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Liberia: Tribute to a national icon

23 December 2022 at 01:53 | 6180 views

Liberia: A tribute to a national icon

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Special Contributor, Monrovia, Liberia

Anthony Nagba, a Liberian musical, and cultural icon, departed to join his ancestors on November 26, 2022. He was buried on December 22, 2022, in Monrovia, Liberia. Tony sang in his native language about the struggle and traditions of the Liberian people. His music was progressive and revolutionary.

Tony was born in Ghana to a Liberian parentage in the early 1940s. He came to Liberia and lived in Claratown in the late 1950s. I was in Claratown when Tony came. He resided in Thomas Tugbe Slewion’s house with other members of the Sasstown Kru. They included William Weah and William’s older sister, Teahdee Bloh, with her son Kukwe. William, or Tarpee, commonly called by peers, was President George Weah’s father. William’s traditional name was Tarpeh, and he and Tony were close. They may have been related, for they were of the Jlah Kru ethnicity. They were soccer players under the coaching and guidance of Peter Slewion Jlakloh, affectionately called PSJ by us. He was our community father, teaching us soccer and encouraging us to stay in school. Tony was an older brother and active but shy. He played defense for Nyankoon United and later for St. Joseph Warriors. I was the goalie for Boys of Mark, a small club I established.

Claratown was a ghetto community in Monrovia and was predominately inhabited by the Kru people. After the demolition of Krutown in West Point, Monrovia, most of the Kru migrated to New Krutown in Bushrod Island in 1945. A few years later, some members of the new town moved to Claratown, a vacant land owned by the Methodist Church. The community was called Claratown after Clara, a Methodist missionary. Still, the Kru people named it Jlapor Klon, meaning "town of the Jlapors." They were the first settlers in the town. "The Jlapors are also called the Betu, a section of the Kru tribe near Sasstown in Grand Kru County." Most people migrated to Claratown because of its proximity to the Freeport, built in 1948 as a gateway to the Liberian economy. The port provided job opportunities to the inhabitants of Claratown and New Krutown. They did not have to depend on fishing. At the port, the men worked as stevedores and some as seafarers.

Like New Krutown, Claratown was lively and had a governor. Some Kru ethnic groups were the Karbors, Jlao, Jlapors, and Niffu. They dwelled in different quarters of the community. The Karbors and the Jlah, known respectively as the Sanquine and Sasstown Kru, were in the majority and were the most educated. They controlled the economy and the local government. For instance, the governor during that time was Mr. Nagbe, a Jlao, while Mr. Shoefly and Teah, both Karbors, administered ship work. Men seeking work on the ships went to them for employment. They were agents of shipping companies and influential. Though the Jlapors were fewer than the Karbors and the Jlaos, they were powerful, for they were historically considered to have the most spiritual power among the Kru tribe. Soccer was a significant recreation. Young Tigers, Invisible Elevens, and Landipool were the major soccer teams in Claratown in the 50s. The New Krutown’s teams included Yankees, Lonestar, and YB. Each club had its cheerleaders, young women dressed in beautiful African attire and sang songs for their teams.

Besides soccer, the nightclubs served as recreation spots in Claratown. We boys, wearing long lappas tied on our necks, went to the clubs on most Saturday nights, dancing to African High Life music. On some evenings, we, together with others, gathered at the center of the town, dancing and singing traditional songs. We really had funs. But life, in general, was hard. Most of us ate one meal daily, and there was no clinic, drugstore, or hand pump. The majority of our parents were unemployed. Few did day work at the Freeport, and the women sold fish, fufu, palm nuts, and starch at the Waterside market.

As I said before, Tony was from Ghana. In the early 1900s, many Krus settled as seafarers in other West African countries, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Some migrated because of political suppression by the government under the Americo-Liberians’ rule in Liberia. Indeed, some factors were the 1915-1916 Kru revolt, the Sasstown war of the 30s, and the 1951 presidential election between William Tubman and Didwho Welleh Twe. The Kru revolted against the government for violation of their rights. The Sasstown Kru fought the regime for the brutality consequence of the Fernando Po investigation. Twe, a Kru, was denied participation in the election as an opposition candidate. Twe was forcefully exiled to Sierra Leone. Some of his supporters escaped to other countries, while others were jailed in Liberia. In later years, however, many Kru returned to Liberia with their families. Tony and other returnees, including Jasper Wleh, and Jackson Weah, adjusted quickly to the Claratown environment. They were good soccer players, exhibiting a new style. We younger ones admired and looked up to them.

I left for the US in 1966. In October of that year, Tarpeh birthed George Weah. Later, Tony founded Tejajlu, meaning in Kru, "up becoming children." It was a musical group singing cultural songs in Kru at public and private gatherings such as weddings, funerals, and birthday celebrations. The group started from the death of a young man named Nyankroon in Claratown. He was Tony’s age and a soccer player.
In the Liberian struggle in the 70s, Tejajlu became a cultural arm of the progressive movement, singing songs of the struggle in the words and culture of the people. It told the Liberian story and the cry for liberation. Tony became an icon and yet simple and down to earth.

Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh, a writer who also knew Tony, described him in a tribute.
"A formidable cultural presence in the Klao-Kru community in Liberia and the diaspora, the raspy voice singer with a dazzling stage presence was a politically progressive artist who brought lightning comfort and meaning to his music and taught us to embrace our culture even when we tried to abandon those traits that made us who we are today. Tejajlu’s music was high on energy, high on drums, folksy, and danceable. [It] was also about love, hate, death, drama, redemption, social, and economic justice, and political equality, important in a country such as Liberia where political leaders famously neglect and exploit their own people for their selfish interests."

Unfortunately, during the presidency of William Tolbert, the Methodist Church demolished Claratown, according to others, without warning. The inhabitants were said to have been shocked and confused. Most moved to New Krutown.

Tony was determined. He came to America and continued his music. With his music, Tony graced the 1992 National Krio Association convention program in the Americas in Washington, DC. He had the audience on its feet, singing with him and dancing. The songs brought back memories to many who had not heard them for years. I was one.

Tony lived in many places in the US, including North Carolina and Georgia. The last time I saw him was when I was his guest in Atlanta, Georgia, some years ago. He was well and energetic then. As I was informed, he returned to Liberia in 2021 to see his daughter, son, friends, other relatives, and the Tejajlu group. Regrettably, he did not return to America. He died on his native soil, where it all started.

Tony was a true revolutionary. He did not have to give fieryg speeches to motivate others and show that he cared for the struggle. Tony could have used his talent to sing in a Western language. But he chose to sing in the voice representing himself, his country, and his people. Tony told the story of living in Claratown and having no running water, medical care, and not enough to eat. He experienced being removed from his house and community and living in continual poverty. At his burial, many who knew him paid tributes and acknowledged his contribution. My friend James Doe, one of the old timers of Claratown who knew him well, was also at the funeral held at the Pattern Memorial Methodist Church in Monrovia. Liberia will miss him, and so will I.

Please click on this link to hear him singing. https://nyanfore-nimley.org/our-ethnic-background.html

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