Who is the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change?

The Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change [LWCC] has been bringing traditional songs from a variety of Liberia’s ethnic groups to Liberian gatherings in the Philadelphia area for the past couple of years, aiming to inspire dialogue about and action to address domestic violence and other pressing concerns in the local Liberian immigrant community. Composed of core members Fatu Gayflor, Marie Nyenabo, Tokay Tomah and Zaye Tete, each of whom is a renowned recording and performing artist in her own right, the Chorus reflects and builds upon the talents and experiences of these highly accomplished women.

It’s estimated that somewhere between 15,000 and 25,000 Liberians now call Philadelphia home. Most moved here as refugees from the Liberian civil wars (1989–1996 and 1999–2003) that tore the country and its people apart. Immigrants to large U.S. cities find many resources at their disposal. They also, often, encounter obstacles to establishing a comfortable sense of place—a sense of belonging. Language barriers, economic hardship, cultural difference, racism, and unfamiliarity with new bureaucratic systems contribute to isolation and, sometimes, fear and anger. For so many Liberians, years of chaos, violence and loss (of property, ways of life, and loved ones) inside their country and/or in refugee camps in Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, have compounded the difficulties of adjusting to existence in a new land. Chorus members, sensitive to this complex history, since they have shared it, approach their community work holistically, connecting to their neighbors through traditional songs and stories that evoke a sense of continuity within all this disruption, as well as a sense of responsibility and possibility. Domestic violence, a worldwide scourge, is one (hidden) horror that local Liberian women themselves have called on the artists to address.

Fatu Gayflor and the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change in performance, photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim, 2014.

The Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change is an initiative of the Philadelphia Folklore Project, and is supported through a grant from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. This is the first in a series of articles about past activities of the LWCC, including trainings and forums undertaken in conjunction with outside consultants and scholars (Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theater, Esteria Woods of U.N. Women, Ruth Stone of Indiana University, Mary Moran of Colgate University, and Cynthia Cohen of Brandeis University). It will highlight the contributions of the LWCC advisory committee (dancer and actor Kormassa Bobo, musician and spiritual leader Nana Korantemaa, dancer Saigay Sheriff, domestic violence specialist Azucena Ugarte and Andrew Wongeh, director of a non-profit refugee relief organization).

The LWCC Advisory Committee, photo by Toni Shapiro-Phim, 2014.

The series will share stories of rehearsals, performances, and audience questions and comments, as the Chorus continues its work through engagements with local community members at churches and parks, and in ballrooms, museums and theaters.

Photo D: Lighted sign announcing a class and performance by the Liberian Women’s Chorus for Change as part of a course on refugees and art at Temple University, 2014.

Written by Toni Shapiro-Phin, Director of Programs at PFP.

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