Perhaps one of the most fascinating historical connections in the world today is the one between Liberia, a country on the coast of West Africa, and Charleston. On April 21, 1878, a group of 206 African Americans set sail from Charleston to the Liberian capital of Monrovia. It's referred to as the Liberian exodus, part of an increased push for emigration in the post-slavery era from within the African-American community.
Through seemingly impossible hardships (23 of the passengers died along the way, and the land was inhospitable to farming of any kind), these settlers created the backbone of Africa's first democratically governed country, and through civil war, the ravages of natural disasters, and disease, the link between Charleston and Liberia remains strong to this day.
Perhaps the best example of that connection is the city's work with Save More Kids, a charity dedicated to helping the country's orphaned children by supporting Christ's Children Home Orphanage in Gbarnga. Save More Kids is actually based out of Sacramento, Calif., but there are regular fundraising events for the charity in Charleston, including a gala in November of 2016 that was coordinated by musician, composer, and record producer Tommy Gielingh.
Gielingh composed a song, or more accurately, a chorus called "Liberia" for an African band scheduled to play the event, and then ended up onstage when their guitarist took ill at the last minute.
"I sang the chorus over and over again; all these city officials started singing along," Gielingh says. He'd written and released songs for various charities in the past, so after the gala, Sandy Morckel, a board member of Save More Kids, asked him to record and release "Liberia."
"We recorded the foundation of it at Mantis Records here in Park Circle," he says, "and then we had a fundraiser at Prohibition, and Mayor Tecklenburg, who also plays piano on the record, attended the fundraiser, and we jammed the night away. At the end of that party, we did a choir session with a portable studio and recorded everybody singing along to the chorus of 'Liberia.'"
- Photos by Jonathon Stout
But the song wasn't done yet, and Gielingh wasn't done with Liberia. Moved immensely by the story of the orphaned children there, Gielingh decided to create a music festival in Monrovia to raise money and awareness for Save More Kids. The festival is May 28, and Gielingh, along with Morckel and Charleston singer Zandrina Dunning, will leave for Liberia on May 21. Gielingh and Dunning will perform alongside musicians from all over Liberia as well as a children's choir.
"It's called the Save More Kids Festival," he says. "But we have boots on the ground over there in terms of staging, lighting sound, security and so on. One of the main people involved is one of the better known DJs in Liberia, Henry Costa. He can really get people to do things for a great cause. I was a little bit worried about it at first, but they do hold other concerts, and they are capable of creating the stages."
Not that creating a music festival on another continent 4,000 miles away with a four-hour time difference was easy to do. "It's been a rough ride," Gielingh says. "Communication is really tricky. You're four hours behind. But you'd have to adapt anywhere else in the world, too. And it's also therapeutic because you have to slow down and be patient. But you've got to keep your eye on the goal: These children are the future of the country."
It probably also helps that Gielingh, a veteran of event production, is realistic about how the inaugural festival is probably going to go. "I'm not expecting it to be huge, because I've seen this before," he says. "It's normally the second or third editions that are big."
But at least that means he's planning more festivals to help Save More Kids, and while he's there, Gielingh plans to finish up his song as well. "While we're doing the festival, we're also going to be recording the Save More Kids village and city officials on the song to raise more awareness," he says. "We're even going to try to bring in street musicians and people just walking by."
To learn more about and to support Save More Kids, go here.