PhillyFolk Artists

Zaye Tete

Liberian Singer and Dancer

Zaye Tete is a singer and dancer from Liberia. Born in Toweh Town, Nimba County in the northeastern part of the country, Zaye was one of 13 children of parents who grew coffee and cocoa. Along with one of her sisters, she became part of a local dance and song group that performed on the occasion of the birth of a child, the visit of a dignitary, and on feast days following a death. Zaye had first learned traditional dance and song from her father, who was a performer as well. In the 1970s, Liberia’s President, William Tolbert, toured Nimba County and saw Zaye’s troupe perform. He selected her to go to Monrovia to become part of the National Cultural Troupe. Zaye was just 13 and knew only her Dan language. Once at Kendeja—an artists’ village and the home of the Troupe, just outside the capital, Monrovia—she studied English and other academic subjects, along with singing and dancing from all of Liberia’s ethnic groups.

At the end of the first year at Kendeja, her father came to take her to the Sande Society in her home county for a few months. There she was instructed in the history and proper social relations of the Dan people, including how to show respect to elders, how to take care of a family, and so on. A big part of the training involved learning and performing traditional songs and dances. When she returned to Kendeja, she sang the Sande Society songs to herself. After a director of the Troupe overheard, she was asked to sing in front of the Troupe’s officials. She sang a welcoming song for the first Sande initiates in a given year. From that day on, she was trained as a professional (solo) singer as well as a dancer. As a member of the National Troupe, she traveled throughout Liberia, singing at village feasts and other events. She also performed in South Korea at a Cultural Festival in 1984.

In 1990, when the civil war reached the capital, everyone at Kendeja had to run. She made it on foot—after about two months—to Nimba County to find her family. From there she crossed the border to the Ivory Coast. She stayed in Danane refugee camp until November 2002, when war broke out in the Ivory Coast. At that time, she escaped to Ghana, where she lived in another camp until she emigrated to the U.S., in the summer of 2004. While in the Ivory Coast, she started a Liberian children’s cultural troupe, recruiting kids from the refugee schools. With the help of an international non-governmental organization, she set up a practice hall, found other musicians and dancers to help with the training, and produced and sang and danced in performances in the camp, for the birth of a child, for arrivals of friends or relatives, and so on. Here in the U.S. she performs at Liberian celebrations and clubs.