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Interview: Jaway’s Song Of Liberia Lights Up The World

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Growing up in the heart of the Liberian Civil War, a young Francis “Jaway” Nyaforh never dreamed of pursuing a professional career in music. But inspiration can come at the most unexpected times from the most surprising sources. Jaway spoke recently with Blogcritic Justin Kantor about the unnerving circumstances and life-changing experiences which have led him to release his debut album, Decontee.

Your debut album is entitled Decontee. What is the origin of the word and its definition?

In my tribe, ‘Decontee’ means that there is time for everything. The album is full of inspirational and feel-good songs based on my experiences growing up in Liberia, West Africa. One of the songs is called ‘Liberia,’ which is one of the first I ever wrote.

You grew up in the midst of civil war in Liberia. What was the background of that war? What impact did it have on your everyday life?

Liberia is a small country in West Africa. We had a civil war that started Dec 24th, 1989. It was a very dreadful war. It was pretty much based on, in my opinion, greed. It started in the countryside and came all the way up to the city. During that time, it changed from greed for power and money into tribalism. Liberians watched and learned how cruel we were to ourselves and how much anger we kept inside. So many different tribes have been suppressed over time; and this was an opportunity to unleash it all. It was something that the common mind couldn’t imagine. It was very bad.

You had people killing their neighbors based on simple jealousy, like, ‘You used to have this, and now it’s my time to get it.’ You had child soldiers killing women and cutting their stomachs up and taking out the fetuses. There were so many dreadful things going on. During that time, my Grandmother was 65. She would get around and try to get food, and we would walk. We’d leave the house at 6 in the morning to go look for food, and we’d return at 6 that night, because it would take so long to go through different checkpoints — since there were so many different warring factions. You had the government forces, you had National Freedom Party of Liberia (NFPL), which split into another group. Then, that group split into yet another group.We were told the reason for the war was to remove the president, Samuel Doe, and his government from power, so that we could have a free and fair, democratic election. But everybody involved soon realized some of them had different ideas.

The war lasted for 14 years. Six years into the war, through some people I befriended, I got the opportunity to come to the U.S. Hence the song ‘Liberia’ came about. I wanted to write something about my life experience, being a child and how beautiful it was before the war came about; and how dreadful during the war. I know a lot of people who went through that. Most people around the world saw it on the news or read about it in the paper. So, I just put that out there in a positive way.

Was it strictly greed that caused the war, or was it also the different type of government? How did things change after the war?

It was not just greed; it was animosity, it was hatred. Charles Taylor, who was the head of a warring faction, NPFL, that started the war, is now being tried in The Hague for human rights abuse. It is assumed that the war in Liberia led to one in Sierra Leone. He’s not on trial for what went on in Liberia, but for what he supposedly did in Sierra Leone. People, including children, got their limbs amputated and killed. It is also assumed he supported the war in return for diamonds — now referred to as ‘blood diamonds’ because of all the atrocities that went on. Even Naomi Campbell has been called by the prosecution to testify in the case because she was supposedly given a rough diamond by Charles Taylor in 1997 when they met in South Africa.

Liberia is the only country that was colonized by the U.S. in Africa. It was formed as a colony for the settlement of the first freed African-American slaves. Hence, it’s called ‘America’s Stepchild.’ Our capital city, Monrovia, was named after President James Monroe. Our first president, J.J. Roberts, was one of the Black slaves that came from here. That group of people went and mixed with the indigenous people and the tribal people that were there. They had kids with them; but they also made slaves of them, I’m told. They ruled Liberia up until 1980. Just that one group of people. We have 13 different tribes in Liberia. The tribal people felt suppressed, so they were building all this anger and hatred.

In 1980, there was a bloody coup that was supposedly led by Samuel Doe. That changed the rule of power to one of the original tribes of Liberia. Samuel Doe ruled Liberia until he got killed during the war. However, he ruled with bias, and most Liberians feel that he suppressed certain tribes. When Charles Taylor finally got elected president, he said the war was about bringing peace to Liberians; but it did not. Liberia became destabilized because the war cost us a lot of family, friends, and loved ones.

How would you describe the state of the country now?

It’s better now. Things are more stable. There is no war going on. There will be an election in 2011, so people are gearing up. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been president now for five years, and she’s doing her best to bring the country back to normalcy; but people say there are still pockets of corruption in the government. For the most part, people are not going to bed to gunfire and are not dying of starvation, so at least there is hope. But there is a whole lot of work to do.

Have you been back there since you left?

Yes, I was in Liberia in 2008 for Christmas. I went home to see my Mom. It was my first time back, and most of the friends that I grew up with have died. There is just a handful of people that I went to school with that stayed back home. Some of those people are doing okay, but there’s no middle; either you’re doing okay or you’re not doing okay at all.

What were the circumstances that allowed you to get out, especially considering that your mom stayed there?

As a young man living in Liberia during the war, school would open sometimes, and then, soon after, we would hear, ‘Fighting is happening here and the rebel group is coming.’ So it would close up. There was an inconsistency. Things started to get better, but I thought for me to get my education and be that type of support system that my family needs as a male — and for my life as well — I just had to get out of there. There were at least another two or three episodes of the war that went on, and lot of people got killed.

Throughout the war, was music something that you had access to?

Growing up, I was not allowed to listen to secular music. I grew up in the church choir. In fact, my mom is still a choir directress in Liberia. I joined the choir when I was a little boy, and my Grandmother felt that I had to be with my Mom often. If I wasn’t playing or in school, then I should be in church. I was the baby, so I would just go there and hang out with my Mom, and sleep. Then I started learning how to sing and naturally became a part of it. That wasn’t something that I wanted to do, though. I was doing it against my will.

I wanted to play with my friends; but when you’re going to choir practice three days a week including Saturday afternoons, it becomes a way of life. Getting into music wasn’t even on my radar. Becoming a successful artist wasn’t even a thought. You have to become educated to become a successful man. You went to school, and if you didn’t go to school, you knew somebody that could get you in a position. Most successful people were educated people. That’s the only way I knew.

As for musicians in Africa, I started to get into secular music when I got into seventh or eighth grade and started listening to Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, and Aretha Franklin. I love R&B because it has the same meaning as Gospel music –you just change the feel a little bit. But I never had aspirations to do it. When I came to the U.S., I got a little more into it. I started writing songs, came up with ‘Liberia,’ and started singing. People would ask, ‘When are you performing next?’ I was in L.A., and would say, ‘Performing? What are you talking about?’

‘You say you’re a singer, right?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not.’ They’d say, ‘What are you doing in L.A.?’ I had taken a job working in Beverly Hills as an accountant, but I was unemployed for six months because of 9/11. I had just gotten out of grad school. I had lost my job, and it was a tough time for me. I was just trying to get back on my feet. A guy at the gym said, ‘I have a friend who’s a really good vocal coach and has been doing it for years. I think you have a natural talent to sing. Let me introduce you to her, and then you make a decision — she’ll be very honest with you.’ So, I went and met her. The first time, there were a couple of other people there. I was shy and nervous to have other people watch me sing. I sang a Luther Vandross song.

What song did you sing?

Oh my God, I can’t remember the song. It was a song which, during the war, my cousin and I would sing. We were a year apart and we were always together. We would use these big batteries and sit there in the dark and listen to that song over and over again, for a couple of years. That’s one of the songs that stuck in my head that I knew on the Pop side. The lady asked me, ‘Do you know any other Pop songs?’ and she started calling out names. I said, ‘I’ve heard of these songs before, but I don’t know them well.’ She said, ‘How come you know this song well and you don’t know any others?’ and I said, ‘Because I listened to pop music, but I never felt a need to learn it. The only songs I needed to know were from Church,’ and she was like, ‘Wow! You have a natural talent to sing.’

What is her name?

Sandy Avchen. She gave lessons at her home. She had a piano, and was the sweetest person. I know she’s in her late 70s, but you could never tell. It was through Sandy that I got to meet Anthony Ceazan. He and I started a rock-soul band called Stripped Down. The music that you hear in ‘Liberia’ was composed with that band. When I recorded it for my album, I just changed one or two things.

So you were performing with that band before you decided to make a solo record?

Yeah. At that point in time, I had invested so much energy. I was the one booking the shows, writing the songs, and doing a lot of the leg work. I wanted to take it to the next level, and it was not going anywhere; so I just said, ‘This is not working for me.’ At the time, I was really hurting my professional life. I told Anthony, ‘You and I can be writers, but I have to do my own thing.’ So, I decided to go my own way. My bass guitarist Aaron plays on all my records. He composed a couple of records with me, like, ‘We Need Change’ — the first song I produced and wrote on the album; and ‘Fly Away.’ He helped me with the chord changes on that. That’s pretty much how I got into writing music.

How would you describe the style of the album?

Pop/Soul with a little bit of World. ‘Joy or Pain’ was inspired by an old African song. I was listening to this song on a little tape player and said, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ ‘Let’s Play’ is geared toward the African crowd, but has a soul/pop feel — and there are some Jazz chords in there, too. There were a lot of people involved in producing the album. Coming from the church, and then working with Anthony, it started the Pop/Rock thing. Then, I wanted to incorporate something from Liberia, and still have a little R&B feel to it. The ultimate goal of the album was to not put myself in a box. I didn’t want to do something that would attract only Black people, only African people, or onlyWhite people. It came down to the music.

The live instrumentation really helps to give it that feel. When I listen to Decontee, it’s something that I would want to hear live in concert. It’s different from just having ‘tracks.’ ‘Joy or Pain’ and ‘Let’s Play’ were two of my favorites. In particular, the lyrics of ‘Joy or Pain’ stood out to me. You have a line in there about ‘screaming at the waterfall.’

‘Screaming at the waterboy.’ That song really is about the emotionally unstable lady that young men like. But, because of her emotional instability, the guy’s deciding whether or not to be with her. With that particular line, when I visualize it from a video standpoint, he and this lady go to the restaurant and are hanging there waiting for the server. ‘Waterboy’ is what we call an errand boy in Liberia. He comes up and hasn’t said anything to this lady — and she’s screaming at him. That’s what the song is about.

Was that a situation that you experienced’

It was something that I conjured. I grew up around a lot of women. My father wasn’t in my life. Just being around so many women, I learned a lot from them and understood how they can be sometimes. But I also have friends that have been through so many circumstances. I’ve seen it from afar and sometimes up close. This is something I think everybody can relate to: you meet a girl, and she’s kinda good, but she’s somehow on the edge all the time, and that sometimes causes problems in relationships. Not to say guys don’t cause problems in relationships… [laughs] I wanted to write about something dealing with everyday, real-life problems, and not be negative about it. I wanted to make it fun. I didn’t want to go too much into detail.

You mentioned that a friend at the gym was responsible for inspiring you to pursue music professionally. Physical well-being seems really important to you. You have a very impressive physique. What is involved in achieving that?

When I grew up, until 1986, I played soccer like every kid in Africa. My older sister was in high school, and she started getting into basketball. She would get up on Saturday mornings at 6 or 7 o’clock to play, and one of those days she took me. I was fascinated by the game! Most of my friends were two or three years older than me; but they thought I was their age because I was more mature. I was this young boy among bigger guys and men. The problem was, I got good pretty quickly, and when I started playing ball in school on the Senior team, my coach told me, ‘You’re a good player, but for you to be better, you have to do something that sets you apart from being fast and a strong shooter. You have to be physically strong.’ My cousin — God bless his soul, he died a few years ago — was the only person I really knew when I came to the U.S. He sent me a picture; but what he did was change the picture by putting his head on a bodybuilder’s body. I hadn’t seen him for years, so for the longest time, I really thought it was him. The combination of those two things got me into working out.

When I graduated from school, I was one of the top five basketball players in Liberia. I grew physically strong because I spent so much time working out in the gym. But for me, it was just a hobby. When I came to the U.S., that changed. The first few years in this country for me were horrible. I was really struggling. It was so bad, because I didn’t have anybody to help me out. I met someone who worked at Gold’s Gym, and he told me, ‘You’re looking good, man. You’re really good at basketball. Anytime you come to the gym, I got you.’ So, throughout the first year and a half, when I sent my picture to my Grandmother, she would literally scream! She said, ‘You need to go see the doctor!’ I was so big and ugly, and I didn’t realize it. Everybody thought I was on steroids.

But I just stayed with it, because it helped my game a lot. I’m not as big as I used to be; I’m still lean and cut, but I still do it because it’s a hobby. If I don’t work out, I can’t function 100%. You get used to the feeling of it and it’s your normal way of life. I guess it’s easier to do my music, because it’s part of the industry and marketing. I really think that God wanted me to do what I’m doing. To put me through the experiences and have me be here, it’s a blessing. To have the little pieces of the puzzle fitting together, it was meant to be so I’ve got to give it a shot.

You’ve made a music video for your song ‘Fantasy.’ How did that come together?

The video was shot in a day. I met the director, Curt Jones, through another friend of mine: Thornell Jones at Hidden Beach Records. When I met Curt, I told him I was trying to do a music video for one of my songs, but I didn’t have the money. Curt understood where I was coming from, what I was trying to do, and he was one of those great people to know in L.A. It wasn’t difficult to put together, but it took time. Trying to work with his schedule, finding the girl in the video, getting the crew together, there was a lot of love.

You have a couple of new songs on the horizon, in addition to what’s on Decontee. There’s a club remix of ‘Joy or Pain,’ and a self-titled song, ‘Jaway.’

Music is a form of communication. Everybody, in some shape or form, relates to a particular sound. I want to reach everybody across the world. My vision was to do a House remix of ‘Joy Or Pain,’ so that people can understand that a Soul artist can also have passion for this type of music. I love all types of music. Fortunately, the gentleman who mixed and mastered my album, Leonardo Jones, introduced me to ‘Blackliquid,’ who’s originally from Nigeria, but was raised in England. He loved the track and said, ‘I would love to do something with this,’ in his thick accent. He did three remixes of the song: the Club remix, the Afro Dub, and another. The more I listen to it, the more I love it.

It’s got a nice vibe. Originally when I heard it, I didn’t think it would fit in that context. It turned out cool, though, the way your vocals were placed over the groove. What about the song ‘Jaway?’

Well, everybody who’s listened to Decontee has liked it so far. But thinking about music from a knowledgeable standpoint, it’s a business. This song is strictly for the clubs. I wanted something that people could dance to, but at the same time I was being very conscious about the lyrics so it could be close to the context of the album. I met a DJ in Atlanta, listened to some of his tracks, and I fell in love with that track. When I started writing to it, I was like, ‘What am I going to talk about on this track?’ and ‘Jaway’ came about.

The song is just about me personally, how I do things, and how I’m an outgoing person, a go-getter. I want people to know that they can do these things; but if you want something in life, you have to go get it! You can make it happen, but you can’t sit on your butt or wait in line for it to happen; you have to go out and get it. I put it in that context, and let people dance to it. I have a wide array of songs, from Soul to R&B to Pop, to World and House music, and now I’m just looking for the opportunity to get it out there sand make the best of it, so people can know that you can still write positive music, and it can be fun, enjoyable and danceable. That was my goal with this particular project.

Jaway is your middle name, correct?

Actually, the correct pronunciation is Ja-Weh. It’s spelled J-a-r-g-b-w-e. But most people call me Jaway. I wanted to make it easy. The name has a history. Jargbwe Nyaforh, which is my tribal name, means ‘Bring your troubles to me, and I will put them to rest.’

That’s a nice name to have, although it might put a little pressure on you sometimes.

Yes! [laughs]

What would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years?

I would like to be an internationally-known performing and recording artist from Liberia. There are so many great things about my country that we Liberians ourselves don’t know about and are still trying to discover — and I want the world to know about that. Also, I want to have a family and be able to take better care of my Mom, my Grandmother, sisters and nephew. I really want to be seen as a positive image for my country, particularly to bring more witness to the suffering of the women and children of the world. I think that’s one of the things that people need to think about everyday: that even with your own personal struggles, you can persevere. If you work hard, you can persevere. For the next couple of years, I definitely want to be touring the world, doing my music full time, and bringing light to some of the good things that are happening in the world, and bringing attention to Liberia.

When you mentioned listening to some of the tapes of Liberian music, I thought of one lady from Liberia whose music I’ve heard, and I wonder if you are familiar with her. She was in the House of Representatives in Liberia, and her name is Malinda Jackson Parker.

Yeah, I heard one of her songs a while ago. I vaguely remember it.

She was an older lady who played piano, and she would play Classical tunes by composers like Rachmaninoff while singing about things like Malaria — I think it was a big problem in Liberia at that point in time. She had a song called ‘Cousin Mosquito,’ and she would warn about the dangers of the mosquito bite in a half-sung/half-spoken style — just doing her thing. I’ve heard that she went around with a bag of candy to give to people on the street. Her record that she released by herself was called Tubman Goodtype Songs of Liberia.

Somebody gave me her CD. I’m going to look for it again. When I was recording my album, I really shut off the world. The only music I listened to was really old African music. I wanted to create something unique, and I didn’t want it to be more that 25% influenced by what was out there at the time. I tried to write something that was different. Liberian music is like African songs, but with a different edge. One thing I noticed about African songs is that they are really long. They’re normally five, six, seven minutes long.

They’re not designed for the radio…

Right. They’re just designed to dance and have fun to. There are rhythmic people in Africa that can take a stick to a piece of wood and generate sounds that you would never get in a studio. It amazed me when I went home in 2008, into a rural area. We have these groups of people called Culture Groups. A particular tribe has a dance and a type of music. The raw talent is ridiculous! When I heard what I heard, I had forgotten that, when I was a child, they were there. Sometimes, you don’t pay close attention to the value you have in front of you until you lose it.

After I learned about music, I came home and was like, ‘Let me go and check this out.’ I was amazed! You see an old man, you know he’s 60-some years old. He sits on the floor, crosses his legs, and he’s got this big log that you know is just wood from a sugar cane tree. He picked these two sticks and he got holes on top of it — I don’t know what he was thinking when he came up with that. This guy started beating on that thing; and the sounds that were coming from that little piece of wood blew my mind! This is somebody that never went to school, didn’t do music in school! You see these kids playing guitar, and it was just crazy how naturally talented people out there are.

Those are the things I want to do when I become successful. I want to go to Liberia and maybe have a mobile studio, go to these different places, put these people together and just make some great music. If you give people direction, you can learn a lot of things from them. You get so many different ideas of what you can do.

I’m glad that we got to talk. It’s been educational for me, talking about Liberia, because I really didn’t know a lot. I hope you can get your music out there and reach a wide variety of people. I think the live instrumentation aspect is a real strength, and your soulful vocal quality adds a different dimension to it. I was surprised when I first listened to the CD, how much Rock and Pop influence there was. I don’t normally get into that as much, but I enjoyed it because of that unique combination with your voice.

Thank you. I’m glad it was able to do that. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of — that people who listen to many different types of music have liked it. I have people who love Rock music say, ‘That is jamming!’ and Hip Hop fans say, ‘That is really interesting.’ I like that. Everybody can relate to the music in some shape or form.

Are theree many venues where you can do the whole live band setup with your music?

I haven’t found many yet. There are a few places here in L.A., but I’m looking for venues to really go and put on a good show. That’s my next step. I’m really looking to go to the colleges and small towns, and the places where secular music is not a big thing. I just want to go where people like to listen to good music.

Maybe you can find a way to carve a niche, since you have that World music aspect — like what Paul Simon did with Graceland a number of years ago.

He did a great job with that album. A friend of mine and I talked about that right when my album was mixed down. If I remember correctly, he went to Africa and learned a lot of African music, and he did that really well, to incorporate it into mainstream Pop. It’s a fun record, and that’s what I wanted to do with mine.

Learn more about Jaway and purchase his music on JawayMusic.com

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.
  • Pennelainer

    Fascinating interview. I learned a great deal about Liberia ad this talented and determined young artist. I hope he gets the audience he deserves.