The great jazz drummer, first bebop pioneer and master of all styles—Max Roach, an African American—studied the rich drumming cultures of Africa first hand, and summed up his learning in the phrase ‘Let freedom ring!’
The sticks of skilled, loose drummers, as extensions of the hands, run around the kit, on fire. They form patterns, rings and polyrhythms, with tom-tom rolls accented and punctuated by snare-drum snaps.
In music, there is nothing closer to surfing than drumming. But what if your drumheads are cruelly torn, your snares snapped in two, your cymbals bent, your bass pedal crushed—worse, your hands severed in torture? Africa has also been war-torn. After the colonial period and its terrible history of slavery and greed, when European countries withdrew from their African colonies, there was often not peaceful transition.
In some areas, old rivalries were renewed, and in others, new conflicts set ablaze. Often, the music stopped, the beat froze, and hollowness emerged, life was desperate—entirely about survival. Child soldiers were recruited and trained to fight in wars they did not understand, their parents already dead from the conflict. Between 1990 and 2004 many Liberians grew up knowing only terror, rape and hardship.
When I first visited Monrovia, they had just turned the streetlights on for the first time in fifteen years.
I have visited Liberia two times—in 2006 and 2013. When I accompanied John Callahan, Emi Cataldi, Randy Rarick and Fred d’Orey on a surfEXPLORE trip in 2006, the country had emerged from back-to-back civil wars so horrific that they reduced a flourishing city to a dark heart of terror, raining blood rather than water. When they switched on the streetlights, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—Africa’s first elected (and widely celebrated) female head-of-state—announced, “It symbolises our journey from darkness to illumination”. But how does a nation shake off the memories of mass murder?
Amidst the sea of blue UN helmets the billboards offered a reminder of the horrors of war, preaching ‘don’t rape’, ‘don’t loot’ and ‘no mob violence’. It was as if common humanity had been so crushed that it was forgotten. Humility was not even on the radar, as life had been stripped back to plain survival, atrocities fresh in people’s memories.
But today theses bullet holes have been plastered over, wounds healed, street signs sell capitalism and the markets are buzzing. Where a generation was lost to education, the chief billboard message is now ‘Go to School’. Kids are back in classrooms, and once low, boiling black skies have split open to reveal what was hidden by war—the light of liberty.
The abolitionist movement in the USA had grand visions when they resettled freed American slaves on Providence Island in the wide meander of the Mesurado River in this coastal strip of West Africa in 1822.
Here was the promise of a ‘free land’—from the Latin liber meaning ‘free’—its capital Monrovia named after the American President James Monroe. Liberia grew rich on its natural resources of grain, minerals and rubber, propped-up by international companies such as Firestone. But Liberia’s beginning was far from auspicious. Fatally, citizenship excluded indigenous peoples, introducing a bizarre kind of neo-colonialism. Every successive President until 1980 was of American freed-slave ancestry.
Only when Samuel Doe killed President William Tolbert in a coup in 1980 did Liberia have its first indigenous leader. Then began an era of vengeance, massacres and torture. In the 1990s, Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson left Liberia in ruins (some argue they were acting as puppets for USA interests), filled with rebels and refugees. Failed peace agreements followed. Peacemaking forces arrived and left. By 1997 Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Party won elections, in part because many Liberians feared the consequences if he lost.
Fighting began again in 1999 to overthrow Taylor’s diamond-funded corruption. Rebel attacks stormed the capital, often mobs of teenagers high on palm wine hacking limbs, told to oust President Taylor. Rebel action and government chaos blurred into one horrendous bloody burning mess, stray bullets and shrapnel ripping indiscriminately through streets with no security.
Traumatised refugees, wedged out from the countryside, blocked Monrovia to choking point. The city suffocated, imploded. A cholera epidemic broke out. Malaria was rife. Death became expected. Ultimately a force of Nigerian peacekeepers arrived and stabilised the city. People could finally smile and wave after the terror. Pride re-surfaced. Food aid spread and travel was possible. The UN returned and helped to maintain peace, exiling the former President, now on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity. History and Mystery are closely aligned.
Today Liberia is breathing easy, proud, safe and welcoming, with regular international flights, an easy visa process, minimal UN presence on the streets, and optimism in the air. The entrepreneurial locals have picked up the baton to restore vitality to the economy. There is even a renewed tourism.
And Monrovia has some excellent waves—Mamba Point and Fisher’s Point—long lilting breaks that favour the southwest swells in the rainy season. In contrast, the beaches, such as Congo Town and Kendeja, prefer north swells that spit sand and salt in the dry season between November and April.
I’m here to a now revitalised Monrovia to capture the positive face of contemporary Liberia. We want to find out how the country has changed since 2006, and ask if surfing has any place in that regeneration. Establishment of a surf culture may be one of the most promising things to have happened to Robertsport. We travel with good Liberian friend Dominic Johns, who works as a consultant for UNICEF and a variety of other youth, gender and education organisations. He’s a busy man with a bright future, but recognises surf tourism as an opportunity worth supporting. He’s also keen to show off the new face of post-war Liberia.
Rainy season in Liberia brings a charcoal sky that you can practically smell and touch—both smoky and greasy.
Luckily the cloudline lifts every few days to a startling clarity, opal mornings that burn bright blue by afternoon. Umbrellas are big business—shade and shelter—and rainbow-patterned brands are ubiquitous at the Waterside market in the bustling capital, Monrovia.
Rush hour brings gridlock—yellow Toyota taxis strung out bumper to bumper. Stalls sell a spectrum of hot peppers, wigs, hair clips, suitcases, chicken feet, onions and wax-printed bright lapa fabrics—a pick ’n’ mix of culture and nature. Carts and barrows compete for trade as kids quickly learn the local wizardry of business, where improvisation reigns supreme. Wallets are drained, pockets filled, and energy exchanged in thick packets through haggling and bargaining. Pots, pans and bags are staple goods, along with fly-friendly cuts of goat, hit by a sudden rainsquall, stitching into the meat. Crowds huddle under the pop-up rainbow umbrellas, muttering as the grey fails to pass but forms a low, thin, bedsheet under which Monrovia is like a giant pan pinged and drilled by the shower. Liberia is a rain magnet from May to October, but this is also the season for surf.
Once out of Monrovia, rainbow umbrellas give way to the tangled greens of the rainforest. Waves of rubber trees bend and crack from their own weight in mass suicidal yoga. Where the tarmac ends and an iron-earth track beckons, palm oil fields open out to the horizon. Soon the long arm of Lake Piso holds the road, all the way to Robertsport, hidden under a forest shade, three hours northwest from Monrovia.
The coast here is shaped like a clenched fist, rocky headlands as knuckles defining four pointbreaks packed with promise. Furthest southeast, Loco is wild and windy, then Shipwrecks is long reeling ride, spitting white foam. Cottons is the highlight—clean-faced, consistent and divided into two parts: Outside Cottons darts through fingers of black rock, while Inside Cottons boils up on a rock, spills over, then speeds close to the beach. Long distance swells can join Outside and Inside Cottons into a minute-long ride.
Fishermans is the last point, closest to the village. It rarely works, but when it does, it is arguably the longest, fastest, and hollowest section, like an oiled zipper. I’m worn out just describing this unspoilt set-up. The scale is staggering. Right now, out of earshot and sight of most travelling surfers, neat lines tipped by phosphorescent Atlantic foam are unloading across that close cluster of points. Isn’t it satisfying to just imagine that unheard thunder?
We park under the towering 200 years old cotton silk tree where Dominic (and Liberia’s pioneer Scottish surfer and aid worker Magnus Wolfe Murray) own a camping pitch.
Dominic inspects his land and greets local friends with the national handshake. The ubiquitous grab-clasp-finger-click is a snappy celebration of freedom because it requires an intact finger (not cut off and lost by warlords or slave masters). Trouble is it takes skill and practice to make the audible finger beat at the end of the shake. Perfect the beat and you’ll win local respect.
In surfing, beat is the cumulative series of punctuations, the stresses, the accents—how you hit the lip and rebound, what you do at the full extent of a roundhouse cutback, the point of recovery at the end of the floater that keeps momentum in the ride. Some accents are soft and subtle like brushwork on snares, but usually they are played hard and deep like rolls on the tom toms, or sharp, as wake up calls, like rim shots on the snare drum.
There are no better masters of beat than Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey—the snap, crackle and pop of drumming. From Roach and Blakey you will learn everything you need to know about accents on the deeper toned tom-toms and bass drum. From Haynes you will learn about the crisp cross beats on the snare drum. The beat is not just the drummer keeping time, hammering along. This is for squares. The beat for jazz is an accented beat, a beat that leads and draws patterns.
We paddle out to meet a handful of locals, taking long strokes against the relentless ocean current. We start at Inside Cottons. It is strictly down-the-line Formula One surfing, as close to flying as waveriding will take you. The Robertsport crew have developed beautifully spontaneous surfing styles as they adapt to the local ecology.
These are the only waves they know. Some are graceful and unshowy; others are intricate, crab like, shifting sideways on slippery faces and ramping up as the wind clears off the foam; while others are just gung-ho, climbing and dropping like skateboarders on the uncertain ramps and loving the unexpected wedges that peak up like surfacing sealife to grab you by the seat of the pants.
I paddle up to Outside Cottons and recognise Morris Gross. He was just nine when I was last here, thunderstruck by surfing. He would also plead with me to take him back to school in the UK. Within two weeks he progressed from barely being able to swim to paddling into the shore break, and then to standing. Today he is 17 and a brilliant surfer. Morris paddles into the next wave, drops in, and winds down the point, climbing and falling. Next set. My serve. Drop, climb, arc, skip, then catapult ahead and finally land on the sand. We walk back up the point together, laughing.
“Great to see that you have turned into a such good surfer Morris.”
“But it’s school I love best.”
“Mathematics and Physics.”
“What do you want to be?”
“An Engineer. I want to study it at University.”
I quietly punch the air as we paddle back out, pleased to learn that Morris is on the right trajectory, mixing surf and turf—growing muscle but letting the mind graze.
“Big Wave Come!”
When I camped here with surfEXPLORE under the cotton silk tree, it was clear that this beachfront would bring new opportunity for Liberia—that of surf tourism. These priceless waves have offered a wonderful, self-replenishing commodity. Morris didn’t need to come to school in the UK. His classroom was right here. There is now a dedicated crew of about twenty-five local surfers, sharing around ten boards.
Central to the development of this local scene are two brave and brilliant Californian surfers—Sean Brody and Daniel Hopkins. Sean visited in 2009 and fell in love with Robertsport, switching his American lifestyle for the rollercoaster of West Africa.
He inspired long-time friend Daniel, also from San Diego, to help him to develop and launch the Kwepunha Surf Retreat. They wanted to bring friendship, help and genuine investment to the village, and of course surf. They now have two stylish places to stay and also run an eagerly awaited Liberians-only surf competition, and manage health care and community programmes. The ongoing project (fused with Sean’s Surf Resource Network) has formed the research for Sean’s Master’s degree in Sustainable Surf Tourism through the Centre for Surf Research at San Diego State University. The emerging local surf scene and its variety of bittersweet challenges is the hot topic of Leo McCrea’s Kwepunha Liberia—Local Surf Cultures film.
‘Kwepunha’ is Vai (one of the resilient indigenous local farming and fishing cultures noteworthy for their syllabic writing system) for ‘big wave come’, a phrase the crew shout in the surf, splashing the water vigorously, like tarpon feeding. It is an invocation to a god of excitement—the sea goddess’ expression of joy as she ripples her back.
Morris can remember when the Kwepunha building was used as an ammunitions store. He had to help warlords unload boats and haul the arms across the beach. During the years of conflict Robertsport continually changed hands, each faction plundering and committing atrocities. Many children were forced to join one of the warlords, and their parents or siblings tortured or raped. Robbery became accepted as norm. That era is over, and surfing is rinsing war from body and mind. With a savvy team of locals, Sean and Daniel have transformed Kwepunha into a vibrant guesthouse, filled each weekend with charismatic NGO workers, local surfers and Liberians from Monrovia. Old Kalashnikov parts are now candleholders and bottle openers, turning terror into conviviality.
On our last night, surfed-out and stoked with the film shoot, we feast on cassava, dried fish and hot pepper sauce in celebration of Liberia. It’s impossible for me to really fathom the bloodshed Dominic, Morris and a generation of Liberians have witnessed. “We can only look forward,” says Dominic, “and surf tourism can be a little part of that future.” I can only applaud their enthusiasm and energy, to synergise mind, body and environment in a desire to secure grounded democracy in the wake of bloody war. Liberia has some of the best waves in West Africa—a promised land for adventurous surfers. Help to bring prosperity to a place that is now living up to its name of ‘Liberty’.
Back home, I cannot ignore the impact Liberia has on me. The weather of places, their atmospheres, their pressures, will seep into your leaky psyche and inhabit your being.
John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins—perhaps the two greatest tenor saxophonists in modern jazz—gained lasting respect for their live performances, where big, long, awesome solo codas of twenty minutes or more were not uncommon. Both the stamina and powers of invention needed to maintain that level of intensity of improvisation are remarkable and only came with diligent practice and passionate engagement with the music.
But they also came with a deep sense of history. Coltrane described immersion in such solos as spiritual, often describing a feeling of possession by a holy ghost, so that the music came through him, rather than claiming that he was the source. Coltrane’s massive, sweeping sound is the tone of spirituals, the blue-black body of the history of slavery.
Claiming surfing as a form of jazz, an improvisational art, is also a move to revision surfing’s relationship to slavery and oppression, and to invite a black holy ghost back in to the sport as a spirit of invention, and a sound of freedom. Let freedom ring.
Words: Sam Bleakley / Photographs: John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE story