Collections: Lester Monts - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Music, Culture and Rituals among the Vai, Gola, Mende, and Dei people in Liberia (1977-78, 1987-88)

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Initiate singers in the mɔli sande society located in Gohn, Gawula Chiefdon. Liberia, 1988. Image from video © Lester Monts.

The video data contained in this compilation were collected among the Vai people of Liberia during two yearlong periods of field research in 1977-78 and 1987-88. By contrasting these two periods, a clear transition from a traditional music culture practicing a popular form of Islam to a more orthodox religious orientation is revealed. In 1977-78, video data were obtained to support the construction of a music ethnography of the Vai, documenting a variety of musical occasions from birth rites to funerary feasts. At that time, Islam coexisted with the two formerly compulsory secret societies—Poro for men and Sande for women.

In the "traditional" setting, music was an integral part of numerous social activities: the celebrations at each point in the life cycle were accompanied by music; farmers, hunters, midwives, and storytellers used music to accompany their recreation and task-oriented activities; and people came together on a quiet night to reminisce on the day's experiences through song. The collection includes many of the most well known vocalist, instrumentalist, and dancers operating in Vai country in 1978-88. Of special interest is footage of the male masquerades Yavi, Bowu, Nafali, and Joobai; and the lone Sande masquerade, Zooba.

The videos collected in 1987-88 derive from a wide range of social and religious activities. Whether performed at a funerary rite or at the installation of a chief, Islamic vocal renderings (suku) contributed religious value and meaning to the occasion. Suku was a primary mode of communication, reminding the Vai of their allegiance and moral responsibilities to Allah, Muhammad, and their community of believers. In the orthodox setting, Islamic vocal renderings imparted an even deeper power that inspires creativity, raises consciousness, and reflected individual and group spirituality.

This collection is currently in production and is not yet available to the public.

Image © Lester Monts

Lester Monts is Senior Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, Senior Counselor to the President for the Arts, Diversity, and Undergraduate Affairs, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Music (Ethnomusicology) at the University of Michigan. Dr. Monts holds degrees from Arkansas Tech University, University of Nebraska, and University of Minnesota where he studied with Professor Alan Kagan. He has held teaching and administrative positions at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Case Western Reserve University, University of Minnesota, and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Monts has focused his scholarly research on the musical and cultural systems among the Vai people of Liberia and is regarded as one of the world's leading scholars on music and culture in the Guinea coast region of West Africa. His book, Vai Musical Language, is published by the Societe d'Etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France; it explores Vai folk etymologies related to the intersection between music and other linguistic phenomena. He is currently completing another book that examines the influence of Islam on the continuity and change of music in funerary rituals among the Vai. He has published in numerous scholarly journals, such as Anthropos: International Review of Ethnology and Linguistics, Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, African Arts, and the Liberian Studies Journal. He has presented his research at the conferences of many national and international learned societies, including the Society for Ethnomusicology, the African Studies Association, and the Conference on Music in the World of Islam.

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