their complex harmony are an outstanding example.
To encourage and preserve Liberians singing the aim of the newly-established Studio-One, Liberia´s first professional recording studio whose first albums, devoted to Liberian vocal music in indigenous languages as well as in English, are now serving to bring this thriving aspect of Liberian culture to the attention of a wider public.

Among the most active preservers of traditional ways in Liberia are the Poro and Sande institutions, membership of the former being for men only while the latter is for women. Each has rites and ceremonies whose purpose is to educate young people in the civilization of the tribe and foster their participation in activities for the common good; to maintain the link between the people and their past; to preserve the group´s folklore, skills, and arts and crafts; and instill a disciplined and responsible attitude. The initiations, which formerly could involve as much as four years of training, are followed by elaborate ceremonies including feasting, dancing, music and singing; among the Gola, the boys who during training have excelled in performing arts are taken on a tour of neighboring villages. Poro and Sande play an important role in integrating young people into the structure of society and act as stabilizing forces; President Tolbert has recognized their value by himself undertaking the Poro initiation.
The tradition of fine carving, so prominent among the Liberian plastic arts, has roots in the ritual masks required by the Poro and Sande rituals. In the Poro, the mask is regarded as the seat of a spirit, its value residing in the object itself rather than in the person wearing it. Usually made of sapwood, the Liberian carver´s favorite material, these masks have numerous stylistic variations. One, used in initiation ceremonies, has an elongated beak, while another type has tubular eyes beneath a horn.
The wide variety of local hardwoods – which include ebony, cam wood, cherry, walnut and mahogany – is fully exploited in Liberian carving as are other indigenous raw materials, from the soapstone carvings of the Kissi tribe to the clay models of the Grebo, from the reed dolls of the Loma to the intricate figurines and jeweler cast in brass or bronze by Dan artists using the lost wax method.

Following the tradition of Liberian art, the country´s modern artists have largely chosen to move away from representationalism towards those abstract, sometimes spiritual forms of interpretation which are characteristic of the ancient African cultural tradition. Among notable Liberian artists are Winston Richards and Cietta David, whose work tends towards pure abstraction, J. Nemle Thompson, whose spontaneity of line and rich colors are inspired by the African primitive, and Frances Cooper and Caesar Harris, whose more realistic style seeks to depict the spirit of modern Liberia.
Many works of Liberian art and craft can be seen in the National Museum in Monrovia, a treasurehouse of the nation´s cultural heritage. The National Culture Center near Monrovia presents these arts and crafts in their context, with its Cultural Village, made up of one hut representing the culture of each Liberian tribe, and its skilled carvers, weavers and other craftsmen who may be seen working in the traditional styles developed centuries ago by their forebears.

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