Liberian pop lives in Philly

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Still from Because of the War

When the Philadelphia Folklore Project hosts the premiere of director Toni Shapiro-Phim’s Because of the War, it isn’t just a celebration of the organization’s stealth (it’s a party for PFP’s 30th birthday with an October 15 screening at International House), but a study of the strength of five women – Phim and four vocalists from Liberia who live in the Southwest Philly and Upper Darby area.

“Each of them was an accomplished touring and recording artist in Liberia for years before moving to the U.S.” says Shapiro-Phim. To this Fatu Gayflor – one of the four vocalists that came to form The Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change – states that each woman had a job “to represent their homeland by singing and dancing,” she says.

“We were paid by the government to go and do things such as meet dignitaries at the airport and welcome them.” Like fellow Liberians Marie Nyenabo, Zaye Tete and Tokay Tomah, Gayflor plied her trade and acted as a good will ambassador from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. They lived and worked primarily in an artist village on the outskirts of the Liberian capital where government officials, acting as talent scouts, brought the brightest and the best performers.

When a palace coup formed and the First Liberian Civil War occurred between 1989 and 1997, the four women split for America – Philadelphia specifically, and into the office space of the Philadelphia Folklore Project where they were welcomed with open arms. There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Liberians in the Philadelphia area because of the civil wars.

The PFP had already known and worked with these women by providing them with digital video recorders. “They would go into their neighborhoods and every two weeks collect and record their stories – sometimes by retelling the tales, sometimes by singing and dancing them,” says Shapiro-Phim who is also the programs director at PFP. Sometimes these new dance dramas that the women had created metaphorically addressed issues and concerns they had heard about in their communities, here and back home. This included stories of domestic and partner abuses and violence, and well as tales of new live in Philadelphia.

“There was one community meeting in Southwest Philly where it was if they were giving testimony – ‘this is what I’ve been through,” notes Shapiro-Phim, who happened to bear witness to these events, and from there got the idea of cinematically documenting this new found quartet’s bourgeoning  art form.

Thirty years and 90,000 items later and the PFP keeps all of the goods on the Liberian women and their newfound chorus. “There is so much bravery to be found in each of these four individual women’s real stories,” says Shapiro-Phim. “And I watched Gayflor work her magic in Philadelphia and New York City where she is a goddess. Each of these women made choices during crisis in the life and they always chose to utilize their talents.”

BECAUSE OF THE WAR at International House (3701 Chestnut Street) on Sunday, October 15 at 4 p.m. 215 387 5125, ihousephilly.org

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