I read the Yatta Zoe story three times. Each time my eyes welled. Each time with a mathematical progression. That is not the Yatta Zoe I envisioned in her old age. Not the Yatta Zoe I knew four decades ago.
I knew her as an ebullient figure, a character whose actions rose temperatures in jam-packed, well air-conditioned halls. Whose moves, gyrations, voice and general performance on stage left her audience in bewildered awe. They would start guessing her age, her style of music, stamina on stage, her ability to command other musicians.
As a young reporter with the Sierra Leone Daily Mail in the mid-seventies charged with the ‘Art and Culture’ beat, I was opportune to have covered her performances during what was a two-month-long stay in the country.
I still have a vivid recollection of my many encounters with her. The first interview she accorded me was in her room at the then Paramount Hotel. Make no mistake there were no cellphones, she didn’t have a manager who would arrange for such an interview either. It was all “direct.”
She picked up her room telephone and few minutes later she ushed me in, with our cameraman, Abdul Karim, just after me. We had hardly started talking when she gave a hilarious laughter which was well captured by the cameraman and used on the front page of the following day’s edition of the paper. The interview lasted about 30 minutes because she was rushing for the day’s rehearsal with Dr Dynamite and the Jazz Leone National at upper Waterloo Street.
It lasted that long because I was not so au fait with the Liberian accent and she had to repeat a number of sentences. There was no tape recorder and I was not versed in short hand writing either.
If she had impressed me during that interview, there was more to attract what was to become my avowed “LOVE”, respect and admiration for her talent.
Yatta Zoe stormed Sierra Leone. Hers was not the usual soul/pop/reggae/meringue music Sierra Leoneans were used to. Her ability to get everyone on board was first demonstrated during her rehearsal sessions with her back-up group.
She was aided by another Liberian singer, Tecumsay Roberts. But, but, but she was the BOSS. She used her self-taught professional directorial skills to spur on the musicians. She would stop them at will until they got it right. A day’s rehearsal usually lasted much longer than the group’s normal hours but at the end of each day, the musicians left with glee and satisfaction that they learned something new. This lasted a week before their first performance which was a Friday night.
As the only female member on stage, she thrilled the audience, brought the highly placed members of the audience on stage, taught them her movements and spurred them on to continue. That was not so common in Freetown and so, therefore, the news spread to attract more crowd during her many future performances throughout the country.
For me, who was only used to Miatta Fahnbulleh as the only female Liberian artist of repute that I knew, she was a fresh discovery and I was going to keep in touch.
The last time I saw her was in in 1986 during one of my professional visits to Monrovia.
I tried to get her to speak after the death of Dr Dynamite three years ago but my efforts yielded no fruits.
Seeing her in those photographs on the pages of Images magazine just dampened my spirits. How should we leave our artists to rot like that? Why should she perish like rotten mangoes on trees? That woman brought joy to the homes and hearts of Liberians. She gave the youths then hope for a future Liberia. She made Liberians at home and in the Diaspora proud. She brought them respect for the country’s culture but still she is left to “decay” like she is today.
It is not her fault if she was not well managed. It was not her fault if she did not kowtow to the powers that be.
Liberians, and indeed all Africans should remember that power could be bought and, sometimes, even sold. The only thing that cannot be bought, borrowed, stolen or even hijacked is our CULTURE.
Authorities in other places work tirelessly to maintain, preserve, develop and be proud of their culture. They teach their children in schools about their past glories. The people that brought fame to their countries. Go to Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo and see what are being taught in schools regarding their cultures. We should learn from them.
UseYatta Zoe needs upliftment. It will not cost the Ministry of Culture and or Tourism much. In fact, it will bring them a much-needed aura of importance. We should not be left behind. She needs to be taken care of, for she gave a lot to Liberia. She is definitely not one of those to be asked: “What did you do for your country?”
By: George Ola-Davies.