Hawa Moore was born in Negban, Liberia, in the Vai tribe. “I grew up with traditional music all around me,” she says. “Music and dance have been part of my life since I was a little girl. I can’t live without dancing and singing: I feel like I’m sick or lost when these things are not in my life.” Music was very important in her family. Her father, from a prominent royal family, performed with a musical group, and his mother, the daughter of a tribal king, was entertained regularly by traditional musicians. As a child, Ms. Moore began to learn these rhythms and melodies.
In the “bush” or “Sande” school, and from older relatives, Ms. Moore continued her musical education: “I was soon making up my own steps and teaching them to the other girls. This was how people knew that I would be a singer and dancer.” Missionaries discouraged her music, but she refused to give up the arts that sustained her. “Still, music was my heritage, so I continued. I began composing my own songs when I was only five years old. On weekends, I would gather girls from local villages to teach them my new songs, and we would sing together in improvised harmony. Since then I have been trying to continue my music, and to keep Liberian traditional music alive here.”
“In Liberia, making up songs is also part of our tradition, and it has always been a traditional way to communicate hard truths to those who need to hear them. If someone is behaving in a way that hurts others, you cannot criticize the person directly without risking ill feelings and repercussions. But you can gather with others outside the offender’s house and sing a song that sends the message they need to hear.” Everyone hears the criticism; it becomes public knowledge, so the person is forced to come to terms with his or her misdeeds. But singing a critique, rather than speaking it, acknowledges that even though a man has behaved badly, he is still your brother. A human being just like you.
These are song traditions for which Ms. Moore was widely known. She came to the United States in 1991 to escape the war taking place in her homeland. In 1994, she founded Akpandayah to present West African music and dance. She is featured in a PFP video and has performed at the PFP’s “Philly Dance Africa” programs. She was also featured in PFP’s 1998 photography exhibit “Artists in Exile.” A CD produced by the Institute for Cultural Partnerships features her singing.