Liberia’s legends, sons and daughters who put Africa’s oldest republic on the international map with their gifts and talents, are not only found in the sporting arena like George Manneh Weah or in the field of politics like G. Baccus Matthew. Under the gloom of national despair folks in the music industry also emitted the ambers of enlightenment and joy. Amongst them was Yata Zoe, formerly Victoria Snetter, whose lyrics in folksongs kept the nation on edge. It has been long since the Liberian public ever heard about this nightingale of Liberia. But a few days ago, a group of journalists bumped into her in her corner somewhere in the woods of Bomi County. The Analyst reports.
Her name may not resonate with this generation but she was indeed an icon in the cultural arena, with her amazing dancing and singing skills that lifted high the flag of Liberia both at home and abroad.
One will not have an understatement to say that like other compatriots living or dead, she too is currently having the bitter taste of how this country snubs people who have done so well in various fields of human endeavor but end up being abandoned in hours of needs.
From her quiet and serene abode in Perry Town, in rural Bomi County, Madam Yata Zoe, formerly Miss Victoria Snetter, welcomed a team of journalists to reflect on her life, career, her defining moments and disappointments, including her regrets in life.
Her story is a complete lesson in struggling against odds to succeed, patience, perseverance, meekness, humility and self-esteem.
She began interacting with the journalists from her unenviable early life, where she lost her dad at an early age, leaving her with faint or not memory of him except from the stories told from surviving family members, including her mother whom she also lost in 1970.
These unfortunate developments in her early life made her to live and be raised by some family members among which is the Grandmother of Former Foreign Minister, the late Dorothy Musuleng Cooper. She said when her grandmother died, she lived with Musuleng’s mother and sent her to a mission school called AA Mission School where she graduated from the 9th grade.
She was not shy to talk about her past when she mentioned that when she enrolled at the College of West Africa (CWA) in the 10th Grade, she went wayward and got pregnant for her first child. But that could not deter her from furthering her education as she was among other students who were the first batch to attend the then Martha Tubman Night School.
She spoke of hardship going through the school and at the same time taking up the herculean task of catering to herself and child as a single mother. Determined, she soldiered on and completed her high school education.
Perhaps she got the leap she needed in life to get away from the poverty-stricken life she has toiled coming up when she got in contact with the late Mrs. Willhemena Dukuly Bryant who was working at the Basic Arts Center in Clay, who was a friend to one of her uncles, Sam Hill.
She introduced her to William Lewis, who was operating a nightclub called LIBERIAN JUNGLE. Yata was offered a job at the night club and paid $15 per month, taking out $10 to pay for her rented room on Mechlin Street.
She said every night she and others went to the nightclub to perform and return home during the early morning hours of the next day. According to the musical legend, her amazing dancing steps and skills soon caught the attention of so many admirers and she became the talk of the town as told by those who patronized the place.
As the saying goes, every success story has so many fathers, so it was with her adventure at the nightclub that attracted people who were related to her because she didn’t know.
“So we came back from dancing on this particular day and Ma Willhemena told me that a cousin of my late father wanted to see me. I was awestruck. I was not even enthusiastic or happy at first because after going through all these hard times taking care of myself, I just felt that I never needed any person to come to me as a family person,” she said, dismissing at first the destiny helper that happened to be a true family person after all.
That person was the late Bai T. Moore, one of the greatest Liberians that contributed immensely to the development and growth of the tourism sector of the economy.
She said Bai introduced himself to her as a cousin to his late father but that he was not around when her father died. Bai, according to her, was away in the United States where the missionaries he was living with took him for education and had returned to Liberia with a black lady, called Catherine Dunner, who wanted someone to work and teach at her dancing school in the United States.
The icon said she first rejected the offer because there were personal things she wanted to do in Liberia than to travel abroad despite all the persuasion from Bai T. Moore to take the offer since it was going to change her life.
She recalled: “I didn’t want to go because I wanted to take care of my daughter. We were two ladies. She took our photos. I wanted to remain here, look for a man, settle down, but to make a long story short, time came when the other lady, Famata was pregnant and that is how I went abroad.”
When asked what her experience was then whether it was just rosy as promised or whether it turned out to be something else, the musical icon of international acclaim said the trip turned out to be one of the worst things she ever experienced.
She said for two years she worked for Madam Dunner and her husband, cleaning the apartment, the office, doing odd jobs at home and the office, waiting to teach the students on an hourly basis for which she was never paid a dime.
“For two years she didn’t pay me. She said she had already paid me because she bought my air ticket from Liberia to America. The husband started doing funny things and I didn’t like it, then I slapped him and he told his wife about it and they put me outside. I went to the Liberian consulate and they took me in but they didn’t like me to be coming back late from shows,” she said.
Madam Yata Zoe said she taught the students the Gola and Vai dance steps which they were fond of and there were just a few places where the African Dance was taught, among them was the one provided by one Madam Martha Alatunji from Nigeria at the time.
With her talents and now on her own from the heinous treatment she got from Ms Dunner who promised her all the goodies in the world and failed to deliver, Madam Yata Zoe said she got a break when she came into contact with one Philemon, a South African refugee, who was living in Liberia then and was fortunate to be taken to the United States by a culture promoter, Harry Bellefine who took the Ballet African from Guinea to the United States.
Bellefine, according to her, took her to the Zulu Dance Band, a South African Dance group where the legendary Mariam Makeba was also a member. It was in 1963 and the World Fair was held.
“Mariam and I could not get along because she had the perception then that Liberians were brainwashed to live and behalf like white people. She took issue with the way I used to dress in dresses and trousers that were western and she didn’t like that. She used to dress in African lappa suit to perform. I was offended and I slapped her. The case reached the management and I was fired. But Ballet Africain took me in and there was where I met my husband, a Guinean called Sorromou,” she recounted.
She said though she was not happy with Mariam at the time, she later realized that what Mariam told her then that got her annoyed was to later on make her to take one of the major decisions concerning her true identity.
“I was not happy with Mariam but she told me that if I must succeed, I needed to change my name to my real name and that was how I changed my name to Yatta Zoe, my original name I was given at birth.
The origin and the true meaning of her famous song YOUNG GIRL STOP DRINKING LASOL was brought into the interaction and she gave a graphic description that it came out of betrayal and a lesson thought to young girls not to take their lives away because of love they were made to commit themselves to.
Yata narrated the backward of her first song that made a hit in Liberia: “I used to have a play mother those days, a very beautiful ‘country’ girl on Front Street who was loving to a boy from the elite class all the way from Grade school who was sure to get married to the boy. But the boy’s parents had another woman from an elite family which the country girl didn’t know anything about. So on a particular day, a friend came running to her yelling to come over and see something. The girl was pressing her mother’s clothes and instantly left the clothes. When she got to the place, she saw her boyfriend walking down from the church with his just wedded wife hand in hand. Seeing that happened and being downhearted and frustrated, she ran to the house, entered the toilet, took the bottle of lasol, drank it and went upstairs where she later on died. It was a sad moment.”
As a struggling “country girl” who one way or the other got to associate with the “civilized” people, she was asked what was the difference that existed between the two sets of girls those days. She said: “The country girl will scrub the floor, wash the pots, cook, do all the odd jobs at home, but the civilized girl will not do those things. I grew up with Eva Mill Craulker and D. Musuleng Cooper, I never one day saw them in the kitchen until Dorothy got married,” she said.
Madam Yatta Zoe said even at the College of West Africa where she spent just a year, there was a sharp difference between the “country girls” and the “civilized girls” and mentioned the name of Victoria Tolbert, Wokie Tolbert, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, etc.
They were people from the upper class who didn’t mix up with those from the lower class. But she said as for Ellen, she was a family person because her father (Zoe’s dad), who was commonly referred to as PAPAYA was related to Ellen’s. She said it was such an embarrassing situation that she does not want to remember.
When asked how she responded to some of those discriminatory tendencies from friends, she said when she was going to the United States she was crying. She didn’t want to go and the late Bai T. Moore asked her, ‘why are you crying; you don’t want to be a Bomb?’ She said she did not like the use of the word “Bomb”, but told herself to be the best in singing and dancing anywhere she went. She said these things, her reputation, remembering to know she came from and to be herself and not being like others guided her to overcome most of the things she faced.
Madam Yata further said there was some contradictions in the behavior of some of her “civilized” friends upon her return from the United States.
She lamented: “You know those days when you come from America, everyone wants to see you, wants to be your friend, but for me it was somehow different. They expected me to be wearing dresses, those fancy things in the name of fashion. But I was wearing complete African lappa suits to their disdain. They felt that nothing had changed in me. So sad.”
The forgotten national figure was a huge asset to the country during her prime. She graced high profile occasions when heads of government and state visited Liberia. During the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Liberia, President Tubman made special arrangements for Madam Yata Zoe to come down and perform and she lived up to the bidding as she lifted the ceremonies to the height of placing the country on the global entertainment map.
She was also to be invited to perform at the crowning ceremony of former Congolese leader, Emperor Jean Bedell Bokasa.
On her pick for the President who contributed most in the promotion of Liberia’s culture, Madam Yatta Zoe said she can pick President William VS Tubman and there are several reasons for Tubman to succeed. She said besides being an old man who appreciated tradition, he also had people like the late E. Reginald Townsend, Bai T. Moore and Jangaba Johnson or Tambakai Jangabai who were very passionate about projecting the cultural and traditional heritage and value of the country. She mentioned Mr. Townsend who specifically wanted her to work at the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism but she refused, insisting on taking contracts to match her worth.
She stated further that Mr. William R. Tolbert picked up from where Tubman stopped. “Tolbert built it up from where Tubman stopped. He promoted the culture as a way to showcase Liberia to the outside world but could not do so with music because of his involvement with Christianity as a Pastor and President of the World Baptist Alliance.
She took a swipe at those who denigrate the speaking of Liberia’s languages and call on the government to take cue from other African countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, etc where the speaking of traditional languages adds to the self-esteem of the citizens. “For Liberia, it is unfortunate. When I go abroad and while singing I use my Gola language, the white people clap for me but for Liberia, you see people, especially the young people referring to our language as “that thing”.
Asked as to the most appreciative part of her life, she said looking around and finding out that most of her friends are dead and she is still alive, is the most appreciative part of her life. She said she sold her only house in Monrovia to pay the cost of her treatment in Amsterdam because she could not be treated here and it was expensive and came down to her village to live a quiet life. She said though painful, she was grateful to be alive.
She made a special commendation of Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who she said was instrumental in attending to her welfare and that of her community as the only person who has recognized her contribution and shown keen interest in making sure her legacy is remembered. She mentioned about the water services provided in her community and sending journalists to her to let the world know who she is, what she done for this country and what she has to bequeath as legacy to the next generation.
For her regrets she said, with all the works put in by people like the late Peter Ballah, Bai T. Moore, E. Reginald Townsend, others and herself, their works were never appreciated or even the successive governments have not done anything to have culture and tourism developed. She called on the government to invest in the culture and tourism sectors of the economy because they have the potential of contributing more to the development of the country.