52. Musical Dramatic Folktale
Written by Unknown
Performed by Otto Giddings of Sanoyea
From the album Music of the Kpelle of Liberia (Folkways, USA 1972)



Before the domination of Liberia by former African American slaves, the Kpelle were the island’s most formidable ethnic group.

The Kpelle were not the first people to migrate to Liberia. The island’s first inhabitants were from north-central Africa. They were the ancestors of the Gola and Kissi, and they arrived in the twelfth century, followed by the Kruan people (Kru, Kuwaa, Bassa, Krahn and Dei ethnic groups), who came from the north and east.

The Kpelle migrated from western Sudan and Guinea to Liberia in the 1500s (although Fred van der Kraaij, author of The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia volume I&II (Bremen, 1983) places their migration much earlier, beginning in 6,000 B.C.) and when they arrived they displaced the indigenous Kwa speaking people and founded an empire under the leadership of King Kumba. Today there are around 300,000 Kpelle speaking people in Liberia, comprising twenty percent of Liberia’s population, which is quite a lot when you consider that Americo-Liberians make up only five per cent of the population.

The Kpelle united against Americo-Liberian rule, but they were nonetheless effected by the Americo-Liberian presence. In the 1920s, when Harvey S. Firestone leased land for planting rubber at Harbel, Liberia, the demand for labourers led to the first of several Kpelle migrations. The opening of large iron mines in western Liberia in the 1960s led to a second wave of Kpelle migration. And in the 1970s migration from rural areas like Bong County to Liberia’s urban areas created large Kpelle-speaking communities in Monrovia.

The Kpelle managed to hold on to much of their culture and traditional values, particularly their chiefdoms and their male and female secret societies, from which their music culture is produced, and which are known as the Poro and the Sande. These societies educate the young in traditional arts including such skills as mask making, iron working, music making, and the preservation of song forms, storytelling, drumming and dancing. This album of recordings of Kpelle folk songs was made in 1972, and represents something of Kpelle folk tradition. It is the sound of the music of Liberia before the country became a safe haven for slaves and free black men and women.

The recordings were made by Ruth Stone, author of Let the Inside Be Sweet: The Interpretation of Music Events Among the Kpelle of Liberia (Indiana University Press, 1982). And in the liner notes to Music of the Kpelle of Liberia  Stone informs us that there are two dominant strands of Kpelle music. There is signal music, which Stone describes as ‘that music whose pitches reflect the relative pitches of speech in tone languages such as Kpelle. It is usually thought of as that music used to send messages over long distances, although among the Kpelle it is used in small gatherings […] to communicate a proverb, story, personal praise, or social ridicule.’ And then there is the musical dramatical folktale which, Stone writes, is ‘the performance of a folktale from the oral tradition by a master storyteller, minor soloists and a chorus. The chorus provides a background ostinato pattern against which the storyteller alternately narrates the story and sings a refrain, employing dramatic gestures and exaggeration, while assuming the roles of various characters within the story, and even moving outside of the story to make comments from the audiences viewpoint.

The song we have selected is of this style. Here is Stone again; ‘The story involves an orphan boy and a woman without relatives who come together. The storyteller describes the young boy walking down a path daydreaming. He meets a woman who, hearing of his misfortune, accompanies him to gather palm kernels. The woman picks the finest kernels and admires one wistfully, wishing that it were a son. As she walks away a child calls, ‘Mother, wait for me,’ It seems to be the palm kernel calling her. What has in fact happened is that the orphan boy changed into a palm kernel and then into a son for the woman through a series unexplained supernatural events. The transformation also gives the boy the special ability to kill animals with a magical song. But because he originated from a palm kernel, the boy cannot use this power on the wild boar. This is because the wild boar eats palm kernels for food and so ranks above the palm kernel in nature’s hierarchy. The boy uses his magical power to kill buffalo and bush cow for feasts but then a childless woman, jealous of the first woman’s good fortune, hears of the boy’s powers. Falsely claiming to be the woman’s sister she asks the boy for some of the meat. When she leaves the boy she calls on the wild boar; the boar chases her. She denies knowing the boy, but the law restricting the boy’s power has been violated and the boar kills the boy. Before meeting his death, the boy sings to the woman, ‘you have killed me.’

Thinking about this song we were wondering whether Kpelle children would have been among the child soldiers that fought during the Liberian civil war. Certainly the Kpelle would have been among the three to five hundred thousand Liberians displaced during the war and its aftermath.

Before the civil war the Kpelle and their trading partners the Mandingo had been neighbours. But when the Mandingo led ULIMO-K went on a pillaging spree of Kpelle religious sites of the Poro secret society between 1992 and 1993, Kpelle and Loma refugees in Guinea set up the Loma Defence Force with the single aim of seeking revenge from their new enemies. By 1997 the war would force an estimated 430,000 refugees into Guinea.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created with help from Ghana, began hearing evidence in January 2008 of violence that was often committed among tribal lines. In one testimony, Milton Blayee, aka Joshua Blahyi, aka General ‘Butt Naked’, former commander of ULIMO-K, the Muslim, Mandingo and Krahn faction of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia, confessed that he and his forces had killed at least 20,000 Liberians, and told of his ritualistic killing of children and his fighters’ consumption of their hearts.



The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia, by Fred van der Kraaij (Bremen, 1983, 2 volumes)
Kpelle – http://www.lang.nalrc.wisc.edu/nalrc/resources/press/brochures/kpelle.pdf


Circles and Seeds: Adapting Kpelle ideas about music performance for collaborative Digital Music performance. Proceedings of the 2002 Conference on New Instruments for Musical Expression (NIME-02), by Niall Griffith Dublin, Ireland, May 24-26, 200

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Liberia: Overview Published by Minority Rights Group International, Liberia, 2007

UNHCR briefing notes: Chad, Liberia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Angola, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 03 Oct 2003

The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African
Civil War, by Stephen Ellis. C. Hurst & Co., 1999



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