vrijdag 1 september 2017

Celebrating Africa

The Rototom Sunsplash festival - a Reggae festival - took place in Benicasim, Spain in August 2017 (so this year) again. For the seventh consecutive time after the Rototom festival moved from Northern Italy to Eastern Spain (Benicàssim in Valencian spelling, province of Castellón). I did not go this year but went the very first time it was held in Spain, in 2010. I wrote about it on this blog. It was a great experience for me then: music-wise and otherwise. The festival had a great line up in 2010, including Pablo Moses, Anthony B, Bushman, Bob Andy, the Abyssinians, Romain Virgo and others. “Older” and “newer” reggae artists combined. I stayed in a nice, relatively cheap hotel in the small town of Benicasim, avoiding thus my hesitation about “camping” among strangers. A hesitation that might have been exaggerated or unjustified, but I enjoyed the time in the comfortable hotel, with a nice fruit stand nearby. I only had to walk a bit more to the festival terrain than those on the camping. That it was in my maternal roots land (or “motherland”) of which I also spoke the language, was another nice detail.

Benicasim was furthermore located in a Mediterranean atmosphere and varied landscape, which I found pleasant. The festival terrain was orderly and well-organized, but with much open space, which one notices more as it was very hot (few trees for shade). Some days I walked to the festival terrain at 40 or 41 degrees celsius. Many of the visitors seemed to avoid the festival terrain with those temperatures. I was used to that from earlier vacations in Andalusia (including family visits), and maybe, who knows, somehow my Spanish genes (from the relatively warm South West of Spain), from my mother’s side, made me a bit more resilient. The visitors were as I remember okay, and the atmosphere was relaxed, even though groups seemed divided according to nationality. I imagined because of language barriers – or occasional disdain – between relatively numerous Italian and Spanish and others, like Northern European, visitors, but this showed more in distant rather than in aggressive behaviour.


Anyway, I remember great music concerts, the atmosphere, the stands, the heat, the natural surroundings, as well as debates at a Reggae University at the festival, interviews with artists.. I do not recall, though, if there was a “theme” of the festival. This latest, 2017 Rototom Sunsplash festival edition had, after all, a theme, namely “Celebrating Africa”. Possibly also because of the performing artists, including African artists like Seun Kuti (son of..), Youssou N’Dour, and other specific events or debates. "Celebrating Africa" seems a very interesting theme.

It also makes sense, and in what ways is what I aim to discuss in this post.


The connections of Reggae with “Africa” are of course multifold. Reggae is created on Jamaica among people of African descent, under strong cultural African influences. That is self-evident. Reggae with its musical characteristics by itself celebrates Africa. The “celebrating” is thus a practical expression in culture, but soon became likewise manifested in Reggae’s lyrics, especially when the Rastafari movement influenced Reggae more since the early 1970s. With Marcus Garvey and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia as central figures, and repatriation to Africa as goal, the Rastafari movement certainly focussed on Africa. Afrocentric also in the most literal sense.


Yet.. there are some contradictions and issues here. Or “ironies”. The fact that one of the biggest Reggae festivals in “Europe” celebrates Africa is the least of these. Reggae is Afro-Jamaican music - created by descendants of slaves - that has “gone international” for a long time, being earlier successful in Britain. Both Britain and Spain have colonial and/or slavery pasts, as do France, the Netherlands, or other countries with Reggae festivals. Though of a 100% Italian (Genoese) background, Christopher Columbus started the whole colonial enterprise in the name of Spain, and became a naturalized Spaniard for his claimed efforts (“discovering” – not really, people already lived there -, but really “claiming” territories in the Americas for Spain). Some Caribbean schools taught that Columbus was a Spaniard (a Man from Spain), but he was as said not originally (but from Genoa, now Italy), and lived before Spain years in Portugal (according to some sources enslaving in that period Africans with the Portuguese on ships).

Of course, Columbus is criticized in Reggae lyrics as an early and wicked, Babylonian enslaver and colonizer. Yet, if a Reggae Festival in Spain is ironic, it also would be in Britain (building its wealth and cities largely on slavery and its empire, and more economically effective than Spain, where colonial wealth remained more within certain families), or Italy, whose Fascist leader also Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s, when Selassie was in power, accompanied by racist propaganda. We are well beyond this irony by now, and times have largely changed. Reggae has fans throughout and among different races and on different continents, including Europe, with Britain, France, Germany, and Italy being especially large reggae markets there.

Reggae at least broadened the consciousness about Africa, and Black people’s struggles, among white reggae fans in Europe. This as part of it spreading Rastafari messages. Organic, something which the beauty of art facilitates, more easily and accessible than an academic study. That is true.


A difficulty with this is, however, that Africa functions often mainly symbolically in Reggae lyrics; as the homeland, the Zion one should return to, escaping the oppression and poverty in Western Babylon (Jamaica, Europe, US a.o.). The desired homeland – the promised land - in its stead is specifically Ethiopia, but in many Reggae lyrics broadened to Africa in general. Actual knowledge about the African continent in the present, recent political and economic developments for instance, is not ignored, but at times take second place to the symbolic, the spiritual, and the “promise”. That is understandable and human. Perhaps even necessary, for a tree cannot live without its roots.

Politics and economics are corrupted and artificial, mostly Western-influenced, aspects in Africa. The Rastafari adherents can therefore be forgiven when they do not pay too much attention to that, although some do. The question whether, say, democracy can increase in present-day African societies seems outside the realm of a spiritual movement, although several Rastafari thinkers have discussed this socio-political matter (Mutabaruka, and in several Reggae lyrics).

A bit more contradictory is the approach toward African culture as such, at least within much of the Rastafari movement. Not just Rastafari, but also other Black Power movements in the West have this problem. The Nation of Islam associated the Islam with Africa, yet does not plea for repatriation to the motherland, neither has Africa the same symbolic function as it has for Rastafari. Islam is of course no more African than Christianity, but Christianity is of course used by European colonialism and enslavement against Africans.

Rastafari is more Christian and Biblical influenced, more specifically Protestant influenced, which is simply neither African. The Bible is known as Middle Eastern and, probably, relatively more African than European, and Rastafari “reread” it from an African perspective, but still..


What is lost largely in all this is the original African folk culture. Spirit beliefs apparently lacked the “sense of purpose” for some Black Power and Pride movements, instead drawing in their own way from main world religions or even other ideologies (e.g. Marxist influences some suppose on the Black Panther Movement).

Christianity in its later European form (Catholicism and Protestantism) was and is mostly a negative, invasive force in Africa, as is the Islam. The latter a bit more subtly and gradually. As the Islam spread from Arabia since the 7th c. AD, it soon reached Northern Africa and after that territories South of it. It also reached large parts of Spain and Portugal, where locals also converted. While Islam was in all these cases an invading force (Africa, Iberia, Asia) many local inhabitants chose to convert, at least in part. Some scholars relate this to the ease of conversion (clear, practical rituals), also for illiterates, when compared to e.g. (real) Christianity. Islam spread, anyway, throughout parts of Africa.

Within Africa, the Sahel and Mande-speaking areas (Guinea, Mali, Senegambia, Northern Ivory Coast a.a.) in time converted to Islam, as did Somalia and parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya. Ethiopia had an older, indigenous (non-European!) Christian tradition before this, along with some Animist traditions. Such Animist or “spirit belief” traditions were prevalent elsewhere in Africa too where Islam came, often replacing it, but partly also mixing with it, resulting in an own, distinctly African interpretation of the Islam in Mali, Guinea, and Senegal. In a book I recently read, the author pointed also at the different practicing of the Islam in Ethiopia and Eritrea (practiced freer), differing from its stricter interpretation in Arab-influenced Sudan, where Islamic fundamentalism has risen, increasing tensions between Islamic Sudan and neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia, that also have a largely Christian population, besides Muslims.

The Arab slave trade historically affected many Black Africans, since the Islam came to Africa after the 7th c. AD. Many, many Black Africans: over millions, became enslaved by (Arab and Berber) Muslims, legitimized by an upheld rule that non-Muslims could be enslaved by Muslims. Many of these sub-Saharan Africans were women and men, brought to the Middle East and Northern Africa (and European areas under Islamic rule like Spain, Portugal or Sicily). More women than men, historians point out, and part of the men were (castrated) eunuchs, guarding harems. Dehumanization, racism, and cruelty.

In Islamic-ruled areas in the Middle East and South Asia (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, India) there are as a result now minorities of partly African descent, such as the little known group the “Afro-Turks”. Mostly the result of Arab and Islamic slave trade – including also many deaths on the way -, predating the more organized European ones. Some historians even claim that the presence of Black African slaves among the Moors in Spain and Portugal, gave the Portuguese and Spaniards the idea of the later Atlantic slave trade. This is not a popular statement, as the Moorish period in Spain was also relatively “advanced”. It also contradicts the simplistic idea among some so-called Afrocentric thinkers that the Moors were Africans teaching medieval Europeans civilization.

In light of all this, “celebrating” Africa through the Islam is nonsense. Christianity has a longer history in Ethiopia than most of Europe, and the Rastafari’s use of it can perhaps be seen as a “reclaiming”, beyond European wicked lies and historical falsification with colonialism, that also knew dehumanization, racism, and cruelty only more intense and concentrated in time (millions were enslaved and brought to the Americas, or died as part of it).

There are still some difficulties with this, though. “Animist” aspects from traditional African spirit possession beliefs, that most slaves brought to the Americas, have been eschewed by early Rastas, claiming these to be “devilish”. A clear Protestant, European influence. White and other missionaries from evangelical and other Protestant groups active in Africa right now, do the same with present-day spirit cults in Africa. That is not “celebrating” Africa, that is destroying its original culture. This is then replaced by a European-minded Christianity.

Elsewhere Black Africans are indoctrinated nowadays more and more by an Arab-minded Islam, such as among the Hausa in Nigeria, Senegal and elsewhere, and also in Sudan. South Sudan is a new country, mainly Christian, made up of Black African people, but the remaining Islamic country Sudan has a population that is actually mixed African and Arab, yet sees itself as Arab. A type of racism connected to a religious sense of superiority. The same occurs in Egypt, where it occurs that people deny their African roots – even if having certain physical features reminding of it (Black African instead of Arab-Mediterranean, let’s say). Former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) had to continue this denial, as racist Arabs attacked his African features. That is also the opposite of celebrating Africa.


Reggae, though, is mostly influenced by Rastafari. Not all Reggae artists are Rastafari-adherents of course, and not all Rastafari adherents are connected to Reggae. They are separate domains, yet the influence and connection is there. Many Reggae lyrics still point at African spirit possession lyrics, and mostly in a negative light (Obeah and Vodou are portrayed often as trickery by wicked and bad-minded people), although the Yoruba deity Shango – found in spirit possession traditions comparable to Vodou, such as Santería in Cuba - has a positive meaning among some. As a sign of African strength. Shango is a nickname of Rastafari-adhering Reggae artist Capleton. One of these contradictions.


The 2017 edition of the Rototom Reggae Sundance festival included as said African artists, and many bigger and smaller events (also films, workshops) focussed on Africa. Too much to mention, but the Rototom website gives a total overview here (https://rototomsunsplash.com/line-up/). Acts/concerts on the main stage included Seun Kuti (son of Fela), Alpha Blondy, Nkulee Dubé (daughter of South African reggae artist Lucky Dubé, who is now deceased), and Youssou N’Dour, so stepping also outside of a strictly reggae focus.

Besides this, the line-up included mostly Reggae artists, mostly from Jamaica, as is after all the focus of Rototom Sundance. I do not get the considerations determining why some go on the “main” stage, while equally great artists to the “lion stage” (with live band, or not?), but that is another issue.


Interestingly, there was this year an acoustic set, based on the Jamaican Inna de Yard series, with Nyabinghi-based, percussive songs by Rastafari-adhering Roots Reggae artists, now in a Nyabinghi, acoustic style. I saw the stream of Inna de Yard this year on the Internet and I loved it a lot. I really wished I was there. People who I spoke later, and actually went, confirmed that it was indeed great and magical at that concert, including Roots Reggae veterans like Cedric Myton, Kiddus I, and Winston McAnuff. Real, spiritual music.

The presenter – herself from Africa (Equatorial Guinea, Nguni/Kombe-speaking), and Spanish-speaking – introducing this concert, pointed out that Inna De Yard’s Nyabinghi-influenced music came closer to African folk music, such as from where she is from. That is true.


Again, there are some difficulties here, without wanting to nitpick. I know something about Nyabinghi (sometimes spelled as Nyahbinghi), and even played it with a group several times. Besides this I am also a broader percussionist, with interest in African and Afro-Cuban music. From what I learned and can deduce, Nyabinghi is indeed African-based folk music, practically in all its principles, drawing on Afro-Jamaican percussion traditions, notably Burru and Kumina, while later the music of Babatunde Olatunji (an internationally known Yoruba Nigerian musician and percussionist) influenced some Nyabinghi players.

Nyabinghi patterns indeed are strictly African in origin: including the role of the “heart beat” (one-two) bass drum, and the varying, higher-pitched drum patterns (on the “repeater” drum) crossing it.

Yet, due to the rejection of spirit possession by perhaps not all, but many early Rastas, this drum-based music obtained another function within Rastafari that is nonetheless spiritual and aimed at “grounding” . The singing/chanting with the drumming is for many just as important. The lyrics of these Rastafari songs often show a Biblical influence, and some songs are even melodically derived from Church or Gospel songs in Christian traditions, albeit with lyrical alterations.

Nyabinghi is thus somehow a “spiritual gathering”, with even perhaps magical qualities, but the singing and drumming patterns are not meant to invoke spirits “mounting” and taking over persons. This is the case in traditions like Vodou, Santería, Winti, Kumina, Shango in Trinidad in Jamaica itself, all directly derived from spirit cults for a long traditional in Africa among the Yoruba, Fon, Congo, Coromantee and other peoples. Each “spirit” has own characteristics and purposes, and therefore own rhythmic structures to invoke them. Thus a complex structure of rhythms developed in e.g. Vodou and Santería.

By comparison, Nyabinghi is rhythmically “simplified”, also in the musical “polyrythmic” sense. Much of traditional sub-Saharan music (spiritual or not) is characterized by multiple (more than two) rhythms played at the same time (thus: polyrhythms), interestingly interlocking around an implicit or explicit key (clave) pattern.

This call-and-answer principle, and polyrhythm as such, is certainly also there in Nyabinghi, mostly through the repeater drum “crossing” the heart beat base rhythm with varying, free patterns, but more limited.

Still, Nyabinghi is so much based on African musical principles – if simplified - that it is true that it “celebrates Africa”, not just through its Rastafari-inspired, Africa-focussed lyrics, but also musically. In addition, it is more pan-African than other traditions (more confined to specific ethnic groups, e.g. the Yoruba), as it combines percussive traditions from different parts of Africa: the kete drums are from Ghanaian/Fante-speaking-influenced Burru, while the “heart beat” comes from Congo-based Kumina, while there are also other (Yoruba) influences. The Afro-Jamaican and Rastafari Nyabinghi therefore certainly fitted the Rototom Festival’s 2017 theme very well.

The other acts – popular music with more modern, Western influences – still played Reggae, a Black music genre with evident African musical characteristics, combined with a European “chord” or harmony structure. African music knows “harmony” too, only not through chord schemes as such. Africa is still there defining the music and making it what it is. This was in that sense also celebrated.

For that reason, I found “celebrating Africa” to be a well-chosen theme for the festival, even if partly self-evident. Not just that it fits, but it takes a positive moral stance (“celebrating”) about a continent, that is still largely ignored and abused in these times: Africa. Media attention to Africa is still limited when compared to other parts of the world. When there is attention in current media, it is often limited and biased, with few complex nuances.


This creates the odd situation that even self-proclaimed (Black!) Rastafari-adherents object more about Palestina, US Middle Eastern policies, or Donald Trump, than about what happens in Africa, even if even more people die and suffer. Many Rastas might not know much about the world’s newest country South Sudan, or other conflicts, such as in the Central African Republic (some do).

Apartheid in South Africa made Reggae artists also justly focus on it periodically, but that was one part of Africa, and just for a period.

Not all Rastas can be blamed too much for this, though. That is how it is in the present-day world. This relates to recent Islamic Fundamentalism and terrorism, getting media and political attention world-wide. Many countries after the US jumped on that “Islam danger” bandwagon.

Do not get me wrong, there are tendencies that I call “Fascist” within Islam, especially its Fundamentalist, politicized and terrorist off-shoots. The line of reasoning among Osama Bin Laden and IS reminds me of the rise of Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler to power: violence, intimidation, denying rights, dehumanization, celebrating death and killing, machismo, intolerance of digression, collectivism..

On a side note: when I compared some interpretations of Islam as Fascist, some of my friends (with close Muslim friends, but maybe I have these too, what do they know) objected: Islam is peace, IS has been invented by the FBI, etcetera. A bit too simplistic in my opinion, but I only referred to specific “interpretations” of the Islam. Besides, I think I know what Fascism is: my Italian father was a child during the late chaotic stage of Fascism in (Northern) Italy but heard stories from his older family members. The term “fascism” is invented in Italy, by Benito Mussolini.

On the other hand, my Spanish mother lived – according to herself: “suffered under” – a Fascist(-like) regime in Spain, that of General Franco, reigning until 1975. Especially when she wanted to have fun and explore life as a youth, and in her late teens, when she had to look for a job to support (as one of the older siblings) her large and poor family, she felt the oppression and dehumanization herself (employers could exploit and abuse – or fire - workers quite freely in Spain back then), and noticed other flaws in Spanish society shaped by the unfreedom of dictatorship, denied rights, gender and class inequality, censorship, poor education, and poverty. Cynically, the Catholic Church was a conservative force largely siding with this semi-Fascist regime of Franco (my mother called it Fascist, not just semi-Fascist, haha).

Despite similar - and in my opinion comparable - tendencies also within Islam, I of course know that many Muslims, however, just find solace and direction in Islam for themselves, a perhaps conservative but in itself now peaceful religion, like other ones. Some even do good with their faith, helping less fortunate people, like some Christians, e.g. Catholic family members of mine giving food away - spontaneously - to even poorer families in the village. Some Muslims do that too, caring for their fellow human beings. Some misuse a religion like Islam for other, wicked goals: just like Christopher Columbus called himself a Catholic.

Anyway, all this attention to Islam takes attention away from poorer parts of the world, including in Africa. The average television watcher in Europe, Asia, and the Americas knows more about what goes on in Syria right now (or even in now non-war areas in the Middle East, like Afghanistan or Iran) than about what is happening in South Sudan, Mali, Sierra Leone, Kenya, or the Central African Republic. It’s a pity.


While the Rototom Festival was still going on in 2017, some wicked murderers, or Islamic terrorists as you can also consider them, killed and wounded dozens of people in the city of Barcelona, Spain. This was exactly on the 17th of August: which should be known only as Marcus Garvey Day (born on that date), in reggae and Rastafari circles, or even among all Black people. Marcus Garvey was a Black Power pioneer, influencing in time Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, as well as African independence fighters like Kwame Nkrumah.

Barcelona is not too far from Benicasim, about 267 kilometers to the north. Benicasim is however closer 86 km away) to the city of Valencia - with about 800.000 inhabitants - in Spain (in a region named after this city, and not in Catalonia, that borders to the north).. The perpetrators in Barcelona were Spain-residing Moroccans, who knew they would get media attention, and most international media fulfilled their wish, with predictable background news items with “life stories” of the young terrorists: how they grew up, where.. etcetera etcetera. Killing people apparently makes one more fascinating, or so it seems.. The victims apparently are too boring, on the other hand. They had no “action” and therefore get less attention, hereby almost copying Mussolini’s Fascist world-view.

Unfortunately, the Barcelona attacks by Islamic terrorists, the 17th of August of 2017, has become on a smaller scale exemplary of a recurring pattern: Islamic terror stole and steals lives away – always sad – but at the same time also attention away from Africa and Africans.

Therefore, let’s indeed remember and “celebrate Africa”, but also learn about it..

dinsdag 1 augustus 2017


It made the news, at least in the Netherlands, the 29th of July of 2017, to be exact. The newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, wanted to deal with the problems of “shanty towns” (“krottenwijken”in Dutch), or “slums” of informal, self-made houses, of which there are now (as I write this) about 120 around Paris, inhabited by thousands of people. Relatively many of these were Roma people (“Gypsies”), often recent migrants from Eastern Europe.

“Slums” or “shanty towns” are words to describe informal and irregular housing settlements, generally close to urban areas, but outside its urban planning realm. Public services tend therefore to be absent. These are more extensive and widespread in developing countries than in France (or entire Europe). This made that news item about slums near Paris – as so often news by Western media – very selective in perspective.

Known as “bidonvilles” in French-speaking areas, or as “favelas” in Brazil, these shanty towns are in reality a persisting and omnipresent reality in this world. Recent estimates argue that about 33% of the urban population in the developing world live in such “slums”. Percentages are even higher for many African countries, where in certain cases over 80% of the urban population live in such slums/shanty towns.

Its evident connection to poverty, inequalities, and lack of policy cohesion in societies, make the “shanty town”also a common theme in music genres with socially critical, or “protest” lyrics. This is certainly the case with Reggae, a genre I am a fan of and kind of specialized in.


Reggae is from Jamaica in the Caribbean, and developed especially in the poor, ghetto (“downtown”) areas of its capital Kingston, under different, also rural influences. So, among poor people, and many of the early reggae musicians and artists were not necessarily “city slickers” (a few were born Kingstonians, many not), but came from rural areas and poor families, hoping for more possibilities in Kingston. Shanty towns and slums this way certainly developed around and in Kingston, and other urban areas, with self-made houses, often using zinc (“bidon”in French, hence: bidonvilles), poor conditions, but at least some kind of dwelling or makeshift facilities.

Many of these shanty town houses were temporary, because government policy in Jamaica, since the 1960s, tended to replace them with more formal low-income housing, as happened in the ghetto area of Trench Town in Western Kingston. Still a ghetto – as a broader term for a low-income, poor neighbourhood – but now with government-built houses (hence the “government yard”, Marley sings about on his song No Woman No Cry).

At present (2017), 20% of Kingston is made up of “squatter” or informal settlements, i.e. “shanty towns” or “slums” in the strict sense of the term. A larger percentage includes “ghettoes” or “poor neighbourhoods”, including government-built houses, but often without maintenance or public services, sharing those characteristic with the squatter settlements.

These houses replacing slums – such as happened in Trench Town - were small yet new, but deteriorated over time, due to neglect, and not so much of the local inhabitants. The same happened with central parts of Spanish Town, Jamaica's former capital, a bit inland from Kingston. I visited Spanish Town in 2006 and 2008. Large, British colonial buildings – pompous, but in a Protestant way – and an old Cathedral, remain within an area of total neglect, impoverished houses, poverty, and high crime rates, including gang violence (as in parts of Kingston). I have been to that part of Spanish Town, and experienced it – at that time – not very “dangerous”, but felt it to be a bit surreal, with the remnants of posh colonial history, oddly combined with small, decaying dwellings, and mostly African-looking people with very basic or old clothes and just a few, damaged cars. The whole history of colonialism, slavery, transplanted Africans, and persisting racial inequalities after slavery up to now… all noticeable on one location.

Desmond Dekker had a well-known song called 007 a.k.a. Shanty Town, in 1967, and later Reggae artists use the term “slum” in lyrics. Even more Reggae artists use the broader term “ghetto” or “downtown” for such poor, neglected communities (in many, many Reggae lyrics..), whether the places they refer to consist of makeshift/self-made informal, poor housing or basic government-built housing that deteriorated. These include also the deteriorated “flats” which I saw in Tivoli Garden, another downtown, ghetto area of Kingston. This was once a slum called Back-o-Wall, replaced with a housing project in 1966 by the then ruling JLP party.

The wealthier parts of Kingston are found historically more in the hills (uptown), with a cooler climate. Rich people – especially rich White people – “claiming” especially areas with relatively cooler climates in tropical countries occurred commonly throughout colonial history (also in Kenya and Zimbabwe by British and Boer settlers).

When I went to Kingston’s downtown ghetto of Trench Town in 2008, I noticed that the roads were very bad – big holes in them, decay etc. – , as were many walls, denoting years of neglect. The “state” or “city” government does simply not enter there. This absence of public maintenance is there in both shanty towns and “ghettoes”.

It may be quite known, that the ghetto areas in Jamaica have hardly improved or diminished in size up to now. Gang and gun violence has over time unfortunately increased, making crime now “harder” relatively, when compared to, say, the 1960s or 1970s.

Overall, the rich got richer, and the poor poorer, as elsewhere in the world. A middle-class only limitedly developed in Jamaica, due to prominent class barriers. Therefore these problems remained, and crime got harder.


The biggest shanty town (in number of inhabitants) is found today in Mexico, but there are many extensive shanty towns, all over the world, including Africa and Asia.

Okay, throughout the “developing” World, that is to be expected. Shanty towns are not absent in the developed, wealthy parts of the world, though. The mentioned recent news item on shanty towns near Paris, France hinted at that. At present, Newark (New Jersey) – for instance - has an actual “shanty town”, while many “projects” in US cities can be characterized as ghettoes in several senses. In some cases, they are – unlike shanty towns in the strict sense - included in some public services or city policies, but they still consist of “concentrations of poverty and unemployment”, often with a racial connection. We all may know the existence or even the names of such neighbourhoods from popular culture, the US being so dominant in the global film and television industry: Compton, Southside Chicago, Bedford-Stuyvesant (New York), Harlem (as it was, mostly), etcetera.


What about Europe? It is, I think, not widely known that the largest “slum” or “shanty town” of Europe, is at present a settlement near Spain’s capital Madrid, called Cañada Real. It is not included in public, government or city policies, and has no formal services (as many don’t pay taxes). It has never been part of any housing plan. Its currently about 80.000 inhabitants are varied, and do not consist mainly of poor, African, Roma/Gypsy and other immigrants, as in some other European countries (France now, parts of Greece and Italy), but include – alongside these immigrants - also many poor, local Spaniards. Spain has at present an unemployment rate of over 24%, which is high for EU standards (even much higher than of France and Italy, for instance).

The Italian city Naples also has a history of “slums” (including local Italians too), as some other parts of Southern Italy, and further also Athens, Lisbon, and parts of Eastern Europe.

In more wealthy, industrialized or “cohesive” parts of Europe (Northern Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, the UK) actual “slums” with local people (other than recent migrants) seem largely absent. There are of course “working-class” and poorer neighbourhoods in cities like London, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam, with concentrations of relative poverty, unemployment, and certain social problems. Even these quarters tend, however, to be included in city policies and planning, even if at times half-heartedly or limitedly.

Certain countries – like the Netherlands - practice the good idea of “social housing”, enabling afforable (rental) housing for poorer people (and maintaining these houses!), of course limiting housing problems.

The lack of such “social housing” policies in Spain, and the unwillingness of its present Right-wing government to implement it more widely, have increased the quite massive eviction of people in Spain not able anymore to pay their house, increasing homelessness, especially among those unable to move in with family members. Some of these (including ethnic Spaniards) even ended up in slums like Cañada Real.

So, more intensive or extreme slum problems are not absent even in Europe.. Neither are malnourisment or other manifestations of extreme poverty, but these are of course limited when compared to developing countries.


Few other – if any – music genres around the world discuss “the ghetto” as much as Jamaican reggae music. Reggae originated among poor people in ghettoes or poor neighbourhoods, but that is not the only reason. Many other popular music genres – that later spread – originated among poor people. It is better explained by the specific lyrical focus in Reggae, toward socially critical messages. This is influenced by the rebellious stance of the Rastafari movement, but also by (related) Black Power influences. The later also influenced Calypso lyrics – also known for social comment –as well as hip-hop lyrics.

Despite this social critique in other genres as well, in Reggae it is relatively more strongly present, including many references to ghetto life. This reflects the local Jamaican distinction between (poor) “downtown”, and (wealthy) “uptown” Kingston. A distinction that is – nonetheless – easily translatable internationally. This recognition might have contributed to Reggae’s popularity – since Bob Marley’s fame – globally, such as in Africa. Reggae lyrics say what needed to be said, according to many poor people worldwide.

Of course, Bob Marley had several lyrics discussing Trench Town and the ghetto in general. Trench Town Rock was a local hit in Jamaica, but I found Bob’s song Trench Town and So Jah Seh – also about the ghetto – for instance equally strong tunes.

Beyond Bob Marley, many – in fact, virtually all – Jamaican Roots Reggae artists discussed since the 1970s in their lyrics “ghetto life”: Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Israel Vibration, the Congos, Leroy Sibbles, Hugh Mundell, Junior Delgado and others, rendering it thus a common thematic “trope” in Reggae. Many of these artists gained some international fame – albeit more in “niche” (specialized reggae) markets than Bob Marley – so spread this necessary message about ghetto life beyond Jamaica.

This continued in later generation (arising post-1990) artists in what some call New Roots, with current also mostly Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, like Sizzla, Capleton, Luciano, Protoje, Chronixx, Gappy Ranks, Kabaka Pyramid, Tarrus Riley, Fantan Mojah, Iba Mahr, Jah9, Queen Ifrica and several others.


A “representative overview” of sorts, of lyrics on the ghetto theme in Jamaican reggae sounds like a wonderful idea. There are however so very much lyrics, that a full, balanced “overview” would be hard, if not impossible, to achieve. I can give a “quite representative” 15-song list of reggae songs (that I not mentioned already) about “ghetto life” I got to know and that I liked, and stood the test of time, in my opinion. These are still only some of those that I like.. I might have forgotten some too, haha.. Such a list can only be selective, and not fully representative. I will give the list though, because we must make use of the fact that songs are nowadays so easily checked/found on YouTube, elsewhere on the Web. Some nice song tips, for who don’t know them. I mention also some I hear at times in clubs (relative reggae ‘hits”), here in Amsterdam, by certain selectah’s.

    1. Culture – Jah Rastafari
    2. Max Romeo – Uptown Babies
    3. Leroy Sibbles – Life In The Ghetto
    4. The Wailing Souls – Ghetto of Kingston Town
    5. Tetrack – Isn’t It Time
    6. Freddie McGregor - We Got Love
    7. Everton Blender – Ghetto People Song
    8. Gregory Isaacs – Kingston 14
    9. Dennis Brown – Ghetto Girl
    10. Prince Fari - Survival
    11. Richie Spice - Ghetto Girl (same title, different song)
    12. Misty In Roots – Ghetto Of The City
    13. Israel Vibration – Rude Boy Shuffling
    14. Sizzla – Ghetto Youths Dem A Suffer
    15. Lutan Fyah – Ghetto Living

Another term for “shanty town” (in the strict sense) is “squatter settlement”, to which Chronixx’s fine song Capture Land (the title being a local term for “squatting”) refers. This discusses not just impoverished areas, like ghettoes or slums in the broad sense, with concentrated poverty, (threatening) famine, and unemployment, but adds to this the aspect of lacking government control or planning, these “capture lands” or “squatter settlements” mostly developed aside from formal governmental plans, and often opposed by these. Public services are absent. So “capture land” is in fact a synonym for “shanty town” or “slum”.


The ghetto theme is – in other words – omnipresent “structurally” there in Reggae lyrics, even in non-Rastafari-inspired, with recent dancehall tunes by Baby Cham, Bounty Killer, Mavado and others discussing the Jamaican ghettoes, with a somewhat “gangster rap” influence, but milder, and more Jamaican. The cynicism of certain Eazy E, Dr. Dré, or NWA songs for instance – celebrating a life of crime – is luckily not so present, not even so much in “hardcore” Dancehall, in Jamaica.

In Roots Reggae, then and now, the ghetto is a structural trope, but it is also interesting to what it relates, and how each artist treats it in an own way. That is where the “art” of musical artists is after all to be found: their unique take on reality, and the surrounding reality in their times. To compare, especially in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, there have been historically many painters portraying Catholic themes (saints, monks, scenes from the Bible, Christ etcetera), but each painter did it in their own way. Especially regarding the features of Bible figures – including Christ – the historical veracity can be questioned, though, as Christ, John the Baptist, and others (Mary, the apostles a.o.) looked remarkably European (among many painters) on the paintings, and probably not in reality..

Despite this just critique, I liked some painters – even with such Catholic themes – as art, for instance the devout Extremaduran Francisco Zurbarán, whose paintings I found atmospheric and who really could paint robes well, like few others, when he painted local, Sevillan monks and others. Interesting as art, even if one is non- or no more Catholic.

Likewise, the ghetto conditions in Jamaica are the building blocks for the way Jamaican artists express themselves. Of course, Reggae is protest music, and not just “art pour l’art”, but of the protest and social critique an artistic translation should be made to make it music.

Reggae artists did and do this through many, many good and great songs. I like how these express different moods: sometimes reflective, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, but always powerful.

Furthermore, for Rastafari-inspired artists, the harsh reality of the Jamaican ghetto – in Babylon – is interestingly contrasted to Zion in the homeland Africa, to where one should return. Back to one’s roots, a feeling that has a deep significance. The arguments that the dreamed Africa is also poor, and you don’t know if you will have it economically better there, are not enough to destroy one’s wish to return to one’s origins. This is namely a univeral, human – yes: existential - need, that also Marcus Garvey understood well. That the Africans were brought to the West and Jamaica by brute force (as part of the slave trade), of course influences this.

Some reggae artists discuss lyrics on the ghetto often, others at times too, but emphasizing perhaps more spirituality, the Bible, Selassie, or Africa (the “answer to the ghetto”, so to speak), Ijahman Levi for example. Yet, the theme is always there in Reggae lyrics, even if at times as the proverbial “elephant in the room”.

Even in (relatively poorer) parts of Europe, such communities exist, as the mentioned example of Cañada Real, near Madrid, in Central Spain, showed. Daily surviving mechanisms (tapping electricity illegally etcetera, drug trade, and other crime) are similar there to those in developing countries, like Jamaica.


More and extensive are such shanty towns and ghettoes of course in Jamaica, but also in the former colonies of Spain: throughout Latin America. The biggest shanty town in Europe might be near Madrid (Cañada Real with about 80.000 inhabitants), the biggest in the whole world is at present found in Mexico, while large percentages of the urban population in countries like Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil live in such “slums”. Also Puerto Rico, somehow emphasizing a “consumerist” modern image for some time now, knows relatively “poorer” neighbourhoods, often with racial connotations.

Cuba, to which I went several times in the period 2001-2006 (travelling the whole island), is a differing case, because of its Communist government and planned economy and strong social policies. Existing houses from old times tended to be reused there, and strong government control make “self-made”, informal housing futile exercises. Poor people are enabled to live in houses with limited costs, which seems like a good, social policy. These houses are – I noticed – however, hardly maintained, and often in decay. Especially in older parts of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, stone houses were decaying, and often did not have own running water (shared pumps or wells in the patio’s often), and knew regular electricity outages.

Other quarters were built by the government meant as low-income, basic housing, such as the East Bloc-style buildings of Alamar, a town with flats near Havana, which I visited. Small and very basic. Like in Spanish Town (Jamaica), I had a sense of a somewhat “surreal absurdity”, as the grey, “colourless” and industrial Soviet/Russian style flats - made up for cold, snowy countries - contrasted with Cuba’s tropical vegetation (palm trees and such) and weather, as well as with the mostly Afro-Cubans living there. I went into some houses, and rooms were small, and electricity outages a common threat.

So, the degree of wealth or even comfort should not be exaggerated, but at least this way the Cuban state avoided the need for informal shanty towns developing, as elsewhere in the region and Latin America.


All this makes it remarkable that a translation to lyrics in music about this problematic hardly took place in known music genres from these countries: Cumbia from Colombia, Salsa (based on Cuban models, spread throughout Latin America), Merengue, Samba, Bossa Nova, Bachata, Reggaetón etcetera. Some of these music genres obtained international fame, but are hardly known for “socially conscious” lyrics.

In the case of music from Cuba, it can be explained by censorship by its strong Communist state. This is still the case, as recording facilities remain strongly State-controlled. Cuba knows in addition the unpleasant phenomenon of “political/ideological snitches/spies”, for the State.

Elsewhere in Latin America, dictatorship, even if historical, might help explain the absence of “social critical lyrics” a bit, but often it is also a cultural preference, or “safe choice”, that I can – if I want to really be critical – label as “cowardice” or lack of courage. Yet, maybe it is better to use the neutral term “culturally common”. Song lyrics not often refer to social issues, but emphasize themes like partying, love, and sex. Apparently these are seen as themes in the same, appropriate realm as “music”, which seems a somewhat narrow-minded approach, but it might only be a (career-wise) “safe” choices.

In addition, ghetto or “barrio” living can be referred to indirectly in such lyrics, such as through more indirect social referrences, or in the very emphasis on partying (as a relief from daily pressures). Also as an “elephant in the room”.

To be fair, some more direct “socially critical” Salsa, Bachata, Merengue, or Samba lyrics can be heard more and more in songs, even by well-known artists. These, on occasion discusss ghetto-like areas too, or, as in Brazil, the “Favelas”, shanty towns in Brazil. This might be a lyrical Reggae or Hip-Hop influence (Latin American Reggae discusses the ghetto too), but need not be. It is the reality of most people. The majority of the world’s people is poor, we should not forget that.

You just cannot escape reality, as also said in the beautiful song Isn’t It Time (1978) by Jamaican Reggae group Tetrack. And of course : this song is also about ghetto life..

All this shows that the “prime-time” news item about the 120 shanty towns around Paris, France – with thousands of inhabitants (!?) - , I saw on Dutch television last 29th of July, is, well, very relative..

zondag 2 juli 2017

Castanets in a wider context

Within the wide and varied world of percussion you also have the “castanets”. Interestingly, this small wooden percussion instrument has a quite specific geographic association. Castanets are seen as typically Spanish and as one of Spain’s “national instruments”, along with the Spanish guitar. They are often played while dancing, and the way they are attached around the thumb of each hand, plus their size, facilitate this. They consist of two wooden pieces connected by rope, and attached, as said, usually around the thumb of each hand. This leaves the other four fingers free to hit the castanets.

Its use – presently and historically – is not totally exclusive to Spain, though it’s there that the castanet tradition is preserved and developed most, found in different folk music genres there. These genres include the Jota, the Fandango: spread throughout Spain in variants, and – more in South Spain - in the Sevillana and certain (not all) Flamenco types. So, in different parts of Spain: North, Centre, and South. Interestingly, it combines with different local instruments, such as the bagpipes in certain Northwestern parts of Spain (Galicia and Asturias), or more with guitars, flutes, drums, or other percussion in other parts of Spain, without that bagpipe tradition.

It is further also used in Portugal, in historically Spanish-infuenced Latin America and the Philippines, but is also found in different variants also in countries like Croatia and (South) Italy. Interestingly, in the Philippines (where local variants of Spanish genres, like the Jota, also developed) castanets are often made of bamboo (in Spain of wood, once chestnut wood, now often tropical hardwood).


I am of Spanish descent from my maternal side, so have encountered castanets (usually played in pairs) at my parents’or family members or friends’ houses, since I was a child. I also saw them being played, and tried to play them myself some times. Much later, as I specialized in percussion, I began to look at the castanets from that perspective. I specialized more in conga’s, bongos, ashiko, djembe, kete, and talking drums – let’s say African and Afro-Caribbean drums - , yet I also maintained a parallel interest in “small percussion” of different kinds (shakers, wooden, metal, or bamboo instruments), and all its intriguing variation in sounds. This includes the castanets. In my composition (instrumental) underneath I play the castanets, for instance.


Africa is the continent most associated with both rhythm and percussion, though harmony and melody, and nonrhythmic instruments, play roles there too. It is all relative and a matter of proportion. A very simplistic overview I once read is that in African music the emphasis is on rhythm, in Europe on harmony, and in Asia on melody. In fact, all three are found in traditional musics of the mentioned continents. It is just a matter of emphasis, but a point can be made that relatively Africa is the most “percussive” continent. This was also argued by scholar Robert Farris-Thompson.

The castanets – as a percussion instrument - seem to represent such an exception to a generalized rule of “nonrhythmical”or “nonpercussive” Europeans. It is associated with one South European country most (Spain), and with some other parts of Southern Europe.


Its historical origins, however, date them back to similar instruments in Ancient Egypt, and later among the Phoenicians, a travelling, trading people with a Semitic language, spreading it throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, since around 3000 BC. These ancient instruments similar to later castanets transformed maybe into what are called “crótalos” in Spanish, or “zill” in English, but now referring to small, metal cymbals around the fingers, known presently in Turkish and Greek folk dances. Similar in size to the castanets, but other, namely metal material.

Originally, though, these were derived from earlier Egyptian wooden versions. These “proto-castanets”were even depicted in paintings from Ancient Egypt. Historians see specifically the “menat”, small, flat slabs of wood or ivory, as such “proto-castanets”, used back then in worshipping musically Hathor, the goddess of banquets and music making (!).


Hair and other physical features from the people playing them on such drawings, looked more African than European or even Mediterranean, as much more in Ancient Egypt came from more to the South in Africa. Distancing Ancient Egypt from Black Africa and what is now the Sudan area – further down the Nile – is historically incorrect, but was probably done deliberately by European, colonial and imperial forces to maintain the “uncivilized” and “wild” Africa stereotype.


For this reason, denoting castanets as “European percussion instrument” is not even entirely accurate.


However interesting these origins, equally interesting is how the castanets got used so much in traditional Spanish music. Its main sound is “clicking” (some say: “clacking”) variously – both “slamming” and “rolling” so to speak - allowing therefore mainly a rhythmic function. I play castanets better by now, and experience first-hand the variety of sounds that they can produce. Melodies can be played with it, though with limitations. The lower-pitched castanets on the left hand plays main slams and accentuates basic rhythms, whereas with the higher-pitched castanet on the right (or apt) hand there is more variation, with all four remaining fingers used (it is usually tied around the thumb), with the small finger producing for instance a higher sound than the middle finger, etcetera.

This tonality range allows for some semi-melodical patterns, but the same applies for other well-known percussion instruments like the congas and bongos, or other drums with differing pitches. Melodies are not impossible, but their use is mainly rhythmical.

I found it furthermore intriguing that the supportive, base rhythm is traditionally played with the lower-pitched castanet, and the variation and free patterns by the higher-pitched one. This very same distinction is found in other percussive traditions outside of Spain too. Such as in the Afro-Cuban congas, and bongos. In the case of Cuba one might assume a Spanish influence, but the same principle can be found in some traditional African music: low pitch drums as base rhythms, higher pitched ones as improvizing, varying, and freer: dundun and djembe combinations in the Guinee/Mande-speaking region, for instance. Also, in Nyabinghi and other Jamaican Afro-folk drumming (Burru, Kumina) the same principle more or less applies.

Apparently there are universal percussive principles, across continents and cultures.


The very “clicking”sound of the castanets is also interesting symbolically. No European language really has “click” sounds as letters – not any -, unlike some African languages do (especially Southern Bantu languages like Xhosa and Zulu, as well as in Khoi San languages, such as those of the Bushmen). The well-known movie The Gods Must Be Crazy (set in Botswana) made such languages relatively more known globally. There are – by the way – various click sounds in these languages, representing different letters. African peoples speaking such “click” languages are known to have the oldest human DNA , giving the castanet sound symbolically even more meaning. It must be said, though, that “click-like” high pitched wood sounds, and wooden rattles (the faster rolling patterns of the castanets can ressemble a rattle), are found in Africa traditionally too.


Be that as it may, the castanets as such are in international music culture, mostly associated with Spanish culture. When used outside of Spanish folk music - or by non-Spanish musicians - they were mostly used also as a referrence to “something Spanish” or Hispanic or Spanish music. By classical composers like Ravel, but also by great jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, such as on his Sketches of Spain album (1960), which was essentially Miles’ ode to Spanish folk music..

The US Soul band the Impressions, led by Curtis Mayfield, used them on their song Gipsy Woman (1961), probably as referrence to Spanish gipsy culture. The castanets are used in some forms of the South-Spanish genre Flamenco too, by the way, and Flamenco became in time strongly Gipsy-influenced. (Flamenco is however not really or solely of “Gipsy origin” as I read somewhere).


Outside of Spanish music as such – from Spain itself: folk genres like the Jota, the Fandango, Sevillana, the Flamenco etcetera -, or referrences to it, it was long not very commonly used among percussionists. This differs from other “smaller” percussion instruments like the cowbell, shakers, tambourines, scrapers, “barchimes”, the “triangle” or woodblock or jamblock instruments, more widely used by percussionists than the castanets, and often without specific geographical association .

There are, however, some examples of castanet use in songs in different genres as just another percussion instrument without referrence to “something Spanish” in particular (in funk, reggae, jazz, pop), though not very much as yet. More experimental jazz and other artists use them occasionally, by the way.

I know much about Reggae music, and use of percussion in it, and neither know of too many examples of castanet use in this genre. At the same time the guïro scraper (after all from nearby Cuba) is heard very commonly (Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil being a relatively well-known example) throughout reggae, as are rattles, bells, shakers, and blocks. Even the cover of the aforementioned Impressions tune Gipsy Woman by the great Mighty Diamonds, did not maintain the castanets of the original. This cover is nonetheless very good musically in my opinion: a very good version – the Mighty Diamonds’singer Donald “Tabby” Shaw has a marvelous voice, and the harmonies are fine - , only without the castanets of the original. There is at least one Reggae song, though, where I think to hear a castanet sound, or at least a very similar-sounding instrument (maybe a castanet stick/with handle?). That is on Johnny Clarke’s Babylon. An interesting, “groovy” use, while I found funny (don’t know exactly why) that the dub version of the song has even a reverb effect on that castanet sound..

I am thinking that it would be an interesting task for me: to broaden these castanets’ use. Spreading its use musically to different genres, beyond Spanish folk music. After all I am percussionist, am of Spanish descent, actually can play castanets a bit too, and am a fan of reggae music, liking funk, soul, and African music too.

I guess you have to set goals in life..


That’s one aspect that keeps fascinating me about the world of percussion: the associated variety in sounds through often simple means. The essential, existential art of “enjoying the small things in life”.. Percussion’s rhythmic function places hereby more emphasis on the basic, essential “sound” as such, than of other instruments, somewhat “drowned” and hidden, within harmonies or melodies.

There is a great variety of sounds possible in nature, and in the entire world – of course -, being produced already by the earliest of humans musically. Wood (and stone) of course came before metal or glass, that developed later in history. Drums (with added animal skin), but also wood logs, belong to the oldest percussion instruments, including hollowed out tree trunks or branches, used both as drum in Africa (as log or tongue drums) since a long time, and the equally ancient Didgeridoo wind instrument of the Aboriginals in Australia, traditionally made by hollowed out (by termites, by the way) eucalyptus tree branches.

Other cultures have long traditions of such wooden instruments too, including China. Some historians even claim that the small woodblock, now common also among percussionists in the West and in different pop genres, has its origins in Chinese music by monks. Asian traditional music is more associated with, regarding percussion, material made of metal (gongs) and bamboo, but there are wooden instruments used in Asian cultures too historically.

In traditional African music, wood was and is commonly used as percussion (like the ancient log drums), besides of course as frame for drums with skins, including for more melodic xylophone-like instruments (balafon).

Within Europe, some wooden instruments have long traditions too, such as certain wooden rattles in the Ukraine area, sticks, and the Txalaparta instrument among the Basques.

In Cuba, a known example are the “claves”: two wooden sticks used in Afro-Cuban music (son, rumba, salsa), as rhythmic time keeper (2-3, or 3-2), with some similarities to castanets, notably in its high, sharp - if less flexible – sound. Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz once assumed that the castanets might have been a partial influence on these Cuban claves, although the playing style is different. Cuba was after all a Spanish colony, and similar “clave”-like instruments are not really found in other colonies and cultures. The drum shells being hit in traditional African music might be another probable predecessor to the Cuban claves, though..

What interests me here, is whether there are similar sounding wooden percussion instruments, played also through “wood on wood”, but with comparable “clicking” sounds, like the castanets. In other words: might the castanets therefore add something “new” and unique to the palet and possibilities for percussionists in different genres?


The already mentioned woodblock – common in standard percussion sets, and according to some of Chinese origin – has a vaguely similar high sound, but quite different (“rounder”, deeper) than most sound castanets can produce. The woodblock is at times added to (trap) drum kits, and is a precursor to the jamblock (using tougher, artificial material called weniger), even more commonly used in modern music circles nowadays. Both these woodblocks and jamblocks – the high, middle, and low pitch – have a “rounder”, deeper sound when compared to the sounds of the castanets.

Interestingly, with trap drum kits, the “rim shot” has become a common technique, achieved by hitting the top half of drum stick on the (usually metal) rim of the snare drum, while resting the hand on the drum skin itself. The rim shot has become a common technique among (trap) drummers, also in a genre like Reggae. Due to its “sharp” sound, it has a vague similarity to certain castanet sounds, epecially as also a “slow rattle”can be produced through a repeated rim-shot. Not quite the same, but showing that in modern music genres, there is a felt need for such “high-pitched” percussive sounds.

Rattles have a long history, connected with human kind and different cultures from ancient days, and on different continents. The Amerindians used these relatively often, but it is also known in Africa and certain parts of Europe. The castanets combine two pairs that combined – the one hand basic beats, the other hand finger work – can produce a fast or slower “rattle”or “roll”sound, or half-rattle or half-roll. Especially more skilled players such as in Spain, and elsewhere (such as the famous and skilled Mexican castanet player Lucero Tena), can produce remarkably fast “rattles” with these castanets. As said, the Cuban claves sound high, but also “rounder” than the castanets, without the variety possible: hands are used to hit one stick against another: finger work is here not used. The claves Africano (or Rumba claves) I play at times sound even”lower” and rounder than the original claves. In my own instrumental percussion composition Mbao I use only wooden instruments, yet not the castanets. Some of those I play in it have nonetheless sonic similarities with the castanets (the little pot was not meant as instrument).

Thus, somewhat similar instruments exist, simply because wooden material is often hit with wooden sticks, as some international examples I gave before. Castanets and related instruments have, on the other hand, still something unique in their small, similar size, and the two wooden parts slammed together with the fingers. The pieces’ form – roundish, hollowed and open on one side – combined for this with the type of wood used (traditionally chestnut wood: the Spanish term Castañuela for Castanets is dervied from this), although now other wood types are preferred by specialists (notably tropical hard woods like granadillo and rosewood).

These factors, plus the specific finger use, and its attachment to the thumb of each hand, makes that the castanets are overall quite unique in their “clicking” sound, including “rolling” and even a clicking “rattle” sound – with some flexibility, even “half-rolls”are possible - , when played fast (read: when: fingers move faster).


This rolling click sound make castanets quite unique, at least when compared to the “standard kit” of many percussionists in the West. I am collecting various percussion instruments for quite some time now (even relatively unknown ones), but when I started to attend and later play live performances, such as on jam sessions in various music clubs, I noticed the recurrence of an almost standardized set of percussion in some genres, such as in the genres Salsa, other Latin American genres, in Reggae, Funk, Pop, Soul, or Jazz. The originally Afro-Cuban congas and bongos are well-known and usually part of such a standard set, the also Cuban-oriented Timbales often too, but also usually the mentioned woodblocks, the jamblocks, cowbells, tambourines, the - for some reason – omnipresent “bar chimes”, and often also a guïro scraper.

These are simply relatively well-known percussion instruments, being relatively longer used in Western pop music. It differs a bit per genre, and some musicians or artists have a more experimental approach, of course, adding other “rarer” percussion instruments. In Reggae music one often finds such a quite functional “standard percussion set” as in other genres, but to which is often added a specific, cylindrical drum called “kete”, or “nyabinghi drum”, mostly of Ghanaian origin, and connected historically to both Afro-Jamaican folk music (Burru), and to music by Rastafari adherents in Jamaica. This kete drum therefore represents a specific, once local culture. Not so strange, as the conga and bongo drums were once limited to Cuba – based on African models, like the kete - but spread internationally earlier. Also local Brazilian percussion instruments have begun to spread globally, such as the cuíca friction drum, the agogo, while other instruments still remain mainly within Brazilian music contexts.

This last also applies to the castanets: they mostly remain within Spanish music contexts, safe a few exceptions of experimental artists just focussing on the “sound”, rather than its musical context. Thus, it is hardly ever part of that “standard percussion set” in modern popular music.

Perhaps, it is a matter of time, and the castanets soon will become commonly used outside of Spanish or Spanish-referring music, and not just within it, as a common instrument for percussionists in whatever genre.


I am willing to promote this use in Reggae, Funk, Blues, Rock, Soul or other genres, but will at the same time not forget or neglect its intriguing ancient roots and history in Ancient Egypt and in Spanish folk traditions, wherein castanets even helped “shape” certain genres. Moreover, castanets remain a “living tradition” in Spain and its folk music at present, which I find good to cherish.

It is almost funny that several Spanish music stores have much similarities with music stores elsewhere in Europe, only with often distinctive “Spanish cultural” instruments, relatively many Spanish guitars, but also Flamenco cajóns (or: rumba boxes), as well as often a specific castanets section. In my experience of visiting such music stores in the Netherlands, I noticed that castanets were instead rather a, well, exotic “oddity”, with seldom more than one or two pairs in even bigger stores.

I opine that one must not be conservative culturally – there is too often a thin line between being conservative and reactionary - , or should maintain a tradition simply for its own sake. I also think, though, that such traditions can be good to build on and develop an own culture from, to grow from such roots, and then maintain what’s really valuable, artistic, and enduring over time.

In addition, countries with own musical traditions (some European ones maintained this relatively more, such as Ireland, Spain, Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and rural Italy) may feel less the need to simply steal or copy other people’s culture and claim it as their own, dishonestly. English “tea drinking” being a good example (copied from India). Italian pasta (once based on Asian mie), another example. This has happened throughout colonial history too, being often the result of unequal relations and conquest, rather than an equal mutuality of influences.

Let us all develop our own traditions and cultures on an equal basis, and see whether we can inspire each other, I would say..

In conclusion, castanets remain at present as a percussion instrument mainly contextualized within the confines of Spanish traditional folk music. Perhaps this is too confined, as the “clicking” sound has in itself unique qualities, possibly fitting various, international music genres..

Maybe, just maybe, there is a task there for me..

zaterdag 3 juni 2017

Solos and reggae

The phenomenon “solo”, in the world of musicians/instrumentalists, is of course quite known. In more jazzy, experimental musical genres they are quite common, as they are in experimental, freer “jam” or live sessions, among musicians of various genres.

A solo in this sense is when a specific musical instrument takes a time period in a song - an instrumental part - to play a divergent, yet fitting melody and pattern, as a variation within that song.

In more “popular” or commercial genres – pop music – they occur too, as the aim is to give songs a distinctive touch, though less common than in specific genres for specific audiences. This applies to jazz, blues, and to a lesser degree of rhythm and blues, funk, soul, and salsa. Those fields where musicianship is still valued, generally over commercial standardization, although cliché, not very creative solos have found their way in pop, rock & roll and other more popular genres.


An interesting difference is between the musical instruments that tend to play solos in specific genres. Predictably, in “Rock” genres (this term is used quite vaguely, especially in the US..), like rock and roll, grunge, or hard rock, heavy metal, much of country, the guitar is anyhow very important, especially the electric guitar, so also guitar solos are very common. Rhythm and Blues tends to have more piano or horn solos, as is also the case with jazz. Blues – again – tends to have more electric guitar solos than of other instruments.

These electric guitar-driven genres became popular in the US, although Punk music in Europe has this electric guitar focus too.

Kind of odd how the electric guitar became so determining in these popular US music genres, though it can be explained. The genesis of the guitar is by itself an interesting one, the acoustic one, the original “Spanish guitar”, developed as such centuries ago in the South of Spain, based on string instrument models of the ruling Islamic Moors, although the latter based theirs in turn on older Persian models. In Spain thus developed the most known version of the acoustic guitar with 4, later 6 strings. The Spanish or “classical” guitar had nylon strings (later ones metal ones). It came to play a role in Spanish traditional and folk styles, resulting in South Spanish Flamenco music, with a crucial role for this acoustic guitar, often even rhythmically, and not just melodically.

Other “guitar-like” string instruments are found elsewhere in Europe, like Italy, the Balkan, other parts of Spain, France, yet the Spanish guitar became the model for later “electric guitars” in pop music.

Remarkable how history goes: the electric version of this guitar – that once arose in Spain - became over time a determining instrument in pop or “rock” music in the US. Yet, as so often: influential, innovative and original musicians played crucial roles on the way to this, for instance Jimi Hendrix, but also Blues musicians. This puts in another light the image of electric guitar-driven genres in the US being especially by and for “White people”.

Guitars travelled with other instruments along with the Spanish to the Americas, as did Portuguese string sinstruments to Brazil. In many traditional and folk genres the guitar, or versions thereof, became quite important, such as in Mexican music.

In areas with stronger sub-Saharan influence, drums and percussion – and in general “rhythm” – became more important, absorbing often the guitar in supportive rhythmic roles, such as in the Son music genre of Eastern Cuba (later influencing what would become known as “Salsa”), and even more in the Son-influenced Bachata from the Dominican Republic.


Relevant is here what is explained also in ‘The Aesthetic of the Cool : Afro-Atlantic Art and Music’, a 2011, scholarly/essay work by Robert Farris-Thompson, on the African influence on Afro-American art. Farris-Thompson makes a rough – if slightly simplistic –distinction between “forest” Africa, including the Congo region, and the South of Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, and “Griot Africa” to the direct North of it (with more Savannah or Steppe-like landscapes), and with more Islamic/North African influences, such as in the Mande-speaking area around Guinea, Senegal, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast and around. Here string instruments, like the Kora harp, are more prominent, while in “forest Africa” drums and percussion are more common (relatively).

Interestingly, Farris-Thompson sees the influence of slaves from this Griot Africa (sahel) region (Mande-speaking, often), in a genre like the Blues in the South of the US, as many slaves from this area ended up there (though coming also from other, “forest” parts of Africa). In the Caribbean and Brazil, however, African slaves came (proportionally, relatively) more often from “forest Africa” (Congo, Yoruba areas, for instance), explaining the emphasis on percussion and drums in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian genres.

While simplified, I think the basis of this analysis and distinction of Farris-Thompson is historically and culturally correct. There are some exceptions, as to all general rules, but in broad lines it is a sensible distinction. One aspect that is disregarded in this, hwever, is the fact that some colonizers, especially the British, forebade drums in colonial policies, affecting also musical developments. The Spanish, Portuguese, and French tended to permit drum music more leniently, even during the slave regimes, albeit under conditions. So, colonial policies hindered and thwarted African cultural continuity, which on the other hand is nothing new. A rhythmic focus remained though, and even drums and percussion survived partly also in former British colonies as Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.


This all explains why the electric guitar as such did not become that “leading” in some Caribbean genres, and even less as a solo instrument. In Reggae music the bass guitar – indeed a type of guitar – became a bit leading and ”chording”, but in close tandem with the drum and rhythm. . This inherent interrelation with the drum and rhythm, has interesting similarities with how guitars (or the small guitar called “tres”) is absorbed in Afro-Cuban genres like Son, though in a different way. The bass guitar in reggae is a guitar, is semi-melodic and chording, but at the same time “rhythmic”, when compared to its role in “Rock” or “Blues”. Other guitars – notably the “rhythm guitar” - tend to have rhythmic roles in Reggae even more exclusively, with the known strum on the 2nd or 4th beat of 4/4 (counted in double time), part of the basic Reggae groove.

Electric guitar solos were and are, consequently, not very common in Reggae. Solos of other instruments are more common. In genre’s preceding Reggae, notably Ska, horn solos (trumpet, trombone, saxophone) were very common, a bit like in Rhythm & Blues, that influenced Ska strongly. In Cuban Son and salsa, horn solos occurred too, maybe being another influence, as some early Ska musicians in Jamaica – from the band the Skatalites - had links with Cuba.

As Reggae developed, though, not only horns, but also flutes, piano, keyboards, melodica’s and harmonica’s and other instruments came to provide solos, and on some experimental songs, even vibraphones, xylophones, steeldrums or other instruments. And yes, occasionally also a “electric guitar solo” could be heard, though initially not much in Reggae.


In fact, the electric guitar solo on Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle for Island (album Catch A Fire), by US musician Wayne Perkins, has become well-known. Its fame especially came because at the rise of Marley’s international fame, this known electric guitar solo became kind of a “bridge” to cross-over to a White, Rock-minded audience, broadening Marley’s fame. This of course along with other production choices led by Chris Blackwell at Island Records, along with others.

Producer Chris Blackwell even said that the guitar solo and the guitarist were chosen to reach another (Rock) audience and public, as such Rock-like electric guitar solo were then uncommon in Reggae and Jamaican music.

Maybe the solo appealed to some people, but to be totally honest it did not do that much for me (then and now). The song Concrete Jungle I liked, but not because of the solo, but especially because of the vocals and lyrics.


Not that I dislike solos. I play instruments myself (mainly percussion), and often jam with people and occasionally play solos too. This often also in jazzy, improvisational settings. Furthermore, while I focus on vocals in Reggae too, the combination with instrumental music and rhythm certainly has my attention too, sometimes even in a balanced sense.

Sometimes I find such a solo to be somewhat sober, unimpressive, yet not bad per se. It then fits the groove and song, sounds okay, but does not add that much extra’s. It does not disturb, at least. I, on the other hand, also hear solos in Reggae and other genres that impress(ed) me more and that I really liked, adding something extra, often a nice, “reflective” vibe to the song.

Some solos in Reggae songs impressed me therefore immediately, and I liked more than the one on Concrete Jungle. The first that comes to my mind is Burning Spear’s song Holy Foundation (from the album Resistance), with a crucial role for a somewhat meandering yet strong saxophone part, bringing this atmospheric song to an apothesis, with a kind of extended solo.

Another fine solo that comes to my mind is on the Abyssinians’ song the Good Lord, with a beautiful, emotive flute solo. A reviewer said that the flute gave this song a “pastoral” feel. Not a word that I chose, but therefore not bad and still well put, haha..

I also can name a piano solo that I liked, from a perhaps surprising source: Eek-A-Mouse’s fine tune Struggle. The Roots Radics play a basic Reggae Rockers groove, nice and steady, but added to this is a nice, minor-key piano pattern throughout and a piano solo that is seemingly simple, yet adding a beautiful, melancholic feel befitting the “sad” lyrics (about a poor woman struggling). Maybe it is simply a matter of a few right minor-key notes.

Certain others solos stand out for me too, notably on tunes of the African Brothers, Pablo Moses, Burning Spear, or Ijahman Levi. These artists tend to have longer, “jamming” instrumental parts, such as Ijahman Levi, having also a guitar solo on – for example – his (for pop music) relatively lengthy (and beautiful!) song Jah Is No Secret. Some songs by Burning Spear or Pablo Moses (e.g. Come Mek We Run) have solos of different instruments interchanging in some mostly instrumental songs, in a kind of “jazzy” way . As in other genres, but here with a Roots Reggae groove/riddim.

An interesting website pays attention to the use of the “flute” in Reggae music. The author lists songs with prominent flutes, as melodic (or rhythmic) addition/support, but also pays specific attention to Reggae songs with flute solos. Interesting songs he lists, but the song I mentioned before, the Abyssinians’ The Good Lord, is an unfortunate omission.

See: http://www.bloodandfire.co.uk/db/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=43109

I further even have an example of a solo of an instrument not too common in Reggae, namely the violin. One of my favourite reggae songs with a violin is by the Gladiators (Albert Griffiths), namely a song called Slim Thing. The violin is hardly my favourite instrument, but I liked its use on this song, for some reason.

Electric guitar solos were long not very common in Reggae, neither in its precursor Rocksteady. Rocksteady tended not to have many solos (being more vocally oriented than Ska that came before), but if there were solos they tended to be of the keyboard or organ (probably an influence of the influential and talented keys virtuoso Jackie Mittoo in Jamaican popular music), or of horns (like often in Ska, and partly in Reggae). Horace Andy had one of the few Rocksteady songs with a guitar solo in it. The guitar tended to be rhythmic or supportive in Rocksteady, not soloing.

Up to today, there are – relatively - not many examples of electric guitar solos, outside of Bob Marley’s work that is. More acoustic sounding guitar solo’s (some even with a flamenco-like touch, others show a mento influence) are a bit more common, though. Also after Concrete Jungle there were some electric guitar solos in Marley tunes, some of which I liked better than the one of Concrete Jungle.
In a documentary I recently saw on the album Legend, a type of Greatest Hits album released after Bob Marley deceased, UK guitarist Les Davidson commented on Waiting In Vain (included in that compilation) that he liked the guitar solo by Al Anderson on it very much, and argued that rock & blues fans might have liked it too. This indeed nice solo has a more acoustic feel, though, (no wah wah-effect) than the more “rock”one of Concrete Jungle.

Good solos, in my opinion, have a “reflective” function: an interesting nonverbal reflection of the verbal part of the song (the lyrics). Sad themes therefore ideally have minor-key solos, uplifting or spiritual lyrics should likewise have “fitting” solo parts, expressing the same “feel”, only without words. Music has after all also the power to express and convey feelings, mere words cannot. Beyond words and the verbal, messages can after all be conveyed too. Sometimes even “realer” (i.e. “still unordered or untranslated).


The earlier Studio One albums of Reggae artists like Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and others (from around 1969 and 1970) are interesting in this context, too. In fact, Burning Spear’s (Winston Rodney’s) debut single Door Peep had a saxophone solo, whereas other songs on his first Studio One albums (e.g. He Prayed, Bad To Worst) had interesting horn or organ solos too. Studio One owner Coxsone Dood was a jazz and rhythm & blues fans, so maybe that explains in part this room for solos, along with keyboard player Jackie Mittoo’s influence, or a general jazz influence among the musicians at the sessions (then including the Skatalites a.o.). On Dennis Brown’s first Studio One albums you hear some “jazzy” solos too, such as of the Hammond organ on the lively tune Going To A Ball..

In Early and later Reggae, thus, horn and keyboard solos remained quite common (as in Ska and Rocksteady)..


The form and instrument choice of such solos in Reggae songs are of course shaped by the history of Jamaican music, which is I think interesting to look at in this context. In Ska horn solos seemed quite common, in Rocksteady also (think of the nice sax solo on Alton Ellis’s Rocksteady), along with more keyboard solos. Yet guitar solos of the more acoustic kind can be heard more than electric guitar solos.

This might very well be an influence of an even older, more rural folk music genre in Jamaica, namely Mento, popular throughout the earlier 20th c, up to the 1950s.. This mento was played with acoustic instruments, including the banjo and acoustic guitar, with these – especially the banjo – often taking time for solos as breaks within vocal songs. While a string instrument, the banjo is by the way associated with African, Congo region origins. Some guitar solos in later Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae still bear such a Mento feel, as some are even played by veteran musicians who also played Mento, such as Ernest Ranglin. An evident continuity, even if banjo’s as such are not much heard in later Reggae.

Electric guitar solos – louder - are more an “outside influence”, though absorbed partly in some more crossover Reggae, but also in more “authentic” Roots Reggae (Burning Spear, Congos, Pablo Moses, Horace Andy). Pablo Moses’s I Man A Grasshopper has even a quite extensive electric guitar solo. It started once as an outside, “Rock” influence, though, such as in Marley’s Concrete Jungle, especially with that “wah wah” effect.


Yet, Reggae music is strongly rhythmic, though not solely so. This determinees largely the proportion of melodic or harmonic solos, being therefore a bit more limited than in solo-or improvisation-oriented genres like Jazz. Instruments like the bass guitar, but also trumpets, trombones, guitars, keyboard, flutes, melodica, harmonica etcetera are all “chording”and semi-melodic (unlike drums and percussion) in Reggae. Although still often “supportive” to the overall melody, and at the same time the driving rhythms of many songs. As a mainly African retention (from the polyrhythmic tradition), these instruments often present “counter points/answers” and counter-patterns to other (main) patterns, typically the bass and drum. Related to this sub-Saharan African rhythmic concept, they can also syncopize main patterns. This is more common than solos as diverging sidepath melodies, although – as said – such more melodic solos are not absent in Reggae compositions of different types (commercial or noncommercial).

There is another side to this, from an artistic, musical perspective. Melodical, meandering lines of certain instruments have the inherent capacity to emphasize the underlying strong rhythm in that same song. As a form of functional, explanatory contrast. Yin and Yang. This contrast thus helps emphasize the usually strong and steady rhythm in Reggae behind solo parts, perhaps a reason some artists chose to include such solos. Functional contrasts in music.

Due to the strong rhythmic focus in Reggae, the already crucial drums do not need explicit solos (as sometimes heard in jazz). Solos of percussion added to the drum base (hand drums, kete and nyabinghi drums often, but also regularly scraper instruments) do occur, but more commonly percussive patterns continue throughout the song as a structural rhythmic part, though some varying (solo-like) parts with hand drum or scraper or block patterns can be heard on songs by the Itals, Culture, Burning Spear, Bob Marley (Crazy Baldheads with the scraper-block interplay as “solo” at the end), or the Congos. The Itals’ Me Waan Justice is a great example of a percussion “semi-solo’”, but at the same time of cross-rhythms in the African tradition.


Dub Reggae is a largely instrumental variant of Reggae, yet can be characterized as “raw rhythm”. It is mainly rhythmically focussed, using fading in and out and various sound effects to create variation, and less instrumental solos as such. Alternatively, you can say that it is the “engineer” soloing, instead of musicians/instrumentalists. An important (and influential) exception is the work of Augustus Pablo, using often the melodica on many of his Dub instrumentals: as leading instrument, but often also “solo”-like, interchanging vocal or other musical snippets or echoed parts, with diverging melodica lines..

Augustus Pablo’s son Addis Pablo continues in this melodica on Reggae vein, by the way.


I have said my piece, but if some readers having read this know of interesting solos within Reggae I have not mentioned in the piece above, I’ll be happy to hear about them (perhaps as comment)..

woensdag 3 mei 2017

Dream meanings (in Reggae)

As I expect most people in the world – who after all need to sleep - I have a relationship with “dreams”. I remember good and bad dreams. For some years (when I was around 11) I wrote some of them down, even had a (paper) notebook devoted to it. I did not really keep that up or ever did it too structurally, so after a period I stopped. I later encountered people who really kept writing their dreams down more structurally – well into their adult lives - , attaching spiritual and symbolic meanings to them, guiding them.

I became a bit more sceptical about it in time, although I thought that at least some of my dreams had to have some kind of deeper meaning: they were that odd yet symbolical and forceful, raising questions. Later, I acquired some scientific, psychological (Freud and Jung) and biological knowledge, making me look at my dreams in different ways.

Medical knowledge taught me that when you remember your dreams, it simply means you were not sleeping that “deep”. It could mean that you slept bad because you were worried, ill, or consumed the wrong food/drinks too late. Psychosomatic or biological.


Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, taught that dreams express the unconscious and (un)fulfillment of desires. Freud saw dreams as “a disguised fulfillment of repressed wishes”. Interestingly, he argues that the meanings of dreams (especially of adults) are there, but concealed. This meaning from the unconscious can be “decoded” by examining symbols, but also through free association. Freud later stressed that again, having become annoyed about how one of the several terms he coined, namely “phallic symbol” (in relation to dream interpretation), got a life of its own, with misinterpretations, lacking proper associations relevant to one individual person dreaming. Freud objected against the fact that all dreams require a “sexual” explanation, as some thought was his point. He never contended or wrote that, Freud said.

Other views on this exist, but such explanations seemed plausible to me. From then on I mostly remembered only the relatively more “meaningful” dreams, that left a special impression with me, after I woke up.

Among the dreams I wrote down (in my teens) I remember one in which I ran along on a road with Arab-looking people, some of whom said “the wall is going to fall” (in Dutch, oddly enough), leaving me puzzled in that very dream (what wall did they talk about.. the one we ran along?). The landscape looked arid and “Middle-Eastern”. I found this impressive, without knowing why. Yet.. it was in the 1980s, so well before the Berlin Wall fell down, yet the landscape and people in my dream did not seem to refer to the East Bloc or Berlin.. Dreams have to have inherent absurdities. Probably, having seen such scenes on television news (where the Middle East recurred prominently then and now) simply influenced such dreams.

In another dream I was in a nearby village in the Netherlands from where I lived (named Hillegom, a village I knew a bit as I once worked there in a farm), and I carried a red box along through that village. I met some people, was at a bar with that red box with me on the table. At the end of the dream, I dared open the box and flames of fire came out. This was one of those dreams that impressed me enough to write it down. I guess some Freudian or Jungian interpretations can be let loose on such dream symbols, haha.. (red box, fire, difficult “secrets” kept, perhaps?).

Other dreams just reflected that I felt a bit ill, hungry, or ate or drank wrong things/too late. Such dreams were mainly “stressful”.. Nothing spectacular happened in such dreams, yet I felt stressed, tense and uneasy in them.. like I had some heavy task to do that could not wait, and was panicking. Often I was happy that I woke up from such “stress dreams”, and that I did not really have such tasks as in the dreams. Other dreams I had were pleasant and good, and I found it a pity that I had to wake up. Like many people I have good and bad dreams.


Beyond modern Western interpretations, dreams of course have different meanings in different cultures and religions, also throughout history.

That dreams convey “messages” from the spiritual realm is in fact quite common throughout different cultures, even in earlier European ones. Messages from the spiritual realm, from gods or God, or –also – from ancestors and ancestor spirits. One finds it in the Bible (“prophetic dreams”). It is known in Islam (dreams convey messages from past martyrs to present-day Muslims), while in Buddhism and Hinduism dreams tend to have special, spiritual meanings too.

Even more interesting are dream interpretations among indigenous peoples, such as the Amerindians or the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals of Australia attach especially much importance to “dreams” as “guiding” in their life, and as spiritual connection to the ancestors, with a community function. Therefore they ascribe also much cultural importance to symbols in them, and their meanings and references.

Likewise interesting is how the phenomenon of “dreams” is viewed in relation to “real life”, or better said: the waking hours. Some cultures detach dreams from real, waking hours (along with sleep), while in some cultures dream and waking hours become more intertwined, also in rituals, daily customs etcetera. Thus as a third stage bridging daily waking hours and sleep. This was/is for instance the case among some Amerindian cultures, as well as the already mentioned Australian Aboriginals.

Some African cultures, such as those involving “spirit possession”, attach a spiritual meaning to dreams too, also ascribing dreams a role of conveyor of messages of ancestors or spirits/deities. Regular dreams are seen as “spiritually balanced” and healthy, as a connection with spirits is ongoing. This is the case with the Vodou religion in Haiti, based largely on African, Benin/Togo region precursors.

That dreams convey messages is accepted, yet not all dreams are equally meaningful within Vodou, and further advise or guidance – from “houngans” (priests) - is necessary to determine its meaning or actual relevance. This is an interesting down-to-earth counterweight to “supernatural” seeming irrationalities that some associate “spiritual meanings”of dreams too.

Also Yoruba culture (in what is now Nigeria and Benin), traditionally had a similar spiritual message function ascribed to dreams (as in Vodou), similarly distinguishing between meaningful or less meaningful dreams. “Dreaming”as such is not seen as exalted or enlightened among the Yoruba, it only becomes meaningful with further interpretation and rituals in waking hours. Either way, Orisha spirits/deities tend to have messages in dreams that are interpreted in traditional Yoruba culture, and its continuities in the West, having survived the Atlantic Slave Trade, in Yoruba-based folk religions as Santería in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, and Candomblé in Brazil.

So, the necessity of dreams for spiritual balance is empahasized in these African cultures, while distinctions among their functions are also made. The same applies to Bantu cultures, like of the Zulu, the latter referring to what they call “the shade” giving messages through dreams.

Scholars point out that despite universalities shared, there is a general difference in meanings attached to dreams between African and (modern) European cultures, namely that in African cultures one often dreams also “for others”, with messages for other people/the community, and not just for themselves as in the modern Western world, shaping their ritual interpretation.

As with many things - however - in this (unfortunately) dominantly Eurocentric World, the dream interpretation in several age-old cultures outside of Europe, do in fact not differ in complexity and “layers” when compared to the theories of Freud, Jung and others, shaping Western scholarly thought (and spread throughout the world).

The link between dreams and spirituality seems an obvious one, dreams being an “uncontrolled”, mysterious area for humans. The supernatural functions of dreams in traditional religions, as well as in Christianity and Islam attest to that. In the Bible furthermore (in books Joel and Acts), a distinction is made between Dreams (for old men) and Visions (for young men), both with spiritual functions.


In popular culture and daily life –beyond religious cadres - people try to make sense of dreams too, and their surreal aspects. “Dreaming” is associated colloquially with “hoping”or “wishing” in many languages, including English, Dutch, French, and Spanish, as a simplified Freudian take. Many poems or pop songs attest to this, including to other psychological roles of dreams, such as escape from worries or a painful or deprived real life. There is a duplicity also here. “Dreaming” is at the same time in many European and other languages associated with “unrealistic” escaping, not being able to cope with or understand reality, and therefore “dreams” become negative. A type of laziness or irresponsibility. Like day-dreaming. Not real life or serious enough.

Martin Luther King’s famous speech I Have A Dream used it in the positive meaning of “hope”, perhaps echoing an idea of a ”vision”, beyond a dream, of a better future that seems far-fetched yet possible.

I find it interesting to study this use of “dream(s)”and “dreaming” in popular culture – notably music. I will focus especially on a genre I know most about: Reggae music from Jamaica.


Reggae is interesting, because it is an internationalized popular music genre, inevitably functioning in a modern Western World, but with (often) connections to a spiritual movement, Rastafari, the aforementioned spiritual aspects come back again. Rastafari is furthermore Afrocentric and Jamaican culture mostly African-derived, returning us also to African views on dreams. In addition, Reggae knows many lyrics about social issues and protest, alongside love songs as in most other genres.

How do all these influences (including the Bible, Freud, and African folk religions), reflect in Reggae song lyrics, when involving “dreams” as term or phenomenon?

The Rastafari movement is both African and Bible-based. That is how it stands, despite critique of some Rastas against the Eurocentric (King James) Bible’s role in the movement. It does play a role, and therefore also the mentioned distinction between “dream” and “vision” made in some Bible books, with “vision” being more progressively prophetic than “dream”, and often valued more.

Yet, the word “dream” and derived words (plural dreams, dreaming etcetera) recur regularly throughout Reggae music, even in some relatively well-known songs. Relatively more often in love and romance-themed songs, must be said, but also in songs with Rastafari or social messages.


The different meanings ascribed by human kind, in fact all over the World, to dreams, ranging from spiritual, to hope, healing, or community functions.. All these can to differing degrees found in Reggae lyrics. Most common is, as in other English-speaking areas – and international pop culture -, dream as a metaphor for “hope”, of getting out of the present situation. In a sense often similar to “vision” or equivalent, though not always. Both (dreams and vision), anyway, can “come true”, according to lyrics.

“Dreams coming true” is a common, almost “ cliché” use of dreams, especially common in love songs. Some formulaic uses of the term “dream” can be found in Jamaican music, especially in love songs. Even there, though, there is enough originality in using the term. Dreaming about a loved woman – common also in other music genre’s lyrics – is one such formulaic or cliché use found in some reggae songs. Not that the artists are really to be blamed: they just use the English language, with all its common metaphors.. simply to communicate.

Likewise, in most pop music genres with “dream” in the lyrics, it refers to “wishing” in relation to love (personal relationships). The Everley Brothers’song (All I Have To Do is) Dream” is perhaps the best known globally, even though somewhat overrated in my opinion. Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, another well known hit (musically a bit better than the Everley Brothers’one in my opinion). Also, the “classic” Italian tune Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto Di Plu) by Domenico Modugno, is about someone “dreaming” about “flying” (“volare” in Italian), but also through a love affair with a woman. Also Otis Redding’s fine and well-known I’ve Got Dreams To Remember is a love song. Lyrically it is interestingly formulated, though. Likewise the opening lyric of a song of Spanish “Flamenco pop” artist Chiquetete, a song called Aprende A Soñar (Spanish for “Learn To Dream") hints toward somewhat deeper interpreatations of dreaming. “Let the passing of time be detained only in the sphere of the clock.. (and start dreaming)..” Despite this nicely put philosophical opening line, it turns out to be a love song too, with matching clichés.

Other, more creative or original lyricists approach dreaming more playfully, such as Tom Waits’s interesting Innocent When You Dream, which is not really a love song, as few of Tom Waits’ songs are really (just) love songs..

“Dreams in lyrics” becomes however more original if what is dreamt about is not “good loving” regarding one woman/man or relationship, but rather social change. Along the lines of Martin Luther King’s emotive yet beautiful I Have A Dream speech. Equally eloquent, though, was Malcolm X’s statement that Black people in the US are not living the American Dream, but “experiencing the American nightmare”.


Reggae, more than other genres, has often social and protest lyrics, as well as many Rastafari-inspired lyrics. Many – if not most – other popular music genres tend to focus much more on love and romance themes, some genres even exclusively. Love relationships are universal and shared by all humans, explaining the appeal, although it is also a “safe” choice: safe commercially on the one hand, but also “safe” politically, relevant in contexts of dictatorships and censorships. Cuban son and salsa “hit songs” in Cuba, should either praise the Communist leadership (Castro cum suis) or be about love, sex, or romance, albeit playfully.

Also in Spain under Right-wing dictator Franco (1939-1975) some Spanish (Flamenco or other) hit songs passed censorship when about often formulaic love themes, and nonpolitical. Also under dictator Trujillo (1930-1961) in the Dominican Republic, local Merengue songs were promoted, as long as they had no political, rebellious themes. To keep the people happy, so to speak, with popular music, but in a controlled manner.

Notwithstanding all the inequalities and social injustice separating the haves and the ghetto have-nots and poor people within Jamaica, there is at least a degree of freedom of speech there, notable in Bob Marley’s rebellious lyrics, even after Chris Blackwell’s commercializing production. Such rebellious protest lyrics can be released and made public in Jamaican Reggae, yet whether is will be the most commercially successful is unfortunately dubious. That Inner Circle’s mediocre tune Sweat (“Girl I want to make you sweat”) became a reggae crossover hit in several countries is telling enough.

“Dreaming”or “dreams” about social change is indeed found in Reggae lyics, but often with a specific Rastafari or locally influenced accent. Zion Is A Vision (1992), a quite well-known, nice song (in the reggae scene, that is) by Garnett Silk is a good example, with vision being here used as dreaming about Zion (Africa, Ethiopia), Haile Selassie, and a “family reunion”.. a dream Garnett did not wish to wake up from, as he says in the lyrics.

More “political” so to speak, Pablo Moses’s earlier song Revolutionary Dream (1975) - from the album of the same name - is about overthrowing as warriors the oppressive forces keeping one down and in poverty. A “wonderful vision”, Pablo Moses sings, he woke up from..

More neutrally positive, if idealistic, is an earlier reggae song, recorded by the Wailers (and Bunny Wailer), namely Dreamland, about living in balance with nature, provided with fruits, “safe and free”. The “far across the sea” in the lyrics, though, probably refers to the African motherland, without naming Africa as such.


Marcus Garvey is important for the Rastafari movement. Moreover, he was a Black Power precursor to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Garvey was a prophetic activist, yet was at the same time an interesting, multidimensional personality, who put Black advancement first, yet gave it a personal touch, by speaking in sincere and direct terms. I see this as positive, because it allows you to “trust” a person. Everything (also private things) openly and public is too much to ask (and psychologically not recommendable), but as much as possible or wise seems good to me. Else you end up as people who, as my mother called it (I translate from Spanish), “have more hidden than out in the open”. Like many politicians or people in high places, for instance. Or criminals.

One 1927 poem by Garvey, called A Summer’s Dream, deals with a dream he described, and seems quite personal, and seemingly about a love relationship, although a deeper, metaphoric meaning (beyond just one love partner) is certainly possible. I considered the poem, despite common Biblical and heaven references, actually quite touching and impressive. The Summer Dream in question was nightmarish, and unlike with good, “paradise dreams” of lyrics I mentioned before (Garnett Silk’s Zion In A Vision), Garvey was glad to wake up out of it, finding it not to be real. What’s more, with the line “I came to my senses”, he places such upsetting dreams in a negative light, as of lesser value than reality.

http://nyahbinghi.ca/garvey-speeches/view-garvey.asp?word_title=A Summer~s Dream

Elsewhere in Garvey’s poetry and writings, “dream” is also used positively, or in common meanings of (community) “hope”.

Haile Selassie I, also crucial in the Rastafari movement, used the term “dream” in his beautiful speech/address for the United Nations in 1963, reproduced in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s classic song War. “until that day (when the philosophy that some races are superior to others has ended and been discredited), “the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, and the rule of international morality will remain in but a fleeting illusion..to be pursued but never attained”. The dream is not criticized as such, but a dream that has no eventual link with reality (beyond a “fleeting illusion”) is. Dreaming is not enough, so to speak.

The absurdities of actual dreams could have inspired some musicians, and maybe they have, although the effects of narcotics are a fierce competitor to this. LSD trips probably inspired several songs or video clips in some genres. The fact that dreams tend to be absurd and their meaning often unclear, make them less suitable for musicians and songwriters and singers, after all often out to “tell the world a (sensible) story” with their lyrics, . A genius like Jimi Hendrix is maybe an exception to this rule. Other, visual artists, like painter Salvador Dali and partly Pablo Picasso, however said to use dreams as main inspirations for what they would paint on the canvas.

In Reggae perhaps only the idiosyncratic Lee “Scratch” Perry, or instrumental reggae, such as the more spacey Dubs by King Tubby and others come close to such inspirations out of absurd dreams.

The British (duh) band London Underground also made an interesting song for the Reggae-focussed On-U label in Britain called “Dreams Are Better”. The song is Reggae-like, but overall experimental musically (some Punk influences are there too), while the lyrics are likewise (somewhat) alternative to other lyrics in that “dreams” are preferred over the confusion and illusion in reality. I guess I kind of liked that song when I first heard it, because it had a nice dubby groove..

In most Reggae lyrics “dream” is a metaphor”for “wish” or “desire” as in other music genres, yet with relatively more “social” or spiritual wishes when compared to other genres with love songs dominating.

Somewhat different is the well-known reggae tune by the sweet-voiced Jackie Edwards, the nice 1975 song My Dream About Ali Baba (covered by others), a song with lyrics just relating a dream, with all its absurdities, influenced by children’s story books.

Critical of “dreams” is Ini Kamoze’s intriguing (Living In A) Dream, which is quite poetic and layered, as it treats the distinction between dream and reality at an abstract level, with a lyric like “got me buzzing like a computerized machine”.

Several songs discuss dreams as positive, prophetic visions of a better world, future and place, from a Rastafari perspective, as some already mentioned (Garnett Silk, Pablo Moses), and further in lyrics by e.g. Prince Fari, Culture (song Elijah) or Winston Reedy’s also fine Judah’s Dream, here with literal Biblical references.

Also recent reggae songs, such as by Busy Signal and RC (Dreams of Brighter Days, 2013), or My Dream by Nesbeth, use dream in the sense of positive hopes or wishes/ambitions, whereas Sizzla calls for “chasing your wildest dreams” as a positive goal to get out of poverty and pain (in the song Wildest Dreams). Dennis Brown JR also sings he “never will stop dreaming”. In these songs as goals and hopes wider than love or romance relationships.


If there is something that can be concluded from this, it is that there is a duplicity of meanings attached to dreams and dreaming in Reggae lyrics. Just like in traditional Yoruba culture, and in a way in the theories of Sigmund Freud, and perhaps to a degree universally, world wide. This can be summarized as: dreams are necessary in human lives, but not enough..