A musical link has been formed between a Canadian university and Liberia in the form of an annotated CD produced by the University of Alberta and Liberian refugee musicians.
Michael Frishkopf, a music professor at the university, played a key role in establishing the relationship between the school and the refugees who lived at the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana during Liberia's civil war.
Five thousand copies of "Giving Voice to Hope: Music of Liberian Refugees" are on sale in Canada following a recent launch at the university's fine art gallery in Alberta. Almost 200 people were treated to live African drumming at the event. Images from the 28-page insert to the CD have been on exhibition at the university gallery.
Frishkopf, who also supervised the CD's production, noted that westerners are usually shielded by geographical, social and political barriers from the harsh conditions that people such as the former refugees endured. He hopes the CD will help bridge that gap.
"Psychologically, the only way we can continue to lead lives of relative privilege, alongside vague knowledge of a larger human world of deprivation, is through self-deception - forgetting, self-blinding, dehumanization," he said. "A primary goal of this project is to foster remembrance, seeing and humanization of these psychologically excluded social worlds."
The genres covered in the CD vary from roots-reggae to gospel. The 16 tracks capture the details of the desperate lives of the refugees. Among the images evoked in the songs is one of Liberians fleeing, clinging onto rails of over-loaded vessels and sailing for refugee camps.
From hoping for "No More War" by Morris Haynes to pleading to "Come Together Africa," by God's Family, the cry for a better future with lasting peace rings clear on each soundtrack. But the lyrics also tell of a world that needs to change for that peace to prevail.
"The songs on this CD mediate human presence, crossing social divides, not only between here and there, but among Liberian groups violently divided by civil war, re-harmonized in the camp through music," Frishkopf said.
Political science professor Andy Knight, who has worked on the impact of war on children and had met with the refugees at the camp, said it's important to avoid writing them off as victims.
"We need to look at war-affected people not just as victims but as resilient human beings," Knight said at the launch. "The Liberians at Buduburam had resilience, despite been so badly affected by war. Their music and the local economy they created out of nothing at the camp are testament to that."
Just under three years ago, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Ghana had the largest refugee population in West Africa, including the more than 40,000 people who had fled Liberia – most of them to Buduburam camp. The UN agency started voluntary repatriation of Liberians five years ago after formally cutting off financial assistance to them in 2000. UNHCR said it had spent close to US$17 million assisting Liberian refugees.
The booklet for the CD, together selling for $15 Canadian dollars, contains biographical sketches of each musician or group featured. Proceeds from the CD will go to the Centre for Youth Empowerment, a Liberian non-governmental agency engaged in peace building in Liberia.
Samuel "Morgan" Shadow, who helped produce many of the tracks on the album, arrived at the camp at a very young age with only his own shadow for company, notes the booklet. In his "Peace Must Prevail," the 23-year-old-sings "Stop the war. We're tired of seeing dead people."
The conflict started on 24 December 1989 in Liberia's Nimba County and ended in 2003. The man who began the war, Charles Taylor, is now being tried on war crimes charges at The Hague. Frishkopf hopes producing the CD and the music itself will help bring back some Liberia's culture lost in the conflict.
"We hope that by raising the global profile of Liberian music in Buduburam this CD will help stimulate music-making in the camp generally, and in Liberia, where conflict silenced a vibrant musical scene some 20 years ago, opening new possibilities as Liberia struggles to rebuild," he said.