zaterdag 2 juni 2018

Bredda (and Sista!) Bee

Last night as I was sleeping, I dreamt—marvelous error!— that I had a beehive here inside my heart. And the golden bees were making white combs and sweet honey from my old failures.

From poem 'Last Night As I Was Sleeping' (translated from Spanish), by Antonio Machado (about Antonio Machado)

Growing up in the Netherlands, and reading relatively much since young, I encountered the folk figure “Broer Konijn”, Dutch translation of “Br’er Rabbit”. This was in a comic series ‘Donald Duck’, from Walt Disney, sold in several stores (Dutch-language version) . I read this quite regularly, I remember, from between my 5th and 10th age.

I recall I always seemed to partly get the illustrated stories of different figures in that “Donald Duck” comic weekly. I found it overall entertaining, but with some stories even more intriguing, while not always getting all symbolic or contextual nuances, at that young age. The fictional town in the magazine was called “Duckstad” in Dutch, “Duck town”, with nonetheless heavy car traffic: humanized ducks behind the wheels. I did not always get main intentions of centralized figures, in these Disney comic strips: Mickey Mouse, the seemingly more socially clumsy Donald Duck, both with female version of the same animal. Then, there was a big rabbit walking with a bag-on-stick on his shoulder, doing something among other people (or animals, better said): Broer Konijn (Brother Rabbit).

Having done some studying since then I found out the historical and cultural context of Brother Rabbit or Br’er Rabbit. It is a figure in folk stories in the US South, originated among African Americans, with African origins. The rabbit or “hare” is in those stories mostly a trickster figure, outsmarting competing animals. This historical folk figure was in time more or less incorporated by the Disney company.


Relatedly, I found out about traditional Anansi (or: Anancy) tales in the Caribbean, also of African origin, with the spider being here the protagonist trickster animal. These are usually stories to tell children. The difference in animal stems from the different parts of Africa the stories originate from, related to where slaves ending up in the West came from. Anansi, the trickster spider comes from the Ghana region, whereas the hare (or rabbit) as trickster is more found in Central Africa (Congo) and Southern Africa. In certain parts of the US South there came indeed quite some slaves from the Congo region. The Anansi stories are found in mainly Jamaica, Suriname, and Curaçao, with relatively higher percentages of slaves from the Ghana region.

Having learned more in time, some aspects of it still puzzle me a bit. I guess you can say: left me with mixed (positive and negative) feelings. First of all: why should animals be tricksters?: animals tend to be straight-forward: they just want to eat, play, and rest. I kind of like that about them. Perhaps they need to invent tricks to get the food? I don’t know.. It is understandably related to the past of slavery; some slaves needed to be a trickster to outsmart the oppression and the master during slavery.

Anyway, being a trickster suggests a mental craftiness or “wickedness” not really characteristic of animals, as Haile Selassie I , Emperor of Ethiopia, once said: “It is much easier to show compassion to animals. They are never wicked.”

Another “humanizing” aspect of the Brer Rabbit stories is the addition of Brer, from Brother. This could be a linguistic trait, but just as well a cultural one. Maybe in societies more in balance with nature and animals – such as in Africa historically, animals are earlier seen as “family” in some sense: a related and biologically connected being, a brother or sister.

Indeed, in many Reggae lyrics (from Jamaica) –and in the Jamaican Creole language in general – “Brother” (as Bredda) is often placed before animals, also outside of animal-based folk stories like Anansi. There are several examples in Reggae, but one is in the Israel Vibration song Vultures, using animals in interesting symbolic metaphors. One must know, though, that the word “bredda” is often also used among Jamaicans in the broader meaning of “friend” or “mate”. But still..

This all came to influence me, as I at times – mostly half-joking – now for some years refer to animals as such, adding Brother, Bredda (or the Dutch “Broer”) to the animal, as in: ”bredda bee on my book”, or “bredda cat (not my own) in my garden”, as happened sometimes when stray cats visited several home gardens in a row.

There is gender issue, so at time I thought: or Sista Bee, Bredda or Sista Bird?


Recently I paid more attention to the bee, loving in fact that breddas (or sistas?) bee sensed a free haven in my semi-wild garden.

The bee is after all endangered, and therefore we are endangered. That consciousness has begun to grow in recent times, as the importance of bees for pollination of fruits, plants, and vegetables is emphasized. Without the bees, our diet would have to change for 80%.. if we survive at all. If bees would truly disappear, the birds would be the first to follow in extinction, part of a general decline of our natural environment.

It is a cause for worry. Likewise it is simply part of the gradual man-made environmental destruction taking place since agriculture and industrialization.


I knew this more or less: the threatened bees and its consequences for the natural world and human kind. I must admit, though, that this knowledge remained mostly quite superficial. A documentary I saw recently (the 23rd of May, 2018), 'Queen Of The Sun : what are the bees telling us?' (from 2009 already), dedicated to the threatened bee, therefore turned out to be quite informative for me. The kind of documentary that answers questions I wanted to be answered, without me being even aware that I had these questions.

A beekeeper working for a organic food store cooperation, Odin, in the Netherlands introduced the documentary film, and told about his beekeeping, and answered questions.


While there are objections from vegan activists and environmentalists regarding beekeeping for honey extraction and sale – after all disturbing the bees’ natural order, especially when the honey is not expensive – this beekeeper said honey profits were not his end goal, but rather bee preservation.

I have some vegan people in my circle, and I heard them say that the only way honey could not disturb the bees is when it was very pricey, as not to impact bee activities too much. Usually, however, the need for cheaper honey is such, that honey is taken away, replaced with sugar water for bees to consume, thereby disturbing more the natural order.

Though I thought I felt a “vegan vibe” among some of the people present to see the film (as often surrounding “organic food stores”), this honey production problematic was not touched so much in the said documentary Queen Of The Sun, but rather the general decline of and threat to the bee population, due to broader agricultural and economic developments, especially in the Western world.


The focus of the documentary was on the US, but broadened occasionally to the global situation. One main interviewee was a German activist farmer who went to live in the US, also to stimulate better bee environments (wilder vegetation, certain plants, variation), as part of general farming. This instead of the dominant large scale “mono-culture”, with only one type of crop, tree or plant. They gave the example of almond monocultures in California: bees don’t thrive there, because there is only one type of tree, no variation. As a consequence, they starve out, and become endangered. The German farmer in turn included a special bee haven part with varied, natural vegetation to have a good environment for bees, so necessary for the pollination of whatever crops grows on the rest of that farmland.

In the case of the Californian mass almond monoculture, bees are massively flown in from the entire US and even abroad – to pollinate the almond trees. Figures are staggering: something like 70% of all bees in the US are transported to there for almond production! A mass industrial operation. After that they disappear. Hardly a natural order, and of course disturbing.

Several beekeepers – some inevitably a bit too self-congratulatory – in different countries, US, France, New Zealand, Britain, Italy, talked about their activities with and/or for bees.


Also adding to bee disappearance is the issue of the varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that specializes in bees, using bees to reproduce. This parasitic mite has infested and diminished bee populations over time. Once only found in Asian bees, it spread to other bees when Asian bees were introduced on other continents – human interference with nature again! – causing problems.

One argument in the documentary was that this problem was confronted by the industries with chemical pesticide measures, hoping to get rid of the varroa mite. In the documentary was explained – however – that instead the varroa mite became resistant to the “miticide” chemicals, becoming even more resilient in the process. Again, letting nature follow its course: letting the bee endure and over time fight off the mite organically, would be more beneficial for the bees themselves, in the long run. The man-made chemicals only made it worse.


I learned more things, such as regarding bee biology. I thought that the honey bees were male, while the leading, large queen bee was their leader. It turns out that those worker bees are females, as also the beekeepers in the film referred to them. So Bredda AND Sista bee, I should call them. In fact, the leading queen bee goes out the hive on “mating trips”, to mate with several male drones. These are the male bees. She is certainly polygamous, and thus collects sperm of several drones for laying eggs of new male and female bees. I did not know that in English these sperm-delivering male bees are called “drones”. This gives me a strange feeling about the other airplane-camera-like things, called after all “drones” too. The bee drones’ function is anyway to mate and fertilize. This is what I mean with nature being straight-forward, haha.

Come to think of it, another use of the word “drone” I encountered is as musical one, as sustained sound or note. This goes back to an older linguistic, Germanic and English word meaning “to hum”. The airplane called drone is however named after the male bees (also just for the humming sound.. or so they say).

Most sources seem to separate this fertilizing/mating function from actually “working” as the female bees (outside the queen bee) do. Some may be of the opinion that it is work too. The queen bee tends to test the skill of the drones, anyway, during mating, such as by flying higher, thus selecting the best seed. So, it’s not all fun, haha (I am joking, sorry).

Maybe some humans get sexually aroused by this whole imagery, who knows, haha, but this is not my intention.

Further, in one of the featured cities, New York, there was a female beekeeper active, on a rooftop, pointing out that beekeeping was then (before 2009) outlawed in New York city. This prohibition was however lifted after protests. In London, also a “rooftop beekeeper” was interviewed.

Content-wise, this was more or less the core of the Queen of the Sun documentary, one that I would certainly recommend.

Q & A

Almost equally interesting, though, was the Q and A afterward with the Dutch beekeeper, who was not from Amsterdam, having his bees in another part of the Netherlands (near Tiel).

He worked for organic food tore cooperation Odin, having shops all over the Netherlands, though certainly less than well-known EkoPlaza, for instance: its biggest competitor store in the Netherlands.

He had some interesting things to tell, giving also useful tips and advice for those wanting to help bees even while in the city Amsterdam, such as by adding certain flora attracting bees to balconies and gardens. He pointed at the extreme natural sensibility of the bees, affected for instance even by explosions on the sun – far from the earth -, triggering their migrations.

The same sensibility applies to the human presence, notably the mobile phones and signals this involves, also crossing nature. This affects bees negatively, reason why the beekeeper keeps the mobile phone off or away from the place where he keeps the bee. These rays of mobile phone communication, by the way, has been proven to affect all nature and beings – not just bees -, including humans, to differing degrees negatively.

He also elaborated on the difficulty in outlawing internationally the chemical means – miticide - to fight the said parasitic varroa mite. This is hindered by certain powerful states (China, US) and big companies, with vested economic interests in either the chemicals or certain crops or honey. Sad and enraging, in some sense.


In introducing the documentary, the beekeeper – while highlighting the indeed beautiful poem opening the documentary, by Antonio Machado (actually part of a larger poem) – he also pointed out that one of the points made in it, such as by the said German farmer in the US, that a “change of mentality” toward the bees and nature among humans is what is ultimately most important.

Our relationship with animals and the natural environment is what is the issue, here. How to stop further environmental destruction. One might argue that in the Western, industrialized world, the balance with nature has been long lost, gradually since agricultural and industrial expansion, diminished forests and variation in ecosystems, all affecting negatively the bees, being so crucial in our food chain. The mentioned Brother Anancy/Anansi, or Br’er Rabbit stories, from Afro-American folk culture in that sense seem to point at a more balanced state between man and nature once in Africa, attributing after all kinship to animals, especially by adding “brother”. Animal stories are historically also found in other cultures, such as Europe and Asia, of course, often likewise “humanizing” animals.


The “trickster”, cunning figure of the Anancy spider is viewed more critically also within the same culture, such as among the Rastafari adherents in Jamaica.

This is described in the interesting 1998 article: ‘The epistemological significance of ”I-an-I” as a response to Quashie and Anancyism in Jamaican culture’, by Adrian Anthony McFarlane. This article was part of the academic collective volume ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (Temple University press, 1998), wherein several authors discuss different historical and cultural aspects of the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. The Rastafari movement originated among poor Black people, and has a pro-Africa focus, a theological and spiritual nucleus in Ethiopia and Haile Selassie, further combined with a certain “nature-based” practical and spiritual world view, distancing itself thus from the Western system, enslaving them in the first place.

Aiming at emancipation and redemption through Africa, a righteous living, and a moral stance, many Rastas began to object against the Anancy “role model” within Jamaica, known for confusion and cunning. While this tries to escape the system, it neither is a clear, majestic moral stance against this Western, oppressive “Babylon” system, as Rastas call it. They prefer – animal-wise – the majestic African lion as a more moral and prouder model, rather than the trickster spider.

The trickster as hero in addition meets also objections among Rastas because the inherent divisiveness. Their trickery and fooling does not stop with actual powerful oppressors (White and Black, including the sell-out Quashies), but causes also internal strive. As also heard in many Reggae lyrics by Rastas, the “false” or “fake” Rastas within the Rastafari movement (often similarly wearing long dreadlocks), are a persistent problem, being not only too ignorant, but often even intruders with evil, selfish intentions against the Rastafari goals, from within.


The Rasta expression “I and I”, listeners of Reggae hear this expression a lot, relates to their world view. It is a type of heightened consciousness beyond the trickery of Anancysim, or even more beyond what came before it, the “Quashie” figure in Jamaican folk stories, having lost its African, human soul in the West, and being a mere puppet. This is the line of argumentation in McFarlane’s said article: rising from Quashie, through Anancy, to the Rastafari’s I and I, and eventually heightened consciousness and pride.

This I-an-I philosophy among the Rastafari is actually relevant for this post. The I relates to other I’s (beings), pointing at a communal world view, between all humans, but also other living beings in nature. It is in that sense also an expressed preference of balance with nature, flora and fauna. Including of course the bees, having a crucial pollinating role. This also concerns the fruits, and other natural, vegetable foods from the earth the strictest of Rastas have as diet. Vegetarian and vegan, but really a step beyond it, many Rastas prefer also unprocessed, natural food, called Ital food. The bees are crucial in this, and relatively undisturbed contribute to it.

Rastafari principles and the earlier Rastafari example, I therefore argue, simply help provide directions for a change of mentality beneficial for bee survival, the documentary Queens of the Sun called for, in response to the increased awareness and deploration – also in the Western world - of the threatened bees as part of general environmental destruction.


Since we are dealing with symbols now, one could discern certain symbolism in the documentary Queens of the Sun too, in relation to all I said till now. The already discussed varroa mite belongs to the family of spiders (like Anansi/Anancy!). This inevitable parasitic mite is something the bee has to endure to prosper. Just like Rastas want to move beyond Anancyism. At the very least an interesting symbolic parallel.

Also suggested in the documentary is how certain wasps seem to give bees a bad name, by somehow being among them – looking a bit like them – but with more aggressive, negative behavior among them, and toward humans or other creatures. These can be somehow compared to the mentioned “false Rastas” as wolves in sheep clothing, for bad intentions (jealousy, own gain etc.).

On the other hand, in my experience - getting more of that since I am getting older of course - one must be cautious with “symbolism”: it can seem in your favour, but also later turn against you. This applies to all linguistic issues (as symbols are), after all manipulable and corruptible by self-interested humans.

The truth remains the same, however, and that – unpleasant - truth is that in this time the bees are as a species endangered, threatening humans and the environment.

The documentary Queens of the Sun explained this well and quite factual/educational and convincing, already in 2009. It also increased recently my knowledge of certain aspects, having seen it not long ago.

woensdag 2 mei 2018

Motown (and the Jamaican one?)

Of course I have heard early on about Motown, and gotten some general knowledge about it. Since I was a child I was interested in music; in various genres. I recall how Stevie Wonder songs were one of the first works in “Black music” I got to like. We are talking about the late 1970s, growing up in the Netherlands. By 1984 I really started getting more into Reggae, a Jamaican genre, starting with artists like Bob Marley, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, or Peter Tosh. My musical interests remained quite broad though, even seeking background information about artists, genres etcetera. Maybe this seeking more information differed according to whether I liked a song or style more or less – I am only human - , though I always tried to keep an open mind. I find some joy too in comparing musical genres and cultures, across the globe.

Be that as it may: Motown was known widely as a Black American “Soul” label and record company, and therefore somehow associated – or related - with genres I became fan of (Reggae), or of which some songs I liked (could be funk, soul, R&B). I learned about the name Berry Gordy as Motown’s founder, and that the record company was based in Detroit. Some artists associated with the label I heard of - or from - too: Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder..

Beyond that, to be honest, my knowledge about Motown as a company never became overly extensive or detailed. For that reason, it was perhaps good and fulfilling that I read recently a book about it: to get to learn more about the history of Motown. It is a work titled ‘Motown : music, money, sex, and power’ (Random House, 2002), written by Gerald Posner. It was published in 2002, and with over 300 pages “medium-voluminous”, I would say.

Its somewhat sensationalistic, almost “cliché” subtitle did not appeal to me so much. After all: so much is “money, sex, and power” in this world. Often combined and (thus) not always rendering pleasant or equal environments. From loveless marriages, to big capitalist companies, or histories of colonialism and exploitation. Also, for instance, slavery in the Americas was besides about exploitation (money), power (and its abuse), also about sex, as many slave owners and overseers were free to sexually abuse and rape their female slaves, and did so on a daily basis. On occasion female slaves gave in only hoping to get some perks out of the forced intimacy by the white man. Money, sex, and power, allright..

So, in my opinion, the subtitle was not particularly promising, but it must be said: the 2002 book by Gerald Posner turned out to be a good read, and informative to me. I found it to be well-written and engaging from the start. In the remainder of this post follows a review of the book, as well as some comparative analyses.


Almost inevitably, the story of Motown is also a semi-biography of its founder Berry Gordy, who started it in 1959. I knew not much about him, but heard somewhere he was family-focussed, strict, organized, and discipline-minded as Motown’s president. That might be functional, but sounds at the same time rigid and conservative to me. And, well, boring and unimaginative, especially for the music industry derived from a creative spirit.

In the first part of Posner’s book, however, about a young Gordy before Motown, it became clear that there was more to Berry Gordy. This concerns especially his trajectory. His family was quite tight, disciplined, and work-focussed, yet for a while the youth Berry Gordy got known as the “lazy bum” among his siblings, living off others, and avoiding jobs and work. His parents tried at times in vain to arrange some more steady jobs for him. In time, Berry Gordy “got to know the streets”, so to speak, and caught the habit of gambling in dubious areas and locales. In part he lived a life close to, or even in, crime. At one point he had a few prostitutes working for him, making him effectively a pimp. He wanted to stop that, though, and changed his ways toward an own business, aided by his tight and supportive family..

His interest in music, and artists like Jackie Wilson he met at a club where he worked, put him on the music industry path, including useful connections. He wrote songs that became hits. That made him money to start producing and in time the recording company that would become known as Motown.

His sisters and brothers would achieve important functions in it, under Berry Gordy.

That focus on Gordy remained throughout the rest of the book. In many instances it even seems mainly written from Gordy’s perspective, although Posner as author stays quite objective.

I guess it is undeniable that Gordy as a person – but with his family - is dominant in Motown, at least as a company. That is the main focus: the Motown company and its profits. The creative process of hired songwriters, weekly meetings discussing songs to record or release, and whether songs became hits, receives a lot of attention in this book. Also, how the company was run by Gordy.


That was the thing with Motown: it was very disciplined and organized, just like “regular” companies, so to speak. The famed Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriter trio were paid to deliver songs to artist Gordy wanted to be promoted.

Songs with hit potential, and aimed toward a “pop appeal”. Definitely a commercial choice, although the music was largely based on Black, African American traditions (soul, with Gospel influences a.o.). This music was “watered down” as Gordy aimed to reach a White audience too, besides a Black one. This made commercial sense. It was also part of his life view, though. He hired several White people at some crucial posts in the Motown corporation, also helping this cross-over.

The first million-selling hit for Motown – early in its existence – was Shop Around (1960) by the Miracles (including Smokey Robinson).

The bulk of the book is thus about Gordy’s perspective. It is to writer Gerald Posner’s credit, though, that he still keeps this engaging throughout. His dealings with some artists and groups in promoting them, from his long-time friend Smokey Robinson, to later connections with the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes with Diana Ross. The latter, Ross, gets quite a lot of attention in this book, also because Gordy was supposedly in love with her. Diana Ross, though, does not always come off well in this book. Not so much her artistic qualities, as her “diva”-like arrogance. This was quoted from other artists at Motown, though they also felt sidelined by her. Her on/off affair with Gordy made her also more important for Motown, besides her popularity and hits as part - and lead singer - of the Supremes. The Supremes would have several big hits.

Gordy being the main focus, others become also “extras”, and passing “supportive roles” in the way this book is told. The singer Marvin Gaye is also quite present in the book, as a somewhat looser one in the tighter Motown setting, smoking early on also regularly marijuana for instance, that was not appreciated so much at the disciplined Motown.


A point of critique I can give is that some of these non-Berry Gordy characters remain too “flat”, sometimes hardly mentioned. Whereas popular “hit makers” as the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and some others, are recurringly mentioned, lesser known artists or musicians are rarely mentioned. “Songs were recorded”, is often said in the book, often mentioning who wrote the song (Holland-Dozier-Holland), or who produced it. What musicians he used, how he found them, how regular they were? Those questions remain unanswered. At least in this book: elsewhere I understood that Gordy gathered top musicians from the local Jazz and Blues scenes in Detroit in 1959, to help him record the songs. These group of musicians – calling themselves the Funk Brothers – were talented, but remained relatively little known, or little acknowledged . They helped make the Motown sound. This book however does not mention them much.

Unfortunately, this entire musical creative process is simply not the focus of Posner’s book, that focuses on Gordy’s general hope for “commercial hits” that a wide public liked. It is in that sense more from a business than from a musicians’ perspective.

Okay, but even the general artistic choices for songs put out for the market get too little attention, in my opinion. “Motown Soul” was known as smoother and more polished – “poppier” than more “rough-edged”, or “Blacker” Soul or R&B (or upcoming Funk) in the US. In what musical ways, I ask myself then? That is perhaps the musician in me, and shows my personal fields of interest. I am a percussionist, and I note the extensive use of the tambourine, generally on the “off-beat”, as part of the Motown sound. A bit too much tambourine, and too little other percussion (e.g. more conga’s, scrapers, or bells), at least in my opinion..

As I said, that’s the percussionist in me, and is a side path to the focus of the book, at least a detail, however crucial. Gerald Posner discusses Motown more in broad lines “as a company”, and still mentions successful hit songs and artists, meetings evaluating songs, with a “creative team” at Motown, deciding what music to release. This was interesting to me, because I did not know it went in such a structured, company-like way, with formal meetings that were recorded, registered in administrative procedures etcetera. That differs from what I heard about other recording companies, where haphazard and chaotic “personal whims” seemed more decisive in what got recorded or released for the market.


Gordy’s various intimate relationships with women, some he worked with or worked for him, get quite some attention, as do such relations between other artists at Motown. Especially his crush on Diana Ross gets much attention. Interestingly, even this becomes at the end secondary to Motown as company, pointing at a discipline. This books makes that company focus of Gordy clear, showing how this “drive” outweighs other personal and intimate relationships. A mostly commercial drive, but with cultural aspects, at least. Comparably, though even more interesting, also the famous painter Pablo Picasso tended to make personal relationships (intimate/romantic, friends etcetera) secondary to his “art”. The difference is that Picasso was the creative artist himself, whereas Gordy facilitated and organized it only, allowing for himself a, say, “colder”, materialistic distance.


As part of this, also financial and payment issues get relatively much attention in this work. Artists complained about not getting their financial due, or too little, within the company’s framework. Royalty percentages were for instance lower than in other companies, causing dissatisfaction. An income was however secured (unlike elsewhere, where one-time payments for artists were the norm), but for some too low.

Again, the fact the Gerald Posner knows how to describe Gordy’s financial considerations in an entertaining manner, shows he knows how to write. His writing style is in that sense dynamic and engaging.

Financial issues tend not to interest me so much, even if inevitable in the system we live in, and the focus of Posner on it in this book almost puts me off. Luckily, Posner knows how to tell a story dynamically and engagingly, thus maintaining enough of my attention.


The same applies to another phenomenon I personally find unpleasant and prefer to avoid: office politics. Power games at the workplace or the office: from sucking up to the boss, using connections to that boss to demean and “put in place” – according to them - uppity lower colleagues. Brrr.. This in my experience often comes down to bullying, and even structural, fascist-like mental abuse.

Motown was a company of a close family and friends, for a part at least, diminishing too much of such negative excesses. There are still some harsh confrontations and humiliating actions described as part of work processes – office politics -, in this book. Again, Posner keeps this dynamic and proportionate, so that the book remains a good read. Not a great read, but at least a good one.


The later part of the book deals with the slow demise of Motown. Gordy moving the operations to Los Angeles in 1971 was sudden and unwelcome for several workers, musicians, and artists and Motown, though several of them followed him. There were some ups and downs since then, yet it was, as Posner quotes, “the beginning of the end” for Motown. In time Gordy wanted to expand Motown’s activities with movies/films, only partly successful. His passionate yet troubled relationship with ex-Supreme Diana Ross continued meanwhile in California, and elsewhere, after 1971. Posner continues to pay much attention to the Gordy-Ross relationship.

Some new artists joined the label that became quite successful, notably the Jackson 5 and the Commodores, resulting in world famous artists Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. These were commercial highpoints in an otherwise decaying company, of which the peak period was more and more in the past. That is the main line of reasoning of Posner in the final part of this book.

Gordy seems by then also to have lost in part interest in Motown as music company, and obtained new hobbies notably the film industry. He remained a distant boss, but hired new presidents. These include Ewart Abner, president of Motown since 1973 up to 1975. Abner was an unsuccessful president, at least according to this book. He was relatively more pro-Black and race-conscious than Gordy and others in the company, and objected to the many white people at important positions in Motown: the number of whites had even increased when Motown went to Los Angeles after 1971. The racial “purging” he attempted was seen as problematic, and some called him even a “racist” toward white people, despite a diplomatic image he upheld of having friendly relations with whites. Besides this racial stance, Abner was also an alcoholic, making his leadership ineffective and inefficient.

Like Diana Ross, Ewart Abner does not exactly come off well in this book, at least according to the opinions stated in this book. Another president for a period, the white man of Italian (Sicilian) heritage Barney Ales, did not too well either, though economically and financially more effective and efficient, people described him as only self-interested and a money shark..

Despite these organizational issues, some of the early Motown artists also are discussed in the last part of the book. The commonly held stereotype that drugs – notably cocaine – was and is rife among artists and musicians seems unfortunately confirmed. Marvin Gaye began using coke more and more, making him unstable and problematic. Even Smokey Robinson – known as a clean and healthy example at Motown – got for a period hooked on it. Gaye lost all his money, and in fact got a large debt, and lived the final months of his life with his parents, continuing his wild, cocaine-based life nonetheless. A fight with his also unstable and alcoholic father, as may be known, cost Marvin Gaye his life: his own father shot him with a gun, supposedly after Marvin hit his father, as the fight got out of hand.. This was in 1984.

So for some instances at the end of Posner’s book, other people than Gordy are treated with more detail, but by then Gordy was less interested in the company, had less of his heart in it. The success of some new artists, e.g. Lionel Richie, The Jacksons, and Rick James, gave some temporary respite, as did some hits by those longer associated with Motown, such as Stevie Wonder.

Some nostalgic concerts looking back at Motown were also well-received. The peak period was however largely over, and Gordy agreed finally to sell what remained of Motown to PolyGram in the 1990s. This book ends in 2002, but today Motown does still exist, only as part of the Universal Music Group, into which PolyGram and Motown were absorbed, albeit still as separate entity. No longer independent, though.


Though the attention changes a bit in the final parts of Posner’s book, Berry Gordy remained the main personality described in this story of Motown. Fair enough, since Gordy started it all and remained influential throughout. It is, in my opinion, too much from his perspective too, however. I find it furthermore hard to tell whether the author Gerald Posner has an own bias or agenda, as he is relatively mild about Gordy, but presents a largely negative image of Diana Ross, albeit via others, as well as of some other artists. Some of these felt short-changed and robbed of their rightful money. Posner presents this as neutral, though repeatedly adds a tone of irritation with this: as Gordy would have had. Emphasizing drug or alcohol habits – resulting in some of these artists’ early deaths – is also a bit dubious, even if true. This because also these artists remain flat characters, and the real reasons for their problems are ignored. Maybe they were really duped, who knows. A bit more distance from Gordy’s interests taken by Posner – especially as some artist had lawsuits against him for money - would be better.

Also some other “secondary characters” or “extras” in the book, such as Ewart Abner, do not come off well. Admittedly, Abner died years before this book appeared, but Diana Ross was still well alive, and the author could have asked her about her side of the story. That would make the book more balanced, and journalistically correct, in my opinion.

In conclusion, I found the book engagingly written and it turned out to be in part insightful to me. I learned things I did not know before. It was indeed about “power, sex, and music” as its subtitle suggests. Posner is better in “broad strokes” than in detail or even interesting anecdotes. This book is , however, entertaining and dynamic to read.

A main critique I nonetheless maintain about it, is that the book was too much about money and how to run a company financially, and too little about musical creativity as such. The songwriting, musicians, and recording are only mentioned in general their function of making money. Though Posner paints a sympathetic portrayal of Gordy, the “money shark” in Gordy did not always make him come over as pleasant in some instances in this book. Sometimes even as cruelly selfish. Kind of uneven – and slightly hypocritical - in relation to the critique and ridicule of Diana Ross for having a big ego, a lavish lifestyle, and big money-spending habits.

So, a recommendable book to read in and by itself, but for a more balanced view from different perspectives one should look elsewhere. Also, those interested in the process of creating and making music – as myself - should look elsewhere. It’s indeed more about “money, sex, and power” (the company), “office politics” and such, than about music as cultural or artistic phenomenon. That is a pity. Only the superficial fact that songs became “big hits” gets enough attention.


I am more a Reggae fan. I appreciate (songs by) some artists who recorded for Motown, notably Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, along with a few others, but found the “Motown sound” overall a bit too poppy and polished to my taste. I liked the call-and-response vocals that characterized that sound, though: a beautiful African retention in a Soul context. Also, the musicians of the house band up to 1971 – the Funk Brothers – had some nice flourishes here and there..

Reggae I like much more though, since my teens already. I soon found out, however, that an important early music label in Jamaica since the 1950s, Studio One, was called “the Jamaican Motown”. Its founder – Clement “Coxsone” Dodd: the first black record company owner in Jamaica – is even compared by some to Berry Gordy, regarding his role in Jamaican music.

Studio One was indeed crucial in Jamaican music, also in genres preceding Reggae (that developed around 1968), such as Ska (appearing around 1959) and Rocksteady (developed around 1966). It helped develop the Jamaican music industry, but also genres.

Motown in the US also helped develop the career of several in time well-known and successful Black US artists, just like in Jamaica many artists – including “big reggae names” like Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Bob Andy, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott, Lee Perry, and many more, started at Studio One.


Having read the book on Motown, I would like to dedicate the final part of this post/essay to analyse whether this comparison in fact makes sense, according to my knowledge of both Motown and Studio One. Is Studio One really “the Jamaican Motown”, or is it merely a figure of speech?

I know quite something about Jamaica’s Studio One by now, from several works. Now I know more about Motown. I conclude that there are similarities, but also crucial differences.

The parallel that many local artists started their career there is certainly there. Historically, there is also a parallel. Studio One was founded in 1954, but started having an own recording studio in 1963. Motown started in 1959. Both labels “peaked” in the 1960s, so to speak, and ended (more or less) since the 1980s (very roughly speaking)..

Motown was an actual company with separate formal departments and administrative structures. Studio One was, on the other hand, simply said, the person Clement “Coxsone” Dodd. That is in some way funny, but also unfortunate. It had no accounting department for instance, or a marketing department. It was all much more informal than that. Musicians and artists were very busy recording at and pressing records through Studio One though, all throughout the week and during whole workdays. Much music was released, and work has certainly been done. Just like at Motown.

Lacking such formal structures, the weekly, Friday meetings about what songs to put out, at Motown, seems a far cry from the ways in Studio One. Some musicians, songwriters, artists/singers themselves, or Dodd, might expect or have the hunch that certain songs that were being recorded might do well and become hits “in the dancehalls”, but this was never formalized in meetings. No “marketing” professionals or staff were involved. Often their feelings were justified as Studio One put out many successful songs.

This shows how Dodd had gathered some good, talented musicians, songwriters, and singers around him, and had a good “ear” for what is a good song or a potential hit. Dodd could not even play an instrument himself, which makes it even more special. Some instrumentalists joked that he (Dodd) did not even notice when a guitar clearly needed tuning. Dodd had a good “ear” for recognizing good songs and hits, though, being a thing he had in common with Berry Gordy, as well as his capability to gather talented musicians around him and useful recording equipment. As a former sound system (mobile discotheque) owner, Coxsone Dood also was well in touch with the local public tastes, increasing Studio One’s commercial successes. This also applied in a way to Gordy.

The Jamaican music industry was, and still is, however different from the one in the US. There is a more direct connection with popular taste and the public through the said Sound Systems and the public dancehalls. New releases were often immediately tested there for an audience. In the US, songs were released for an abstract “market” with a monetary aim. Also by Motown. The audience and public had their say therefore at the end of the product in the US, while in Jamaica more in early stages. This audience reception at dancehalls then helped shape and direct artistic and recording choices at Studio One.

This is an interesting, and actually more “democratic”, aspect of the Jamaican music industry. A good song is a good song, but a good and balanced - earlier - connection with the actual public is also necessary or at least more “real”. It avoids at least in part that big companies try to shape or manipulate our tastes. This has become of course a common, and degenerated, aspect of capitalism in Western societies, affecting all products, including cultural ones.

Despite these positive points, Coxsone Dodd also had some conflicts with artists. Like in Gordy’s case it related to money. Many artists felt they were underpaid or robbed of royalties for their work and music by Coxsone. Most artists at Studio One came from poor, ghetto backgrounds, and were initially not even knowledgeable about such rights. Some objected against Coxsone Dodd, or recurringly asked Dodd for more money or a better deal, hoping to eventually get out of the cycle of poverty of ghetto living.

Several Jamaican artists complained about how hard it was to simply approach Dodd, as he always had some “tough guys” around him, guarding him. Dodd thus seemed not to be generous financially, comparable to Berry Gordy in that sense. Again, Gordy faced several lawsuits by his former artists, in Jamaica it went more informally: some Jamaican artists once at Studio One at the end simply left disgruntled, or acquired means to start their own recording company..

So, there seem to be similarities as well as differences, between Motown and Studio One, and their founders Berry Gordy and Coxsone Dodd, but either way: they were definitely both musically influential, in their respective genres (Soul for Motown, Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae for Studio One), in their national contexts, but eventually also internationally. This accomplishment is perhaps the main similarity..

maandag 2 april 2018

International parallels in (de)centralization: Spain, Ethiopia, and broader

Recently, this March of 2018, there were municipal elections in the Netherlands, as every 4 years. Also, since a time in the news – at least here in Europe – is the independence movement in Catalonia, now part of Spain, with regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, as main spokesperson. This single-sided declaration of independence – or referendum initiative - was apparently illegal constitutionally, and therefore Puigdemont became a wanted and eventually arrested man, by the central Spanish authorities.

Earlier, a bit less known, I gather, there was by the way a call for Scottish independence leading also to a referendum, resulting in a majority voting in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

The municipal elections in the Netherlands, meanwhile, showed an increased participation and success of “local”, own political parties, operating apart from the larger national parties.

In Northern Italy, there was also a resurgence of calls for independence , at least by some groups, typically in wealthy regions like Veneto and Lombardia. Likewise, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of Spain. This of course relates to the independence wish. It is difficult to become independent when you depend on central funds.


All these, partly unrelated topical issues, share at least that they raise questions about centralization versus decentralization of states. Some states have very centralized governments, others have chosen a more decentralized model, including relative political (decision) autonomy for regions, “nations within nations”, or on a smaller scale, municipalities, or sub-regions.

All this is, as the Rastas call it, part of “politricks”, and can be condemned, or at least mistrusted, as such. Also, local-level government, even with autonomy, tends to be run by the more privileged elites in regions or towns, continuing largely the inequality. Oppression of minority groups also remains part of that, as several political groups show, espousing more autonomy or independence, and having at the same time xenophobic agendas toward local foreigners. Examples? Vlaams Belang in Flandres, Belgium, The Lega Nord in Northern Italy. Also the Brexit movement has – more covert – anti-foreigner overtones.

It is therefore, in my opinion at least, somewhat hard to conclude whether a more or less centralized state – or organization for that matter - is good or bad. It is not that simple. Decentralization seems to suggest democratization, as it promises more say for the citizens over their direct environment, which can be seen as a human and civil right. That is: extending voting and political participation: not just for a distant central government, but also at the local level.


Spain’s situation is for European standards a bit problematic, because the current Catalonian issue was historically preceded by a movement for independence in the Basque country – elsewhere in Northern Spain - , now apparently satisfied with an increased degree of regional autonomy. Some other parts of Spain, such as Galicia, also knew such movements, with differing levels of support.

Spain became after the Franco dictatorship (ending in 1975), and perhaps because of that highly centralized Right-wing dictatorship up to 1975, since 1977, a federal state of sorts, divided in 17 “autonomous regions”, with differing degrees of autonomy. This depends on ethnic claims of belonging to a distinct historical nation. These claims are made by several groups within Spain: the Basques, the Catalans, and Galicians, all having own languages, cultural traditions, and partly own histories. Politicized these became “national identities”. These were however not histories “as independent from Spain” at some point conquered by the big power that is Spain, as some might wrongly assume..

In fact, from Spain’s early development as a state in the 8th c. AD, Basques, Galicians, and Catalans, formed constitutive parts of it, as these peoples joined forces against the Moorish/Islamic rulers that ruled in a large part of Iberia, between the 8th and 15th c.. They joined forces as Christian kingdoms (some aided from what is now France) to “reconquer” Spain and Portugal on the Islamic Moors, from the North. This took some centuries, but eventually, Christian kingdoms risen in the North of Spain, like Asturias and León (and Galicia), Castile, and Aragón and Catalonia, could conquer the rest of Spain. For that reason, the Galician language spread southward and became (with some changes) the still related Portuguese language. Likewise, the Catalan language spread to the Valencian region (where it developed into Valencian, linguistically strongly related to Catalan), and the Balearic islands. The language of the Castilians from around Cantabria, with also Basque influences, spread southward to central and southern parts of Spain.

Spanish writer José Camilo Cela even once said that “the Basques made Castile”, historically. There are quite some Basque loanwords in Castilian, some even commonly used (though not so much as there are Arabic/Moorish ones).

Somewhat ironic, maybe, how early kingdoms forming voluntarily a larger state, eventually resulted in regions wanting to become independent.


This is not that unique to Spain, or even Europe, however. It can be found on other continents as well. Ethiopia in Africa is a good example. Ethiopia was never really colonized by European powers, despite attempts, temporary conquest, or violations by Italy. Fascist Italy under Mussolini could conquer Ethiopia in the 1930s, but only for some years.

Ethiopia’s national borders are thus historically formed by local, indigenous rulers and kingdoms, following local warfare or competition, alliances and such, not unlike some European and Asian countries that never were colonized. Early Ethiopian emperors – when spreading their power geographically - soon came to rule over different surrounding, ethnic groups or “nations”, speaking different languages, with different cultures, and even religions. Several emperors were even of mixed ethnicity themselves. This joining of kingdoms, Christian ones too, is somewhat comparable to Spain’s history, also because it was partly opposed to upcoming and surrounding Islam.

Christianity has a long history in Ethiopia, even longer than in Spain or elsewhere in Europe. Early Christian rulers of the Tigray and Amhara people thus “conquered” and combined – or via intermarriage - a Christian-led country together, that luckily escaped European colonialism. To maintain this country, power became centralized, with the predominantly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Amhara people having relatively much influence within Ethiopia’s central government of, later, Addis Ababa. Also the Tigray people in Northern Ethiopia had historically quite some influence, to which early Emperors as Yohannes of Tigray descent attest.

Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, following thus on a long line of related monarchs. This followed after much conflict with competing groups or self-proclaimed heirs. After the necessary power play and warfare, Haile Selassie became, however, the legitimate heir to the throne of Ethiopia in 1930. Haile Selassie was partly of Amhara descent, but also partly of Oromo and Gurage descent, combining thus various ethnicities within him. This is not uncommon among the wider Ethiopian population, by the way. Emperors had to be Orthodox Christian, and also Selassie’s father, Ras Makonnen, was. Selassie’s father, an influential military leader in Ethiopia, was of Oromo descent. The Oromo are numerically the largest of the about 8 main ethnic groups within Ethiopia, and are in majority Muslim. These were however excluded from imperial rule, as Ethiopia defined itself as a Christian state, at least Christian-led.

This history explains the centralized rule, and reasons for it, in Ethiopia. Not just until the latest monarch, Haile Selassie, ruled, but also continuing after 1975, under Mengistu’s communist rule.


In the Dutch-language scholarly work ‘Afrika : van de Koude Oorlog naar de 21e eeuw’(‘Africa : from the Cold War to the 21th century ), published in 2002, and written by Roel van der Veen, the author pays some attention to decentralization by African governments. In this book on modern African history, Van Der Veen discusses of course the legacy of colonialism, and other aspects, resulting in weak or undemocratic, or even “failed” states and economies.

Van Der Veen defines this decentralization as intricately bound with democratization, allowing people to participate politically in their direct environment. Yet, he also points at possible negative outcomes in Africa, as more politicians at local levels also means more corruption or power abuse. He discusses Uganda as an example of decentralization to local government that went “relatively well”, starting under President Museveni since 1986. This was – according to him – not the case elsewhere in Africa. Problematic was also that in colonial times there was a type of “decentralization” in the form of indirect rule through local, traditional rulers, dictated by European colonial rule. This may have been decentral, but hardly “democratic”. Some postcolonial governments therefore sought other, democratizing ways for decentralization. According to Van Der Veen this was however seldom with much success, mostly due to corruption and inequality.

While the book by Roel van der Veen is moderate and quite neutral in tone, and with a healthy amount of nuance, its author allows himself a few “sweeping statements”, it seems. He states that, concluding: “the result of decentralization (in Africa) with regard to improving the living conditions of citizens were overall mediocre”. He also points out, on the other hand, that it helped increased democratization and participation, if only partly.

African countries were mostly divided according to the wishes of Europeans, separating ethno-linguistic groups over different states. This seems to increase both the difficulty and the need for decentralization, as part of effective and democratic rule.

The example of Spain and a few other European countries shows that it also occurs in states formed by the local people itself, “voluntarily”. The elites decided then mostly, of course, but they were local elites.

Ethiopia also was never really colonized, although influenced by European colonialism in its direct surroundings. It has now about 8 main ethno-linguistic groups, comprising a total of many more languages and quite differing ethnic groups. Especially after 1974, several separatist movements arose in different parts of Ethiopia, wishing secession for their ethnicity or nation, including Eritrea (eventually succeeding), but also in bordering Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, among the Oromo in Central and Southern Ethiopia, and among Somali people in the Ogaden dessert border area. Some of these are still active today.

All these felt “separate national identities” within states of course influence decentralization processes.


When talking about Africa as a whole and “central” or “decentral”, the history of Africa before colonialism and Arab and European slavery is also interesting.

In an earlier blog I mentioned how people from the Congo/Angola region was relatively strongly affected by slavery in the period between the 15th and 20th c., being relatively “easy pickings”. That’s why many enslaved Africans ending up in the West came from these regions (Congo, Angola), forcibly brought to North America, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. There are historic examples of opposition and heroic Angolan kings and queens resisting against the Portuguese and other Europeans, but eventually these Europeans got a stronghold.

One might be tempted to think that a strong centralized state or nation in Africa at that time, would better be able to ward off enslavement of their people by Europeans. After all, centralization supposes power.

Historically, this seems not to be really the case. As collaborators with European enslavers, some of such central states or kingdoms, with powerful rulers, even delivered slaves from other peoples – or even of their own ethnicity – to European traders. Precisely because of that power. The Ashanti kingdom, in present-day Ghana, was for instance powerful , but many slaves from there ended up in the West too.

In what is now Nigeria two main South-Nigerian ethnic groups, the Yoruba and Igbo, both were strongly affected by the slave trade, while the Yoruba and Igbo had at that time already quite different social and political structures: more central and urban in Yorubaland, more decentral and based on villages in Igboland. It seemed to not make much difference in their becoming victim, as both relatively many Yoruba- and Igbo-speaking slaves were brought forcibly to the West.

In the Americas, Yoruba ended up relatively much in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, and Trinidad, whereas among the slave population of Barbados, and to a smaller degree Jamaica and other English-speaking Caribbean islands, Igbo were quite numerous.


In other continents as Europe and Asia, centralization has showed or still showed its ugly head. Historically one can go back to the Roman Empire, as super-centralized, Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitious conquests and Paris-based empire, and certainly the Fascist dictatorships in Italy under Mussolini and the Nazi’s in Germany. Being totalitarian regimes, these limited internal autonomy, but as known also bothered the rest of the world with it.

The current Chinese government also aims at total control over far-away regions and its many citizens, with little space for self-rule or autonomy. The oppression in Tibet, formally a part of China, also shows this.


The dictatorship of Franco in Spain (1939-1975) was loosely based on the one earlier by Mussolini in Italy, with some general Fascist traits, but had some differences as well, modeled further on conservative Catholic ideals or simply “the old order” of old, united Spain. It was quite centralized in the capital Madrid. This made Madrid for some regions – perhaps against better knowledge – as the centre of Spain’s Fascistoid Franco rule. Ironically, however, Madrid was one of the last cities to be conquered by Franco’s Right in the preceding Civil War. A bit later than Catalonia too. Franco’s aim was “centralization” of Francoism, not “Madridization” of Spain, as some independentists erroneously present it. Franco himself was not from Madrid, but from Galicia. The Galician language, that he knew how to speak too, was outlawed in his native Galicia. Perhaps also ironic too, though some Spaniards thought that he was secretly less strict in suppressing Galician than other minority languages. One of the ironies of centralization., as well as privileges of being a dictator.

In Spain, therefore, decentralization, and regional autonomy-granting, accompanied the democratization process, necessary in Spain after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Longer, historical demands and promises for autonomy of groups like the Basques, Catalans, Galicians and others were fulfilled through not only granting certain regions within Spain autonomy, but by dividing the whole country in 17 autonomous regions, with differing degrees of political autonomy, rendering this way a federal state. Spain now can be considered a federal state.

There is some sense in it, I opine, and differs from Italy, where only certain regions have autonomy, the rest not. The nation-wide federal approach seemed more balanced, if also a potential source for conflict. I see its democratic value, also for culture, but can also imagine scenarios of unnecessary separation or tribalism, at the cost of solidarity.

The way this world is, the separatist conflicts in Spain related more to money than to culture or sensed identity. Not fully, though. Basque and Catalan separatist movements both championed cultural and linguistic differences, and some even, more dubious, genetic reasons. Dubious both morally (a “purer” or “more European” race?), as well as scientifically.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is the region within Spain with the highest degree of local autonomy in government. That’s where my objections lie, against the separatist call of some Catalans: they are already privileged. Thinking further: why are they more special than other “ethnic groups” within Spain. There is something like a Catalan identity and culture, with own interesting traits, most present in Catalonia proper, but much less already in Valencia or the Balearic Islands, despite linguistic ties. Interestingly, the Catalan language is strongly related to the Provençal languages in Southern France, where they only remain as dialects, showing also a historical focus and choice for centralization within France, up to the present.

There are, however, other cultures and languages within Spain. When I went to Galicia in NW Spain I noticed that the Galician language was dominantly present even in some bigger towns, heard as least as much as Castilian, often more. Galicia has furthermore an own Celtic-based culture, including bagpipes and harps, as does Asturias. Others, like the Andalusians (with e.g. a distinct, South-Spanish Flamenco culture and Moorish influences), the Aragónese, Murcians, or Canarians, sense but actually also have an own identity and culture.

I agree that regional languages should be used if the speakers of it wish so, also in political affairs, and be thus official, or co-official languages. This by itself good and democratic fact is however already the case for the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages. Beyond that, the “cultural identity” issue is more vague and biased, I find.

My main objection is however the lacking socioeconomic solidarity. Virtually every country has wealthier regions within it, helping thus out poorer, less-developed regions in the same state. Through, well, centralization or centralized rule. Lombardy, Piemonte, and Veneto are examples of wealthy, industrialized Italian regions, in which many find they subsidize the poorer Southern parts of Italy. Not always objecting to it, though. I spoke to several Northern Italians (including my own father) who understood or even appreciated that rich Northern Italy, with wealth levels comparable to countries like Switzerland and Germany, helped out poorer, rural parts of Italy (with wealth levels like Spain or Greece).

This lacking economic solidarity along with ethnic “special statuses”, makes the separatist movement and call of Catalonia less ”Left-wing” or democratic in the broad sense, than what Pavlov reactions to “wanting independence” (from former world power Spain!), might have us assume.


Somewhat concluding, I think “bigger picture” is a key term here. Focussing on ruling very local affairs, one might become too short-sighted, and forget the wider world around, dealing just with small, daily or petty issues. Issues that touches one personally or “one’s people” get mainly, almost self-involved attention. That has a place in each human life, of course, but must not impede something like (international/interregional) solidarity with humans farther away from the direct environment, that might be worse off. Or a wider consciousness.

In the Netherlands there were, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, municipal elections in March, 2018. In Dutch law, foreign nationals (especially of EU countries) are allowed to vote, but not for the national elections. Whatever the formulated or public “democracy-enhancing” rationale, it remains skewed in my opinion: foreigners need (read: should) not interfere with national, “bigger” affairs, but can with local affairs, that however stem from national choices. Directly or indirectly. Ultimately national policy directions determine the choice for building a car park in a nature area in some town or municipality.

That is a partial lack of democracy, covered up with “decentralization”, similar to what can be found in certain socialist and other dictatorships (so-called democratic workers’ groups, neighbourhood political committees etcetera).

When I was in Cuba in the period 2001-2006, I heard about, and even noticed the activities of, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR), translateable as: Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Most neighbourhoods I went had one, suggesting local involvement in politics, at the neighbourhood level.

Down the line, I noticed and learned that the “Defence” part of these neighbourhood CDRs consisted mostly of “political snitching”, and also often had corrupt (bribing, favouritism) aspects. One must think of reporting to powerful local forces (police or politicians) about a Cuban woman taking foreigners home, having intimate affairs with them, possibly related to prostitution, Cubans of both genders just befriending foreigners, or buying and selling products from the Black market, listening to foreign news or music etcetera etcetera. The CDR in the neighbourhood could report such people to authorities, thereby helping the Revolution at the neighbourhood level. Or so they say..

Centralization or decentralization: a complicated and contextual issue..

zaterdag 3 maart 2018

Clock Is Babylon?

There is an interesting opening line of a song by Spanish “Flamenco Pop” singer called Chiquetete, a song called Aprende a Soñar (Learn To Dream), saying that ”Let the passing of time be detained only in the sphere of the clock”. I mentioned this lyric in another blog essay of mine, of May 2017 (on Dream meanings, in Reggae). I found that line quite original, even more in a genre (commercialized Flamenco Pop) that often can be a bit cliché and mainstream.


There's more to say about "the clock". Jokingly, I once said – perhaps only “half jokingly” – that the inventor of “the clock” was the world’s first terrorist. Elsewhere (for a lyric of one of my prospective songs) I said: “Clock is Babylon, but Jah Jah is still time”. Babylon as “Western oppressive system” is a term in Rastafari culture that has a negative connotation, and that is how I meant it. Everything about the clock has to do with control, and limiting humanity and naturality.

Still, you might say: it is handy, in order to organize one’s life in modern societies. Yet, the clock serves a “system”, ultimately, rather than humans as such. There is something about it that goes against the “free spirit” in all of us. It is also a detachment from nature. For time-keeping, though, of course man has since early on used the position of the sun, moon, water flows etcetera, as guidelines for daily organization. Water clocks have a particularly long history.


Studying it a bit, one will find that water clocks, wherein water flows were used to measure time, were one of the oldest documented, organizational “time keepers” in human society, with such “water clocks” dating back to ancient China, Babylon, and Egypt, even – according to some – as far back as 4000 BC, to China. Also, the use of sun and shadow has a long history.

Since then, over time , other “inventions” were made, all aimed at time-keeping, and a need for increased precision and accuracy. As societies became more “advanced”, supposedly. The first “mechanical clock” was invented in Europe in the 13th c.

Its significance is described in Wikipedia as such:

The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon's shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to periodic oscillatory processes, such as the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal,[5][64] which had the potential for more accuracy. All modern clocks use oscillation”.

This seemingly factual, scientific description does, however, raise some philosophical questions, in my opinion.

After 1656 yet another increase in accuracy came with the invention of the “pendulum clock”, credited mainly to Dutchman Christiaan Huygens. This invention became influential. The pendulum clock became widely used in Europe for centuries after that.

Increased precision and accuracy – or modernization -, finally, came with more developments and inventions, such as of the electric clock around 1840, and still later quartz and digital clocks.

The 12-hour cycle goes, according to historians, all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, a precursor of the historical Babylon.


The accurate time-keeping through mechanical clocks is thus mainly an European invention. This by itself raises several philosophical questions, somewhat obscured in the modern-day slavery of wage labour in the Western world. The same world wherein spending 40 hours a week for someone else- albeit payed, and in some parts of the world some protective labourers’ rights – is considered normal, or, at most, a necessary evil.

Especially, the lost link to naturality is interesting. For modern-day clocks “oscillation” ( as opposed to continuity) is apparently the name of the game.


This is also relevant to the way I want to approach this issue now: through lyrics in Reggae music. In my blog I focus relatively often on Reggae, but it also is a genre with relatively much “socially conscious” or spiritual lyrics, partly related to its relations to the Black Power movement, Afro-Caribbean history, and the Rastafari movement.


The Rastafari movement is broadly defined, (by Mutabaruka) as a ”Black Power movement with a theological nucleus”, with Marcus Garvey as main philosopher, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as main revered or divine person. This makes their faith centered on the African homeland and Ethiopia, rather than on European historical manipulations of Christianity, imposed on African populations.

There are other aspects of the Rastafari movement too, though. Notably, a specific “natural” lifestyle, mostly referred to as “Livity”. Most Rastafari adherents try to uphold this as much as possible, including through a vegan-based, natural, unprocessed diet, and living in balance with nature. This is a way to stay far from what Rastafari adherenteds (Rastas) call “Babylon”, the corrupting Western economic system, going against original Africanness.

As outlined before, the very invention of the mechanical clock – in Europe! – went against the principles of nature-based time-keeping, used before. A friction or conflict with the natural lifestyle upheld by Rastas seems therefore reasonable to assume.

How is “the clock” mentioned in Reggae lyrics, broadly speaking? In relation to “time” or “life” for instance.. This especially in Rastafari-influenced Reggae lyrics.

Well, having knowledge from decades of being a reggae fan, I became somewhat of an expert, albeit regarding some subgenres a bit more than others.


While in Rock & Roll you have Rock Around The Clock as one of its classics, there are few known reggae songs with it in its title. An exception is Jackie Edwards’ nice Clock On The Wall (1977), which is in fact critical of the Clock as indicator of modern-day slavery in the form of low-wage labour.

More well-known, also from 1977, is Bob Marley & the Wailers fine tune Rebel Music (3 o’clock Roadblock), with clock in the subtitle, also figuring as negative. Now the clock figures as enabler of corrupted state forces or police, suppressing unjustly a natural herb. The clock here is used too, well, to oppress others.

Another song is also quite classic: Mutabaruka’s De System, where –again – the clock, formulated as “the pendulum swings” figures as negative, in this case as indicative of time pressures affecting those in poverty (“What a day when the pendulum swing. What a day when the well run dry..”).

The same Mutabaruka, on the same Check It! album from 1981, opposes (immigrant) Black Jamaican culture to the White English one, by relating in the song “White Man Country”, about that white man country: “hey mate, it’s getting late”.. This is also a more subtle reference to the clock’s terror.

The anecdotical stereotype about Black Caribbean people tending to arrive late (in relation to “clock time”, that is), points also as such a cultural unease. So do the Caribbean variants of the Spanish (likewise anecdotical and sterotypical) “mañana” (tomorrow!) saying of delaying stressful responsibilities, namely the Jamaican current expressions: “Soon Come” (meaning: but not now) and “later will be greater”.


Yet, I wonder: isn’t this unease rather universal? Are there actually cultures which like, love, or revere the clock? Stereotypes about “precise” and stipt Swiss or Germans point at this direction. This seems to be a marker of industrialized countries, to a degree also of Britain, as early industrialized capitalist country.

The country of my maternal roots, Spain, has, as said, a “mañana” culture, as well as a “siesta” pause in the afternoon, as other warm countries. The latter seek to avoid – or rather: subvert - “the clock” from within , playing with it, to one’s own favour.

It is known from Amerindian cultures, but also cultures in Asia and Africa, that social organization was more collective, also time-wise, deciding when gathered together when the “time is ripe” for something. No clock was/is necessary in such an organic process.

Timekeeping is essential in music, but is not the same as the “clock”. While the musical metronome functions like the pendulum, as the first mechanical clocks, its function in rhythmic and continuous, rather than limiting and closing.

The 3 or 4 minute standard length of many pop songs, became often the norm in Black music genres like Soul, Reggae, Funk etcetera too, though with exceptions. This has its advantages, for the listener, but also artistically: the time-frame makes you round off a song or artistic work as a closed piece of art. Traditional music, also in Africa, long did not have such a fixed timing. Many percussive traditional African songs, for instance, lasted as long as “the vibe” was right, or as long as an entire ritual.

This all goes to show that “clock time” went in tandem with (Western) industrialization historically. The same industrialization starting in Britain historically, and financed to a large degree with Britain’s colonial and slavery gains. Indirectly, thus, clock time is “tainted” for the Black – and also poor – people in this world. They then seek ways to escape it, or get around it.

The stereotype about Spaniards, and similar ones about other South Europeans, notably South Italians and Greeks, relates to this too: poor people – the laboring classes - trying to subvert oppressive systems, with often low wages. Spain was up to the 1970s also a Fascistoid, and at the same time “pro-employer” dictatorship, where poor workers had less rights and protection than elsewhere in Europe.

My Spanish mother had to experience this, as she worked (or tried to work) in Franco-ruled, Fascist Spain in her young years in the 1960s, and around 1966 came to the Netherlands, with more agreeable and “democratic” labour conditions and rights. My mother, and some of my aunts who also migrated, described it as such: you were treated by employers and bosses in Spain then as servant or footstool, treated with the same disdain as toward poor street beggars coming a bit too close. Even basic, distant politeness was often absent. Spanish immigrants to the Netherlands therefore even were genuinely surprised when bosses offered them politely a cup of coffee, or when new workers received a bouquet of flowers at their first workday..

In response to such Spanish labour conditions, low-wage Spanish workers (in tourism or elsewhere) came to develop even more strongly a “mañana mañana” (tomorrow, tomorrow) focus, escaping the clock guiding this repressive system.

Also, South Italians, feeling suppressed and treated as a colony by wealthy (and industrialized) North Italy – also historically – have according to many that “Siesta attitude”. Again, historically understandable. As it is in Black Caribbean culture, with the latter having moreover a history of mechanized, dehumanizing chattel slavery of Africans.


Much more reggae songs have the word “Time” in their title, and even more in the lyrics themselves. Time Will Tell, as philosophical and historical reflection. Rocking Time, Time To Unite, Jah Time Has Come, Revelation Time, Time Is The Master and Judgement Time (judgement of wicked oppressors) recur as terms, especially in (Rastafari-inspired) Roots Reggae. Here “time” is deliberately detached from ”the clock”, but seen as broader “continuity” and history. Pointing at the eternal, rather than at limited daily, mundane tasks controlled by the clock.

When I went to Jamaica in 2006 and 2008, I noticed that – apparently a colonial British heritage – each town had a central clocktower, generally at central squares. This points at the importance ascribed to the literal “clock”, even beyond churches and their services. The funny thing was, however, that in a few towns where I saw such a central, quite prominent “clock”, they did not work, or indicated the wrong time. This would, I imagine, not last too long, and would have been corrected immediately, in wealthy countries like the Netherlands, Germany, or Britain.


A study of the clock’s history shows indeed its inherent and supportive role in the Western unequal economic system. Maybe indeed “the clock is Babylon”, while the poor and oppressed try to resist this by focusing on time and eternity. Or on natural timekeepers (the sun, for instance).

A few nice examples from reggae lyrics:

I am not rich, but the sun shines for me” (Gregory Isaacs, Sun Shines For Me).


A foolish tongue is only for a moment, and Righteousness is an everlasting foundation” (Wailing Souls, A Fool Will Fall)

A Marcus Garvey quote says, in addition, “The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.” This points also in that direction.

To summarize shortly: the clock is not celebrated within Reggae lyrics, and is even a negative force. A necessary evil at most, opposed to time and eternity – or “life”, wherein true redemption lay. And perhaps even true happiness..

donderdag 1 februari 2018

Conga (of Tumbadora?)

Het woord “conga” heeft internationaal - in meerdere talen - een zekere bekendheid. Het woord wordt in ieder geval toegepast op een bepaald muziekinstrument, een trommel, en ook als zodanig herkend. Het woord is als zodanig bekend in het Engels, Frans, Nederlands, Italiaans, Duits en Portugees. De term “conga” voor het instrument heeft zelfs het Mandarijn, Kantonees, en Japans gehaald. Verder ook het Hindi, waarin het als “Kaanga” uitgesproken wordt. In het Esperanto is het woord er als “la kunga”, merkwaardig genoeg. In het Arabisch klinkt het als “al koenecha”. Enigszins enigmatisch werd “conga” in het Tsjechisch Konfu, en het klinkt als “kongoewe” in het Servisch (dat het cyrillisch schrift gebruikt), en als “konguyu” in het Turks. Maar ik dwaal nogal af..

De bekendheid van het begrip is derhalve breed, zelfs internationaal dus, maar moet ook weer niet overdreven worden. Niet iedereen is even veel met percussie of muziek bezig, dus het komt nog weleens voor dat conga’s (foutief) als “bongos” aangeduid worden – zowel in het Engels, Frans, als het Nederlands heb ik die fout horen maken -, of nogal algemeen als “trommel”, of als deel van percussie. Zelfs “tom tom’s” is weleeens gezegd over conga’s.

Ik durf de stelling, desalniettemin, wel aan dat de conga wereldwijd één van de bekendste percussie-instrumenten is, in ieder geval in de Westerse wereld. Vaak ook een “startinstrument” voor aspirant-percussionisten. Dit deels vanwege de link naar de Westerse popmuziek, ooit vanuit “latin” muziek, eerst gelegd in de Verenigde Staten, en voorzichtig uitgebreid in de Jazz, en Rhythm & Blues vanaf ongeveer 1950.


De conga als instrument is echter ontstaan in Cuba, en was deel van de Afro-Cubaanse cultuur voordat het internationaler bekend werd als instrument. Daar zit een heel, complex verhaal achter – die verspreiding van de conga’s. Dit is extra interessant, naar mijn mening, omdat het verhaal ervan, in zekere zin, ook het verhaal van zwarte muziek in de Amerika’s is.

Voor velen zal deze laatste, vergaande stelling wellicht wat uitleg vereisen. Is het niet specifiek een Cubaans instrument? Ja en nee. Het is ontstaan in Cuba, maar gebaseerd op Afrikaanse modellen, onder Afrikanen die tot slaaf gebracht waren in Cuba. Met name de Makuta trommel, met een gelijkende vorm, uit het gebied van Congo en omliggend Bantu-sprekend gebied in Centraal-Afrika, wordt als een directe voorloper gezien.

Deze Makuta trommels waren al een tijd in Cuba in gebruik, voordat de conga als zodanig zich ontwikkelde in Cuba, in de loop van de vroege 20ste eeuw. De Rumba als genre bestond al eerder (al rond 1900), maar werd eerst op een soort “dozen” gespeeld, een soort voorlopers van de huidige “cajón”. Het verbod op trommels vanuit staatswege – of het tegenwerken van trommelgebruik -, hinderde de ontwikkeling ervan, net als elders in het Caraïbisch gebied. De Son, uit Oost-Cuba, kende eerst vooral als trommels de kleinere maar dubbele “bongo’s”, met net als de conga een open onderkant, en eveneens Centraal-Afrikaanse wortels, maar in Cuba als zodanig gevormd.

Zeker sinds ongeveer 1930 werd de conga al algemener gebruikt in Afro-Cubaanse muziek, waaronder de Rumba, en andere Afro-Cubaanse genres, zoals de Son uit Oost-Cuba. Soms naast andere percussie-instrumenten en trommels. Dit kon vanaf toen “openlijker” in de populaire cultuur. De deels Congolese/Centraal-Afrikaanse wortels van de Son muziekstijl, dat steeds populairder werd in Cuba vanaf 1920 – en later sterk salsa zou beïnvloeden – leek goed te passen bij het Conga instrument, met ook Congolese roots.


Die Congolese roots hoor je ook aan de naam “Conga” (oud-Spaans voor “uit Congo”)..zou je zeggen. De ironie is echter dat hoewel een van de bekendste Cubaanse muziekinstrumenten, de ”conga” niet bekend staat onder die naam in Cuba zelf. Het muziekinstrument Conga heet daar “Tumbadora”.

Conga is in Cuba de naam van een soort dans, deel van een parade tijdens carnaval. Een Conga is in Cuba de naam voor zo’n parade met weliswaar verbonden muziekgenres en instrumenten. Zowel in Havana als in Santiago de Cuba (de tweede stad in Oost-Cuba) ontwikkelde zich een rijke carnavaltraditie, vergelijkbaar met die van Rio de Janeiro, met gaandeweg ook een sterk stempel van de Afro-Cubaanse cultuur en folklore. Hoe dan ook, de conga als instrument verscheen ook tijdens zulke carnavalparade’s voor het eerst in de jaren 30 van de 20e eeuw, toen als noviteit, maar goed passend bij de andere trommels. Het verschijnen in de Conga parades van (onder meer!) deze Tumbadoras (conga’s in andere talen dus), heeft de begripsverwarring buiten Cuba mogelijk veroorzaakt.

Een andere oorzaak van dat laatste kan zijn de “deel wordt geheel” fout, die wel vaker taalkundig wordt gemaakt, bijvoorbeeld ook in geografische begrippen. Conga’s hebben verschillende maten, en die van middengrootte staat ook wel bekend als “conga” (Tumbadora conga), de kleine als “quinto”, en de grote bijvoorbeeld als “salidor” (naast andere namen, als Tumba).


Vóór de Cubaanse Revolutie die Fidel Castro aan de macht bracht in 1959, waren er nog veel, gemakkelijke betrekkingen tussen Cuba en de nabijgelegen Verenigde Staten. Cuba was dan ook “onafhankelijk” geworden van Spanje in 1892, na de Spaans-Amerikaanse oorlog, waarbij de VS in naam Cuba hielp tegen Spanje, maar uiteindelijk de macht overnamen. Militair, maar ook na 1892 en de “officiële” onafhankelijkheid. Wellicht gemankeerde onafhankelijk, want ingrijpen van de VS bleef wettelijk verankerd bij een “ongewenste regering”, als ware Cuba toch nog een soort puppet state. Ook deze constructie en verhouding zorgde natuurlijk voor veel “verkeer” tussen Cuba en de Verenigde Staten. Ook cultureel.

De VS politici die macht uitoefenden in Cuba na 1892 waren veelal blanken uit de zuidelijke staten van de VS, vaak met een racistische “Jim Crow”-mentaliteit, komend uit een wereld van segregatie en achterstelling van zwarten in de VS. Dit werd deels voortgezet in Cuba, waarbij blanke Cubanen ook bevoordeeld werden, en onder de Amerikanen vooral de politiek en cultuur domineerden. De meer gemengde Cubaanse samenleving hield dat echter ook deels tegen, of gaf het een eigen draai in Cuba. Met de tijd veranderde het ook, en werd bijvoorbeeld trommelen steeds meer toegestaan, en Afro-Cubaanse in het algemeen cultuur meer ruimte gegeven, met name vanaf ongeveer 1930. Reizende jazzmusici uit de VS kwamen er op Cuba mee in contact, en zo ontstond een muzikaal contact. Meerdere Cubaanse muzikanten reisden of emigreerden ook naar de VS na 1930, waaronder bekende percussionisten en conga-spelers.


Dan komen we bij twee Cubaanse muzikanten uit die bij de ontwikkeling van de conga in muziek cruciaal waren. Arsenio Rodríguez en Chano Pozo. De eerste, Rodríguez, was de eerste die bij Son-formaties conga’s (Tumbadoras) toevoegde, en een soort standaard-format voor de Cubaanse populaire “big band” tot stand bracht. Met dus die conga’s. Dit was rond 1940. Voor het eerst werd de conga “standaard” in populaire muziek. Dat bleef het. Arsenio Rodríguez was een blinde muzikant en bandleider, speelde vooral de tres gitaar, en was van Afrikaanse (ook Congolese) afkomst. Hij had veel invloed in Cubaanse muziek.

Hoewel er meerdere vroege congueros (Conga-spelers) waren, is met name Chano (van Luciano) Pozo ook zeker van belang. Vooral vanwege het punt dat ik met dit essay wil maken. Chano Pozo (geboren in 1915) was namelijk een van die Cubaanse muzikanten die naar de VS, New York, emigreerde, en wel in de 1940s. Hij was toen al een ervaren conga-speler, en kwam via Mario Bauzá – een Cubaanse muzikant al wat meer gesetteld in de VS- in contact met Dizzy Gillespie. Deze jazzartiest Gillespie experimenteerde graag met Afro-Caraïbsche en Afro-Braziliaanse muziek als uitbreiding van zijn jazz-universum, toen zich bewegende richting het vrijere, improviserende “Bebop”. Hij wilde een Cubaanse conga-speler toevoegen aan zijn band en dat werd dus Chano Pozo. Pozo trad voor het eerst op met Gillespie in 1947. Dit was eigenlijk voor het eerst in de wereld van de jazz. Conga-spelers in de VS waren daarvoor eigenlijk alleen bezig binnen Cubaanse muziekgenres, of als deel van reizende Cubaanse gezelschappen, maar in ieder geval in Cubaanse genres. In Dizzy Gillespie’s jazzband hadden conga’s nu echter ook een plaats, en werden nu bekender buiten Cubaanse genres.

Je zou kunnen zeggen dat Dizzy Gillespie de conga’s, en daarmee deels Afro-Cubaanse muziekgenres, introduceerde binnen zwarte genres in de VS, en daarmee uiteindelijk de popmuziek, via Rhythm & Blues en Funk. Die invloed bleef. Denk aan het latere gebruik van conga’s bij James Brown en Motown, om maar wat te noemen. Afro-Cubaanse muziek beinvloedde eerder echter al de jazz in New Orleans, zoals ik in een eerder blogbericht al schreef. Gillespie consolideerde dat wel zogezegd, via Pozo en de conga’s in zijn band, en eerdere contacten met Cubaanse musici. Pozo was co-auteur van twee nummers bij Gillespie, het bekende Manteca, en Tin Tin Deo.

Het nummer Manteca, uit 1947, is een klassieker in meer dan een opzicht. Een van de bekendere nummers van Dizzy Gillespie (samen met bijvoorbeeld Night In Tunesia). Het wordt zelfs beschouwd als grondleggende song in de Afro-Cuban Jazz, en was de eerste song, ritmisch gebaseerd op de “clave” (zie verderop in deze tekst) die een jazz-standaard werd. Zelfs hen met slechts vage kennis van de Jazz zouden het nummer best weleens gehoord kunnen hebben.

Helaas overleed Chano Pozo al jong, na zo’n jaar met Gillespie gewerkt te hebben, namelijk in december, 1948. Dit was in de Rio Bar in Harlem, New York. Pozo kreeg naar verluidt ruzie met een Puerto Ricaan, ene El Cabito, die hij ervan beschuldigde hem slechte of eigenlijk “nep” marijuana te hebben verkocht. Deze Cabito nam hardhandig revanche, en vermoordde uiteindelijk Pozo. Chano Pozo werd slechts 33 jaar oud, maar had dus zeker muzikale invloed gehad.


Dan kom ik bij een van de interessantste dingen die ik de laatste tijd heb gelezen. Naar mijn mening, maar dat spreekt vanzelf. In het boek ‘Cuba and its Music : From the First Drums to the Mambo’ (Chicago Review Press, 2004), door Ned Sublette, schrijft deze laatste over de tijd van Chano Pozo bij Dizzy Gillespie sinds 1947. Hoe twee “muziekculturen” elkaar troffen. De Afro-Cubaanse aan de ene kant, en de (VS) African-American aan de andere kant. Allebei te vatten onder de generieke term “zwarte muziek”, maar met essentiële onderlinge muzikale verschillen. Gillespie wilde ook wat “nieuws” toevoegen aan zijn muziek, en niet iemand die paste binnen een vooropgelegd kader. Chano Pozo en zijn Cubaanse conga’s konden blijkbaar aan die experimenteerwens voldoen.

Het genoemde boek van Ned Sublette is overigens deels een basis voor mij, voor dit artikel.


Die verschillen binnen “zwarte muziek” in de Amerika’s – muziek van de Afrikaanse Diaspora dus – vind ik een interessant thema, dat ik dan ook vaker behandeld heb op mijn (dit) blog. Onder meer in Ned Sublette’s boek, is dat een belangrijk thema, maar ook bij andere auteurs, en bij historici en antropologen in de sociale wetenschappen. Zoals in de “Black” of “Africana Studies”, zoals dat in sommige landen – de VS – als academische discipline bestaat, bijvoorbeeld. In Nederland bestaat dat niet als academische discipine, vooral omdat de “poortwachters” in wetenschappelijke kringen, ook wat betreft de studie van zwarte, Caraïbische thema's, of de Afrikaanse diaspora, vooral nog blanke Nederlanders zijn. Ook cultureel en politiek, blijkbaar.


Het heeft namelijk te maken met het verleden van kolonialisme, de slavenhandel van Afrikanen naar de West door de verschillende koloniale mogendheden, en de verschillen daartussen. De kolonisering van de Amerika’s begon uiteraard met de “ontdekking” van de Amerika’s in 1492 door Christopher Columbus, Genuees (en kort vóór 1492 nog residerend in Portugal), maar in Spaanse dienst. De “nieuwe” gebieden werden geclaimd door Spanje, deels hardhandig veroverd, en de aanwezige Amerindianen tot slaaf gebracht. Het zware werk, mishandeling, en meegebrachte ziekten zorgden echter voor snel vele doden onder hen, en genocidale gevolgen. Spanje begon toen Afrikaanse slaven in te voeren, naar verluidt naar Portugees voorbeeld. Portugezen handelden al eerder in tot slaaf gemaakte zwarte Afrikanen langs de Afrikaanse kusten, en ook Arabieren en Moren voor hen deden dat.

Deze geschiedenis is verder bekend, of zou dat in ieder geval moeten zijn. Die slavenhandel en slavernij van Afrikanen in de West breidde zich uit, ook nadat andere Europese landen gebieden gingen claimen en veroveren op de Spanjaarden en Portugezen. Zo ontstonden er Britse, Franse, Nederlandse, en zelfs Deense koloniën (wat nu de US Virgin Islands zijn) in de Amerika’s. van verschillende omvang, en waarvan sommigen heel erg slavernij-gefocust waren.

Die verschillende mogendheden haalden Afrikanen voor slavenwerk grotendeels uit verschillende delen van Afrika, in verschillende perioden. Er was een beleid wat betreft Cuba om slaven uit niet-Islamitisch beinvloede delen van Afrika te halen: Centraal en “tropisch woud” Afrika. Dit leek deels bewust beleid om culturele of religieuze redenen van de in naam Christelijke Spanjaarden. Deze laatsten waren overigens – ironisch genoeg – zelf wel Islamitisch beïnvloed, gedurende de Moorse periode in Iberië. Daarnaast waren de meer sedentair levende Afrikanen in het gebied van Congo en Angola, cynisch gezegd, “easy pickings” (makkelijk te verkrijgen), ook door vroege toegang van Portugal tot Angola. Relatief veel Afrikanen uit het gebied van Congo en Angola kwamen derhalve in Spaanse en Portugeze koloniën als Cuba en Brazilië terecht. Daarnaast ook relatief veel Afrikanen uit het Yoruba gebied (ZW Nigeria en Benin).

De Britten hadden weer meer toegang tot slaven in andere delen van wat nu Nigeria, zoals de Igbo en Ijaw gebieden, in Kameroen, en Ghana. Deels ook Senegambia en het Guinea-gebied. De Fransen hadden vooral veel toegang tot slaven uit wat nu Benin is, en omliggende gebieden als Togo en Ivoorkust, en ook deels Senegambia en de Sahel-gebieden rond Guinea. De Nederlanders ook relatief wat meer in Ghana, en ook wel Angola.


Deze relatieve verschillen hadden uiteraard invloed op de cultuur die de Afrikanen meebrachten en nog deels konden behouden in verschillende delen van de Amerika’s. Een pijnlijke geschiedenis ligt erachter, maar muzikaal heeft het leerzame en interessante gevolgen gehad.

Vrijwel in elke kolonie in de Amerika’s met slavernij van Afrikanen, kwamen deze Afrikanen uit verschillende delen van Afrika, maar met concentraties. Deze kennis is wat wijder verspreid – ook onder het “gewone volk” in de gebieden zeg maar, hoewel wat versimpeld en soms wat verdraaid. Derhalve was er relatief veel Dahomey/Benin invloed onder Afrikanen in Haïti, van Twi-sprekende Afrikanen uit het gebied van Ghana in Jamaica, en enkele andere plekken, zoals Suriname. Igbo kwamen iets meer op Jamaica en andere eilanden, vooral Barbados, terecht.

In Cuba zowel relatief veel Afrikanen met een Yoruba achtergrond, maar ook veel met een Congo achtergrond. In Brazilië – deels gelijkend - ook veel Yoruba, maar ook veel met een Angola achtergrond.

De VS ontving relatief veel Afrikanen uit het Sahel, Guinea (Mande-sprekend) gebied, en Senegambia, hoewel verschillend per staat.

Dit alles had invloed op de cultuur en ontwikkeling van de zwarte muziek in deze gebieden, en de dominante Afrikaanse invloeden daarbinnen. Dat lijkt nogal vanzelfsprekend. Evenwel zijn de implicaties ervan wat minder bekend.


Kort en wat simpel gezegd: dat hele idee van “swing” in de zwarte muziek in de VS is een erfenis uit “Griot Afrika”, de grotendeels Mande-sprekende, Sahel-gebieden van Senegal tot Guinee en Mali, en tot noordelijk Nigeria. Delen van zwart Afrika, maar met veel Islamitische en Arabische invloeden,en met veel “snaarinstrumenten”, en wat minder “trommels” dan zuidelijker in Afrika. Zoals overal in sub-Saharaans Afrika is “ritme” belangrijk in de muziek in dit gebied, maar minder “polyritmisch” en enkelvoudiger. Deze Griot muziek had een duidelijke invloed op wat we nu kennen als de Blues, wat zelfs de relatieve leek makkelijk kan horen. Het idee van “swingen” rond de tel van een maat kan moeilijk los worden gezien van de karakteristieken van snaarinstrumenten.


Afro-Cubaanse muziek had weer iets andere invloeden en wortels. Ritmisch op een andere, veelzijdigere manier, en gevormd door Afrikanen waarvan de muziek vooral gedomineerd werd door trommels en andere percussie, en “polyritmische”muziek (meerdere ritmes tegelijk , rond een basis “sleutelmaat”, of in het Spaans: “clave”). Dit vormde Afro-Cubaanse genres als de Son, Rumba, en uiteindelijk de Afro-Cubaans gebaseerde Salsa. In Brazilië onder meer de bekende Samba. Noten/slagen zijn bij deze clave polyritmiek “straight”op de tel, op de achtste noten. Maar dan dus met meer ritmes tegelijk.

Son en Rumba dragen duidelijk een “Congo-stempel”, hoewel met name in de Rumba ook ander invloeden niet onbelangrijk waren. In deze culturele context in Cuba verscheen dus ook de conga als belangrijk percussie-instrument. Eerst in Rumba, kort erop ook in Son, en daarmee ook in Mambo, en de Salsa. De Salsa is muzikaal gezien vooral gebaseerd op Afro-Cubaanse muziek, met name Son, met ook Rumba-invloeden. De term Salsa dook voor eigenlijk Cubaanse muziek op in de 1960s in New York. Conga’s werden toen al enkele decennia gebruikt in Cubaanse muziek in Cuba zelf, en dus ook in de 1950s in Latin Jazz, of door Latin beïnvloede jazz, zoals van Gillespie.

De term “Salsa” voor het muziekgenre is vaag, en onderwerp van discussie. Weliswaar is het ontstaan in een omgeving met veel Puerto Ricanen (New York), en andere Spaanstaligen (Dominicanen e.a.), en heeft dat invloed gehad, maar de muzikale structuur bleef vooral Cubaans-gebaseerd. Veel bekende Salsa-artiesten en muzikanten waren Puerto Ricaans (Tito Puente e.a.), en beïnvloedden zo Salsa deels. Salsa werd voorts populair in heel Latijns-Amerika, waar ook Salsa artiesten opkwamen, soms ook met internationale faam (Sergio Blades uit Panama, of Oscar D’Leon uit Venezuela).

In de Salsa waren de Conga’s vanaf het begin een belangrijk instrument, als belangrijke “drager” van het ritme. Drumstellen zoals we die in popmuziek kennen, waren in het begin niet gangbaar, dus de rol ervan ging naar andere trommels.

De link van de conga met andere niet-Latin of Cubaans-gebaseerde genres in de VS was toen (na 1960) echter allang gelegd, via Jazz, Latin Jazz, en later ook Soul en Funk. In Motown producties waren vaak conga’s te horen, vaker dan andere Cubaanse percussie (af en toe bongo’s, raspen wat minder), in het werk van James Brown en Curtis Mayfield e.a.


Dat maakt de term “conga” (oud-Spaans voor “Congolees”) voor de trommel wel symbolisch interessant, ook al is het foutief. De conga als trommel heeft als soortnaam altijd “Tumbadora” geheten. De term is ook weer niet absurd fout. Het is gemodelleerd op trommels uit het Congo gebied, de genoemde Makuta, waar open onderkanten van trommels gangbaar zijn, wat je ook aan de bongo’s ziet. Het is van oorsprong ook grotendeels “Conga/Congolees”.

Het gemak van het stemsysteem zoals dat later ontstond (metalen stemschroeven), maar ook het krachtige, “ronde” geluid - vanwege de goed doordachte half-conisch/half-ronde klankkast onder het koeievel - hielp bij de verspreiding en populariteit van de Conga trommel. Het vel was en is vooral van koeiehuid gemaakt, anders dan bij de meeste bongo’s en djembe’s (daar vooral van geit), wat het een zwaardere en lagere resonantie geeft, en relatief veel volume.

Tegelijkertijd is de verwijzing naar de Congo en Bantoe-sprekend gebied interessant om historische redenen. Afrikanen uit het gebied van Congo waren relatief wijd verspreid terecht gekomen in de Amerika’s, als zijnde een van de grootste slachtoffers van die mensenhandel in Afrikanen. In wat nu de VS is, kwamen aardig wat slaven uit het Congo-gebied terecht, met name rond Louisiana, en enkele andere staten. Naar schatting zo’n 25 % van de Afrikaanse slaven in Jamaica kwam uit het gebied van Congo, tegen zo’n 50% uit het gebied van Ghana. Zo’n 40% van de slaven in Cuba kwam uit het gebied van Congo. De invloed van slaven uit het Congo-gebied is ook merkbaar in Haiti, Colombia, Curaçao, Martinique en Guadeloupe, en voormalig Britse koloniën. Dit vertaalde zich ook muzikaal. Vodou-muziek, in Haiti, is met name Benin/Dahomey-beïnvloed, maar ook met duidelijk Yoruba en Congo invloeden, in delen ervan. Denk verder aan Bantoe/Congo namen als Tambú en Tumba voor muziekgenres in Curaçao ( een Nederlandse kolonie). Ook in Suriname zijn er aanwijsbare Congo invloeden, in het Winti geloof, maar ook daarbuiten.


Ik ben zelf vooral een Reggae-liefhebber, en heb mij derhalve in dat genre verdiept door de jaren heen. Dat blijkt ook uit mijn (dit) blog, dat vooral Engelstalig is. Het Jamaicaanse genre is rond 1968 ontstaan uit eerdere genres Ska en Rocksteady, die eerder in de jaren 60 ontstonden, onder verschillende invloeden.

Ik ben zelf behalve reggae-fan, ook een conga-speler (naast van algemene percussie), dus heb daar zeker op gelet. Hoe gangbaar is de Conga in Reggae?

Wel, niet zo gangbaar als in Cubaanse muziek en (dus) Salsa, maar het is terugkerend als deel van de standaard-percussie set, zoals ook in andere genres als Funk. Daarnaast worden vooral lokale Afro-Jamaicaanse trommels gebruikt, zoals de op de Ghanese Akete gebaseerde, meer cylindrische Kete trommels, die ook Rastafari-aanhangers gebruiken bij Nyabinghi sessies.

In meer seculiere Reggae-muziek, maar ook die met vaak een Rastafari bodschap, werden echter ook vaak Conga’s gebruikt, samen met andere Afro-Cubaanse instrumenten, zoals de “guïro” rasp, welke zelfs best wel vaak te horen is in Reggae (met name sinds de 1970s). Bob Marley’s band the Wailers maakte er veel gebruik van (van conga’s, vooral ook live), alsmede de Roots Reggae artiest Burning Spear (Winston Rodney), die zelf overigens ook conga’s speelt. Hoewel in Cuba in die moderne vorm ontstaan, is de conga natuurlijk vooral “African-based”, en daarmee passend bij ook de tekstuele boodschap van veel Roots Reggae.

Het gebruik van de conga’s is in reggae beperkt en veelal subtiel, vanwege het dragende karakter van het standaard aanwezige “drumstel” in de Reggae , zoals in andere Westerse of pop-muziekgenres. De Conga is derhalve meer “toevoegend” in reggae, dan dragend (zoals in bijv. Salsa, of Rumba), maar vaak wel hoorbaar aanwezig. Net als andere percussie naast het drumstel, zorgt het voor ritmische verdieping en verbreding, en daarmee een connectie met de Afrikaanse wortels; Afrika bekend staande als meeste percussieve en ritmische continent. Een cliché – dus zeker te versimpeld – maar in de kern niet onwaar. Europa = harmonie, Azië = melodie, en Afrika = ritme, is nog zo’n “kort door de bocht” cliché. Deels kloppend, maar de realiteit is dat op alle continenten alle drie de elementen (harmonie, melodie, en ritme) een rol spelen in de muziek.


Helemaal interessant vindt ik het gegeven dat de Cubaanse invloed, onder meer via die Conga, zwarte muziek in zowel de VS, als in Jamaica – waar Ska eerst beïnvloed was door R&B uit de VS – hielp de muziek “pan-Afrikaanser” te maken, inclusief polyritmische “clave” principes uit Congo. Dit kwam dan bovenop een muzikale “swing-basis” (met Griot Africa-wortels), met name in de VS.

Lokale Afrikaanse invloeden in Jamaica waren echter ook vaak polyritmisch en clave, maar konden vanwege verboden en ander koloniaal beleid minder bewaard blijven dan in Cuba. De Congo-gebaseerde “Kumina”-religie en –muziek bleef nog wel bewaard in sommige (oostelijke) delen van Jamaica, en beïnvloedde daar deels Reggae, via een omweg. Via Afro-Cuba kwam het dan nog meer terug, of werd versterkt, zou je kunnen zeggen. Dat heeft iets rechtvaardigs, tegenover de koloniale deculturalisering door Europeanen. Een soort herstel van een pan-Afrikaanse balans.

Zo bekeken dient de Conga als Afro-Cubaans instrument in genres als Reggae, Soul, of Funk dan ook gezien te worden als meer dan een “Latin” of Salsa-invloed. Het is meer dan dat symbolisch een noodzakelijke Afrikaanse invloed, die muziekgenres van zwarte mensen beter doet aansluiten met de rest van de Afrikaanse Diaspora, maar ook met delen van Afrika waar ze oorspronkelijk vandaan komen, en niet alleen een specifiek, door de Islam beïnvloed, Mande-sprekend, of Sahel-deel, ervan. Het klopt historisch beter, zou je kunnen zeggen. Maakt het gebalanceerder..

Welnu, de al genoemde Chano Pozo was de eerste die conga’s speelde op de Swing-gebaseerde genres in de VS als Jazz of R&B van Dizzy Gillespie. Hij paste Cubaanse Conga-patronen aan om ruimte voor andere instrumentalisten te laten om te “swingen” zoals in de Jazz traditie. Gaten laten vallen, die in Son of Rumba gevuld zouden zijn door de conguero.

Ned Sublette beschrijft het in het werk ‘Cuba and its Music : from the first drums to the Mambo’ als volgt:

Chano Pozo created the role of the conga soloist in the modern band, somewhat the way Coleman Hawkins created the solo tenor sax”.

En, even verderop:

It’s not natural for a conguero to play in swing time, but Chano could make a pocket for it… He’d played in jazzbands in Cuba, and had already figured out how the two feels – African American and Afro-Cuban - might mesh instead of contradicting each other”.

Zo werd het al met al toch polyritmischer, met daarnaast nog steeds die swing. Sommige genres, zoals Funk, werden onder deze Afro-Cubaanse invloeden, wat strakker en polyritmischer. De Conga-patronen op veel James Brown nummers, bijvoorbeeld, zijn toch vaak deels afgeleid van Cubaanse patronen als de Tumbao, of uit de Rumba.

In andere genres, zoals Soul, combineerden de Conga’s meer met een soort Swing – denk aan fraaie Marvin Gaye songs als What’s Going On en Mercy Mercy Me - , wat op zich een leuk effect had. Chano Pozo deed dat dus al sinds 1947, in de band van Dizzy Gillespie..


Wat nu de D.R. Congo is heeft een rijke, gevarieerde cultuur, mooie tropische oerwouden, maar helaas grotendeels ook een onfortuinlijke geschiedenis. Hetzelfde geldt voor het aangrenzende Angola en Congo-Brazzaville. In het geval van D.R. Congo is nog te noemen dat het een Belgische kolonie werd, hoewel eerst eigendom van de Belgische koning Leopold, sinds 1885. Dit werd het in dezelfde periode dat de slavernij in Cuba werd afgeschaft.

Die koloniale, Belgische tijd in Congo was wreed en genocidaal, gericht op exploitatie, met racisme en geweld als sturende middelen. Miljoenen doden onder de Congolese bevolking had dit ten gevolg, en daarnaast vele verminkingen; handen en armen afhakken was een gangbare straf door de Belgen, toegepast op Congolezen. In die zin past Koning Leopold in hetzelfde rijtje als Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, of Stalin. De miljoenen doden in Congo tijdens dit koloniaal bewind zijn echter relatief veel minder bekend.

Zoals gezegd, was hetzelfde gebied van Congo eerder – tussen 1500 en 1900 - een belangrijke (want “makkelijke”) bron van slaven voor Europeanen, en de lokale bevolking dus een van de grootste slachtoffers. Heden ten dage zijn er nog demografische, maar zeker ook economische en maatschappelijke gevolgen merkbaar in D.R. Congo en Angola.

De Conga trommel – van oorsprong uit ditzelfde gebied – herinnert aan die periode van trans-Atlantische slavenhandel, maar meer als overleefde kracht van de cultuur van Congo, nu wijdverspreid te vinden en bekend als muziekinstrument in het Westen, Latijns Amerika, en daarbuiten, waaronder Afrika zelf. Zoals ik aan het begin schreef: een van de bekendste percussie-instrumenten ter wereld. Dat is een symbolische ironie. Het is een ironie die pijnlijk is, maar ergens toch ook grappig. Misschien zelfs “mooi”. Dit juist door wat het vertegenwoordigt: de kracht van cultuur tegen de verdrukking in..