In the beginning, Samson Tarpeh had a pretty good life in Monrovia, Liberia. He was the youngest child of seven born to his father who was a Pentecostal minister and his mother, a police officer.
But by the time he was 8 or 9 years old, he and his family had been uprooted from their home and were seeking refuge wherever possible in the rural regions of Liberia. Also, by that time he had lost his mother and three siblings in the crossfire of warring factions, leaving only Samson and his father running from place to place to avoid death in one of Africa's bloodiest wars.
The war in the Republic of Liberia lasted 14 years with only a brief ceasefire when Charles Taylor was elected president in 1997. Two years later, however, violence erupted again, ending only with the exile of Taylor and the intervention of the West African countries.
"My father and I returned to Monrovia when I was 11 or 12," said Tarpeh, 33. "The civil war was still going on. About 250,000 people died in the civil war."
And about 1 million others were displaced, some in nearby countries.
His father, the Rev. Solomon Tarpeh, took his son to the First Baptist Church in Caldwell, New Georgia, Liberia, where the young teen first sang in the choir.
"The minister of music saw my involvement and how eager I was," Samson Tarpeh said, "and he started a music class for interested choir members. That was how I learned to read music."
He was a quick study and soon was playing hymns on the piano.
"That gave me healing, self-esteem and a focus," he said.
And because music had that effect on him, Tarpeh believes the same will be true for other children who have been traumatized by so many years of war in his homeland.
"Music is just different," he said, trying to explain how it transforms him. "There is just something that when you listen to it, it brings you relief. You just feel awesome."
This piece is dedicated to all generous supporters of the Agape National Academy of Music Campaign on "go fund me", thank you. J. S. Bach French Suite No. 4 in E flat Major, BWV 815AllemandeCourantePosted by Samson Tarpeh on Monday, 23 February 2015
Tarpeh envisioned starting a school in which young students could learn to read and appreciate music, learn to play an instrument and then use that knowledge to touch others and heal his hurting country.
When Deborah Carlton Loftis visited Liberia on sabbatical in 2006, teaching at the Baptist seminary and working with churches and choirs, Tarpeh served as the pianist for the choir.
"Over that period of time, we got to know one another a bit and he shared his passion to help his country emerge from the strife of war through music," said Loftis, the executive directory of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.
"He was almost self-taught," she said. "He had mostly taught himself about classical music."
When she visited his church, she said Tarpeh was teaching the choir a composition by Franz Joseph Haydn, despite their inability to read music.
"He taught them the parts by rote," she said. "The first amazing thing was that he would attempt to do that and the second was that the choir was willing to sit through long rehearsals to do that. They were so patient.
"I was simply floored," Loftis continued. "And I was quite taken with their enthusiasm for singing and how they were soaking up this music that was so different from what they would hear on the streets of Monrovia."
When he returned to Monrovia in 2008 from Ghana where he had earned a certificate in music to go along with his bachelor's degree in public administration, his desire to start a music school could no longer be quenched.
He asked Loftis about possible names and she said "agape," or unselfish love for one another, he said.
"He credits me with the name, but I don't remember it that way," she said with a soft laugh. "Anyway, he certainly has done all the work."
Agape National Academy of Music was founded in June, 2008, opening its doors to 40 students. It is a non-profit, nine-month after-school program that rents space from a high school in Monrovia.
Each student pays $150 and chooses an instrument. Most are sponsored by their local church. At the end of the program, if they pass the test, they receive a certificate of achievement, Tarpeh said. If they don't pass, they can continue in the program to earn the certificate.
Classes are led by seven certified instructors three days a week for about three hours each day. Students can choose to play guitar, percussion instruments, saxophone, flute, piano, violin or trumpet, all of which were obtained through a grant or donations. Nearly 50 students have graduated since the school opened.
In 2011, Tarpeh came to the United States for his second visit and spoke at The Hymn Society's annual convention in Colorado Springs about ANAM. There he met Wesley Roberts, professor of music at Campbellsville University. Roberts urged him to get a degree in music at Campbellsville.
Tarpeh was accepted on a partial scholarship and enrolled in January, 2012, with sponsorship from ANAM. His plan was to return to Monrovia when he completed his degree, but that was in 2014, just when the Ebola crisis brought more devastation to Liberia.
"The school had to close down," Tarpeh said. "The country was in an economic crisis."
Before it closed, the school had about 100 students. Two students died from Ebola.
Still in the U.S., Tarpeh began playing piano at worship services in Louisville and for Wesley United Methodist Church in Lexington to supplement his classroom training in hymns, under the guidance of well-known pianist Cliff Jackson.
Now that the Ebola crisis has abated, Tarpeh is raising funds to reopen ANAM. By his estimate and that of his board of directors in the U.S. as well as his board in Monrovia, it will take $6,000 to open and fund the school for one quarter. After that, the school should be self-sufficient. That amount will pay rent, the $75 a month salary for the teachers, and cancel other debt.
Ebola may have deferred his dream, but it did not defeat it.
"He latched on to this passion," Loftis said. "I thought what chance does this man have, and, doggone it, he has done it. He is the most persistent, unflappable, optimistic young man I have ever met."
Tarpeh is hosting a concert at Wesley on April 19 featuring various artists including bass baritone Keith Dean, mezzo soprano Margareth Miguel; baritone Michael Preacely; soprano Iris Fordjour-Hankins; bass Ian McGuffin; soprano Jackie Cunningham; saxophonist Daniel Myers; the Wesley United Methodist Church Choir; and the Lima Drive Kingdom Soldiers Drum Corps.
If the concert generates enough money, the school could reopen in June or July, Tarpeh said.
"Listening to music affects your mind and soul positively, emotionally," he said. "There are so many children in Liberia who are traumatized by the civil war. By listening to music, it will take away the stress from one's mind and bring them relief and comfort. It can bring them into a new world of creativity and nation-building, social interaction and community."
In graduate school, Tarpeh is studying international development of non-profit organizations to better manage the school. When he completes that, he will return to Liberia.
"He is determined to go back," Loftis said.