dinsdag 2 oktober 2018

Jo Jo and Channel One

Last 20th of September, 2018, Joseph “Jo Jo” Hoo Kim died, at the age of 76. Hoo Kim (also spelled as Hookim or Hoo-Kim) was a Chinese-Jamaican active in Reggae music, notably as founder of Channel One, a very influential recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica, operational since 1973.

Whereas Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, owner of the studio and label founded earlier called Studio One, was the first Black owner of a recording studio in Jamaica, Hoo Kim was on the other hand of Chinese (and for a part Jewish) descent. In fact, in Reggae music, even if originated and developed by poor African Jamaicans, at the operational levels, many Chinese Jamaicans were also active, as business and middle-men. Not so much in the creative part.

CHINESE JAMAICANS

The Chinese are a relatively small demographic in Jamaica, where close to 77% of the population is mostly black/African, and another about 15% “Brown” (mixed European and African). There were also a minority of East Indians in Jamaica historically.

Looking at the history, the East Indians were generally speaking in social position relatively lower, closer to the Black population, as mostly low-wage labourers, whereas the Chinese were more often in middle-class positions, with often own businesses. Through some of these businesses they could facilitate aspects of the music industry to make money, and profit from Reggae’s popularity, increasing internationally since the 1970s.

That Chinese middle-class position was historically not universal in the Caribbean region, by the way. In Cuba, many Chinese were contract labourers, treated only somewhat better than African slaves, with few rights. They remained connected to the labouring classes in Cuba, explaining perhaps why they mixed there more with Africans and (poor) Europeans. It is known that many Cubans have African, Chinese, and European blood combined, the famous Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam being an example.

Chinese in Jamaica –like Lebanese/Syrians – sought as a minority to secure a middle-class position between the White upper class, and poor Black people from the laboring classes. Relatedly, they tended to marry among themselves. This all translated somehow into Jamaica’s reggae industry, with artists dependent on Chinese businessmen for musical production and distribution. Several recording studios in Jamaica had Chinese connections regarding their owners, such as also Randy’s.

Bob Marley recorded his very first single for Chinese –Jamaican Leslie Kong (Judge Not), in the early 1960s. Leslie Kong also was influential in the career of, for instance, Jimmy Cliff and had thus had influence, also with other artists, and there were others.

This did not seem to impact on the musical quality or characteristics, as the Chinese seemed to be businessmen first: selling to the people what they want, without cultural manipulation or changes. Few Chinese musical influences entered Reggae overall this way, haha.

Cuba has a rich Afro-Cuban musical legacy, but there some Chinese influences can be noted, such as during the Santiago de Cuba carnival, with the use of certain Chinese horns. Not so much in Reggae.

Byron Lee was an exception, as he was also a musician. He was a Chinese-Jamaican and creatively active as musician, also in Jamaican genres. Due to his middle-class affiliation –however - he had no real connection to Reggae’s origin and background as music from ghetto people in Jamaica. Actually, he was half Chinese (his father) and half-African (his mother), so it was also a “class” difference rather than just an ethnic one. “Watered-downed” or “polished” Reggae is what some say he made – catered to white, US or British middle-class people apparently - although there is some musical quality there, that should not be underrated. The nice Bam Bam Riddim being an example, played by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires. So, not the most authentic or “real” Reggae, but with some quality here and there.

INCLUSIVE

Joseph Hoo Kim was differently active in Jamaican music, more as facilitator, but a crucial one.

From an entrepeneurial family (bar, ice cream parlour), and first active with his brothers in a gambling and jukebox business, his entering the Reggae business, might be considered purely economically motivated.

This seemed partly so. Though it does not always become so clear from his biography, some love for Reggae as a genre – and the wish to invest in it also for nonfinancial but artistic reasons – had to be there, and showed. His policy at the studio was inclusive toward many local artists and arrangers, for instance. In addition, he grew up near Maxfield Avenue, a poor, ghetto area in Western Kingston, Jamaica, which connected him to Reggae’s Roots. On Maxfield Avenue Channel One got eventually located, when it started operations in 1973.

Channel One thus became in the course of the 1970s a crucial Reggae recording studio: “keeping it real”, regarding Roots Reggae, then becoming popular. Especially since the mid-1970s Channel One became successful as a studio and company.

SLY & ROBBIE

That Sly Dunbar first started recording at Channel One, and other influential musicians in Reggae, like Robbie Shakespeare and Ansel Collins too, led to further developments within Reggae, and what would become the “Rockers” sound. I myself would call myself surely a fan of this Rockers sound from the mid to later 1970s. The Mighty Diamonds’ song ‘Right Time’ from 1976 became one of Channel One’s “big” hits, and was at the same time one of the first in the Rockers style of Reggae, with Sly Dunbar on drums, adding more bass drum kicks among other drum changes. The following 1976 album with the same name, ‘Right Time’, by the Mighty Diamonds, recorded at Channel One, is simply a Reggae classic, with several great songs.. This all happened at Channel One, and helped develop Reggae.

Perhaps, surrounding oneself with the right people with the right results – as Joseph Hoo Kim did - is an underestimated talent. Even if such organizers are not really “artists” themselves, they surely help develop art and culture. Besides, Joseph Hoo Kim, and his brother Ernest, also were trying to grasp the technical part of recording themselves, albeit along with others. Hoo Kim was thus more than a mere “absent owner”, totally irrelevant to the creative process. He had some indirect influence, and tried even to arrange and mix at time, or working with others he hired for it, such as I Roy, also known as Dee-Jay.

Proper investments and priorities, and facilitating a creative, fruitful environment at Channel One in the 1970s, was thus a main achievement of “Jo Jo” Hoo Kim. Facilitating for creating..

CHANNEL ONE

It is actually interesting to witness how Channel One kind of “took over” historically from Studio One in developing Reggae, and from the other earlier studio’s such as Treasure Isle. Of course, there were many other recording studio’s in Jamaica by the 1970s, with great music recorded often, Harry J’s, Randy’s, Dynamic, even increasing in the later 1970s with Joe Gibbs studio gaining influence, Tuff Gong, and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark.

By then, especially since 1975, however, Channel One already had influenced Reggae’s development, also because of the “in-house” presence of people like Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, being in the house band called ‘the Revolutionaries’. A main in-house producer/engineer was I-Roy, as said, along with other engineers that would later leave their mark in Reggae, such as Scientist and Henry “Junjo” Lawes..

In the remainder of this post, as a tribute to Hoo Kim, I am going to analyse what was specific to Channel One’s contribution and place within Reggae music, and its development. What was (generally) recorded there, and how? How did this compare with other studio’s in Jamaican and Reggae music?

The story goes that after a year of “struggling” in the beginning, with some not very successful releases, and lacking technical knowledge – notably by Hoo Kim himself -, the first “hit” as such recorded at Channel One was Delroy Wilson’s nice “It’s a shame”, in 1973.. Then, the studio was still kind of struggling to find its sound, though.

It set things in motion, anyway, while the studio’s upgrade toward a 16-track recorder – then innovative – in 1975, stimulated further musical developments, as each instrument could from then on be recorded separately. Mighty Diamonds’ 1976 hit ‘Right Time’, recorded at Channel One, further spread Channel One’s fame.

CLARITY AND DRUMS

Channel One offered what was needed at the time: more advanced equipment, securing better sound quality. Musicians of the time referred to it as “more clarity” in the sound. A clarity when compared to the more rounded-off Studio One sound of before, that of course had its own appeal too. The 16-track recording possibilities impacted the sound too, resulting in Rockers Reggae.

Sly Dunbar was as a drummer influential during this process, and Hoo Kim hired him as studio musician. An indirect, yet crucial decision for Reggae’s growth. Sly Dunbar argues that the drum was crucial for the studio’s eventual success, and worked toward it at the studio.

That is I think an interesting development. I myself have listened to quite some Reggae recorded at Studio One , as well as recorded at Channel One (or elsewhere, Joe Gibbs, Harry J, Black Ark etcetera), to be able to compare from my experience. The “clarity” is indeed a good way to describe one of those differences of Channel One from other, earlier studio “sounds”. The role of the drum is also different; the way it appears in the whole especially. This perhaps betrays the influence of Sly Dunbar, but also of technical possibilities.

In short, the drum sounded more present, clearer, and louder – more distinct –, “sharper” even, when compared to the drums on earlier Studio One recordings, where the drums were more drowned in the whole. These drums on Studio One recordings were not bad, by the way, and at times remarkably polyrhythmic, but relatively soft and as said “drowned” or “buried” in the mix. Channel One simply said emphasized the drums more, while the bass nonetheless remained important within the whole rhythmic structure.

As a percussionist, I also like that percussion was allowed quite some space in recordings at Channel One, notably through in-house percussionist Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson. One of those percussionist who might have influenced me.

Like with the trap drum, the percussion could be nice on some Studio One recordings, but often soft and “drowned”, being better audible in clearer Channel One recording, including even “softer” small percussion instruments like rattles, shakers, woodblocks, or scrapers.

The interesting thing about this, is that they seem side issues, and secondary. The essence is after all that music has to be “good” and enjoyable, or even uplifting. Good songs are good songs, and Jah knows many good songs have been recorded at Studio One. Of course, also at Channel One and other studios.

Still, the “sound” of a song gave them different feels and nuances. Contextualizing beauty in different ways , one can say.

The drum focus of Channel One is valuable in hindsight. The simplistic notion that Reggae is bass guitar-dominated has still not died out, even among self-professed Reggae fans. The drum is equally crucial and “driving” in Reggae. This was secured at Channel One, simply just because of its sound possibilities, able to highlight the drums too.

Again, drumming on Studio One recordings were not necessarily less creative, or for instance Carlton Barrett’s drumming (the Wailers’ drummer) less interesting than Sly Dunbar’s one at Channel One. Sly and Carlton had both their own, interesting style. Barrett’s style may seem subtle, but has many layers and is difficult to imitate. Sly’s style, influencing what was recorded at Channel One, was more “straight-on” and groove-focussed. Even those patterns, however, were more layered and difficult than one would assume. Making things seem easy, is an art of itself.

Another one of my favourite Reggae drummers – Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace – has yet another, somewhat fuller and flamboyant style, when compared to the other two.

Perhaps one can argue therefore that the popularity and musical career of Sly Dunbar went partly in tandem with Channel One’s. In a later stage (since 1979) Lincoln “Style” Scott – of the Roots Radics - began taking over at Channel One, as Sly & Robbie had started their own Taxi musical enterprise.

COOPERATION

Anyhow, Channel One was influential in Reggae’s development as a music studio. This tends to be recognized as such in most works and documentaries documenting Reggae’s history, that usually highlight the importance of other studios also.

The personality of the respective studio owner plays a role though. Lee “Scratch” Perry had his own influential Black Ark studio, like Hoo Kim had his own Channel One, but Perry had a more extravagant, larger-than-life persona. Plus he involved himself more directly with the music he produced, arranging it often too, whereas Hoo Kim tended to mostly leave that to others as I-Roy, other engineers, or musicians like Sly Dunbar. Coxsone Dodd also gets a bit more attention in reggae histories, mostly due to his omnipresence at Studio One. In practice, at Studio One almost everything had to go through him. Coxsone was not just the owner of Studio One, he simply “was” Studio One. In the studio of Duke Reid operational also since the 1960s – the competitor of Studio One and Dodd- , Reid was also the indisputable boss, even carrying usually hand guns on him, and shooting around at times.

This was different with Hoo Kim, deciding from early on to allow free studio time to anyone to be able to learn from others. Many producers and arrangers made use of this free studio time at Channel One in the 1970s, including someone like Lee “Scratch” Perry, then searching a way to start his own studio.

Cooperation, and joint decisions, became thus the name of the game at Channel One, more than at other studios. This was good and positive, by itself. Of course, Hoo Kim exerted his authority as owner, and hired his brothers Kenneth and Ernest at the studio as – one might say – favouritism, albeit understandable. Yet, his lacking musical and technical knowledge made him more dependable on those with it. Opportunistic in part, for sure, but in the end yielding positive and fruitful results.

IN WORKS ON REGGAE HISTORY

Channel One tends to be recognized in reggae anthologies and histories – or documentaries, though often in quite general terms. There are some exceptions, though.

BETH LESSER

Somewhat more attention Channel One receives in the book ‘Rub-a-Dub Sound : the roots of modern dancehall’ (2012), by Beth Lesser. This scholarly study relates Reggae’s history mainly from the late 1970s to the 1980s, when Dancehall began to develop. Hence the title: “Rub-A-Dub” being kind of a pre-digital, “enhanced Rockers” forerunner to what would become Dancehall.

Lesser devotes even a special chapter to later developments at Channel One, which provides some interesting information. It describes how Jo Jo Hoo Kim was in reality quite demanding of his engineers – in later stages -, despite his seeming inclusiveness. From the book (Lesser, page 85):

“Jojo Hookim had high standards for the engineers he allowed at the ‘controls’. Engineering was supposed to be a physically demanding job, at least the way it needed to be done for dancehall. “Earnest started it [engineering] first,” Jojo recalls. “But I tell him, if him going to do it, he has to be all over the control, like he’s running a keyboard. He can’t be there just pushing a little slide up and ease back. He has to be constantly moving something, throughout the whole complete rhythm.”

This was even for his brother Ernest, when he was engineer. Joseph Hoo Kim also admitted that Reggae was for him mainly a way to make money, so that solves that puzzle. This was perhaps not entirely the case. His younger brothers, also working with sound systems or at the studio, went more to Reggae dances and so on, thus seemed more interested in the music, detached from its mere business or monetary possibilities.

LOAFTERS

The daily practice at the Channel One studio, located in a ghetto area, in that chapter in Lesser’s 2012 work, provides more interesting reading. Many beggars hung around the studio, perhaps predictable in a poor neighbourhood. Also many what in Jamaica are called “loafters” hung around the studio. These were also often begging, though mostly unemployed ghetto youths, seeking some job or errand to do, or other job chances. Even if not succeeding, they this way were entertained with the studio’s music. At times, Sly & Robbie felt they had to be more strict keeping such “loafters” outside during serious studio work. Also owner Jo Jo Hoo Kim found them mainly a hindrance to the business. Funnily, his brother Kenneth, and some artists, on the other hand, had another view on those “loafters”. They opined that these idlers contributed to some “live-like”, vivid atmosphere at the studio premises, possibly beneficial for the music eventually recordings.

Lesser also discusses the activities of Henry “Junjo” Lawes, Barnabas, and “Dub man” Scientist at the studio, and the Roots radices, as Reggae entered the dance-aimed Rub-a-Dub stage from Rockers in the early 1980s. Dance-aimed, but with quite some Rastafari influence in lyrics, as in what was recorded at Channel One in the 1970, when Rastafari-inspired messages were more common in Reggae music in general.

Jo Jo Hoo Kim’s brother Paul ran the connected Channel One sound system. He was murdered in an argument, unfortunately, in 1979. This affected Jo Jo Hoo Kim strongly, also regarding his willingness to keep investing in the studio. He felt it became too unsafe for him, and decided to move operations partly to outside Jamaica, to New York.

This began the slow demise of Channel One, one can say in hindsight, though not immediately. Channel One in Kingston, Jamaica was kept running mainly by others in Jamaica, including his brothers Ernest and Kenneth, along with other producers and artists, when Jo Jo was in New York. Henry “Junjo” Lawes became a producer then, who recorded some great albums.

Several nice and great works and albums were recorded in the Channel One studio in the 1980s still: by veterans Johnny Osbourne, Horace Andy, and Gregory Isaacs, as well as a later generation of artists like Don Carlos, Frankie Jones, Frankie Paul, Sammy Dread, Michael Palmer, Barry Brown and others, becoming popular in the Rub-a-Dub period in Reggae in the 1980s. Barrington Levy, Cocoa Tea, Eek-a-Mouse recorded there in that period too..

The increased digital influence on Reggae, after 1985, more rapidly accelerated Channel One’s demise. Unlike, King Jammy studio’s, or other ones in Jamaica, Channel One did not seem to have an answer to it, developed as it had with “realer”, live-band music. Another vibe, so to speak.

STEVE BARROW & PETER DALTON

Interesting reading on Channel One within Reggae is also found in another work on Reggae I read: ‘The Rough Guide to Reggae’ (2001), by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton. This highly readable work gives quite some information about the activities at Channel One, also in its earlier stages, even some not read elsewhere.

Barrow and Dalton explain in more detail how the distinct “freshness” of the Channel One sound came about. In fact, the studio made use of music and riddims from the earlier Studio One and Treasure Isle studios, but updated these. Such changes related to drum changes, with influence by in-house drummer Sly Dunbar, but also the often in-house producer I-Roy. The work states that I Roy, and Jo Jo Hoo Kim, suggested the “clap” sound on the snare drum (as accent on the 3 in a 4/4 beat) to Sly, helping to create a then new, distinct Channel One sound.

This snare drum “clap” is interesting, as I heard elsewhere that the Cuban “timbales” instrument influenced some drummers to higher/tighten the snare drum in Reggae too.

Anyway, I Roy’s 1975 song ‘Welding’ - recorded at the studio - was one of the first to feature this “clap” drum sound.

Barrow and Dalton locate the “peak period” of Channel One popularity and impact in Reggae music around 1975 and 1976. After this, they say, the Mighty Two (Joe Gibbs and Errol Thompson) of Joe Gibbs’ studio took over. In relative popularity, that is. I appreciate the recording at that Joe Gibbs studio too, by the way, especially with the band Culture.

Channel One remained operational alongside these competitors, however, with still many great Reggae recordings up to the 1980s. Barrow and Dalton speak in this sense of a “revitalized” Channel One, after 1979. The period when Jo Jo Hoo Kim was kind of demoralized after the death in 1977 of his brother Paul, who led the Channel One sound system. This sound system preceded the studio, actually.

(There is, by the way, a Sound System with the same name – Channel One -active in the UK today, as some readers may know.)

Jo Jo largely moved to New York, but Channel One studios remained active and run by others, and in this revitalized Channel One, the Roots Radics and Henry “Junjo” Lawes certainly made some interesting music, including the Early Dancehall, pre-digital, slow and Drum and Bass-focussed. The Roots Radics actually started at Channel One in 1979, first with some assistance by Sly and Robbie there passing by still at times.

This slow Rockers style somehow bridged Roots Reggae and Dancehall, and was represented in the early 1980s by among others Barry Brown, Don Carlos, Al Campbell. Horace Andy, the Gladiators and others, also recording in this period at the revitalized Channel One.

In this period, the early 1980s, Frankie Paul (deceased recently too), recorded his first single ‘African Princess’ (1982) at Channel One too, for instance.

Channel One studios closed its operations eventually in the early 1990s..

This was the “end of an era”, as the cliché goes, but a fitting one. Channel One was far from the only music studio in Jamaica, of course, but it was one of the more influential ones in Reggae’s development, especially with regard to the Rockers subgenre. This originated at Channel One, one can simply say, with the Rockers Reggae torch carried on throughout the Late 1970s and 1980s. Started with Sly & Robbie, continued at Channel One with the Roots Radics band. The later Digital Dancehall also carries rhythmically that Rockers heritage, only speeded up.

Jo Jo Hoo Kim left a legacy in that sense, as its owner. He was mostly not involved in the creative part – only marginally – but still was more than a “sphinx without a secret” (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), i.e. only in it to make money, as he still enabled a creative environment.

Hoo Kim died at 76 years of age. Kind of a blessed age, especially for someone from a poor country, and in an industry with many premature deaths, though musicians seem to die younger more often than producers, also in Reggae.

I Roy, influential at Channel One, working with Hoo Kim, since the 1970s, being also a creative vocalist/DJ/toaster, had a more tragic end to his life. His career went downward in the new Dancehall era in the course of the 1980s, and his popularity declined. A combination of health and financial problems plagued him, even leaving him homeless for periods later in his life. That one of his sons (said to be slightly retarded) was murdered in prison added to his tragic situation. He tried to set up a studio in Spanish Town in the early 1990s, but it was never completed.

The highly original and musical DJ, with intelligent, thematically broad lyrics, I Roy, died from heart failure in 1999. He was only 55 years old.. He helped shape many great recordings from early on, at Channel One too.

POSTSCRIPT

When I travelled to Jamaica for two weeks in 2008 I wanted to see some iconic, historical reggae spots too. I went to Trench Town (“Government yard”), Waterhouse (King Jammy), and also wanted to see the famous Channel One studio I heard so much about (and from!). A Jamaican friend took me to show it – the Channel One building, just to see it, and take a photo. So I did. It was in a depressed, impoverished ghetto area, as I heard already, then and now. I noticed that too, especially in the decaying buildings and materials, and the limited number of – and older - cars, compared to wealthier parts of Kingston.

Of course the studio was no longer used, but was left there in ruins, as a kind of monument of past glory. I took this photo, while sensing some kind of nostalgia and sadness. That a good thing had to end, and could not thrive.. something like that..

zondag 2 september 2018

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Empress Donna Lee

How people got to be reggae music lovers or fans has always fascinated me. Maybe partly because reggae still is off/outside the mainstream, also in the Netherlands. It is not found that easily, let’s just say. It requires (to a degree) an extraordinary life path: that is, different from copying the masses, or simply following what’s commonly on television or the radio.

Reggae has of course since decades gone international and widened its fan base, but I have known individually quite different reggae fans within the Netherlands. Black and white (and Asian, or mixed etc.). Males and females. Old and young. Some with little education, some highly educated. Of different class backgrounds. Some combine liking reggae quite equally with other genres (e.g.: some with African, funk, soul, some with hip-hop, some even with non-black music genres), while others on the other hand adhere almost “strictly” to reggae music, and do not get into much else. Some like roots reggae more than dancehall or vice versa. There are even reggae fans – believe it or not - who do not smoke the “ganja herb”.

Furthermore, some have an interest or sympathy for the related subject of Rastafari, some do not, or even despise it. The latter, despise, I find somewhat odd since Rastafari is not the same as reggae, but is nonetheless connected to it.

These differences (and similarities) between and among reggae fans/lovers intrigue me, also in relation to personal backgrounds. That’s the reason why I would like to interview specific individuals who love reggae.

Before this I have interviewed 6 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014. For my blog post of August 2015, I interviewed, somewhat more extensively, (DJ) Rowstone (Rowald). In August 2016, then, I interviewed Vega Selecta. In October 2017 I interviewed DJ Ewa, also quite extensively.

EMPRESS DONNA LEE

This time, near September of 2018, I interview a “sista” of mine, who I know from the Amsterdam reggae scene. Her name is Donnalee Echteld, also known as Empress Messenjah, or Empress Donna Lee.

Besides that I thought it was time for a woman to be interviewed in this series, Donna Lee is by now quite a well-known, almost iconic person in the Reggae scene in the Netherlands. She is especially – though not only - active in the Amsterdam area, and based there. She is a Selectress/DJ in Reggae, having played over the years at different venues, including festivals, and larger concert venues in Amsterdam, like Paradiso and Melkweg, when they had reggae events/concerts, besides at reggae-minded clubs like Café the Zen, in Eastern Amsterdam.

She furthermore hosts several (online) radio programmes – in the present time at Amsterdam South East-based Radio Razo, or: www.razo-amsterdam.nl , and has done so for years, often hosting together with others, such as Red Lion, the latter also connected to the well-known King Shiloh Sound System. Her focus and stance is Rastafari, and, in relation to this, she mainly plays – old and new - “conscious” Roots Reggae, with “message”, i.e. more spiritual and social, lyrics.

This becomes clear in the songs she plays on her radio shows, as well as as a selecta/selectress.

I myself used to live a time somewhat outside of Amsterdam, but was already a Reggae fan when I came to live in Amsterdam, somewhere around 2003. I went out in Amsterdam occasionally before this. Already then, I encountered Donna Lee’s name and activities in the Reggae scene, and even more when living in Amsterdam itself.

Based in the quarter Amsterdam South East, with many “Black” (Surinamese, Antillean, and African) inhabitants, she quite made a name for herself, as a true representative of both Reggae and Rastafari.

I noticed all this, and certainly enjoyed her selections and song lists – “inna di dance” and on the radio - , keeping me spiritually uplifted. Unlike some other Reggae Deejay’s, she played/spinned no lengthy Digital Dancehall periods, that while at times “dynamic”, often had dubious violence, “slackness” or “ego” lyrics. No, her selections were Strictly Roots, with conscious lyrics. She at the same time avoided becoming “too heavy”, by including joyous and humorous, yet still Rootsy, music. I appreciated all this – as I have a somewhat similar musical taste to hers -, but did at first not know much else about her, beyond her Aruban background, and her Rastafari adherence.

Time for some questions, therefore, while I took into account her busy time schedule.

Underneath you’ll see my questions and her answers, translated to English.

Where were you born and did you grow up?

I was born on Aruba (Dutch Caribbean), grew up there until I was 16 years old.

Since when do you listen Reggae music?

Since I was 12 years old.

What attracted you to it, then?

The positive message and the rhythm.

What other music genres did you listen to?

Only Roots Reggae.

Has there been a change in your musical preferences since then?

No.

Do you have any preferences within the broad Reggae genre? Does, e.g., Digital Dancehall appeal to you as much as Roots Reggae?

I only like Roots Reggae, with real musical instruments. Some Dancehall beats/riddims I find okay..

Since when are you a Reggae selectress /dee-jay? .

Since 1983.

Since how long do you do radio work?

For 20 years.

Do you have a preference for Vinyl or Digital/CD? As listener and as selecta/selectress?

I still love vinyl, but since I started working for the radio, I came across more CD players.

Why the name Empress Messenjah (Donna Lee)?

I started with the name Sista D, back in the 1980s, after that Empress Sound. Then I met Luciano (the artist/singer), and he gave me the name Empress Messenjah. This because he found that I transmitted a positive vibe with “the positive message in the music”.. .

What were some of the most memorable encounters you had with Reggae artists and in the scene, throughout the years?

In the 80's, I played music at Paradiso, for Prince Fari and Augustus Pablo. I met and interviewed Sugar Minott in 2008 in Jamaica at Rebel Salute And also Luciano the Messenjah!

Does the Rastafari message in much of Reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your own background, or beliefs? .

For sure! For me the message in Reggae music is realistic!

What kind of music (reggae) do you prefer to listen to now – at this moment -, what specific artists? Any new “discoveries” you would like to mention?

I listen to Sugar Minott, Devon Russell, Prince Lincoln Thompson & the Royal Rasses. Burning Spear, Willie Williams, Sister Carol, Jah 9, Bob Marley etc.

There are so many new artists; Princess Fyah Jalifa, Hempress Divine, Lila Ike, Asadenaki, Meleku, Xana Romeo, Jesse Royal, etc. .

What do you think of the Reggae scene in Amsterdam and Netherlands nowadays, and how it developed since you started?

Well, back in the days, The Reggae Rastafari scene was more serious, more Roots artists stage shows and own band.

Nowadays, the same artist are booked and every year they perform. And they perform with European bands.

I think there should be a different lineup of Roots Reggae artist for Stage shows.

Any other things you would like to mention?

I would like to thank you, Michel, for the support and the interview.

I further wish for everyone in this world all the best! Be good and good will follow you! Respect one another like your own sister and brother! Peace and Love!

REFLECTION AND COMPARISON

Due to time constraints, and Donna Lee’s mentioned busy schedule, this interview is less extensive than some of the other ones I had in this series..

I think it is still pretty insightful, though.

She has some similarities and differences with the other interviewees, as of course every person is different. She, Donna Lee, is strongly Rastafari and Roots Reggae-focussed. She does not even mention other genres, here. Yet, there is so much variation and are so many dimensions within Roots Reggae that this it does not close the mind, but rather opens the mind, certainly spiritually, in my opinion. An advantage with this is that you really specialize in a genre, learn about it deeply, and not just superficially. Love and knowledge thereby become mutually strengthening.

Even if Reggae fans, like me, still listen at times to other genres, there is still the Reggae base from which one departs, a certain Reggae-based perspective. Nothing wrong with that.

Her Aruba background is interesting, as the island has ethnically a bit a different profile from more “African Caribbean/genetically African” Curaçao, the neighbouring island, also part of the Dutch Caribbean. Aruba has a more mixed population: European, African, and also quite some Amerindian blood. In the town of San Nicolás in Eastern Aruba, however, British Caribbean migrants (once working for the oil refinery), left a strong cultural influence, including in the local carnival. So, Jamaican Reggae does not seem a big “cultural step” from this. .

I furthermore think I agree with what Donna Lee says above about the presently more standardized, booked – read: commercial - character of Jamaican artists’ concerts in the Netherlands, saving costs by using European bands while touring. It somehow seems to have lost an own, creative spirit, noticeable in earlier decades. I heard comments on this change also by other, older Reggae fans, already going to reggae concerts in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Those European bands, often with White members, seem – let’s be honest – less authentic, when one expects Jamaican Reggae. I can understand that very well. On the other hand, it is slightly simplistic and prejudiced. These European musicians often seemed skilled and dedicated, and somehow got into the Reggae vibe. Therefore they did not in every case “ruin” or “disturb” the Jamaican Reggae vibe so much, as one would assume. On the other hand, I myself also saw European bands with Jamaican artists like Anthony B., Eek-A-Mouse, or Don Carlos, thinking afterward: “real Jamaican Reggae musicians would have been better…”, missing a certain musical vibe at these concerts. So, I also understand what Donna Lee means.

I think I understand Empress Donna Lee’s musical taste too, although that is often very personal, and the result of one’s specific, own life experiences and background. She has quite some attention to female artists, and plays them too regularly, I noticed, both as selectress and on the radio. Justly so, because these female artists show quite some talent, especially also within Roots Reggae. These include Jah 9, and other artists she mentions, like Hempress Divine. I like these too, and also Hempress Sativa, is an artist I got a love for recently, while also Dezarie – longer active –, from St Croix, should not be forgotten.

This attention is just for mere quality’s sake, but also because of gender “balance”. I emphasize that this is not a Reggae thing: most (pop) music scenes tend to be dominated by men, some more so than others (Rock, Grunge, Techno, Country, Funk, Blues, Flamenco, Hip-Hop, to a lesser degree Soul and R&B, where there seem to be a bit more women), and Reggae is only partly an exception, although there were always a few female artists active from the beginning (1960s) in Jamaican music.

She mentions some male Reggae artists too, of course, that she listens to. Quality too, in my opinion. Some criticized Prince Lincoln Thompson for being a bit too commercial-sounding, but I think it applies only to some of his albums or songs. Thompson certainly made some quality, roots gems. Even the 1980 album ‘Natural Wild’, by Prince Lincoln Thompson, I have (once bought by my brother) had its moments and some good songs, even if produced by British singer Joe “Is She Really Going Out With Him” Jackson, being also one of the musicians on keys.

She also mentions Willie Williams, and I like him too. His great tune “Don’t Let I Down” certainly struck a chord with me, having appeared as “soundtrack” in one of my dreams, I recall..

Maybe a message from Jah, who knows.. In the dream I walked on a lot near a canal, near to the Leidseplein, in central Amsterdam, a square with lots of bars and music venues, while I heard and sang along with that song.. That was an impressive dream.., but I digress..

I am glad, anyway, that I got to know somewhat more about the great Roots Reggae selectress and radio hostess Empress Donna Lee.

woensdag 1 augustus 2018

Emancipation Day

The 1st of August is known as Emancipation Day in former British (Caribbean and American) colonies. This refers to the fact that slavery was officially abolished by Britain, more or less, on that date in 1834. It is therefore celebrated as a national holiday in several British colonies, such as in the Caribbean. In reality, at first only slaves below the age of 6 were freed on the 1st of August 1834; enslaved workers older than that were still required to work for their masters (40 hours a week, with no pay), by law up to 1838, when “full emancipation” was finally achieved. These enslaved workers in British Caribbean colonies were mostly Africans, or Caribbean-born Africans.

Of course, other colonizers (France, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal etc.) had other dates and years for this abolition. Britain was one of the earliest colonizing states to abolish slavery, and even prides itself with that in hindsight. In that sense it seemed more progressive than other nations in Europe.

It is not a s simple as that, though. Not many may know that during the French Revolution, in 1794, slavery was already abolished in French colonies, yet this was restored again under Napoleon in 1802.

Moreover, one of those French colonies in the Caribbean, Haiti, managed to abolish slavery itself in 1804, during the Haitian Revolution. Enslaved Haitians did not wait for a “benevolent” European state, but fought for their rights to be free themselves. Likewise, the seeming benevolence and sudden humanitarianism of Britain abolishing slavery in 1834 was viewed skeptically, and not without reason.

ERIC WILLIAMS

The many slave rebellions in several British colonies, such as Jamaica, along with changed economic conditions in Britain, simply made slavery overall no longer profitable enough for Britain by 1834. Trinidadian scholar Eric Eustace Williams even argues in his 1944 work ‘Capitalism and slavery’, that slavery helped finance the Industrial Revolution in Britain, thus having served its function, one might say.

Williams’ line of reasoning is thus that Britain’s abolition of slavery had more economic than humanitarian reasons, for the “powers that be”: it enabled the British Industrial Revolution. This in turn placed Britain in an economically prominent position within Europe and the Western world, as the first industrializing nation, later followed by other parts of Europe, of course, some later than others, some only partly. This first industrialization in the world – in Britain - had thus global economic impact, financed by the blood, sweat, and tears – and many deaths – of enslaved Africans.

In this post I will focus on slavery in British history, compared to slavery in other parts of the world. Precisely because Britain boasts about a relatively early abolition, and because of its contribution to the Industrial Revolution in England. What set slavery in the British Empire apart from those of other colonizing nations around that time, and from slavery throughout history in various civilizations? Comparing (historical) slavery systems is quite common even in academic circles, and can be – I argue – quite educational.

NARDIA THOMAS

An interesting book I read, besides the mentioned book by Eric Eustace Williams, in this regard is also ‘The intellectual roots of slavery in the British West Indies: slavery in the British West Indies: a study of the intellectual roots, from the Late Classical period to AD 1850”, by Nardia Thomas. She is also a Trinidadian scholar, like Eric Williams. This book is however quite recent, being published in 2010.

Thomas discusses slavery throughout history, pointing at common elements making human beings vulnerable to enslavement. She mentions specifically the crucial roles of the concept of the “cultural other” - a conquered or captured “outsider” - being more vulnerable to become slave in a certain society, and the concept of “alienation”. The latter term also includes people expelled within their own society. That “cultural other” can refer to another culture, geographical area, race, or religion, often several aspects at once. The accents differ throughout time period, though.

“Race” might in the beginning not be the only factor triggering enslavement of “others” – though still a factor - , but in time race became a quite dominant one, as also being of another religion – or infidels -, such as with the conquests of the Islam: non-Muslims were allowed to be enslaved, and were so in large numbers, especially Africans, pointing at a combination with racial and cultural motives. The same applied to Christianity, of course. All this was framed also within economic motivations, as applied to both Arab enslavers, as soon after Christian colonizers like Portugal and Spain, claiming hypocritically to “convert” or “save” the heathen, by enslaving them.

Nardia Thomas in her book departs from a broad, global approach, discussing also historical slavery in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, within India and Hinduism, intertwined within the unequal caste system, and further also discussed forms of slavery known historically in China and Africa. Thomas’s work is in that sense more or less comparative. Along those ”comparative” lines I continue with this post, but with my own accents.

These own accents relate to my own interests in culture and music, definitely also within the African Diaspora, as I discuss regularly within my – this – blog. I am a Reggae fan, am interested in Rastafari, and in related musical genres and movements. I am also a percussionist, and percussion has a strong African and Afro-American influence. Africa is known as the most “percussive continent”.

DIFFERENCES

What differentiated the slavery systems between European and other powers, and how has this impacted upon social and cultural developments? I might have touched aspects of this topic partly in previous posts on this blog. I compared – for instance – the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and Cuba with regard to maintenance of African culture. There were similarities in cultural deracination and destruction, but also differences: such as somewhat greater possibilities in Cuba to maintain original African cultures (Yoruba, Congo etcetera) within own organizations among (free and enlaved) Africans, called “cabildos” in Cuba.

This way musical traditions could be maintained, more and more directly than in Jamaica or other British colonies, where even a total ban on “drumming” for Africans was for a long time upheld. In Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and to a degree also in French ones, enslaved Africans were often under conditions allowed to play the drums, and other limited degrees of cultural expressions. There were occasional also bans on drumming – or strong discouragement – in Spanish colonies, like Cuba, too, by the way, but less total.

Why this difference? The Protestant emphasis on both rigidity and sobriety of British colonizers – versus Catholic flexibility of Spanish or French colonizers - is often cited as explanation, and this might well be partly true. It seems plausible to me as partial explanation, though it could have combined with other reasons (role in communication rebellious messages by these drums among slaves in British colonies, for instance).

SPAIN AND PORTUGAL

Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa (later part of Italy), and having become a Portuguese citizen later, started ironically the colonial history of Spain by pleading with its new monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella, who combined their kingdoms Aragón and Castile) to finance his trips to what would be known as ‘the Americas’, in 1492. The disaster then began. The arrival of Spaniards and other Europeans had genocidal effects in parts of the Americas on the Amerindian population.

Already around 1505 a first shipment of enslaved Africans went to Santo Domingo (Hispaniola). These first Black slaves were then, however, living in Spain. With the aid of the Portuguese, who had gained more grounds in the African continent and already experience with enslaving and trading in Africans, however, Spain could in time also import Africans directly from Africa as slaves for its American colonies.

SYSTEMATIC PLANTATION SLAVERY

Britain and other European nations followed with this dehumanizing practice of transporting enslaved Africans to the Americas not long after that. Countries like Britain and the Netherlands even modernized and intensified this slavery and slave trade, when compared to Portuguese and Spanish slavery systems. Modernizations by the Dutch in Brazil (1630-1654), further influenced in part those followed by the British in Barbados, became models for a more intensive – and more productive - “plantation slavery” in the Caribbean and Americas.

Simply said: (the Dutch and) British made slavery more efficient and could therefore transport more enslaved Africans in less time when compared to the Spanish, by the 18th c. This made plantations and the sugar industry more profitable in British and Dutch colonies, than in Spanish colonies, where Africans had more varied roles. Some historians describe the difference as such: Cuba was mostly a “colony with slaves”, while Jamaica, Haiti, St Lucia, Barbados, and other colonies, were rather “slave colonies”.

A cynical modernization, as it resulted in the enslavement of more (millions of) Africans, under harsher work conditions, even worse than the earlier enslavement under the Spanish and Portuguese. It increased the dehumanization, as with this plantation slavery, slaves became treated like “animals” and “things” (with no rights), with even less regard for their lives than under the Spanish. Enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, especially on sugar plantations, generally died young, at an average of within 8 years after arrival from Africa (as was the case in Jamaica). The dehumanization was of course there also with the earlier Portuguese and Spanish slave trade and slavery, but this increased it.

In tandem with this dehumanization, the racialization of slavery also became the norm in American colonies. The cynical fact in most colonies was: if you were Black/African, you are supposed to be slave, unless you were freed, or could buy your freedom. In some colonies, the possibilities of becoming free, were bigger than in others. French St Domingue – later Haiti - had, especially in urban areas, at one point quite some free Africans living, as also Cuban cities like Havana, alongside enslaved populations. This made racial relations a bit more flexible in these “Latin” colonies. The lesser and later focus on plantation slavery in Cuba, and a larger white population, also attributed to social and cultural differences with British Caribbean colonies, like Jamaica.

AFRICAN ORIGINS

When Spain began its colonial adventure, it did not have much access to the African continent. Its neighbour Portugal already had, though, having established trade relations in various parts of Africa, including in what is now the areas of Guinea, in Congo, Angola, and Cameroon. It was setting up several trading posts in Angola. The Spanish therefore at first depended on those Portuguese, when they brought enslaved Africans to the West.

The Dutch, French, and British (and even Danes, Brandenburg Germans, and Swedes) were more assertive, and established trading posts along the African coasts, when they also engaged in colonialism and slave trade. These were set up in various parts, partly in areas where the Portuguese were less present, but also close to them. Ghana is one such place where the North Europeans could establish posts, explaining why many slaves from the Ghana area ended up in British and Dutch colonies. The Dutch also had a trading post in what is now Angola, however.

It is too simple to conclude, therefore, that the different European colonizers obtained their slaves from different parts of Africa. All these European colonizers obtained slaves where they could, in various parts of Africa, often collaborating temporarily with other nations. Spain – still with relatively limited access to Africa – worked for its slave trade mostly with Asientos – trade contracts – with British, Dutch, and Portuguese slavers. These latter had more of a maritime tradition and industry than Spain. Britain could get and transport the enslaved Africans with their own ships, while the Spanish were mostly dependent for the shipping on other nations, also because it had not many African territories and footholds, unlike Portugal, Britain, France etcetera.

This is historically significant, as it formed the basis for the later colonies of Portugal, France, and Britain in the African continent, in fact consisting of most of the continent , while Spain at the end only had one small colony in sub-Saharan Africa, namely Equatorial Guinea. It contributed to the current fact – perhaps ironic – that in this day and age most “Francophone” speakers live in Africa, even more than in France and Eastern Canada combined. Studying this is educational, as it shows how industrialization, slave trade, and colonialism in Africa all interrelate.

SPAIN

Spain never industrialized as much as Britain, only much later and mainly in certain regions (Catalonia and the Basque country). The “blood money” that Spain obtained from its colonialism and slavery, just like Britain and the Netherlands had, therefore fed less into a burgeoning industry benefiting the whole Spanish economy, unlike in Britain. It mostly stayed within a few elite families. Only when more systematic plantation slavery had increased in Cuba (later than in British colonies), in the 19th c., its gains went into an industry in Spain, notably in the Barcelona and Catalonia area, where an industry by then had developed.

Many Catalans also invested in the African slave trade and slavery, despite it not bordering the Atlantic. Quite some Catalans (and Basques) migrated to Cuba then, and there were well-known affluent slave owners among them. A large slave owner in Cuba, Julián Zulueta, was a Basque from Northern Spain. Today, many Afro-Cubans therefore have that formal surname (Zulueta), having been owned by that family. I also met some Black Cubans with that surname, when I was in Cuba, as well as with Catalan surnames (and of course also other Spanish surnames).

The Bacardí family was Catalan (later active in the sugar-derived rum industry), and there were also other several Catalan slave owners. Present-day surnames by Afro-Cubans of Catalan origins, like Ferrer, Más etcera, remind of this.

Unfortunately for those who sympathize more with Catalans than with the Spanish, in relation to the recent Catalan independence demands, also what is now Catalonia profited from Spain’s colonial and slavery pasts, even if the first Spanish colonization started from ports like Seville, belonging to Castile (now Andalusia). Studies show several Barcelonese and Catalan elite, industrial families were involved in the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean, as well as in Caribbean plantations, up to the later 19th c..

An interesting fact in this regard: the pro-independence Catalonian politician Artur Más – a precursor in this sense to Carles Puigdemont – had among his forefathers Catalans involved in the African slave trade. I can only hope that he does not consider this something to be proud of.

In summary, the British made the slave trade and plantation slavery more efficient and used its gains more effectively economically and strategically than the Spanish, toward industrialization. When Spain lost its final colonies in the Americas, by 1900, Spain therefore soon impoverished again, certainly when compared to Britain or Northern Europe.

DUBIOUS CLAIM

This also makes the claim that Britain was more “humanitarian” in abolishing slavery and the slave trade in abolishing them much earlier than the Spanish and others, at the very least a morally “dubious” claim. The official abolition date was indeed earlier than the ones by the Netherlands, France, or Spain. Yet, history also shows that around and after this abolition in the 1830s, Britain secured and expanded its hold on the African continent into several large colonies, remaining colonies up to the late 20th c.

For all these reasons, Britain and the British influenced Africans at home and abroad much more strongly, overall, than the Spanish. This is however due to a dehumanizing past.

CULTURAL IMPACT

This influence is also cultural, although shared African cultural characteristics can be found throughout the African Diaspora. I find that a very fascinating theme, as shows on my (this) blog. Especially enslaved Africans from the Congo area, ended up relatively evenly in colonies of different European colonizers. Later studies calculated that probably a bit over 20% of the African slaves brought to Jamaica were from the Congo/Angola area, with a similar percentage applicable to Haiti or the US. Still less than about 40% from Congo/Angola, for Cuba, but still numerous.

There is a specific Congo/Bantu influence among Afro-Jamaicans, as well as among black Americans, and in Haitian Vodou, in Guadeloupe, and also in former Dutch colonies like Suriname and Curaçao, discernible in music and other cultural expressions, mixed or not. This is more prominently present in the African retentions in Cuba and Brazil, but certainly also present in former British, French, or Dutch colonies. Some trace for instance the “heart beat” drumming in Rastafari Nyahbingi drumming to Congo influences, even if played with Kete drums, originating in the Ghana area, where relatively more Africans (about 45%) in Jamaica were taken from.

Despite this, there are several shared African cultural continuities and values among Africans from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, such as polyrhythmic music, musical-spiritual connections, social structures, call-and-response etcetera. These values are mostly shared throughout sub-Saharan Africa, to differing degrees, and came with slaves to the West.

I have studied such differences and historical comparisons in slavery in the Americas before.

BRITISH LEGACIES

The similarities – and differences -within the African Diaspora regarding the African part are very interesting; its variety as well. How did the fact that the enslavers were British impact these differences?

Well, certain parts of Africa were more easily accessible for the British than for other Europeans, for instance Ghana. This became therefore an important source for Britain for slave workers. The British also got slaves from other parts, having relatively more access to other parts too, notably Southeast Nigeria, and the Igbo area, parts of Cameroun, and in Gambia and the Sierra Leone area. The British had posts elsewhere too, such as the Congo region, but this “relative access” shows in part in the slave populations in the Americas.

As said, almost 50% of the Africans brought as slaves to Jamaica probably came from the Ghana region, while to Barbados, relatively many (also about 50%) came from the Igbo area. Igboes were also quite present among the enslaved population in Jamaica (a bit over 20%).

Afro-Trinidadian culture has a strong Yoruba influence (just like in Cuba and parts of Brazil). The Yoruba lands, in Southwest Nigeria and Benin, were at first less accessible for the British, but more to the Spanish, and Portuguese. Trinidad only became later a British colony, in 1797, and before that was a Spanish colony, with many slave owners being French. This also explains cultural differences with other British Caribbean islands.

PROTESTANTISM

A main legacy – on the European side – is of course British, Anglo-Saxon culture, including Protestantism. Noted should be also that about 30% of all slave-owners in the British Caribbean were Scottish, though also Protestant, and most of the rest from various parts of England, Anglicized Irishmen, or Wales. Jamaican surnames nowadays (former slave names after slave-owners as is well-known) like Barrett, Smith, Rodney, Henry, McGregor, Llewellyn, Hylton, Matthews, Johnson, Shaw, Holt, and so forth, say enough.

Reggae artist Peter Tosh (from McIntosh) once stated that his European name is just a “handle”, and does not define him. This is of course true.

There is also a British cultural legacy, that affecting and influenced Afro-Jamaicans. The English language, but deeper than that also Protestantism. Various Protestant churches set up base in the British Caribbean, converting many former slaves. These had at points different interpretations of Protestantism from each other and the more elite (and White) Anglican state church of England. Some were more Evangelical, others influenced by Calvinism. They however all shared a focus on Bible texts, combined with a puritan rigidity. Despite this rigidity, among Afro-Caribbean followers, African cultural traits were mixed with this, in religious practice.

At the end of the day, nonetheless, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon interpretations of the Bible became quite normative and culturally influential in, for instance, Jamaica and among Black Jamaicans. This has remained so up to today.

RASTAFARI

As the African consciousness increase, resulting mainly in the rise of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, in the 1930s, this “White” interpretation of the Bible became questioned. The starting point was still the Bible, though, but with that also certain implicit values from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, that still shaped opinions., even when the Rastafari wanted to abandon and refute the British, colonial legacy.

An example? Well the views on African spirit religions (comparable to Vodou, Santería, Winti etcetera) that survived here and there in Jamaica. Also the early Rastas criticized this as “backward” and ‘devellish”, though a few of the early Rastas, such as Archibald Dunkley, seemed a bit more open to such African Spirit influences. Vodou and Obeah (an Afro-Jamaican magic/spirit cult) became words with negative connotations for many Rastafari, even noticeable in some current-day reggae lyrics.

The irony is that the White, “colonial” and slave-owning Protestants before them, had a similar disdain and rejection of such Vodou-like faiths.

The own African interpretation of the Bible that Rastafari also upholds, makes more sense, as the Bible is no more European than African, and has been certainly misused for own gain by Europeans.

More recently, however, there is also a movement within Rastafari – with artist, presenter, and intellectual Mutabaruka as a spokesperson – that is more critical of the – in the end - European-shaped - Bible and Christian derivative dominance within Rastafari, preferring more attention to Africa itself, and nature.

MUSIC

Jamaica has a rich musical history, as do certain other British Caribbean islands. England not so much, haha. Of course, there were British musical traditions, like the Quadrille (French-influenced, though), and seaman chants that British colonizers brough with them. Also, Irish immigrants to Jamaica (often closer to the slave population in social position, than the British) brought their Celtic musical traditions. Some attribute the early use of the “fiddle” in Jamaican folk music (also by Afro-Jamaicans) to the Irish. British song and chord structures influenced several Jamaican genres, whereas on the rhythmic part the influences were mostly African.

African music traditionally has no “chords” as such, so that part was based on European models. Also this was given a strong African interpretation, such as with call-and-response, and flexible vocal styles. The meager rhythms of English folk songs were soon expanded with several rhythmic additions, and sang with own lyrics and own singing style. This gave birth to the Mento genre in rural Jamaica in the early 20th c.

An interesting difference with, e.g., Cuba: the Spanish guitar or variants thereof were found less in Jamaica. Exactly because it is, well, originally a Spanish guitar from Southern Spain, commonly used in Spanish music genres that Spanish colonizers brought with them to the West. Spanish guitars were however sometimes used in Jamaica Mento, by the early 20th c, however.

Another Spanish musical and cultural influence found in Latin America, is also hardly found in former British colonies. These stem mostly from Spain’s particular Moorish/Islamic past, which left also certain vocal and instrumental traditions. Vocally , the high-pitched, “tense” singing as common in Arabic and North African music, clearly left its mark in several Spanish folk music genres, notably Flamenco, and other genres in Central and Southern Spain (and Portugal).

This influenced genres that developed in Latin America as well, even if it mixed with Amerindian and African influences. The singing style in Mexican, Cuban and other areas – high-pitched, among other characteristics – relates to this. This is found e.g. in both much Salsa, rural Cuban styles like Punto, and in Mexican genres like Son and Mariachi music. Also, the Arab-influenced “melismatic” singing – simply said: syllables spread over several tones – aimed at hypnotizing effect, also reached Latin America.

It must be said – though – that the melismatic singing also influenced Arab-influenced parts of Africa, notably the Guinee, Senegambia and Mali area, where also slaves came from, although these ended up relatively more in what is now the US. It influenced the “swing” characteristic in jazz and blues, by the way. High-pitched, melismatic singing –however – was more associated with Spanish colonies. It is less found in British Caribbean folk music, where Mento or calypso tend to have “relaxed”, or at least ‘syllabic” (one note per syllable) singing styles, more related to other, “forest” parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and perhaps some British and Irish Celtic influences.

This all impacted to degrees on how Jamaican and other British Caribbean music developed. Spanish influences still came indirectly (later Cuban music, for instance) to Ska in Jamaica and Calypso for instance, but the first European music heard by slaves in Jamaica mostly came from Britain.

BROADER CULTURE

It is probably further already known, that also popular “cricket” in the British Caribbean is an evident British legacy, as certain other traditions and activities still found in the British Caribbean, including the “sober” architecture.

That is one thing I noticed when I visited both Cuba and Jamaica in 2006 and 2008: the grand, ornamental, “baroque” architecture and building style in much of Cuba, is largely absent in Jamaica. Stern, linear “White House”-style grandeur is what at most can be found, or otherwise small, “industrial” practical “row” houses for the poorer classes, with only occasional pastel colours as extra decoration.

BACK TO NARDIA THOMAS

In the final, concluding chapter of the aforementioned book by Trinidadian scholar Nardia Thomas – on the intellectual history of slavery -, Thomas locates British slavery within wider history. She points at shared, universal aspects throughout time and cultures, like the enslavement of “cultural others”, dehumanization and lacking rights of slaves, and that the slaves were “property” of masters. She also, however, discusses differences, and peculiarities of British slavery in the Americas.

One of these is the “racialization”, as the “cultural” other became almost synonymous to the “racial” other, in this case of course enslaved Africans. Racism underpinned British slavery systems, that further expanded racism also after slavery. Culture, race and “colour”, and religion thus became intertwined in treating Africans as inferior.

This structural racism, along with the systematic, “industrial” nature of plantation slavery in several British Caribbean colonies, and Protestant values, helps explain why the repression and destruction of African culture was stronger in British than in Spanish colonies.

It is true, that this racism and repression was also found among the Portuguese and Spanish, although most historians conclude that “race relations” were more flexible in “Latin” colonies, and African cultural expressions a bit more allowed or tolerated (under conditions). Less rigid and separated, perhaps due to Portugal’s and Spain’s multicultural past just prior to 1492 (when Columbus set sail to the Americas).

Racist views on Black Africans certainly also shaped the Arab slave trade and slavery of Africans, also combined with religious and cultural prejudices. Certain derogatory views on “dark-skinned” people are still quite common throughout North Africa and the Middle East, among self-proclaimed Arabs, even more so for non-Muslim Black Africans.

CONCLUDING

After the Portuguese, the British were the European colonizers who enslaved the highest number (millions of) Africans and brought them forcibly to the West. This was in a more economic and systematic way than the Iberian colonizers overall did, enabling at the end the first industrialization in Britain, and British colonialism in Africa.

This history of African enslavement by Britain in the centuries up to 1838, thus interrelates with the industrializaton of economies, shaping the present-day dominance of what is called the First World (the industrialized world) today, still dominating and exploiting the Third World (including Africa).

It is cynical but true that that is a main legacy of the British Atlantic slave trade, and slavery in the Americas.

In this light, the emphasis of Britain’s later role in championing the ending of the slave trade by other nations, European ones and others, and congratulating itself as helping the end of the slave trade and slavery, in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere – notably after 1806, when Britain officially ended the slave trade (illegal practices continued), is not without hypocrisy. There is some merit to it, but also hypocrisy. Britain clearly profited from the Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas, even if it abolished it relatively early.

maandag 2 juli 2018

The flexatone (and reggae)

The world of percussion instruments is, at least in the world of modern pop music, largely one of “crucial details”. The wide range of large and small instruments in the percussion family used in many musical genres offers countless interesting sonic possibilities.

These possibilities have been used widely in various genres, though one can say that the variation and use differs per genre. Some genres are by themselves more percussive, or allow more experimentation (e.g. fusion, jazz-rock, Dub Reggae) than others, depending also on artists and musicians, of course.

In mainstream Blues, Jazz, Rock, Pop, Heavy Metal, or Country & Western, not so much extra percussion is used, beyond – say – the quite accepted and spread tambourine. Regarding mainstream Soul, the tambourine seemed to have been used most in Motown recordings, among the percussion, despite an occasional use of conga’s or bongos. The freer, distinctive take on soul by Curtis Mayfield, however, allowed a free spirit like ‘Master’ Henry Gibson (Mayfield’s percussionist) to add more extensively a wide range of percussion (conga, rototom, bongos a.o.), often in the same song. Percussion is also creative in Tom Waits’ more experimental work (like on the album Swordfish Trombones). The same applies to a free-minded Funk band like Funkadelic.

I am primarily a Reggae fan though, and that genre is largely less mainstream than the ones I mentioned till now. Therein too, percussion is – to degrees – quite widely used, but as in other genres of course differing in degree per artist, band, or “sound”.

IDIOPHONES

There are of course different types of percussion instruments. Let’s say that the definition of percussion in this case is all rhythmic instruments outside the (trap) drum kit/set, so commonly used now in modern pop music. Strictly speaking, this definition is incorrect (percussion can apply to all rhythmic “struck” instruments, including that drum set), but more specifically one can use the academic term “idiophones” for those small instruments like scrapers, bells, shakers and others, made to “vibrate” as a whole, setting it thus apart from instruments using strings or membranes. The latter – membranophones – of course include drums, also considered percussion.

In this post I will focus on one specific idiophone instrument. Idiophones can be made to vibrate in different ways, that’s why they distinguish between “struck”, “friction”, or “plucked” instruments. Relatively most of these idiophones are “struck” in one way or the other, and on one of these I am going to focus now: the “Flexatone” (also spelled as Flex-a-tone).

To be precise, the Flexatone is as percussion instrument an “indirectly struck idiophone”, as Wikipedia also puts it.

I am playing now for several years several percussion instruments, having started with serious lessons first in playing membranophones – or simpler said: hand drums – of Afro-Cuban origin: the well known Bongos and Conga. This was soon followed by other, African drums, like the Djembe, Ashiko, and Talking Drum, and other drum types.

In this stage, other percussion instruments, the said idiophones, were a kind of a side-path, though I practiced with it, and had quite some of these idiophones, using them and recording with them, alongside drums. They only seemed a side-path, or at least soon ceased to be. Always combining them with drums, they became more crucial in my musical compositions (which I called “percussion instrumentals”), combining with the perhaps more “driving” drums, but equally crucial in the whole, for me.

Bells (cowbells), shakers (of different kinds), scrapers, thumb pianos, woodblocks, tambourines, cuicas, balafon, rattles, a.o., I thus used from early on. Some of these commonly used in genres like Reggae, Latin, Funk, Afrobeat a.o., and therefore less “new” or “remarkable”.

Such idiophones – scrapers, shakers, thumb piano’s, balafons, rubbed drums, blocks a.o. - are practically as old as man kind, to be found in ancient African musical traditions, and on other continents too. “Thumb pianos”, also known academically as "lamellophones", or by African terms as kalimba or mbira, seem to be specifically African, while shakers, “scraper-like” or “rubbed drum” instruments, are equally traditionally found in both Africa and among the Amerindians. They have a long history there, from way before colonialism and slavery. For that reason, they are common in various genres throughout Latin America.

I love all these instruments, appreciating naturally their crucial cultural, founding and rhythmic function. Yet as time progressed, inventive humans with more means, started in more modern times to come up with “new” percussion instruments, albeit derived from existing ones. The same occurred too, especially in Western countries, with other instruments (horns, string instruments, pianos), largely therefore “modernizations”.

FLEXATONE

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone describes it as one such later invention, patented first in the 1920s in Britain and soon after the US, and used early on as “funny sound effect”, for theatrical use rather, but also in jazz music circles.

The 1920s is of course, compared to the ancient drums, scrapers, xylophones, shakers, bells, or wood blocks, relatively new. Yet this Flexatone has the “musical saw” as predecessor, going historically somewhat further back and to more authentic (e.g. Russian) folk music. Added to this, however, are two wooden balls on either side, thus sounding when the “metal blade” as such is pressed/struck by thumb, combining thus a musical/singing saw with bell/glockenspiel-like sounds, with glissando (or trembling, quivering) effects.

Based on existing models, again, yet quite original as such, this Flexatone, as it appeared since the 1920s.

The history of the Flexatone is quite remarkable, as after it got patented in New York, the US in 1924, it soon got associated with Jazz music, where it – as some put it – could “make jazz jazzier”.

Oddly, Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany banned the Flexatone, along with other instruments (cowbells, brushes), for being (I quote) “alien to the German spirit” or “Aryan musicality”. This was part of a wider censorship of and attack at Jazz, a genre which the Nazi’s detested.

The full set of Nazi rules for Jazz musicians who wanted to perform then (1930s, 1940s) issued, which were actually enforced, makes – in hindsight – absurd reading, but is also cultural policy at its most racist.

The detailed nature of the instructions (e.g. “at most 10% of syncopation..”) makes it absurd, alongside of course racist (here both anti-Semite, and anti-Black), and hateful, as could be expected.

See for that – specifically rules issued during the Nazi occupation in Czechoslovakia from 1938 to 1945 - this page:

https://boingboing.net/2012/03/10/nazi-rules-for-jazz-performers.html

The flexatone was thus prohibited specifically by the Nazi’s: I do not know if that is sad or funny. It makes me want to play it more, I know that, haha. (Hashtag # consideringthesource..)

FLEXATONE AND ME

Relatively recently, I have already taken up playing the Flexatone too, learning more and more how to play it, and about its interesting musical possibilities. I even brought it to (public) jam sessions, and recorded with it in compositions, by now. Since I play one, naturally, I started to focus on it more, noticed it more in music I listened to. About the last year, as I write this, I thus paid more attention to it in music.

USE IN MUSIC AND REGGAE

I am, as said, a Reggae fan, so heard it relatively more in that genre. In fact, it is used quite commonly in Reggae. Quite regularly in Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s too (and later) for instance, where it was not “standard”, but regularly employed by several active studio percussionists in Reggae (Scully, Sticky, Sky Juice, and Bongo Herman), and younger percussionists (of which Sidney Wolfe and Denver Smith can be mentioned, as well as the even younger Hector Lewis (b. 1990), Chronixx’s percussionist). Just as one more possible sound and instrument available for these old- and new-generation of Jamaican percussionists.

The Wikipedia article on the Flexatone mentions the use of the Flexatone in classical music, but in modern pop recordings too, in various genres. It gives an interesting list of songs, but fails to mention any Reggae song, while there are several examples. Like I said, though, Reggae is less mainstream than those other genres.

The cover song – a fine cover, I must say – of Johnny B. Goode by Peter Tosh, reached the mainstream more, and uses the Flexatone (subtly in the mix), but not even this song was mentioned in the Wikipedia article.

Maybe you guessed it, but I am going to fill that void a bit, in this post. Not much use in repeating a (or even several) Wikipedia article(s) here, of course, which are publicly available to all already. Simply search flexatone in Wikipedia, and you got the same information. I am going to broaden it toward reggae, though.

The list as part of the Wikipedia article includes Funkadelic’s Back In Our Mind. I remember that song from my brother’s album, and remember I liked that song. On it, the Flexatone is quite prominent, not “drowned in the mix”, as elsewhere, or only heard in the intro or bridges of songs, but actually “carrying” the song (with mainly a 5-3 pattern/riff). Some more songs in that list also have a quite prominent presence of the Flexatone.

FLEXATONE IN REGGAE LIST

The same can be said when limiting oneself to the Reggae genre. Overall, the use of the Flexatone is regular and not uncommon. Some percussion sounds are relatively more common in Reggae (besides hand drums, say: idiophones), for instance shakers, woodblock, or the scrapers. Some reggae percussionists (before and now) also like rattle sounds, such as from the “vibra-slap” instrument.

The Flexatone is heard here and there too and not so rare, more or less as frequent as, say, the cuíca friction drum, I discussed elsewhere on my blog.

Perhaps it is even more frequently used than more rarely used instruments (I know even examples of “castanet” use in some Reggae songs, after all, and a few examples of “talking drum” use, but not many), because it is hard to give and exhaustive list of all Reggae songs with the Flexatone: still simply too much, plus also hard to study. The only way to examine this is by listening, because hardly ever are separate, specific percussion instruments used mentioned in song or album credits; these are all categorized simply under percussion, with no specificities.

I listened and listen quite some Reggae, and keep quite up to date, so a sensible list that is illustrative is quite possible. To call it “representative” would be saying too much, though: too many examples I might have missed or forgotten, which is inevitable. I can give examples of different decades (excluding Peter Tosh’s Johnny B. Goode, as I already mentioned it).

Since I do not play the Flexatone for too long (over a year now) I did not focus on it so much specifically before, I am only human. That also plays a role.

Still, an illustrative (if somewhat arbitrary) list can be like this:

  • Gregory Isaacs – Motherless Children (1980) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Victim / Mr Music Man (album Victim, 1987) 
  • Gregory Isaacs – Mr. Know It All (1979) 
  • Burning Spear – Should I (album Jah Kingdom, 2002) 
  • Burning Spear - Reggae Physician/Come In Peace (album Appointment with His Majesty, 1997) 
  • The Mighty Diamonds – Diamonds & Pearls (album Deeper Roots, 1979) 
  • Prince Lincoln Thompson – Spaceship (album Natural Wild, 1980) 
  • Gideon Jah Rubaal – Judgement Time (recorded at Channel One, 1975-1979) 
  • Pablo Moses – I & I Naw Bow (album In The Future, 1983) 
  • The Wailing Souls – Helmet of Salvation/Sunrise Till Sunset (album Stranded, 1984) 
  • The Itals – No Call Dread Name/My Woman/Don’t Blame It On Me (album Rasta Philosophy, 1985) 
  • Wiss – Equal Rights/Reach So Far (album Mr. Sunshine, 1985) 
  • The Abyssinians – Ethiopia (album 19.95 + tax, 1996) 
  • Israel Vibration – My Brother’s Keeper (album: On The Rock, from 1997) 
  • The Gladiators (Albert Griffiths &) – Follow You (album Something A Gwaan, 2000). 
  • Protoje – Hail Rastafari (2013) 
  • Iba Mahr – Get Up And Show (2017, on Better Days Riddim)

These are chosen at random, but not entirely. Like in the Wikipedia list of Flexatone used in songs in other genres, its use differs from “prominent” to subtle. Gregory Isaacs’ Mr Music Man is one of the Reggae songs that I know of with the most prominent Flexatone use (perhaps because of the song’s “sparse”, empty Rockers sound, and few other percussion and instruments), along with his earlier song (1979) Motherless Children.

In Mr Music Man – a song I also played as vinyl DJ/selecta a few times - the Flexatone has a nice, groovy function, with bouncy tones, starting on the 1 (of 4/4). Often the Flexatone sets in on the First count of 4/4 in Reggae songs, but those are common musical standards of structure: so do often other instruments (start at the One of 4/4 with a pattern).

In Israel Vibration’s My Brother’s Keeper, the Flexatone is used more subtly, also softer or “buried”/”drowned” more in the mix. The same applies to the Wailing Souls songs I mention from the 1984 Stranded album: to detect its use one almost needs a high-quality headphone, though its nice “chorus introducing” role in Sunrise Till Sunset is audible. On the mentioned Israel Vibration song its use is on the other hand more rhythmic.

I also give examples of songs Burning Spear later albums, where the Flexatone is quite audible, though somewhat subtle and buried in the mix. Burning Spear uses quite some varied percussion in his later albums, including idiophones.. They are not even very soft. Percussion is still somewhat “drowned” in the relatively “fuller” sound of these Burning Spear albums (relatively many instruments used, percussion and otherwise). In these examples, the Flexatone plays a kind of “counter-rhythm” in the African tradition, though not without atmospheric aspects. The Flexatone is also a flexible instrument, haha.

On the Itals’ songs I mention (from the 1985 Rasta Philosophy album), the Flexatone is used by veteran percussionists – as on other of the examples I mention - Scully and Bongo Herman, but somewhat buried in the mix, or at least along with quite some other percussion instruments. It adds nicely to the feel, though, and has a particular good effect (during changes in the song) on the fine song No Call Dread Name, in my opinion, on that album.

DUB

Dub Reggae, as more instrumental form, is largely derived from reggae since the 1970s, so if a vocal song had that Flexatone already, it appears in the (remixed, instrumental) Dub version of it. There are cases where it ended up louder in the mix, though.

The creative genius in Dub, and its inventor, King Tubby, used it – as other producers, like Jammy, Lee “Scratch” Perry) – as extra sound in Dubs, even if not in the music of the original vocal song. The “quivering” metal, glissando tone might fit in with that genre so rich in sound effects, although it is often as “introducing” a Dub tune, so mainly in the beginning or during transitions, when it is added, though in cases also throughout the song as part of its rhythmical structure.

HOW USED

Well, softer or louder in the mix is one thing. Another aspect I also already hinted at: used rhythmically, as part of the rhythm/groove, or more atmospherically (as sound effect) or even melodically, as the Flexatone – because of its very nature – allows this.

It requires more skills to use this Flexatone beyond atmospheric or “sound effect” level – or as a mere “introduction”, also a kind of sound effect. This is self-evident. To actually (help) “carry” a song throughout with the Flexatone, you need actual musical skills. Such rhythmic and musical knowledge tends to be present among percussionists with some experience, as those active in Reggae music, before and now. So its use is often rhythmic, and combined with other percussion instruments (mostly). On Diamonds and Pearls of the Mighty Diamonds its use is more rhythmic, whereas on the 2017 New Roots song by Iba Mahr, Get Up And Show, its use is also nice, but rather atmospheric, or harmonic/melodic, in the whole. Often its use is something between (rhythmic, atmospheric, melodic), due to its inherent flexibility (as other percussion instruments).

I had to listen more closely to Protoje’s song Hail Rastafari to ensure it was actually a Flexatone used in it. There is an occasional “glissando metal” sound (kind of introductory on the 1 of 4/4 beat, as in other songs), which might as well be a triangle or other bell. The use in Hail Rastafari is sparse, simple, and rhythmic, but still nice. The modern New Roots genre within Reggae, has more a “live band” focus (also in studio recording), than the Digital dancehall/Ragga period before, allowing luckily more space for varied percussion, being acoustic instruments. That is also logical, in a sense. I noticed the use of specifically the Flexatone in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show, though, because I liked and like that song so much. One of my favourites, released in that year (2017). I therefore listened more intensively and repeatedly to that song.

YOUNGER PERCUSSIONISTS

I am pleased to notice, anyway, that the younger percussionists in current Jamaican music, continue the varied percussion (drums and idiophones) use of their veteran predecessors since the 1970s, like Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson, Noel “Scully” Simms, Bongo Herman (Davis) and others. One of these new generation percussionist is the already mentioned Hector Lewis of Chronixx’s Zinc Fence Redemption band, a “young lion” born in 1990. Chronixx very recent concert in the Paradiso venue Amsterdam of Friday, the 29th of June, 2018 (so shortly before I write this) was eventually sold out, showing Chronixx’s increased popularity. Perhaps good for Reggae’s development, I gather. Hector Lewis played along in this concert, with a wide percussion set (“Afro-Cuban basic”: three conga’s, bongos, and further various idiophones).

The same a bit “atmospheric” use as in Iba Mahr’s Get Up and Show applies to Gregory Isaacs Mr. Know It All (1980), whereas on Isaacs’ great 1979 song Motherless Children the Flexatone is used more rhythmically, providing combined with the woodblock or jamblock also a kind of “counter-rhythm”, giving the song a polyrhythmic (“African”) rhythmic feel, as in also Burning Spear songs. I find that use very interesting.

The use on the later, fine Abyssinians song Ethiopia (1996), of the Flexatone, is quite extensive and prominent in the song’s whole, again with both a (counter)rhythmic and atmospheric function. One could even say that the song would not feel the same without it. The crucial detail of percussion.

CULTURE AND OTHER ARTISTS

I further – just as another example – also seem to notice the (subtle) use of the Flexatone in Culture’s 1996 album One Stone, as part of wider percussion. As an iconic reggae band, Culture also needs attention here, I think. On this Culture album the percussion instruments are somewhat soft in the mix, the sound more aimed at drum and bass, seemingly, though as often percussion still adds crucial touches to the general sound, if subtly. You hardly hear it, but you still hear and feel it. On some songs of this One Stone album I seem to hear – softly - the “glissando”, characteristic of the Flexatone, setting it thus apart from other (metal) bells used. The same applies to Culture’s 1999 album Payday (with similar mixing choices and “drum and bass”-focussed sound).

Like on Burning Spear albums from roughly the same period, a wide variety of percussion (drums and idiophones) tends to be used on several songs, but softer in the mix than in Burning Spear albums: a bit more emphasis on the “driving bass and drum” – somewhat understandable - , requiring therefore closer inspection to distinguish percussion sounds. At least on these Culture albums One Stone and Payday, which are further nonetheless overall nice albums, in my opinion (despite subdued percussion, haha).

Finding all use of the Flexatone in Reggae is simply too difficult and time-consuming. I would do that if I got paid for it, perhaps. Omissions are inevitable. I mention in my list a later Gladiators song, but maybe the Gladiators used it before in earlier recordings, as might have done Israel Vibration, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls, Abyssinians and others in also earlier recordings, perhaps even already in the earlier 1970s. So might have done, using the Flexatone, other Reggae artists (Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, Black Uhuru, Bunny Wailer, Alton Ellis, Twinkle Brothers, the Congos a.o.) I forgot to mention. Too many to mention.

Also the newer New Roots artists, besides Chronixx, (Sizzla, Luciano, Bushman, Buju Banton, Anthony B., Tarrus Riley, Chuck Fender, Richie Spice, Lutan Fyah, Queen Ifrica, Iba Mahr, Morgan Heritage etcetera etcetera), and the Riddims made for their songs, may have used the Flexatone.

If someone reading this, knows of good examples of Flexatone use in songs by these great artists I haven't mentioned, I of course would love to hear about it.

From the top of my head, I do not know of any use of the Flexatone in Bob Marley & the Wailers’songs, but I might be mistaken here too. As I mentioned in another blog post: the percussion is in Bob Marley songs relatively limited and subdued (softer), when compared to other Reggae, but it is still there.

My list is just illustrative and informative, and not meant as exhaustive nor as representative as such. Yet, I argue it gives a good overview, examples of its use.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS AND REFLECTIONS

It is still possible – and useful - to draw some conclusions from this general analysis of Flexatone use, as part of percussion in Reggae.

One can overall conclude, that Reggae is a music genre with relatively much use of extra, acoustic percussion (beyond the drum kit), and as part of that the use of the Flexatone is not uncommon.

The Flexatone is used in Reggae from different decades since the 1970s, both in Old and New Roots, as in the 1980s Rub-a-Dub or Rockers sound, and in new (not too digital) Reggae, after 1990. I heard it less in modern dancehall, but this is especially because that genre is more Digital, with less space for an acoustic instrument like the Flexatone. Combinations of Digital Dancehall’s basic digital rhythms, with added acoustic instruments exist out there, though.

Digitalization is also found in relatively later Reggae since the 1980s, when the synth got used more, in Early Dancehall, but even in some Roots Reggae, alongside drum, bass, guitar, or horns. On some albums the synth effects and sounds (“bleeps”, so to speak) took over the role of acoustic instruments, like percussion, leaving less space for their additions. Later, with the New Roots revival this trend was reversed luckily, to which the roles like the mentioned new-generation Jamaican percussionist in Reggae, like Hector Lewis, attest. A live-band focus, often including a percussion set, was never fully abandoned within reggae (with veteran artists like Burning Spear, Congos, Mighty Diamonds, Abyssinians a.o.), but now returned a bit with newer, younger Roots Reggae artists like Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid, Iba Mahr, Lutan Fyah, Protoje, and even with artists with one foot also at times in Dancehall (like Buju Banton, Sizzla, Capleton a.o.): when they perform live there is often – not always - a percussion set as part of the musicians.

The Flexatone is further used for atmospheric effect, but more often rhythmically and semi-melodically, within Reggae. In the reggae songs with the Flexatone use, providing a kind of counter-rhythm with a special (glissando, saw-like) sound, is mostly its function. Its melodic possibilities are less used or explored, though tension-building, semi-melodies are heard, mostly when introducing song parts like choruses and bridges. Elsewhere, they are more in the groove, and part of a percussive, even polyrhythmic, whole, with other percussion instruments.

Its use in reggae is therefore mainly part of an African musical aesthetic, fitting the Black music genre that is Reggae.

In spite of its British/US origins (and precursors in non-African folk music), its use is mostly African, with differing rhythmic complexity.

The sound itself – despite its use - of the Flexatone, kind of a glissando bell, may not seem traditionally African to some, although metal “bells” or scrapers are used since long in African traditional music. The “singing saw” sound might seem European to some, but even that is relative.

The modern violin might have been invented as such in Northern Italy, but violin-like instruments were long common in several cultures, including in Africa. In parts with string instrument-traditions in Sahel, West Africa: the Guinee, “Griot”, region, for instance. There one also finds scraped metal instruments, or similar somewhat “quivering” sounds.

In Ethiopia’s musical culture, you have the interesting Mesenqo instrument – a single-stringed bowed lute - with similarities to a violin, only older. Other string instruments in traditional Ethiopian music, are for instance the Kissar (also found in nearby Sudan, Nubia) and Krar, with strings plucked, but also at times “twanged”. Also here, quivering, glissando sounds, not that far apart from the less old (1924) Flexatone.

Musical bows are also found in Central and Southern Africa, with a likewise quivering, glissando sound to degrees, while the talking drum also has a changeable, “gliding” pitch. Glissando, said of the Flexatone sound, means in “Italianized French” nothing else than “gliding”, by the way.

All these African instruments’ sounds, have to differing degrees sonic similarities with the “glissando/gliding” or “flexing metal” aspect of the Flexatone. I argue therefore that the flexatone does not sound very European – or out of place – within an often Africa-focussed - and at least African-influenced genre - like Reggae. Especially Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists focus on Africa also lyrically, but the origin of Reggae as music is also largely African (mixed with some European aspects), especially rhythmically, but also broader.

I can even go for a “sweeping statement”:

“The rhythmic/semi-melodic use of the Flexatone in Reggae is an African retention of the sounds of certain African traditional instruments, especially the “musical bow” (or the mouth bow), as found especially in Central and Southern Africa, a musical heritage that came with the enslaved Africans to the West, and an island like Jamaica.”

Of course, modified and limited, it still echoes here and there such ancient musical bows, and other African string and metal instruments with “glissando/gliding”–like sounds. These are also found in other Black music genres (the blue note in Blues, Jazz).

At the very least an interesting way to look at the Flexatone’s use in Reggae music..