vrijdag 2 december 2016

Fidel Castro, Black people, and Africa : a balance

I have an interest in Cuba, and have travelled to Cuba several times, roughly in the period between 2001 and 2006. I made friends there. Solely for that reason, my life has a relation with Fidel Castro, who counted as the ‘líder máximo’ (supreme leader) in Cuba at that time, given as one person a relative large influence in Cuba’s political system. On previous posts of my blog I mentioned Fidel Castro here and there – mostly in relation to my Cuban experiences in that 2001-2006 period, which I treated also, as interchanging with other common themes of my blog, like music (reggae often), other countries (like Jamaica), or other cultural and social themes.

For these reasons, the announced death of Fidel Castro on the 25th of November, 2016 received my above-average attention. Yes, I will dedicate this blog post on Castro, but in a broader international and social setting. It is not going to be a tribute or allegory, as I strive toward impartiality and honesty.

BIASES

The latter is an issue, because I have noticed in many comments – before, and now surrounding his death – in news reports and other pieces (also in the Netherlands and other countries in Europe), that impartiality and honesty are both often dubious. Not always, but often there seemed to be biases. Ideological preferences play a role, both by self-proclaimed sympathizers (communists or not) with Fidel Castro, as by his opponents (in the US and elsewhere). Ideology inherently simplifies reality and human nature. Even the sincerity of such seemingly adhered to “ideology” of some people I doubt, as there exists some kind of “peer pressure” in some Leftist circles toward glorifying Castro and the 1959 revolution in Cuba, also – perhaps: especially – among “armchair socialists”. Likewise, pro-capitalist ideological thinkers consciously exaggerated the flaws or danger of anything seeming too Left-wing and of Communism on the larger Caribbean island Cuba.

More interesting to me are aspects of Castro’s image and legacies that are discussed less in the many comments: social and cultural aspects especially, more than political ones.


Photo I took in Santiago de Cuba (Eastern Cuba) in 2006, with Fidel Castro's image.

IN CUBA

I have spoken with many Cubans (I speak Spanish) in Cuba - or heard them speak – in private, behind closed doors, about Cuba’s political situation. This was still possible, despite a known network of political “informers” active at the Cuban neighbour-hood level, effecting censorship. These Cubans, mostly of the poorer sections, were often critical of Cuba’s political caste (personalized by Castro), or were mixed about it. “Mixed”, because several shared the Revolutionary ideals, and some even thought that Fidel Castro once meant well, but was corrupted himself. Some others thought that the people around him were worse. Some were simply fed up with him, others maintained a bit of sympathy. The period between 2001 and 2006 that I visited Cuba was called by the Cuban state a “Special Period”, without USSR funds to depend on, but instead trade relations with Communist countries like China or Vietnam, or developing, partial ones with certain European or American countries like Spain, Italy, Mexico or Canada. These did not solve most problems as such, as availability of goods remained a problem in Cuba, wherever I went. It was definitely a crisis period, affecting most Cubans..

My Cuba trips in the period 2001-2006 (about five if I recall well, related also to friendships) were educational, pleasant, intense, “fun”, even “magical’ during its better moments, on occasion “warm” regarding human relations.. yet.. it was almost never “comfortable”. Comfortable is not an adjective I would add to these to describe my Cuban experiences. People around me in Cuba very often wanted money from tourists, because that was a large need among many sections of the Cuban society: not just among the occasional bum or needy unemployed person, as in Western countries. This brought a tension for having to remain “on guard” in public and social life, also for me. This tension was not constant there, yet somehow seemed the “default mode”, so to speak.

There were, overall, many, many hustlers on the Cuban streets approaching especially - though not only - tourists, some of them more persistent than others. This is not different, of course, from other "poor" countries.

Noting this poverty and the neediness of many Cubans, I found it too simplistic to explain it away as solely due to US power, enforcing its trade embargo against Cuba. Some nepotism, money staying at the top, the dictatorship of a few powerful persons.. that was partly to blame too, I imagined. Many Cubans in Cuba itself commented that too. Besides this, okay, also US policy had a negative influence.

This poverty, combined with the public political propaganda – sometimes repetitive and grotesque – in public places and transmissions, and especially the lack of freedom of speech for common Cubans – the said informers were omnipresent – made it somewhat hard for me to see the Cuba I visited as a “paradise” or “example” for the world. Or as “pure” (as anti-capitalist), as some say (or imagine). Common sense tells me, moreover, that things like corruption, greed, egotism, lust for power, insincerity, are essential human traits that come to the fore in all political systems (from communist to capitalist), especially when it has an inherent inequality (as all “systems”).


Photo taken of me around 2003: at the entrance of the province of Guantánamo (Eastern Cuba). The text translates as: "Our Party: at the vanguard in the battle of ideas"

LESS LOW BUT EXTENSIVE BOTTOM

True: to a degree the Cuban state took and takes care of its citizens, ensuring (to a degree and not always adequately) basic necessities and education. This ensured that in Cuba the “bottom” of society is not as low as in other countries (even elsewhere in Latin America) – with less intense poverty -, yet on the other hand, that “bottom” is in Cuba proportionally relatively extensive, with many Cubans – even those highly educated – earning too meagre incomes to get by.

People around me (including friends and family members) have expressed sympathy for Fidel Castro’s, and specifically his social and political contributions. From my Left-wing, progressive own mother (who admittedly had bad experiences in a Right-wing, Fascist-like dictatorship: that of Franco in Spain), and friends of mine of African descent (living in the Netherlands), some in the Rastafari movement, who expressed appreciation for Fidel Castro’s/Cuba’s (anticolonial) aid to Africa (military, health care), and his other social contributions, assuring basic needs in Cuba. These friends (or my mother and other Spanish family members) were not totally mistaken or even misinformed, but there are other sides to the story, as with all stories. I am going to discuss these sides.

Be that as it may, I think it would be especially interesting to analyse what makes Fidel Castro unique as a dictator in Cuba, going beyond the ideologically driven “better Socialism” or “Socialism that worked” explanations. Some things got better after the 1959 Revolution, but many mistakes were made by Castro cum suis as well, that’s enough to resume for now I think.

BEYOND POLITICS

Instead, I would like to discuss social, cultural and racial factors surrounding the person Fidel Castro.

According to more impartial statistics, Cuba has a racially mixed population. It is estimated that about 65 % of the population – at least! - has to differing degrees African blood. About half of which can be considered mostly Black (the rest Mulatto or mixed). Between 30% and 40% is mostly of European descent (“White”), mostly of Spanish origin (and a bit French, here and there). That still makes Cuba one of the “Whiter” islands of the Caribbean, perhaps after Puerto Rico (that had historically proportionally less Africans).

This is relevant, because Fidel Castro is of course a White man, as everyone can see. More specifically, he looks like a Spaniard or South European, with no visible sub-Saharan African traits, unlike many other Cubans. Because of Cuba’s history of racialized slavery, and continued disadvantages after slavery for Afro-Cubans up to the present, it is appropriate to make a point of this Whiteness of Castro.

CARLOS MOORE

Someone who does this in context is Carlos Moore, in his book ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’, published in 1988. Carlos Moore (born 1942) is an Afro-Cuban, born in Cuba, but largely of British Caribbean descent, who for a time supported and worked with Fidel Castro (translator English-Spanish), and sympathized with the Revolutionary goals, reason for which he returned to his native Cuba by 1959. Before this he resided in New York, where he met and was influenced by Maya Angelou. She was one of the several Black Power and Resistance thinkers and activists that Moore would have contact with. Others include Aimé Césaire (from Martinique), Cheikh Anta Diop, Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X.

Added to this anti-racism and pro-Black credentials, can be added that Moore wrote the authorized biography of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti. This was the work: ‘Fela, Fela, this bitch of a life’, published in 1982.

This all was before Moore published the book mentioned before ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ (1988). Good to point out, that after joining Castro and the Revolutionary movement, Moore became critical of persisting racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans, and got into conflict with the Castro leadership. Moore was imprisoned, and left Cuba again in 1963, for France, where he obtained some university degrees. Much later, in 2000, he went to live in Brazil.

A quite interesting personality, this Carlos Moore, yet – I gather – relatively unknown. His 1988 book on ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ had a neutral title, but in fact was quite critical of Fidel Castro’s policies regarding Blacks and Africa. It focusses on Castro’s foreign policy, in particular with regard to Africa, and how Castro used his (self-proclaimed) pro-Black and anti-racism stance to gain support for his missions, and in a general sense ensure support for the (Cuban) Revolution and its spread. Likewise, in the propaganda, Castro opposed US racism to the progressive way the 1959 Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others fought against racism in Cuba, or even (supposedly) got rid of it.

Well now, Moore looks at other sides of this. At the same time, he does not deny progress since 1959 in Cuba itself, or positive results or effects in Africa of Cuban involvement. The most positive in my opinion is how Cuban military aid helped to ward off (Apartheid) South Africa’s invasion of Angola, after it got independent from Portugal in 1975. Castro sent quite some troops to Angola then. I met some Cubans who served in Angola in their younger years, for some the only place outside of Cuba where they have ever travelled.

Looking beyond – or rather: through – these achievements, Moore points in his 1988 work at the opportunism in play in Castro’s racial proclamations, as well as at Castro actually stimulating the persistence of anti-Black racism, by silencing critical voices from Afro-Cubans, even former allies.

To be short, any proposal for specific Black upliftment within Cuba, specifically for Afro-Cubans, was thwarted and halted by Castro and his regime. It is there where Moore relates this to Fidel Castro’s background.

CASTRO’S BACKGROUND

Moore refers to this background – as well as of most leaders in the 1959 Revolution in Cuba – as White and “Hispanic”. Personal biographies more or less confirm this.

Fidel Castro was born in Birán, in a relatively “White” province in Northeastern Cuba. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz, was a wealthy landowner born in Galicia, in Spain. Galicia is in the Northwest of Spain, a “green” region, with less “drought” issues as other parts of Spain, but with long anticuated, agricultural hereditary customs, increasing poverty for a part of the population and (thus) relatively much migration. Fidel’s Galician father actually ended up in Cuba, after being sent there by the Spanish government as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, thus to maintain this colony for Spain (eventually Spain lost, and the US took over in 1898, giving only cosmetic self-rule to Cuba itself). Through sugar cane Castro father/senior became rich. Castro’s mother worked in the farm (as household servant) for Fidel’s father, and was of Canarian (Canary islands) descent. Most Canarians (differing from island to island) have some Berber/North African blood, mixed with Spaniards and others (like Portuguese).

It is this largely Hispanic background, also of other Revolutionary leaders like Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who had Basque, Spanish, and Irish blood), that Carlos Moore addresses to explain some racial choices Castro made.

The historical denial of racial discrimination in Cuba – a mythical and largely unreal racial unity -, was continued by the 1959 Revolution’s leaders, even after making race and “ending discrimination” a rhetorical goal. Thinkers or activists continuing to protest this racism in Cuba were repressed and sidelined under Castro. If Castro addressed this matter, it had to be under his (quite authoritarian) terms, namely: making no issue of “race” as such, as all are supposedly “nonracial” Cubans in the New Revolutionary Cuba, with a claimed “racial democracy”.

The problem with this is obvious: historical slavery and lack of compensation for former slaves meant that Afro-Cubans remained at a historical disadvantage since the final abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886, with formal and informal racist practices continuing by the overall more wealthy and powerful White Cubans, sometimes supported by very light-skinned Mulattoes. The US became very influential in Cuba by the early 1900s, and brought some US racism to Cuba (part of the Americans that went to Cuba were White Southerners), but a racist base was already there, albeit with a particular Hispanic Cuban twist.

Denying racial inequality was one such persisting “twist”, which proclaimed a living together of different races, a greater ease of the mixing of races in Latin American colonies, when compared to the more socially segregated British and Anglo-Saxon colonies or contexts. To a degree this is true, explaining racial mixture (of Black and White) being relatively much more common in former Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Moore relates this further to a “paternalistic” approach inherited specifically from Spain and the Hispanic world, which – he argues – Castro also showed in his attitude toward Blacks in Cuba as well as in Africa. In other words: speaking and acting for Blacks, rather than as equal with Blacks.

The difficulty for Castro to actually and truly relate to the plight of Afro-Cubans – instead “drowning” it in a claimed “racial harmony” – is explained by Moore also in cultural terms. Castro’s Catholic (though Castro would denounce the Catholicism he was taught), Hispanic, and European upbringing and mindset – including initially European/German Marxism -, made that he could not understand the cultural “Africanness” of Afro-Cubans, but neither really Africans in Africa.

The closest relations of Castro in Africa – Moore indicates – were either mixed-raced or culturally very European-influenced African leaders, such as in Portuguese African colonies. Also the much-heralded Che Guevara had some critical, almost-racist remarks about the behaviour of Africans in Congo, that he did not understand or appreciate.

BALANCE

Moore, however, does not exclude the actual presence among the Revolutionary leaders like Fidel Castro of “good intentions” in the willingness to help Black people and Africans. A willingness that seemed on occasion sincere and humane. Castro’s cultural formation and paternalistic outlook limited however these good intentions, he contends, while in other cases the intentions were rather “opportunistic” for his own power, rather than really “good” or pro-equality.

The quote by Malcolm X that “Fidel Castro is the only White man I ever liked” is well-known, but at least partly a myth. In reality, Malcolm X mistrusted White Liberals “speaking for Blacks”, and in time got to mistrust Castro as well, largely due to the White leadership of the Revolution, and in general in higher places in Cuba. Afro-Cubans stayed socially below Euro-Cubans in Cuba, also after 1959 (and up to the present). Malcolm X noted, however, that some policies by Castro and Cuba were certainly beneficial for Black people worldwide and in Africa. He therefore became opportunistic as well, in turn “using” Castro, if it could benefit the pro-Black cause, instead of letting Castro use Black people for his own benefit. Malcolm X remained critical, though, of the White leadership in revolutionary Cuba, as well as of the persisting disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans. This is related in Moore's book.

Equally telling examples in Moore's book relate to the Black Panther members. The Black Panther Party was a somewhat Left/Socialist-leaning, Black power organization, of which members sought contact with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Black Panther members Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton (and others) found temporary refuge in Cuba, but got into conflict with the Castro regime precisely because of this continued Afro-Cuban disadvantage in Cuba. This was also noted by Stokely Carmichael, who conferred with Castro in 1967, yet was disappointed with the continued racism, Afro-Cuban disadvantages, and the all-White leadership in Cuba. After a critical speech, Carmichael became (as some other US Black leaders) even "persona non grata" in Cuba under Castro. Not too many people know this.

The authoritarian dictatorship that Cuba became after 1959 has been criticized by many, even initial sympathizers. The specific “caudillo” type of dictatorship common historically in both Spain and Latin America was partly also personified by Fidel Castro, even if Left-wing and nominally Communist. Other caudillo-dictators were Right-wing, like Franco in Spain, Perón in Argentina, or Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Interestingly, in Moore’s 1988 book, this typically Hispanic type of dictatorship is related to Spain’s complex history, and said to have both Roman and Arab (Moorish) antecedents, as cultural influences brought by Spanish colonizers. Many early Spanish colonizers came from Andalusia and bordering parts of Spain (like Extremadura), where there were Roman (as elsewhere in Europe), but also Moorish/Arab cultural and social influences.

In short, Carlos Moore’s work ‘Castro, the Blacks, and Africa’ from 1988, is an extensive, scholarly study of Cuban foreign policy especially with regard to Blacks and Africa, with as one important conclusion: Castro seemed to support social and political rebellion of Blacks, but did not feel too culturally connected with Blacks, causing a distance in goals and partly results. Even a trivial fact that Castro personally did not like drumming (music) – as he according to some said - becomes relevant in this regard.

Carlos Moore was imprisoned and left Cuba in 1963, as said before, and came into conflict with Castro and other revolutionary leaders. This might shed doubt on the total neutrality of the work. An element of “spite” and subtle revenge might be there, who knows. Besides this, Moore has his own ideological stances, and pro-Black agenda and connections shaping his views. The 1988 book, however, did not come across to me as “vengeful” or small-minded, neither in its tone, nor in its content. It gives a broad, often neutral overview of events. At least in part. There may be – as so often - partisan choices in “fact selection” though, as ironically also Castro and other opponents did/do.

Despite the mentioned critique, it does not fully discredit the positive effects of some of the Cuban Revolutionary policies since 1959, of which Fidel Castro was an important leader: some advancement for Blacks in Cuba, strengthened independence movements in Africa, other aid to Africa and other developing countries, including crucial medical and educational assistance that really, de-facto, helped poor countries and students there. Several Facebook posts/links I read referred to such achievements during Castro’s reign, in that sense eulogizing the deceased Fidel Castro, perhaps to question the simplified negative portrayal in the US and elsewhere. Maybe these positive advancements were achieved by Castro, but: – as the expression goes - “despite himself” (and his limited cultural, pro-European mindset, according to Carlos Moore).

dinsdag 1 november 2016

Rocksteady : a crucial transition

2016 marks the 50 year anniversary of the Jamaican music genre Rocksteady. This musical style appeared in Jamaica in 1966, following on the Ska period (that started around 1960), and gradual musical changes in Ska. Later changes in Rocksteady would of course result in Reggae music, appearing as separate genre in 1968.

This implies that Rocksteady did not have a long period or heyday: from 1966 to 1968; at most three years, as several sources/works on Jamaican musical history state. This short period of a few years – however – in this case says nothing about its relative importance in Jamaican musical history. This importance in fact cannot be underestimated. Limiting Rocksteady to just being a “station on the way” or transitional phase, toward Reggae is doing it no justice. It was a transitional phase, yes, but an influential, “shaping” one with regards to following Reggae. Its influence is still present in current Reggae. This raises, by the way, the interesting existential and philosophical question as to what degree the type of transition defines the eventual type of change.

In this post I would like to focus on Rocksteady, and its importance to Jamaican music up to now, despite its few years of dominance.

PERSONAL NOTE

On a personal note, as the writer, I think it is good to give my opinions on Rocksteady. I consider myself a Reggae fan, and have first started to really get into Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s. This started around 1984, when I was about 10 years old. My taste soon expanded, and Studio One records came more to the fore, also from the 1960s, including both Ska and Rocksteady. I went a bit back in time, one can say.

As a preceding and related genre, Ska had a bit of my interest, though I personally did not take to it so much as to, say, 1970s Reggae. It appealed to me overall less, depending on songs. I liked several slower Ska songs, but found much Ska songs a bit too fast and frenetic to my taste. A bit too simple too at times, though I noted the lively feel. Remarkably, my body danced/swayed automatically to Reggae (without a “manual”), but moving to the faster Ska was somewhat more difficult for me (and yes I “do” have rhythm and can dance on the beat, haha). A matter of taste and habit.

Rocksteady, now, I liked a bit more than most Ska. The first Rocksteady songs I really heard were by the Ethiopians, followed a bit later by Alton Ellis.

Its slower groove attracted me more than Ska, and I liked the increased attention to vocals and harmonies in Rocksteady, with many qualitatively good songs, at least in my opinion.

Also great songs by Alton Ellis in the Rocksteady mode appealed to me at once, although Ellis' great singing played of course a role too.

DIFFERENCES

I noted the similarities to Reggae, but also became aware of the differences in some aspects. The bass guitar became electric and more prominent in Jamaica by 1966, with since then “repeated patterns” in Rocksteady (in Ska the bass was “walking”): clearly a forebode to Reggae. There were however still some differences with Reggae in musical characteristics: in drum and other patterns, or instrument use. Interestingly, yet typically, newer technology also drove changes, starting with the said electric bass guitar becoming used more in Jamaica since the Rocksteady period began (around 1966): Ska tended to have an upright, acoustic bass, with walking patterns on every beat. Also, Rocksteady tended to use pianos, whereas following Reggae used more modern keyboards, somehow causing changes musically, along with new studio technology.

Beyond such technical and musical differences explained in text, there’s – I find – a difference you can also “feel”, and that’s in dancing. I am aware that in European culture, it is not that self-evident that “music is best experienced danced to”, as is more prominent in other cultures (African or African-derived ones for instance).

FROM SKA TO ROCKSTEADY

In the work ‘Reggae and Caribbean music’ by Dave Thompson (Backbeat Books, 2002) the difference between Ska and Rocksteady (that followed on Ska around 1966) is described poignantly as such:

The rock steady was taking over, slower, more considered, more cool (than ska). Instead of honking horns and skipping rhythms, the bass now drove the song, and the heavier the better”.

It was not just about changed (slower) tempo, also drum and other differences arose, as Leonard Dillon (of the Ethiopians) pointed out: Ska and Rocksteady could both be slower or faster: that’s not the main distinction. It is “how” it is played that made them different genres.

GENERAL CHANGES

General changes from Ska to Rocksteady further included less of a "big band" focus (smaller orchestras when compared to Ska.. the Skatalites disbanded also in 1965), a decreased role of the horns (becoming more supportive than leading), and a different bass pattern (more melodic and spacious, when compared to the walking, continuous acoustic bass patterns in Ska). The drum changed along with this too, in Rocksteady accentuating stronger the third beat (of 4/4), known as the One Drop. This continued in Reggae.

Interestingly, Michael E. Veal in his work 'Dub : soundscapes and shattered songs in Jamaican reggae' (Wesleyan University Press, 2007) also adds to this that the new electric bass lines in Rocksteady (he uses two words as some other athors "rock steady") "composed of a mixture of rests and syncopations opening up spaces for other instruments to insert counterrhythms". This is an African retention.

The decreased prominence of horns is said to be due to their costliness, although Kevin O'Brien Chang and Wayne Chen, in their work 'Reggae Routes : the story of Jamaican music' (Temple University Press, 1998), found this explanation only partly convincing, relating it also to a preference among some of the musicians for a shift to "pure rhythm" or bass. They point out that in a poorer country like Haiti, folk and popular music still uses quite some horns, contradicting their inherent costliness. O'Brien Chang and Chen further point at a variety of reasons for the changes, reasons I will address later on..

The very educational and recommendable online article by the knowledgeable "reggae expert" David Katz addresses this too, pointing also at the shift to the drum emphasis on the third beat (of 4/4), the "One Drop", remaining as said in following Reggae.

The readable and informative work ‘The rough guide to reggae’, by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, in turn, dating from 2001 (published by Rough Guides), devotes a chapter called ‘Rude boys and Rocksteady’ to the genre, stating in this chapter:

The brief flowering of rocksteady – between the autumn of 1966 and the summer of 1968 – was the most important episode in Jamaican musical history, exerting an influence on almost every subsequent development history. The shift of rhythmic focus onto the bass and drums has remained a feature of all later stages of Jamaican music.”

In the work is further explained: early remixes or “proto-dubs” were made in 1967, while the first dee-jay/toaster to record songs in studios, the “originator” U Roy, did this first on largely instrumental versions of Rocksteady songs. So, also for Dub and for Dee-jaying – as current accepted subgenres within Reggae -, the Rocksteady period was crucial.

FIRST ROCKSTEADY SONG

Several songs contest for the title for “first Rocksteady song” (all from 1966) in Jamaican history. This kind of anecdotal history recurs throughout different works on Jamaican music. Most sources agree on a few songs that could be the very first ones, but do not know which one for sure. Even Jamaicans themselves of the time are/were not entirely sure.

These four songs recorded in 1966 all could be the first Rocksteady songs:

  • Alton Ellis-Girl I’ve Got A Date

  • Hopeton Lewis-Take It easy

  • Derrick Morgan-Tougher Than Tough

  • Roy Shirley-Hold Them

REASONS

The use of the electric bass and other technology – as I wrote before – played a role in the musical change. Yet, beyond this there were other factors influencing the change, also mentioned in standard works on Jamaican music and its history, such as the one mentioned above by Dave Thompson, but also in other works.

The increased attention to singing and vocals might, according to the 2002 work ‘Reggae : the story of Jamaican music’ by Lloyd Bradley (accompanying a BBC series), be a cause rather than a consequence of Rocksteady’s rise. This because the slower genre, and less “big bands with virtuoso instrumentalists (as in Ska)”, made it more accessible for aspiring singers from Jamaica’s ghettos to be vocally active in music, but with no money or opportunities for learning to play (or owning) instruments.

Other practical reasons are also anecdotical, such as the known studio story relating how when Hopeton Lewis was recording ‘Take It Easy’ (in October 1966), he found the Ska rhythm accompanying it too fast for his vocals, asking to slow the rhythm down, signalling a first stylistic move toward Rocksteady among the musicians present (according to many).

Other explanations for Rocksteady’s rise relate to Jamaica’s social context. Ska was there when Jamaica became independent from Britain in 1964, when optimism was for a few years strong among the population, with hopes for a better future for Jamaicans. This prosperous future did not come after 1964, especially not for the poorer population. Seemingly only politicians/elite groups among Jamaicans profited from independence. In fact, poverty and inequalities increased in Jamaica after 1964.

This, according to several works, changed the mood among the Jamaican ghetto population attending the dancehalls, away from the jumpy, fast pace of Ska, toward a slower, heavier genre, namely Rocksteady. So-called “Rude Boys”, who also often were involved in crime in response to increased poverty, seemed to favour this Rocksteady over Ska.

In Jamaican music the audience was and is justly influential on what is played at the dancehall (and not the other way around: that big companies decide what is played, for instance, as in Europe and the US). Therefore the audience also influenced changes in Jamaican music’s direction around 1966.

Another influence, as several works on Jamaican music point at, is the influence of Soul music from the US, of bands like the Impressions, whose somewhat “smooth” harmonies were a period popular among many Jamaicans, in turn influencing a change toward “smoother” and slower Rocksteady, also allowing more vocal harmonies.

All these factors mentioned here were I think to different degrees influential in the change from Ska toward Rocksteady, as part of a multifaceted, yet organic process. The music industry, technology, musicians’ studio input, aesthetic/musical/artistic choices, international influences, social changes, and audience expectations.

NAME

Not everyone knows the origin of the name Rocksteady, not even those somehow into Reggae. Of course it means something in English, along the lines of very “tight” or “fixed”. Several sources point out that this name refers to the changes in playing/recording the music. It is said that when the music for Hopeton Lewis’ 1966 tune ‘Take It Easy’ was played slower, one of the musicians present (pianist Gladstone Anderson) called the new, slower rhythm “rock steady”, thereby according to some “christening” the new genre’s name, there and then.

This could well be true, but other sources, instead, relate the name more to the differences in dancing between Ska and Rocksteady in Jamaica. Ska was commonly danced to in a faster, more “moving about” and twisting way, while Rocksteady, with its repeated basslines driving the rhythm, seemed to call more for a “stationary grid”. Thus: steady as a rock. Rocking the shoulders and body to the music, while staying put more or less on one spot. “Rent-a-tile” was a characteristic expression appearing at that “Rocksteady” time at the Jamaican dancehalls (either for a single dancer, or a couple romancing and dancing).

The classic Rocksteady tune ‘Rocksteady’ (1966) by Alton Ellis, refers with its title to a specific dance, different from the Ska dancing.

The added advantage of the Rocksteady dance – especially when it’s busy and crowded in a place – is that when dancing you take up less space as a person, thereby allowing enough space for others as well. This does then end up to be well-mannered, without much effort, haha.

With the importance of the “dancehall” in actually shaping Jamaican music, the influence of dancing as such on Rocksteady’s development should not be underestimated. Indeed, the intricate relationship between music and dance is clear, even (if indirectly) in studio recording.

Trinidad-born author Sebastian Clarke of the work ‘Jah music : the evolution of popular Jamaican music’ (Heinemann, 1980) recognized as much, stating in the book (in a section on Rocksteady in Jamaican music):

Throughout the changes that the music made, dance was a primary element. Without dance there would be no music. The music was played almost exclusively for dancing from its inception via the sound systems to live performances..”

He further describes the differences of dancing to Ska and to Rocksteady, as it developed, describing how on “fast and pacy” Ska the accent was on the feet (“shuffle and split”), whereas dancing on Rocksteady, slower yet with more “tension” in it, the body responded to an inner rhythmic drive. Shoulders tended to be shaken, while the arms and hands made pounding motions (to an invisible enemy or force), while staying on one spot. Clarke concludes from this, interestingly, that “the tension of the external society was internalized by the dancer and expressed physically”..

LASTING LEGACIES

Rocksteady was not “just” transitional, as I said. The “repeated patterns” of the bass, and its leading role along with the drums, turned out to be –as mentioned - a recurring, lasting trait of all subsequent Jamaican music, notably Reggae, and derived Dancehall. Rocksteady and Ska (and Reggae) shared the “afterbeat” as general rhythmic focus of own Jamaican genres, but had further different accents in instrumentation, vocally, musical choices etcetera.

BASS AND RIDDIMS

Those leading, repeated bass patterns started in Rocksteady, and consisted thus of a crucial transition. The whole idea of “riddims”, now sung over by several artists, in fact was made possible by this; different leading bass lines made these Riddims recognizable as distinct. Many “riddims”, or instrumental versions, of Rocksteady songs, therefore recur in current Reggae and even Dancehall. One should only listen to old Rocksteady songs by Alton Ellis, Ken Boothe, the Melodians, or the Heptones to “recognize” music still vocalized over today by current artists like Half Pint, Junior Kelly, Sizzla, Capleton, Bushman, Luciano, Anthony B, and Lutan Fyah. Many of whom started their music careers well after Rocksteady’s heyday. These Rocksteady “riddims” thus recur.

Examples abound, but I can name the Slow Down/Love Won’t Come Easy Riddim: this one is based on an instrumental called ‘Frozen Soul’ by the Soul Vendors at Studio One, on which the Heptones recorded their 1968 Rocksteady tune “Love Won’t Come Easy’ (Lutan Fyah’s ’King’s Son’ from 2008 is e.g. on this Riddim), or the Hypocrites/Mr Landlord Riddim, based on the 1967 Wailers’ tune ‘Hypocrites’ (Bushman’s ‘Fire Bun A Weakheart’ is e.g. on this Riddim), . These originals had the typical Rocksteady characteristics. The Pretty Looks Riddim (from the 1968 tune ‘Pretty Looks Isn’t All’) is another example (Dennis Brown’s ‘Hit & Run’ is e.g. on this Riddim).

The Rocksteady “vibe”, so to speak, can thus be still heard throughout today’s Reggae. All “recycled” today, perhaps a bit modernized or “reggae-fied” but still recognizable as older Rocksteady instrumentals from roughly the period 1966-1968. As said, the driving “repeated patterns” of the bass made each song distinct, unlike the “walking bass lines” (with notes on every beat) of the Ska era before.

SINGING

Another crucial and lasting change in Jamaican music, due to Rocksteady, I already mentioned: the increased prominence of singing. This included harmony vocals, eventually influencing the rise of great vocal harmony groups in Jamaican music: the Wailers, but also the Abyssinians, the Gladiators, the Viceroys, the Wailing Souls, the Itals, and the Mighty Diamonds. Even those groups releasing their first records after this Rocksteady period, still stood in the new tradition started in the Rocksteady period. Due to the slower tempo and other musical changes, this vocal harmony could develop in Jamaican music during the Rocksteady era. This became of course a crucial element in Roots Reggae, with bands like Culture or Israel Vibration reaching even international audiences since the later 1970s, and helping to increase Reggae’s world wide popularity beyond just Bob Marley.

Besides this, many influential individual singers in Reggae, started in or around the Rocksteady period, or “developed their vocal style” more, after the more instrumental focus of Ska before it, People like Ken Boothe and Alton Ellis started in the Ska era, but came to more prominence in the Rocksteady era, showing indeed how great they were as singers (and songwriters). Ellis making a song under that title (ascribing the name to a dance), while Ken Boothe became known as ‘Mr. Rocksteady’ at one point. Bob Andy and John Holt also made classic Rocksteady tunes, covered afterwards several times (Bob Andy’s ‘Too Experienced’ or ‘My Time’ for example).

PLAYLIST DEBUT SINGLES

Here is also where a playlist I myself compiled some years ago for YouTube comes in handy: the playlist assembles “first single releases” or “debut singles” of many Jamaican reggae artists. Needless to say: some of these debut singles were in the Rocksteady genre (some in Ska a.o.), dependent on the recording year, of course: Jacob Miller (as a child), Horace Hinds (Horace Andy), Earl Lowe (Little Roy), Enos McLeod, Keith Blake (Prince Alla), Junior Soul (Junior Murvin), the Gladiators, the Renegades (early formation of the later Wailing Souls), the Tartans (including the later Congos’ Cedric Myton and Prince Lincoln Thompson), Al Campbell.. are but some examples of known artists starting their career with a Rocksteady tune.

FROM ROCKSTEADY TO REGGAE

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, important for the Rastafari community, visited Jamaica in 1966 (so also 50 years ago in 2016), a time when Rocksteady was arising in Jamaican music. The large audience awaiting Selassie at the airport, showed that the Rastafari community had increased by then in Jamaica, since the movement’s beginning in the 1930s.

RASTAFARI

The social acceptance in society of the Rastafari was, however, at that stage still problematic in Jamaica. Discrimination solely because of dreadlocks (denied jobs, unjust police arrests or incarceration) was all too common In Jamaica, up to well in the 1970s. Not only in elite or conservative Christian circles, but even extending to the music industry this occurred at that time; certain producers, owners or managers refused to employ or book those with a Rastafari appearance. For that reason, it is said, the members of the Skatalites band – most of whom sympathized with Rastafari – did not wear dreadlocks, to not disturb their musical contracts and assure jobs in the industry. Similar stories of initial caution about presenting oneself as Rasta are told by some Rocksteady artists, having noted that it could exclude them from needed income or “gigs”.

In particular, it is said that producer Duke Reid (of Trojan and Treasure Isle records) - who was influential in the Rocksteady period - did not allow Rastafari messages expressed on his records. Also Coxsone Dodd, of Studio One, did initially not want too much Rastafari references in lyrics, but in time became more flexible, especially when it became more popular.

With Bob Marley’s popularity, the anti-Rasta attitude gradually changed in Jamaica in the course of the 1970s, though discrimination against Rastas does still occur even today in Jamaica.

Despite these odds in the later 1960s, Rastafari expressions can here and there be heard in lyrics of Rocksteady songs, such as of the Ethiopians, and even more broader “black consciousness” protest lyrics. With more attention to vocals, logically, the lyrics also became more prominent. Compared to the period before, at least, the Rastafari influence increased in Rocksteady, relatively. Author Sw. Anand Prahlad of the work 'Reggae wisdom : proverbs in Jamaican music' (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) therefore argues that, after Roots Reggae, Rocksteady was also an important period for what can be called 'Roots' in Jamaican music.

It must also be said, though, that “love and romance” lyrics were a bit more common in Rocksteady songs, although “social comment” was quite common as well, such as about “Rude Boys”, violence, about poverty and inequality, the ghetto, and Black Consciousness.

After all, popular music mainly developed among the poor people of the Jamaican ghettos, thus expressing their grievances and "sufferation" also in lyrics. Political or social protest lyrics increased too, with the Ethiopians' 'Everything Crash' (1968) having the odd distinction of being the first song censored from airplay in Jamaica that was not sexually explicit. Instead, its lyrics apparently criticized the political caste too much, by describing social problems.

This all pointed toward another crucial change, foreboded by Rocksteady, that would become important in Reggae: social comment or protest lyrics, with an increased Rastafari influence, especially after 1969. The Rastafari influence, but also other musical and social factors, influenced the change from Rocksteady to Reggae.

Some authors, distinguish another "period" of what is called Skinhead Reggae or Rudeboy Reggae, placed somewhat vaguely by some authors "between Rocksteady and Early Reggae". Early Reggae and Ska were both fast genres that appealed to some groups of White Skinhead youths in Britain. They say also some Rocksteady songs. Though skinheads themselves speak of "different subgroups" among themselves, their association with racism and pro-White stances make their affinity for black Jamaican music ironic. There were, however, also Black British skinheads and racially mixed skinhead groups. Some say, furthermore, that skinheads' xenophobia or racism targeted overall more Pakistani and other Asians, not adapting to British society and ways, not so much Caribbean-Britons.

REASONS

In fact, the reasons for this change (to Reggae around 1968) were multifaceted, like the earlier one from Ska to Rocksteady, pointing at the interesting dynamics within both the Jamaican music industry and society.

Included among these factors were increased rural influences, including Afro-folk music that rural migrants to Kingston city brought with them, increasing percussion and drum use, from strongly African-focussed traditions as Burru or Kumina, also embraced by many Rastafari musicians. By contrast, Rocksteady – while of course still exhibiting indirect African musical values, as all Black music genres – was seen as a more “refined” and “urban” (Kingston) genre, influenced by US Soul, reaching the city more than rural areas.

Then there is a matter of certain individuals, actually creating and making the music. Lynn Taitt, an influential guitar player, helped to shape Rocksteady (under steeldrum influence in his playing, is said), and the keyboard player Jackie Mittoo (at Studio One) was equally influential on Rocksteady. Both however migrated away from Jamaica by the late 1960s, leaving a vacuum of sorts in studios, resulting in change.

Also in the shift to Reggae around 1968, technology played a role, along with individual choices by certain musicians in studios. From the piano to the modern, electronic keyboard is one such change. Rocksteady tended to use the piano more, in Reggae, the electronic keyboard became more common, shaping musical characteristics (including a kind of “shuffle” groove around the snare drum accent).

Other changes, already set in motion during Rocksteady, continued or were expanded in reggae: the role of the bass guitar increased even more after 1968. Reggae at first was somewhat faster than Rocksteady (listen to some Toots & the Maytals tunes from around 1969, for instance, like ‘Reggae Got Soul’), but later slowed down, especially since about 1971.

EXPERIMENTATION

Several sources, such as the informative ‘The rough guide to reggae’ (Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton, 2001) I already mentioned, point at increased experimentation (mixing, in studios) in Reggae, pioneered by influential producers (Lee Perry for instance) that differentiated Reggae from Rocksteady. Reggae became also less “smooth” or “refined” than Rocksteady was, due also to the increased experimentation. There were other influences too. The authors point out that Reggae was in spirit more like James Brown, while preceding Rocksteady had more the smoothness of bands like the Impressions. Initially Reggae was faster than most Rocksteady tunes, though not always. Reggae came to include more diversity within itself, when compared to earlier genres Ska and Rocksteady.

Also in Rocksteady there was variety, with artists or groups adding their own touch and preferences, such as the rural folk (Mento) influence in a band like the Ethiopians, mixing it with “urban” Rocksteady in several songs. Some were influenced more by the Jamaican “country” style (the Ethiopians, but also the Gladiators), whereas other Rocksteady artists seemed more influenced by US Soul artists or Gospel.

Within Reggae, however, much more experimentation and diversity indeed developed. In that sense Reggae can be seen as a fuller being, a “coming of age”, or a final stage, absorbing what came before and expanding on it. Indeed, aspects of Rocksteady but also Ska or Mento returned in Reggae, expanded with other (African a.o.) influences and newer influences. Recently, hip-hop is such an influence, especially on Dancehall, an influence that Jamaican artists absorb and work out in their own creative way. As occurred before...

zondag 2 oktober 2016

Rhythm & Roots : exhibition on Black Music in Amsterdam's Tropenmuseum

The exhibition ‘Rhythm & Roots’ ('van blues tot hiphop / from blues to hiphop') was/is displayed in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from the 13th of May to the 30th of October of 2016.

As the name Tropenmuseum (“Tropics museum”, it would be in English) of this Dutch museum implies, it particularly deals with world, non-European cultures, and popularized cultural anthropology.

COLONIAL ORIGINS

Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum’s origins are quite “colonial”, as similar museums in other once colonizing European countries (the British Museum in London for example). This is actually simply in tandem with the origins of “cultural anthropology” as a scientific, scholarly field, with Westerners/Europeans studying “other”, outside cultures more and more, as they conquered and dominated more and more colonies and areas outside of Europe. The cynical goal was certainly in part – that cannot be denied – using that knowledge about local cultures in order to control them better and gain more profit in the colonies.

Though that was a part of it, there has been at the same time a confluent stream of sincere interest and curiosity about other people and cultures; in the mind of the general public, many of whom sensed no direct interest in colonial gains, but also among a part of the less cynical researchers and scholars, curious to truly learn and broaden their mind. Kind of a Yin and Yang effect, known from Chinese Taoism, or the folk knowledge, that with the good comes the bad (and vice versa).

Over time, with decolonization and increased condemnation of racism, cultural anthropology and museums devoted to it, also changed, of course.

Colonial interests and persisting racist ideas of Western superiority certainly tainted – and occasionally still taint - cultural anthropology, yet did/does not fully disqualify it as a good source of knowledge. The Amsterdam Tropenmuseum has proven this over time with very interesting, and truly insightful exhibitions about cultures on all continents, though perhaps with here and there some omissions, partial misrepresentations, or mistakes.

EXHIBITION ABOUT BLACK MUSIC

The recent ‘Rhythm & Roots’ exhibition at the Tropenmuseum is also certainly an interesting and insightful one, as I experienced. Before I went to visit it, its premise and presentation – as musical journey - through media seemed rather vague to me, despite its subtitle, mentioning blues and hiphop: What music exactly? What roots and rhythm? Specific genres? What aspects of music? In the presentation text was stated that “of many genres we know today the origins are African”, making the premise less vague, giving at least a direction. About Black music and its development, perhaps?

When I went it turned out to be just that: “Black music” genres in the Americas and their history, as well as music genres in Africa itself, such as Ghanaian Highlife and Nigerian Juju (or: Jùjú) music.

Information, photos, items (James Brown’s “cape” for instance), and music and sound/film were combined at each display panel, dedicated to different genres. The first genre was Jazz, followed by, to name most, Gospel, Blues, Rock & Roll, Soul, Funk, Samba and related genres, Mambo and Salsa (and related genres), Rumba, Highlife, Juju (of which e.g. King Sunny Adé is a known exponent), Reggae and related genres, and Hip-hop and Rap.

Thus, it was in broad lines chronological. Hip-hop was at the physical end of the exhibition, and originated in the early 1980s, Jazz close to the start and originated around 1900, Rhythm & Blues in the 1940s, Funk and Soul in the 1960s, Reggae in the late 1960s (etcetera, etcetera), Not fully, though. In between these genres there were information panels/stands on – or mentioning - older (Latin American and African) genres, such as Samba, originating – like Jazz - around 1900, and Cuban Rumba, of which the origins date all the way back to the 1880s.

INFORMATION

Having acquired quite some knowledge myself regarding some of these genres, I went and observed as a critical reviewer. The exhibition is evidently meant to educate a large, general public about these genres and their history. Is the information given - and spread - then correct?, the examples truly representative? etcetera etcetera. In other words, is the public informed correctly?

DEGREES OF KNOWLEDGE

The interesting thing is that during my visit I noticed how I have acquired knowledge about these genres, and its results. I had in fact differing degrees and levels of knowledge about the genres: I know most about Reggae, and less, but still quite a lot, about most of the other genres (Blues, Salsa, Hip-Hop, Funk). About Cuban music genres I acquired quite some knowledge by now as well.

On the other hand, about some genres, like Soul, Samba/Brazilian genres, Jazz or Gospel, I had a bit less detailed knowledge, as was the case of the African Highlife and Juju genres at this exhibition. This way I also learned and acquired knowledge, and not just applied my already present knowledge. Good for balance: you can only be smart if you’re willing to learn.

MISTAKES

Though not always dominant or frequent, I unfortunately noted some mistakes – based on my knowledge – in the information given at the exhibition’s panels, here and there. In some cases I thought: they should have consulted experts (or read a trustable standard work); since this is not correct. I did not even try to nit-pick. I start with the genre I - as readers of this blog may imagine - know most about: Reggae. And related genres.

REGGAE

The panel on Reggae seemed adequate as general overview – and with representative photos -, unfortunately the text with information has some mistakes.

First one: Reggae developed directly after Rocksteady, but was at first not “slower” than Rocksteady - as the text says -, but just different, and in fact at first (Early Reggae) often faster than much Rocksteady from the 1966-1968 period. After some years, Later Reggae (from about 1972) did slow down to become as slow or slower than Rocksteady was. Not initially, though.

BASS

Second mistake or doubtful fact, as can be read in the text: “The electric bass guitar is the most important instrument in a Reggae band..” I had doubts upon reading this. Is it not too simply put? What about the drums? Like in other Black music genres, the drums (and rhythm) seem crucial to me in Reggae, also as an evident connection (drum rhythm) to the African heritage.

In fact, other works or even more general sources – also quite public ones aimed at a broad public (like Wikipedia) – describe the drums as equally important in Reggae music (so, drum and bass).

MUSICIANS’ OPINIONS

Beyond such “detached” theoretical texts - or my own opinion -, I decided to consult actual musicians playing Reggae (and various instruments): people I know in the Netherlands. I myself play percussion and – probably, like trap drummers – tend to focus more on drum, so I wanted to ask people playing other or several instruments (guitar, bass, keyboard), who might have a more broad view on instruments in Reggae music.

Producer and musician Robert Curiel (I have recorded in his studio), based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, agreed with me that stating the “bass guitar is the most important instrument in Reggae” is too simplistic. He does indicate, however, that basslines can form the essence of Reggae songs, and that when the bassline changes (although in the same chords), the song’s essence changes. In that sense the bass guitar is kind of a base, a bottom.

He, however, also points at the “refined and democratic” character of Reggae, and that he therefore "would almost say that every instrument is equally important" in it. He points out, though, that drum and bass certainly "make their big stamp" on Reggae, able to “give a song another feel in a jiffy".

Netherlands-based (multi-instrumentalist) musician (with a Surinamese background, like some of these other musicians) Sticko X, states that the bass guitar might perhaps be the most important instrument in Reggae, but also points out that the drum is still "number one" as it is the “heart beat” of Reggae,. On the other hand, he said, “without the bass, well..”

Kodjo, another musician who plays several instruments and organizes jams in Zaandam (close to Amsterdam) – jams in which I participated at times –, had some doubts about the claimed bass guitar’s sole prime importance, pointing also at the (at least) equal importance of the drums in Reggae.

Someone else I know, Ras Amos, who is a musician (bass, guitar a.o.) as well as organizer in the Dutch Rastafari community, emphasized to me that “all instruments are important”. Yet, he further elaborated that “bass and drums are at the top", and that the bass is hereby “leading”.

Leading is not the same as “most important” as the text at the exhibition says. An interesting philosophical issue by itself – “leading” and “importance” are not the same -, but it would be an off-topic digression in this post, haha..

In the same vein, another musician I know, Biko – known as “bass man” (he played with Rude Rich & the High Notes), although he plays other instruments as well – terms the bass guitar’s role in Reggae definitely as “leading” over other instruments, in initiating changes/breaks that the other instruments then follow, and also because it is behind the main, vocal melody (including chords) of the song.

Again, “leading” is however not the same as “most important”. I argue that you need to hear the heart beat (drums, and other instruments) as well, to really experience it as Reggae.

I conclude from this that both bass and drums are relatively important in Reggae, but that all instruments have importance, in a quite democratic musical context. The bass guitar can be considered "leading", but the drums as equally crucial as the "heart beat".

SEMI-MELODIC?

I also had doubts about how the text continues about “how the bass in Reggae plays no melodies as such”, but “clear rhythms”. I argue, instead, that the bass guitar in Reggae is overall not “just rhythmic”, as said in the exhibition text, but “semi-melodic”. Often even just “melodic”. It has a strong rhythmic feel, but in many Reggae songs bassline melodies (albeit with a rhythmic feel) can certainly be discerned. It depends on how you define “melody”, I think. A recurring pattern of tones, I would say. I play talking drum at times, so I found the text’s comparison of the bass guitar in Reggae with the talking drum charming (also because it is an African connection). You can actually play semi-melodically with the mentioned talking drum too, which supports my argument that the bass in Reggae is at least “semi-melodic”.

Yet, since they draw parallels with African percussion in the exhibition, an interesting one they could have made is one between the bass guitar in Reggae and bass drums used in traditional African percussive ensembles (such as the Dundun, or other bigger, lower-pitched drums). These bass drums tend to play in most African traditional music “bottom-line”, basic (repeated) rhythms (or semi-melodies) to which other drums respond, or improvise around. In that sense the bass guitar’s role in Reggae represents an interesting African retention (through a modern, electrical instrument), also because the bass guitar is the main chording instrument in Reggae, while in other genres it is often the (higher-toned) guitar or piano.

SKA

Ska, preceding Reggae historically, also had a separate panel. It is good that its text pointed at the importance of the recently deceased Prince Buster, that he is mentioned. Yet I doubt the veracity of what is stated in the panel’s text: that he (Buster) – or he alone – originated the Ska rhythm as such. This was rather an organic process going on since around 1960 among a group of musicians, including those forming the Skatalites.

The text on Ska had another crucial mistake. It states that “Rocksteady is a less hectic form of Ska”. Rocksteady is not a form, nor a variant of Ska: it is a separate genre developed in Jamaica around 1966, after (and not within) Ska. Just one example of where an expert source would have helped to correct the mistake.

An omission is further that Mento (not the same as Calypso), a local Jamaican folk music is not mentioned. Mento influenced Ska (and Reggae) too, and also Latin American/Cuban genres (along with Calypso) influenced Ska, which is neither mentioned.

DUB & DANCEHALL

Unfortunately, even more mistaken – or perhaps: “confusing” – was the text on Dub & Dancehall – as variants of Reggae -, another separate panel at the exhibition. Deejay’s improvised, that is true, but not so much over “repeated musical phrases or breaks” as the text says (and even emphasizes). I am afraid there is a mix-up with Rap or Hip-hop here. The first dee-jay’s in Jamaica (Toasters or others) improvised vocals over “instrumentals”. Instrumental versions of songs, or Dubs.

These “repeated musical phrases or breaks” are presented as “Dub” or “Dubs” in the text. I do not really understand the “repeating” that is spoken of here. Dub is essentially “remixing” songs (originally vocal songs mostly): fading in and out instruments and vocals, using sound effects (including echo, reverb). It is not a matter of “repeating phrases or breaks in a song/instrumental”. That is simply mistaken, and not how Dub was first developed by King Tubby. It is good that King Tubby is mentioned, though, as Dub’s true pioneer. According to the text, King Tubby shares that status with Lee Perry: this is not entirely correct. Perry was “influential”, but not “founding” or “originating” regarding Dub, as King Tubby was.

I base all my critique – it is important to point out - on expert works and sources – Reggae experts and historians – I read, heard or saw over the years. Many found through public sources. Some of these mistakes surprise me therefore somewhat.

The explanation later in the text about “a digital rhythm played too fast by accident” might seem more true, but is also kind of problematic, in my opinion. What is true, is that the digital Casio-based rhythm for Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984) - inaugurating dancehall’s digital phase (also called “Ragga”) - might have been stumbled upon by accident. It might, however, also have been an unusual creative idea, not so much a “mistake”.

Terminology is further a problem here: Early Dancehall (on non-digital “Rockers” rhythms) – Brigadier Jerry, Burro Banton, Yellowman a.o., - called Rub-A-Dub - is not distinguished from Digital Dancehall or Ragga that arose in the later 1980s.

OMISSIONS

Besides mistaken information, or wrong facts, some facts were left unmentioned in these Reggae-related texts, that nonetheless would fit the exhibition’s implicit premise. I especially mean the African origins. At the very least, the influence of African-based or neo-African rhythm and drum patterns on Reggae and other Jamaican music – such as from Nyabinghi, Burru and Kumina drumming – could have been given attention.

Also, some more influential Reggae artists and individuals could have been mentioned, such as U-Roy or Alton Ellis, and others deserving credit.

CUBAN MUSIC

I know by now quite something about Cuban music as well, through other sources and works of course. I therefore could be analytical and critical regarding the texts about Cuban genres at the exhibition as well.

RUMBA

Cuban Rumba developed, as I said, since the 1880s, in Cuba. Quite some time ago, during the late end of legal slavery in Cuba (lasting up to 1886!). Specifically in the Cuban cities of Matanzas and Havana, with large Afro-Cuban populations, able to maintain part of their African heritages.

The text about Rumba at the exhibition says: “Rumba is a form of dance music that comes mainly from Cuba, having developed from Congolese music”. According to most scholars on Cuban history, Rumba indeed derives at least partly from African musical traditions from the Congo region, as African slaves from that region were also quite prominent culturally in Matanzas, as Rumba originated. It is only partly though, as other parts of Africa contributed as well to the different types of Rumba: through slaves from e.g. the Calabar region (Nigeria/Cameroon area), from the Yoruba region (now Nigeria/Benin), and especially also Gangá slaves (from what is now the Sierra Leone region). That Rumba is derived from Congolese music is thus somewhat too simplified and limited.

MAMBO AND SALSA

Another section/panel was devoted to Mambo and Salsa. Salsa could of course not be absent in such an exhibition with this theme, justly with specific attention. I could understand a bit less, though, why Mambo is chosen as other point of entry, though there might be arguments in favour of it. Perhaps it was during some historical epochs a relatively commercial and internationalized Cuban genre, unlike other Cuban genres (Rumba, Son), that spread (then) less outside of Cuba.

In the description of Salsa in the text, underneath Mambo, mistakes again slip in. How Salsa is described would according to many be incorrect. Salsa appeared as music genre under that name in the 1970s in New York, among the Latino population there. The text at the exhibition describes it as a combination of Mambo, Rumba and Son Montuno, along with some other influences (Puerto Rican ones for instance). The problem with this description is that Mambo was in itself Son Montuno-influenced, and that the importance of the Son Montuno genre is here unjustly downplayed. Son and Son Montuno are genres originating in Eastern Cuba that would be very influential in the whole of Cuba, becoming popular in Havana by the 1920s. From there it went abroad and to the US.

Perhaps it is better to say – purely judging by musical characteristics – that Son Montuno is not “one of the” several influences on Salsa, but in fact the main one, as many Cubans and others argue. Many even say that Salsa is just about 70% Son Montuno. Mambo is comparably less important for Salsa’s origins, despite what the text says. Rumba and Puerto Rican (Bomba and other) influences are certainly noticeable in Salsa as well, but Salsa’s main base and source remains, according to most sources, (East Cuban) Son Montuno. Good to recognize, I think.

RAP

The text on Rap seemed largely correct, as far as I could tell. I know, admittedly, a bit less about it than about Reggae, though I am quite interested in it. This time, however, there was a “mistake” in the visual, photo part of the section/panel. This included after all an album cover (album ‘Forces of Victory’) of Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ). This is not a Rap artist, but a Reggae “Dub poet”, based in Britain. LKJ/Johnson is therefore not a rapper, but a Reggae artist. Kind of odd, this mistake, because even if people do not know Linton Kwesi Johnson, it is easy to find songs by him on the Internet nowadays.

I limit my “critical review” to these genres and parts of the exhibition (related to Reggae and Cuban music), because I have the most knowledge about them, and can therefore evaluate more objectively, meaningfully, and factually. Critique without knowledge – quite common in society, unfortunately – shows after all a negative, unintelligent, and jealous mind-set. Objective critique based on knowledge – on the other hand – is mostly positive and educational.

Others can do this of course with genres they know more about..

CONCLUSION

The exhibition was nicely organized, and included per genre panel/section, beyond texts and information, also music examples – well-chosen and quite representative –, photos, and special items. All in all it was quite entertaining. Added to this was the possibility to “play” different (mainly) traditional African instruments through pads.

Even several instruments at once, providing in my opinion a good participatory and educational aspect. The opening section referred to the slave trade between Africa and the Americas, and displayed traditional (mainly African) instruments, which I found interesting, especially the older mbira’s and sansa’s (thumb piano’s) and the drums.

After this came the mentioned stands/panels per genre: first Jazz, then Blues, Gospel, Funk, and the other ones I mentioned and reviewed critically.

Visually, the exhibition was also attractive and well-designed, I must say. Further: a good, overall overview was given, with much interesting information, photos/album covers, and nice, groovy music to listen to. In that sense I found the exhibition at least “okay”, if a bit vague in its intentions or goals.

However, there were – as I have demonstrated – some mistakes in texts of at least certain sections. Some were more disturbing than others. Expert sources should have been used more, here and there, for the Reggae-related sections. At the very least, important people – also in the Reggae-related sections/panels – were mentioned, like Prince Buster, King Tubby, Lee Perry, though more artists could have been mentioned. There were also some other omissions.

It is unfortunate that some mistakes were disseminated this way to the general public, through the texts here and there in the exhibition. This can even have an even worse effect, as such exhibitions from prominent museums possess among the public the assumption of being “authoritative” on the matter. It might well have been the case that the organizers of the exhibition themselves – in preparing it - presumed certain people or sources on Reggae or Cuban music unjustly as “authoritative” or “experts”.

vrijdag 2 september 2016

Rub-A-Drum : Brazil, the cuíca, and reggae

That reggae music – originally from Jamaica – has gone international is quite well-known by now. It is a theme that I also discussed here and there on occasion on my – this - blog.

Reggae has also spread to Brazil, the largest country of Latin America, and not too far from Jamaica. Moreover, it shares with Jamaica a history of slavery of Africans; in fact it was historically overall the biggest “slave market” (in numbers) in the Americas, where proportionally most slaves from Africa ended up. Estimations are that a total of about 5 million Africans were brought forcibly to what is now Brazil (and many died along the way). Its large territory accounts for this, as well as the relatively long period of colonization by the Portuguese. Plantation-based slavery developed in Brazil, before it went (and became more “efficient”) to (e.g.) the Caribbean, since the 17th century. In this regrettable process, not only the Portuguese, but also the Dutch (owning a period a part of what is now North East Brazil) were historically influential.

Either way, this made in the present day, Brazil the country with – numerically – the most people of sub-Saharan African descent, outside of Africa itself. Many of these are mixed, as Brazil is a racially and culturally more “mixed” society, when compared to elsewhere in the Americas, where Black and White remained – at least nominally – more separate socially. The presence of some White blood in Black people in e.g. the US or Jamaica is more often explained by White slave-owners or overseers raping/sexually exploiting female slaves during slavery. Racially mixed unions were in these English-speaking parts not totally absent after slavery up to now, but relatively limited, when compared to e.g. Brazil (and elsewhere in Latin America), where racial mixture became more common.

Anyway, the African connection might explain why reggae is and remained quite popular in Brazil, starting in the 1970s, via the popularity of Bob Marley and other reggae artists. There are now quite a few good Roots Reggae bands in Brazil – with often lyrics in Portuguese. I personally like several songs of the band Ponto de Equilibrio, for example. Local reggae or fusion variants have also developed in Brazilian music by now. I recently for example wrote a concert review for an online journal about the band O Rappa from Rio de Janeiro, a band that mixes reggae with funk, hip-hop, rock, and samba. Reggae has in Brazil even mixed with traditional local styles, into e.g. Samba Reggae.

Although these aspects are interesting as a theme – perhaps for another blog post in the future -, “Reggae in Brazil” is not the topic of this post. I would rather turn it around. The topic is “Brazil in Reggae”. Does the fact that Brazil has the most people of African descent outside of Africa, translate somehow in reggae music; in its lyrics, perhaps in the attention of the Rastafari movement? And musically? These are the two lines of inquiry I will focus on in this post. I will see where it leads me, haha.

LYRICS AND RASTAFARI

The Rastafari movement developed in Jamaica since the 1930s. It was essentially a movement of Black Power, focussing on the African roots, thus regaining cultural self-respect, combining this with spiritual aspects and a specific way of life. It was inspired by the Jamaican thinker and activist Marcus Garvey, who worked for Black empowerment, African unity worldwide, repatriation to Africa, and upliftment of both the African continent and Black/African people world wide.

Though Marcus Garvey’s activities and ideas were indeed international, it was however more strongly focussed on the English-speaking world, due to language barriers. Garvey had attention – of course – to Black people in Latin America, including Brazil, and knew its history. Nonetheless, he focussed more on Black people in the US, and the British Caribbean. Chapters of Garvey’s organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), were set up since about 1917 also in Latin American countries. In fact, numerically most UNIA chapters were at one point found in Cuba, but these had mostly members among British Caribbean migrants there (not exclusively though, there was an influence on Afro-Cubans too). Author Kim D. Butler points out that Garveyism came to Brazil also mainly through British Caribbean migrants (and via North American colonization plans), yet also reached – indirectly – Afro-Brazilians, as UNIA-like organizations developed in Brazil by the 1930s, influenced by the Garvey movement, though not explicitly part of it.

The Rastafari movement (1930s) is thus older than the also Jamaica-originated Reggae music genre. The latter developed around 1968, following related genres developed in Jamaica, earlier in the 1960s: Ska and Rocksteady. These fed into Reggae.

The Rastafari movement would in time influence Reggae strongly, especially by the 1970s. This might be also well-known by many readers. Bob Marley was a Rastafari-adherent, as were many other reggae artistes, to differing degrees. This showed of course in Reggae lyrics. These referenced Marcus Garvey, Africa, Haile Selassie, the history of slavery, reparations, repatriation to Africa etcetera.

Again, the language barrier plays a role, and there is (lyrically) a stronger connection with the English-speaking world, e.g. connections with African Americans in the US, or with the people of Trinidad or Guyana. Or the “smaller islands” as some Jamaicans call them (Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent etcetera).

Slavery in the Americas is mentioned broadly in many Reggae lyrics, but geographical specificity tends to be insular (within Jamaica itself), and if not, it refers to other Caribbean islands, or the US. Slavery in Brazil is rarely mentioned as such in Reggae lyrics, not even slavery in nearby Cuba. On a more joyous note, Brazilian culture is referred too in Jamaican lyrics, especially because Brazilian football (soccer) and Pélé as footballer were very popular in Jamaica, probably because of a Black/African or regional connection. This was also the case with Bob Marley, who loved to play football as well, and admired Brazilian football and players. He even wrote a song about it, early in his career: ‘Lick Samba’ (1971). In 1970 Brazil had won the Football/Soccer World Cup.

The Portuguese were overall – despite Portugal’s size and economic weight – one of the largest slave traders. Portugal – as a more seafaring nation - started with African enslavement early, even before the Spanish and their American colonization: namely off the coast of Africa. As a practice it was reputedly influenced by Moors or Arabs (ruling Portugal and Spain for a period), who tended to have (also) Black African slaves.

It is said that the Genoese Columbus – later inaugurating Spain’s dominance in the Americas – participated already in such slave trade well before 1492, working with Portuguese. He also lived in Portugal, before going to Spain. Even this strong involvement with slavery of the Portuguese (in Brazil) is rarely mentioned in Reggae lyrics, even less so that that of the Spanish. Jamaica was a British colony, so people like the pirates Hawkins and Morgan – conquering and enslaving with the support of the British King or Queen - are mentioned more often in Reggae lyrics. Columbus is discussed as well, of course. A recent song by artist Chronixx, ‘Capture Land’, criticizes King Ferdinand of Spain (King at the time of Columbus “discovery”, financing – after hesitation – Columbus’ voyage), along with also the “thieving Queen from England" , in recounting Jamaican history. These lyrics do mention Latin America as well, by the way.

In short, Afro-Brazilians and slavery in Brazil, are implied in many (Rastafari-influenced) reggae lyrics (“slavery to the West, the Americas, or to “Babylon”), and in cases also the related Portuguese colonization in Africa, e.g. Angola, or Moçambique. These are one of the “unhappy” regimes Haile Selassie I referred to in his speech, that Bob Marley turned into the lyrics for the song ‘War’. So, Brazil and its history is “implied”, “indirect”, yet seldom specifically mentioned in reggae lyrics as such, Rastafari-influenced or not.

MUSIC

There is, however, another way in which “Brazil” is present in Reggae music, and more explicitly so. This concerns the music itself. Not so much in Reggae’s structural and basic characteristics (though there were a few early influences from Brazilian music genres in Jamaica in the 1960s), but regarding musical instruments. I am talking about the use of the friction drum the “Cuíca”. This can be heard quite regularly in several Reggae songs. First something about this “cuíca”, though… that seems appropriate.

CUÍCA

The Cuíca is an Afro-Brazilian instrument, used much in Brazilian Samba music, and later spread internationally. Its characteristic, unusual sound from rubbing – ressembling animal roars, according to many – sets it apart from both other drums (beaten/percussed), or other percussive instruments, like shakers or scrapers, common in Brazilian music. The cuíca drum’s body tends to be made of metal. The Brazilian cuíca further has a bamboo stick attached to its drumhead. This stick is then rubbed within the drum, underneath the drum skin with a wet cloth – producing its sound -, which is then tuned/pitched with the other hand pressing the outer drumhead. Many point out that it is certainly not an easy instrument to learn to play really well.

It can produce relatively high sounds (some say, ressembling “monkey sounds”) . The cuíca’s metal body influences its sound too, of course. Wood-based friction drums sound different (deeper, lower).

FRICTION DRUMS IN GENERAL

The cuíca’s origins are most commonly assumed to be African. That is not to say that “friction drums” as such are confined to Africa. In fact, “friction drums” – or: “rubbing drums” – have been historically long common in Europe and elsewhere as well. This includes Portugal and Spain, where “friction drums” are mostly made of clay pots, and with only a stick pulled from the outside. In Portuguese it is called a “sarronca” or “zamburra”, while the Spanish friction drum is called “zambomba”. I know about this zambomba that it was traditionally played in Spain during the Christmas period, and remained up to now quite common in traditional and folk music. Some musicians incorporated it even in Flamenco music, in the South of Spain (Andalusia), somewhat outside its original Christmas celebration context.

Historians assume, however, that - despite colonial ties - the Portuguese Sarronca / Zamburra (or Spanish Zambomba), is not a direct ancestor to the Cuíca, though perhaps influencing it. These find most probable as ancestors “friction drums” played similarly to the cuíca, found historically in several parts of Africa, including in the Congo and Angola area (influential culturally on Samba music and on Afro-Brazilian culture).

A pity that the Wikipedia article on “Friction Drums” (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friction_drum ) does not give examples from Africa. It does give American, and also several European examples. Besides in Iberia (historically, after all, a bit more African- and Latin American-influenced), friction drums have also been found as far North as Northern Europe, and was a period quite commonly used in parts of (Flemish) Belgium and the bordering Netherlands. It was known there as “rommelpot” or “foekepot”. Here it tended also to be associated with New Year or Christian celebrations. Also in Northern Germany, it was used, and also in Slovenia, Ukraine, Southern Italy, and several other places. The Wikipedia articles points at this, though neglects Africa too much, unfortunately.

Due to friction drums’ unusual, “voice-like” sound, they tend to be connected – in different continents and cultures – with rituals and spirituality, in some sense.

FRICTION DRUMS IN AFRICA

In this interesting online article by John H. Donahue (http://www.famsi.org/research/kerr/articles/friction_drum/), the author departs from friction drums present among Amerindians, to further discuss friction drums elsewhere as well: Asia (like India), Europe, as well as Africa. He discusses Central African friction drums, such as the “Kwita” among the Chokwe and Pende peoples in what is now DR Congo and NE Angola, and among neighbouring peoples and cultures. Donahue sees this kwita drum as the direct ancestor of the Brazilian cuíca. It is indeed played in a similar fashion. He points at different rital uses of friction drums in Africa: sometimes connected with initiation rites (Southern Africa), sometimes with “spirits of the dead” (in the Congo region), or with other spirits. In some African cultures the friction drum is solely played by women, while in other ones solely by men. That differs.

Some authors point out that “friction drums” in Africa can mainly be found in Angola, Southern DR Congo, parts of Zambia, and Botswana. It is also found among the Zulu, who have the “Ingungu” friction drum. These are thus mainly Bantu-speaking areas in Central-South Africa. Indeed, many slaves ending up in Brazil came from the Angola area. Friction drums were also found, however, among the Khoi people, who speak a non-Bantu language.

Other authors, however, also justly point at the presence of friction drums in other parts of Africa, like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroun. One example is the “Etwie” among the Akan in Ghana. The etwie and other drums are however played differently: not by a stick or reed within the drum (as the cuíca and Central and Southern African ones), but rather from the outside. Moisture - and: evidently: rubbing - remains however necessary.

CUBA

The reason that so many African or African-based percussion instruments survived in Brazil, and less in the British Caribbean, has to do with colonial policies in Brazil. These allowed African slaves – despite undeniable dehumanization inherent in the slavery system – some “free” cultural space, more than in British and Protestant colonies. Similar policies as in Brazil, applied in the Spanish colony of Cuba. Also in Cuba, African slaves had some relatively free cultural spaces. African-based percussion instruments from Cuba (conga’s, bongo’s, guïro’s a.o.) could develop, and became in time well-known even outside of Cuban music, and became used in other genres. The same applies – to a lesser degree – to Afro-Brazilian instruments. The “cuíca” seems to have made its way into other genres (jazz, pop a.o.), relatively more than other Brazilian instruments.

Cuba is interesting, because of some colonial similarities. Colonizers Portugal and Spain are of course two different countries – yet are bordering and with similarities, including a partly shared history, including in colonization in the Americas. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Spanish colonies like Cuba, Colombia or elsewhere were often brought by Portuguese slave traders (though in some epochs also by British, French, or Dutch traders). The Spanish tended after all to “contract out” the nasty business of the slave trading from Africa itself, after ordering African slaves for the plantations in their colonies. Other colonizing countries, like the British, in turn handled the trading in slaves also directly themselves.

Anyway, friction drums survived in Afro-Cuban culture as well. An interesting example is the “Kinfuiti” drums used in rituals of Palo Congo or Mayombe: a religious/spiritual complex among Afro-Cubans, of Congo origin. This includes “spirits” of ancestors (or “the dead”). The kinfuiti drum is a wood-based friction drum, played with a stick within the drum, producing a low sound, according to some referencing the spirits of the dead. The Kinfuiti sounds lower than the Brazilian Cuíca.

https://vimeo.com/24276492

More similar, also in playing style, to Ghanaian models of friction drums (i.e. not by a stick within the drum, but with a wetted cloth), is the Ekue drum, found in the Abakuá secret society rituals among Afro-Cubans. The Abakuá tradition has its origins in the Cross River region (between Nigeria and Cameroun), explaining the different type of friction drum and playing style. The deep, low sound of the Ekue is not so much rhythmic, as it is atmospheric or spiritual, referring to a “leopard” or a “voice” of a secret, adding this sound to the more rhythmic drumming parts within Abakuá. Author Ned Sublette describes the difference as such: “the cuíca is played rhythmically to yield the high-pitched, rhythmic animal cry that animates Brazilian samba; but this (i.e. the Ekue) was a steady tenor-range drone, with the friction kept continually” (Sublette, “Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the mambo’, 2004). The Ekue is in addition heard but not seen, and its player even according to ritual tradition blindfolded, all in line with the Abakuá society’s ideas about the “secret”.

In some Afro-Brazilian religious or spiritual traditions, similar low-sounding friction drums with spiritual ritual functions exist or have been known to exist. Yet, nowadays the Cuíca is the best-known Brazilian friction drum, used mostly in secular, popular music, namely the well-known and varied Samba genre, and during carnival.

SAMBA IN BRAZIL

I spoke with a person I know, Carlos (also known as Nariz), who is the founder and manager of the Foundation (Stichting) Agogô (see: http://www.agogo.nl) , based in the Netherlands. This foundation gives attention to Capoeira, but also to wider (Afro-) Brazilian culture, Brazil, and other related aspects. Carlos has also travelled in Brazil, and plays Brazilian music, in a band called Banda SambaSim. He described how in Brazil and specifically Rio de Janeiro – the world’s samba hotspot – there are many samba schools (“Escolas”, in Portuguese). These compete with each other as seriously as in any professional sport league (like football), including differing divisions of level and quality. Well now, these different samba schools have different preferences and specializations: some use the cuíca a lot, others less or not.

The cuíca recurs strongly throughout samba or samba-based Brazilian music, that is certainly true. Carlos, however, also points out that it is often added, but not necessarily part of the most basic “standard set” of samba bands: this consists of the most basic and indispensable bass drums (surdo) and equally crucial accompanying drums, and further certain frame drums, e.g. the tambor repique, Brazilian-style tambourines (pandeiros), among them. Some samba bands or schools add the Cuíca to this more regularly or prominently, others less so.

The cuíca’s use – Carlos further explained – differs between different types of samba. Some are more rhythmically-focussed (e.g. at carnival processions), and the Cuícas (mostly several at once) accordingly get a more rhythmic role. In other types of samba (outside of carnival parades), it is used more for “embellishing” or “spicing up” songs and the music. This distinction – between rhythmic or embellishing - applies of course to other percussion instruments as well.

IN REGGAE

This instrument spread internationally with Brazilian music, but certainly also to other genres. Reggae in Jamaica is certainly one of these genres. Several well-known percussion players in Jamaican music and Reggae (like Bongo Herman, Skully, Sticky, Seeco) used the cuíca friction drum on many recordings and songs, since the later 1970s. Within the musical reggae framework, that is. This concerns specifically the Brazilian cuíca drum, not a friction drum of another origin. Sometimes the cuíca is used in reggae songs to “spice things up”, or add sonic “spice” – one of the functions of percussion –, or with a clear rhythmical function: the other important function of percussion. As mentioned before, not unlike its differing use within Samba in Brazil.

Bob Marley’s ’Could You Be Loved’ (1980) is in fact just one (well-known) example of its use in Reggae. There are several other songs, by different reggae artists (Mighty Diamonds, Bunny Wailer, Burning Spear, Culture and several others) that include the cuíca instrument. This is thus a direct musical influence from Brazil in reggae.

When compared to the (Afro-Cuban) “Guïro” (scraper) instrument’s use within Reggae- to which I dedicated another blog post (of February, 2016) – it is however used relatively less often. The guïro – a scraper instrument – is much more widely used within Reggae: on many songs by many different artists, and in different periods.

Okay, compared to that, the cuíca is used less in reggae. The guïro is almost “structurally” (though not universally) present in reggae percussion. The cuíca admittedly more incidentally. Yet, the sound of the cuíca recurs regularly throughout reggae, and in several songs by different artists as well. In short, reggae percussionists (e.g. Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson) use the cuíca, though less regularly than the Cuban guïro (for instance).

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cu%C3%ADca ) mentions some reggae songs with the cuíca, but the list is far from complete. People can of course make additions in Wikipedia if they encounter its use within Reggae songs not mentioned. It is difficult to get a complete overview of the “cuíca use in reggae”, though, because it is not really documented as such specifically (on what songs cuíca’s are used): it is mostly buried in the wide category of “percussion”, in most liner notes.

I like the use of the cuíca in Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Treat the Youths Right’, one of my favourite Jimmy Cliff songs, by the way. Also in Culture’s song ‘Peace and Love’ (from Culture’s 1991 album ‘Culture In Culture’) the cuíca is present quite prominently, yet well-used. Other uses I liked as well (e.g. in Bunny Wailer’s ‘Rule Dance Hall’, the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Kinarky’). On the Wailing Souls' 'Old Broom' (from 1980, a hit in Jamaica at the time), the cuíca is a bit more improvisational, and less purely rhythmic. The cuíca certainly adds a nice touch to these songs, in my opinion. Also the biggest reggae (if funk-influenced) hit with the cuíca, Bob Marley’s well-known groovy song ‘Could You Be Loved’, would not have been the same without the crucial role of the cuíca in it.

The Wikipedia article on the Cuíca gives thus an indication of its use in reggae, if only a limited one. Further can be added that the reggae artist from Ivory Coast, Africa, Alpha Blondy, used the cuíca too on some songs (subtly/softly on ‘Jah Music’ for example).

I know that I will hear the cuíca in reggae songs not mentioned here or on the Wikipedia article as yet, or will be reminded of these songs in the course of time.

In conclusion, anyway, I think it is an interesting influence of Afro-Brazilian music on Afro-Jamaican music, and at that an interesting connection within the broader African Diaspora.