dinsdag 3 maart 2015

Mapping geographically : comparing adjacent islands Cuba and Jamaica

I have always been intrigued by geographical maps. With “always” I mean: as long as I can remember, since I was a small child. Atlases, maps, at home, at school, or in the library.. they amazed me and got my deep interest. This was largely not too specific regarding country or part of the world. I recall how the way relief was indicated through colours and other signs in atlases and maps made me dream and fantasize about those places. The same applied for the different colours in maps used for arid, semi-arid or green, cultivated or wild land. That opened an intriguing world for me. So did the relative distance between countries, land masses, islands, borders etcetera.

Then there are “political maps”, as they are formally known. These focus more on man-made, political facts about a country: the capital(s), cities, borders (provinces)… in other words how human history gave a certain meaning to natural geographical areas. While I am interested in history as well, I emotionally could not help to make a distinction between the natural landscapes and what man later made of it. In fact, I considered it unnatural and artificial how political, national categories dominated natural geographical areas, even as a child. I not only considered it artificial, it is really artificial. States, nations are political choices, stemming from power relations. National borders were often arbitrary compromises given political weight over time.


One of my areas of interest in this regard is “bordering or nearby countries”: do borders really mean a cultural and geographical change? Also borders within countries (provinces, regions, states) never seized to amaze me, especially the relation (or relative lack thereof) of a cultural, ethnic and historical difference coinciding with borders. In organically, historically developed European countries differences are often (though not totally) clear-cut. Wales is located there because the Anglo-Saxons never really reached that Western area, and Wales largely kept its Celtic identity. The Alps are also interesting. A part of the Alps are in Italy, a large part of these Alpine mountain areas are German-speaking, French-speaking, and a part in Slovenia (or with other languages/dialects and cultures). Not necessarily neatly coinciding with “political” borders, as many may know about the different languages in Switzerland, and the German-speaking South-Tyrol, bordering Austria, but in Italy. Yet anthropologists speak of an Alpine ethnic type, mostly associated with once Celtic-speaking Central-Europeans, albeit mixed with other peoples (Germanic peoples in German-speaking areas, Romans and Italic peoples in Italy and others).

The Pyrenees between France and Spain seem a more natural border, but on the sides the mountains get lower and thus Catalonia is relatively more accessible from bordering France, than Spanish parts west of it (like Aragón), which had predictable historical consequences. Not everyone knows that languages spoken in the Provence in southern France (including around Marseille) – now diminished to dialect and with less speakers – are related to the Catalan language of Catalonia. It is in that sense a linguistic and cultural continuum. On the other side of the Pyrenees the Basque people and language likewise cross borders between Spain and France. Basques used, for instance, to inhabit a larger part of south western France than what is now known as the French Basque country, including the area around the city Bordeaux, of which surnames, toponyms, and genetic studies are still evidences. To a lesser degree Basques also inhabited a somewhat larger part of Spain than what is now known as Spanish Basque country.

Even more artificial or arbitrary are of course the political borders of former colonies of European countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and elsewhere. These were not even decided by local elites, but by foreign elites. Apart from Ethiopia and a few other areas, Europeans largely shaped the borders in Africa and elsewhere. Note Senegal and how Gambia is “cut out of it”, due to different colonizers, while the two areas have much cultural and ethnic similarities, but different colonizers. Several examples of course can be given of this. Kikongo speaking peoples inhabit former Belgian, former French, and former Portuguese colonies, and Akan-speaking peoples live in both Ghana (which was a British colony) as in Ivory Coast (which was French). Of course Frisians live also in different countries in Europe (Netherlands, Germany), Basques as said in France and Spain, and there are other examples in Europe (Italian-speakers in Switzerland, German-speakers in a part of northern Italy, Dutch-language variants in Belgium, French in Belgium etcetera etcetera), but these had more haphazard, historically developed origins, while in former colonies it was often due to the stroke of a pen by foreign colonizers, a distant and drastic decision, making it even more artificial.


All this - including my interest in maps and geography - more or less comes together in the comparison I will make now between two countries that are very close to each other in the Caribbean Sea: Cuba and Jamaica. Both countries I find culturally interesting, and I have actually visited. I even had a trip in 2006, during which I visited both Cuba for about two weeks, directly followed by Jamaica for one week.

Cuba and Jamaica are former colonies by different colonizers (Spain and Britain) and are islands. This makes them inherently disconnected, some seem to think. Yet, the distance is small, especially at the eastern part of Cuba. The closest distance between the islands of Cuba and Jamaica is just about 140 kilometres. Eastern Cuba, which lies closest to Jamaica is mountaineous, just like a large part of Jamaica, so there is a continuum there too.

My plan for a “island-hop” vacation in 2006 combining Cuba and Jamaica, caused that some made remarks along the lines of: “that must be totally different (Cuba and Jamaica)”. This was by people who actually knew these places well, have been there, but also by others who hadn’t, and responded to common knowledge and facts (communist Cuba, Spanish-speaking, capitalist Jamaica, former British colony etcetera), they picked up here and there.

The question I would like to answer in the remainder of this post is thus this one: just how different are Cuba and Jamaica? In what ways? What are similarities? How can these be explained? All the more interesting, because the countries/islands are so close to each other: they are “bordering islands” so to speak. This way, I return to the contradiction between natural geography and man-made historical and political borders.


The Cuban-American historical scholar Antonio Benitez-Rojo once spoke of “repeating islands”, in referring to the Caribbean islands. Most of the Caribbean islands, whatever the colonizing country, followed roughly the same historical pattern, Benitez-Rojo argued: a slave-based sugar industry and plantation economy benefitting the European country, imported African labour, a white elite, a mixed race, somewhat intermediate class etcetera etcetera. Economy aimed at exports to colonizing country. As colonial constructs – essentially artificial – there are bound to be also similarities between Cuba and Jamaica, despite differences.

Indeed, both colonies knew slave-based plantation economies, with sugar being the main crop. There were also coffee and other plantations on both islands. The climate is of course similar. The development was in time quite different, though. For a period, Cuba was less focussed exclusively on sugar plantations and slaves than Jamaica (or Haiti). Throughout the 18th c. this was less developed in Cuba, but the slave-based sugar industry intensified there during the 19th c., especially after the Haitian Revolution and Haiti’s independence in 1804. Cynically, influential Cuban colonial economists advised to increase slave imports to take over the leading economic role in sugar that Haiti had before (18th c.). That Britain planned on abolishing the slave trade and slavery in the course of the early 19th c. – albeit hesitantly – further stimulated this aim. Of course at the cost of the human dignity (and lives) of many Africans, slave imports from Africa increased, especially expanding in Western and Central parts of Cuba (that were less mountainous, thus suitable for large sugar fields). Spain seemed, moreover, even more hesitant than Britain in abolishing the slave trade and slavery, and seemed to avoid the theme. Illegal slave trade by Portuguese and Spaniards to Cuba also continued, being the theme of the movie Amistad. It was not until 1886 that slavery was formally abolished in Cuba.

So, there is a difference in historical period, but one can conclude that Jamaican and Haitian slave-based plantation systems aimed at sugar, served as models for Cuban developments a bit later. They were indeed “repeated”. That transition seemed not so total, however, other economic sectors continued in Cuba, and demographically African slaves still made up proportionally less of the total population of Cuba than in Jamaica or Haiti. Racially the Cuban society was furthermore much more mixed, while the white population would increase later with Spanish immigration. This was in part a conscious policy by some Cuban politicians, to avoid an “Africanization” of Cuba, for racist reasons.

British white migration to Jamaica, on the other hand, occurred, but was never massive. Cuba became independent from Spain in 1892, after a war between Spain and the USA, much earlier than Jamaica from Britain (in 1962). Later indentured labourers came mostly from China, in the case of Cuba, but mostly from India in the case of Jamaica. Consequently, Havana’s “China Town” was once the largest in Latin America, after the one in Lima, Peru. Those are also differences, although there was Chinese migration to Jamaica as well.

Photo above: the entry gate to Havana's historical Barrio Chino (China Town). I took this photo in 2006


I like nature, but was especially interested in the musical and other cultures of Jamaica and Cuba. Being a long-time reggae fan and being interested in Rastafari, this is predictable. However, also Cuban music and culture had my interest. My travels on both islands had this culture (music and beyond) as focus, though not exclusively. Of course, I also paid attention to nature, climate, and landscapes. Politics had less of my interest, social issues a bit more, but these themes inevitably demand attention. The moment you enter a country, cross borders at the customs office, you enter by definition a certain political system.

The way the people lived their lives under such political systems, and social conditions, certainly had my interest. Along with this, music and culture had my attention. I know there exists a phenomenon called “sex tourism”, whereby Western tourists focus mostly on sex with locals, and aspects like social conditions and culture are subordinated (if useful) to this lust for sex. This has the appeal of being concrete and practical, but seemed, however, too egotistic and, well, vulgar and shallow to me. My pursuits were perhaps more intellectual.


I was already a reggae fan before going to Cuba, for the first time in 2001. I went to Cuba before I went to Jamaica. I knew some Cuban music, but got more into it when I was actually in Cuba. I liked the groove I heard of the many live performances I encountered. Towns in Cuba – large and small – tend to have central locales (music clubs) where local bands performs regularly, mostly acoustically. That’s a good network, keeping live music alive, even with state support. The Communist state’s role in culture and music has negative aspects as well, but seemed to do some good things too: musicians get paid state incomes according to skill, stimulating somehow musicians. These incomes are meagre, admittedly, but more than nothing.

The music genres played in such clubs tended to be Cuban or Cuban-influenced genres like salsa, or its main (local Cuban) precursor, called son. Also, genres like rumba, bolero, or danzón could be heard. Historically, the son genre is associated more with Eastern Cuba (with as largest city Santiago de Cuba), and the rumba more with Western Cuba (with Havana as biggest city). They assume that the origins of rumba is among Afro-Cubans in the city of Matanzas, somewhat east of Havana. What I liked about these Cuban genres were the percussive and groovy aspects of them. Bands I saw tended to include bongos, conga, shaker and other percussion players, and the songs were mostly groovy, catchy or with nice melodies, as percussion combined with guitars or bass guitars, and often also horns. That I understood Spanish helped me to understand the lyrics. It made to me clear that the lyrics had some limitations, with some themes recurring and other themes avoided, probably due to censorship. Love songs were common , or odes to revolutionary Cuban leaders, in these lyrics. That is a pity – real art develops only fully, I opine, if you can express yourself freely and honestly - , but I still heard some nice songs, and heard some great musicianship being performed.

I travelled through a large part of Cuba (sometimes day trips), and spent quite some time in Havana (at least a week in total), Cuba’s biggest city with over a million inhabitants, as well as in Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, which has over 500.000 inhabitants.

Havana is architectonically interesting and quite monumental, with remnants of the Spanish colonial baroque style, with what the French call “grandeur”, if somewhat decaying. Havana had in my experience a nice, lively, and edgy atmosphere, somehow shaping the vibe in Havana, largely due to the people’s lively spirit. Racially, it is an intensely mixed city, which was then somewhat new to me. Havana had many mulattoes (mixed European and African) people, as well as white people, mostly of Spanish descent, but also many black people, thus mostly of African descent. There were even quite some people with Chinese blood. Interestingly, parts of the African culture (of Yoruba, Congo, Calabar, or other origin) could be maintained in Cuba, among Afro-Cubans, kept alive in cultural centres.

Photo above: another view of (Old/central) Havana. I took this photo in 2006.

They say that the slavery regime under the Spanish was somewhat more mild and lenient when compared to the British or French slave regimes. This must not be exaggerated, as enslaved Africans were still largely dehumanized. Historical records show, however, that also slaves had some legal protection in Spanish colonies like Cuba, and could on free days have own cultural organizations according to their cultural heritage. Some historians describe the difference as such: in British colonies enslaved Africans were treated socially and legally as animals, in Spanish colonies as “lesser humans”. They were dehumanized a bit less, you can say. Still oppressed and at the bottom, but with some recognition of human and cultural rights. It was for instance a bit more easy for slaves to buy or obtain freedom in Cuba. Both free and enslaved blacks tended to come together on certain days in clubs aimed at shared African origins (Yoruba, Efik/Ibibio, Congo a.o.), cultivating these cultures. This had to be partly hidden still, from the Catholic powers, such as the Yoruba deities hidden behind Catholic saints in the largely Yoruba-based Santería religion, that developed in Cuba.

I encountered several Cubans who were active in such more directly African-based cultural expressions (like Santería), but also the music genres rumba and son were evidently African-influenced. I found this to be an interesting aspect of Cuban cultural life. As there was much live music, this could be practically experienced as well.


I had friends in the city of Santiago de Cuba in Eastern Cuba, so I returned there more often, getting to know Santiago de Cuba thus better, during the separate travels I made to Cuba, between 2001 and 2006. Santiago de Cuba is in size the second city of Cuba. I haven’t really counted, but I can say that I spent at least a few weeks in Santiago de Cuba and surroundings. That Eastern part of Cuba is known as “el Oriente” – meaning “the East” in Spanish. It is culturally, historically, and otherwise different from other parts of Cuba, such as West Cuba with Havana. Not so odd: all countries have internal differences. The East of Cuba is more mountainous than the West, which tends to have historical consequences. The southeastern part with Santiago de Cuba is known as the “most Caribbean” part of Cuba, also among Cubans, meaning probably in part that the population is mostly black or mulatto. This is the case in the cities Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo (the latter has over 100.000 inhabitants) and the provinces these cities are capital of. The son music genre is from this area, and also the bongos as instrument (and other Cuban instruments spread globally) originate from this musically rich and varied part of Cuba. A historical Haitian influence, as well as Jamaican migration in the past to the region of Santiago de Cuba, further added to it being known as the “most Caribbean part of Cuba”. I indeed met some Cubans in Santiago de Cuba with some family ties to Haiti and Jamaica.

Also much live music in Santiago de Cuba, perhaps proportionally more so than in Havana, as there are a few active live music clubs in a city that is smaller than Havana: you notice the live music therefore more. The local, traditional son music, originated in Eastern Cuba, is the main root of what became globally known as Salsa music. I was more a reggae fan, so a “salsa pilgrimage” idea was on my mind, but not that dominant. I liked some salsa and especially son, though. I got more appreciation for the flexible instrument the bongos and other percussion instruments in Santiago de Cuba, and that has remained important in my life since then.

The city Santiago de Cuba has a comparable “baroque”, Spanish colonial style regarding architecture to Havana, but with also more French-Haitian influences (similarities with New Orleans are also there), which has an interesting vibe by itself. To be honest, from an architecture and town planning perspective: Santiago had nice parts, but seemed overall a bit less “monumental” than Havana, but perhaps because Santiago was a smaller city. Some parts of Santiago de Cuba seemed even quite chaotic. Culturally, however, I found it to be a very interesting city. I knew several people in Santiago, and that also helped me to get to know the city better over time.

Photo above: a view of central Santago de Cuba (side street Parque de Cespedes). I took this photo in 2006.

Like in Havana, many Cubans in Santiago tried to make money off tourists informally, hustling on the streets. Sometimes I found it annoying to constantly be aware of such bothering, or to have to make people leave me alone. Just walking by myself on the streets was at times impossible, such as when I got bothered – or approached - constantly. This being “bothered” had gradations of irritation, though. Sometimes I found it even funny how they tried to get my attention. Women used what they could offer and what men tend to want, men (or even boys) had other tricks. A special case: a small boy approached me and asked if I wanted a relationship with his older sister. Acting as a pimp, more or less..an example of what poverty and lack of opportunity brings people to. I declined his offer and walked on, and he did not bother me further. Many further offered cigars or rum as part of the informal sector.

As I spoke Spanish well, I could talk with people this way, being educational in some sense, even if such relations were “interested” or insincere. When I went walking with local friends, I had a bit more “protection”, when walking around the city. As a white man, and/or visually a tourist/foreigner, walking alone in a Cuban city, the assumption that you want sex with a Cuban woman seems more automatic for many Cubans, as several “sex tourists” in the past have confirmed this assumption.

In remembering my Santiago de Cuba – and broader Cuban - experiences, I recall them as educational, as I moved in a dimension whereby cynicism, self-interest, poverty, dictatorship, fake friends and tricks, but also a rich, engaging culture, good spirit of people, humour, love, and true friends came together and interchanged constantly. Beauty and ugliness, or good and bad, intertwined confusingly . A “wild suspense between heaven and hell”, as Jamaican Marcus Garvey once wrote in a poem (a poem titled ‘The tragedy of white injustice’).

I made lasting friends there, learned a lot about especially Santiago de Cuba and to a degree also Havana and other parts of Cuba, and specifically about Cuban and Afro-Cuban culture and people, and, well, life in general. My love for bongos and percussion developed there. Focussing on the positive, those are the “plus points” of my Cuban experiences, for my life.

Photo above: view of a popular, more "outer" quarter of the city Santiago de Cuba. I took this photo in 2006.


In 2006 I went for the first time to Jamaica. Like I said before, after two weeks in Cuba. At least theoretically, this was in my mind more of a “pilgrimage” for me personally, as a reggae fan. Reggae music originated in Jamaica. I was not naïve to think that I would enter a paradise of marijuana, skanking on a reggae groove, and peace and love in a tropical setting. I have read a lot about Jamaica: social problems, poverty, social and cultural inequality. And criminality. That this crime was known to be more prevalent and violent – including guns and gangs – in Jamaica, was also known in Cuba. Some Cubans warned me because of this image: “there you have to be more careful”. Such a negative image spreads internationally. I cannot remember that I was full of fear, maybe I had some fears, but I thought it all to be relative. Some Cubans tried to rip me off too, even without weapons (that I did see, anyway). Besides, you have to use common sense when in Jamaica, and avoid certain areas or surroundings, I Imagined. I booked a hotel room in a relatively cheap, but decent hotel in uptown Kingston (that doubled as a pool and entertainment centre). Kingston is the capital of Jamaica, with about 800.000 inhabitants, somewhat bigger than Santiago de Cuba.

Photo above: view from my hotel in uptown/central Kingston (on more expensive hotels a.o.). I took this photo in 2006.

It was a new experience, but in an odd context. Memories about an intense, eventful two weeks were still very fresh in my mind, and now I was off to another Caribbean island, for one week. It was November and relatively rainy, by the way.

To return to the theme of this post: what are differences between Cuba and Jamaica, even if being close to each other? Cuba was, as a Communist state, in 2006 still very isolated from a globalized, US-dominated economic system. This had practical consequences. You had nowhere “pinning machines” to get money, as I was meanwhile accustomed in capitalist societies. You had no advertising, commercialism, or billboards, other than celebrating the Cuban Revolution. There was indeed “advertising” or “political propaganda”, or what someone called: “state graffiti” in Cuba, with political slogans (“Viva el Che”, “Viva la Revolución”), including often the painted images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Advertising or signs of former business stores in Cuba were remnants from older times, just never removed. That is, from before the 1959 Revolution in Cuba, that brought Fidel Castro to power.

Jamaica, by contrast, was clearly a capitalist, commercialist society, with many banks, billboards for companies who want to sell you things. The wealthier areas of Kingston (“uptown”), sometimes had US-style malls, and in other ways seemed to copy Miami or Florida. That was a main difference I noted. Poorer parts of Kingston had a more “Caribbean”, popular atmosphere: colourful, but also poverty, much less cars, smaller and/or deficient housing, small-scale and informal markets and trade on the streets. As I rented a car, I could travel to several parts of Jamaica, even in one week. My return flight was from Montego Bay, on Jamaica’s northwest coast, while I arrived from Cuba in Kingston. That I had to consider too..

Photo above: view on a street near to my hotel (uptown/central Kingston). I took this photo in 2006.

In Cuba I enjoyed much live music, by actual musicians and live bands, specifically also in Santiago de Cuba. In Jamaica, I got to know some people in the music industry in Kingston (“via-via” you can say… it’s a long and complicated story..), and Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in a part of Kingston (northwest, not very close to my hotel, which was more in the east and northeast) became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me.. I asked about live music to Kingstonians and Jamaicans I met, so I actually sought it, but apparently live music was not so common in Jamaica, as it was in Cuba. There are many recording studios for music in Kingston, but live music did not present itself to one automatically in public life, as in Santiago de Cuba, and I went to different parts of Kingston, also “going out” at evening and nights. Another difference, apparently: vivid music scenes, but developed in different ways..

Photo above: Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2006. A few renovations have been done since.

What Kingston, Jamaica on the other hand did have were many reggae parties with “sound systems” (a type of mobile discotheques, with large speakers, mostly outdoors). So there was much music, but in another way. A Jamaican friend, who drove us in the rental car sometimes, told me there was such a sound system party every night, somewhere in Kingston. A real “sound system culture”. I went to a few of these parties, and especially have good memories of the Sunday night “retro” party, focussed on “older” reggae music with therefore for a change more reggae than dancehall, in downtown Rae Town, a ghetto area in Kingston. The atmosphere was pleasant, with sound systems spread over different locales and bars, stands with food and drinks on the streets, quite some people in the places and on the streets. Some people approached me for money, and many women directly asked me to buy them a drink. Especially when in some locales I was the only white person. This was kind of funny. Some daring females, that I just met, touched parts of my body that can from some perspective be considered intimate/private – even one that was distinctive for my manhood - , but even this I found funny, because it was not too overwhelming. Good music and nice vibes, overall though, and I remember Black Uhuru’s great song “General Penitentiary” blazing through the large, piled-up speakers, there in Rae Town. Those are THE experiences.“Real reggae party dat!”, a Jamaican who accompanied me, said afterwards about that party.

Also uptown, predictably near the hotels, there were several Jamaicans trying to sell things or services to , or “hustle”, tourists. Like in Cuba, offering to be a “guide” was a common entry line in approaching tourists. Like in Cuba, walking alone as visibly not from there and/or white, was sometimes “tricky”, though not everywhere, not even in downtown Kingston. There is an ethnic/racial difference between Jamaica and Cuba, though less so with Santiago de Cuba (as it was located in the “blackest” region of Cuba). Anyway, Cuba has a much higher percentage of mixed-raced, “Mulatto” people, and Whites, than Jamaica, where at least 85% is mainly of African origin, and of the rest most are “brown” (mixed European and African). As a white European you tend to stand out, also in uptown Kingston. A bit less in more tourist areas, such as on the North Coast.

Photo above: view of the town Linstead, about 25 kilometres north west of Kingston. I took this photo in 2006.

I had expected this, and actually respected that it got “out in the open”, and that the difference was discussed with sincere interest, and not without humour. If you show respect, you get respect, that principle. Many times in my life people (other white people, mostly) assumed what I was, when they just could have asked. Dutch? Italian? Spanish? Or from another country? I consider that somewhat humiliating and dehumanizing, and mistrust it often, especially when combined with a preferred lack of communication. I could, in talking with Jamaicans, tell that I lived in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and could speak Spanish because of my Spanish mother, for instance (having just come from Cuba). I really got to appreciate the open mind, and good verbal culture and skills in Jamaica. Many Jamaicans have a healthy attitude in favouring real dialogue (and verbal interaction), that in my experience is not that common in all cultures. In Cuba, I found that overall a bit less common, especially with relative strangers. In Jamaica I at times talked “deeper” even with someone I just met. There is something positive in that.. Or maybe it was just because of the dictatorship and political repression in Cuba.

I went again to Jamaica in late 2008, now for two weeks. I linked up with the friends and contacts I made in 2006, around Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio, that also in 2008 became an appreciated “hang-out” spot for me..

Photo above: at Buju Banton's Gargamel studio in Kingston. I took this photo in 2008.

I travelled in 2008 even more on the island, and visited reggae and Rastafari-related places, different towns and parishes, and different landscapes, including the beautiful mountains of the Eastern parish of St Thomas. Like during my Cuban trips, good and bad mixed confusingly. There were also some unforgettable moments (in a positive sense, mainly) during my Jamaican trips, some of which influenced me to this day, both socially and spiritually..

Photo above: view of the town Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, known for its Georgian colonial architecture. I took this photo in 2008.


I aimed for this post to compare these two Caribbean islands/countries, that are only about 150 kilometres from each other. The flora and fauna, the mountains and other landscapes, were very similar in both countries. Mountain landscapes in Eastern Jamaica reminded me of the mountains around Santiago de Cuba (Eastern Cuba). Mango and guava, palm trees, bananas, avocado, rice and beans are very common as food and beverage in both Cuba and Jamaica. There were some culinary differences, as Jamaica developed an own “jerk” cuisine (“jerk chicken” for instance). The Jamaican food I ate was spicier (and often better) than what I mostly ate in Cuba, but that can be due to scarcity. Good fruit and fruit juices (I like mango, avocado, and guava) I ate on both islands, though. The weather and climate are of course similar.

Differences can be discerned in things relating to politics, economy, and human history. Man’s influence, so to speak. That Cuba is communist, and Jamaica capitalist is a clear, yet in my opinion not decisive difference: politics is not all that life is. Neither is economics, though some would want you to believe that: there is more to life than politics and economics.

In fact, from a human perspective, I would argue that there is really more of a similarity between Cuba and Jamaica in this regard. A tragic similarity. Once communism seemed for some poorer Cuban folks an outcome, and seemed to offer opportunities, including for many poorer black Cubans. The spread of wealth seemed to decrease inequality in Cuba, in the first stages after 1959 (the Cuban Revolution). Educational opportunities became free and accessible for all. Also positive were the banning of racial segregation and discrimination in certain areas. Over time, however, even if a part of the poorer Afro-Cubans got higher education, had/owned houses, and inequality between classes partly diminished, there came a deception, especially after the stop of USSR economic aid after 1990, made many products scarce in Cuba. Perhaps the deception is essentially due to the dictatorship/authoritarian rule that Communist leaders – including Fidel Castro – favour, and the inherent fact of communism outlawing (most) ownership or market economics by citizens. The lack of freedom, repression, and poverty and scarcity in daily life – and what people said and acted out - gave me the impression that the massive support for Cuba’s Communist state among relatively poorer black Cubans, and other Cubans from the poorer classes, has largely disappeared.

Likewise, many poorer Jamaicans feel excluded from society in their capitalist society, having limited possibilities to break the cycle of poverty, living moreover often in crime-ridden ghetto’s. You can theoretically buy more things in stores in Jamaica, travel more easily, and wages are on paper higher than in Cuba, but in order to have enough money and such a “middle-class lifestyle”, you have to of course actually acquire a job, and unemployment is high. People with darker skin and from poor areas have difficulties getting hired for jobs in Jamaica, explaining in part the strongly developed informal sectors (both in Cuba and Jamaica). Class differences are more rigid in Jamaica, including more than in Cuba differences in educational level, but the sense of limited possibilities, poverty, and exclusion among a large of the population, is essentially comparable.

There are further historical parallels in plantation slavery, but also differences. The architecture in Jamaica, especially from colonial times, is Protestant and sober, and to be honest not always very gracious, pretty, or monumental. Grandeur but without grace. Cuban cities, Havana, but also several other cities and towns, looked (in my opinion) more picturesque and graceful.

The strong Rastafari influence in Jamaica, especially among the popular classes, made however that the colourful, red-gold-and green, Lion of Judah symbols appeared on many buildings, as I also saw throughout Jamaica. This made buildings not only a bit more colourful, but also in a sense graceful. This popular culture is an important “beauty” as well as “positive power” within Jamaica. The resiliency of African culture and an own identity, despite slavery and attempted deracination, in popular music, other cultural expressions and customs. And in consciousness, to which the Africa-centered movement called Rastafari – that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s - attests. Creatively reworking culture, but from African roots.

That is another similarity with Cuba, and this time a beautiful one. This strength of popular (Afro-Cuban) culture. Also in Cuba, African culture survived, kept being cultivated, and sometimes reworked to other forms, still considering the African origins. Internationally spread contributions from Cuba and Jamaica, include music genres like salsa/son, reggae, Rastafari, several more specific musical aspects or instruments. There are cultural differences in modern times between the islands, of course. Also historically, there are differences in specific African heritages, although in both cases slaves came from different parts of Africa. In Jamaica, the Akan-speaking peoples were a bit more represented relatively among African slaves, and in Cuba relatively more Yoruba, but slaves from the Congo area were for instance quite strongly represented in both colonies. Likewise, the colonizing European countries, Spain and Britain, were also different . There were and are, nonetheless, shared African cultural values throughout expressions on both islands, and with rhythm and percussion often important in them.

Capitalist and communist oppression and exclusion of poorer people brought sometimes different types of limitations in the two countries, that were however fought against or overcome creatively. At times by using elements of the communist or the capitalist system in their favour, while in other ways subverting and avoiding them. This is the power of culture, or perhaps the natural, human spirit aimed at survival and edification, despite adversities and oppression.

Not unimportant, finally, and on a personal note: I made (true) friends easily in both Cuba and Jamaica, and I experienced both countries as relatively “hospitable”, when compared to some parts of Europe.


At its closest, the distance between Cuba and Jamaica is about 140 kilometres. That’s why in 2006, when I came to Cuba, I asked for a flight from Santiago de Cuba (which of course has an international airport) to Kingston, that southeastern part of Cuba being relatively closer to Jamaica. At a travel agency they told me they could arrange a place on a small plane. Some promises later, this seemed after all not possible, and I had to go to Havana to catch the plane to Kingston, Jamaica. I did not plan that, but had to do that, costing me time and money, although I saved because I could stay in Havana with an acquaintance. The difference between physical/natural geography and political geography struck again..

dinsdag 3 februari 2015

Drumming Style

Music is a medium which communicates messages on a deeper level mere words cannot reach. For that reason it is not so strange that you actually develop a bond with musicians. In this case I mean all musicians, not just vocalists or singers. A mental bond with singers is even more understandable, of course. You hear the person’s voice, he tells stories and about his/her thoughts and feelings, and if you’re interested enough you somehow get involved with that person. You must be interested in people – other than yourself - for that (not so common a trait as one might think), and you must be touched by the music. That music: chords and rhythm, singing etcetera, places the spoken words in a, you might say, more mystical, magical context.


The heart beat of that music is often the drum. I will focus now specifically on reggae music. Contrary to what some (mostly outsiders) state, the most important musical instrument in reggae is not the bass guitar. In the first place, it is not just one instrument that is important. Moreover, the drum is at least as important. Like in other genres, also (or even especially) in reggae the drum is the heart beat of the music. That applies to most Black music. Robert Farris Thompson, a scholar writing on African and Afro-American culture, pointed out that music and dance are not seen as separate in African culture, unlike in European culture. Body movement is implied in African or African-influenced music, in which the drum plays a crucial role. This in turn relates to the long and strong percussive tradition in Africa. The same Farris Thompson also called African culture for that reason a “percussive” culture.

Since reggae has gone international, it by definition spread outside its original cultural context of Jamaica. This brought interesting issues to the fore. Cultures - European ones for instance – began to relate to reggae (and preceding genres) from their cultural upbringing and background wherein music is separated from dance. That while reggae (and preceding genres) developed “in the dancehalls” in Jamaica. Also the relatively slower Roots Reggae had an inherent groovy, skanking quality, inseparable from it. Some English and other Europeans adapted a bit by dancing more to the music, some even paid attention to the beat and timing. Other reggae fans could enjoy reggae enough just sitting down and without really dancing.


Still, the heart beat of the drum is essential. I started playing more percussion in recent years, and I soon learned that listening well to the drum pattern is crucial to make percussion additions to a song, especially in reggae. I got that insight soon, because I started dancing more to reggae before that, learning more and more to dance well on (and around) the drum beat. Such a good rhythmic sense is required if you want to be really valuable as a percussionist, which maybe is self-evident.

I recall, by the way, that some albums I practiced my dancing on in an early stage (I was about 15 years old) were the albums Natty Rebel by U-Roy and Colombia Colly by Jah Lion. Both groovy and utterly danceable. Both also deejay-albums on well-produced and groovy Rootsy riddims. I kept that dancing focus throughout my listening to reggae, and as I meanwhile was accustomed to dancing on and around the beat (which – like interest in other people – is also something that is less common than I thought), the drums remained an important focus in my reggae experience. On the other hand I have also heard about people who got interested in the bass guitar because of reggae, so every person goes his own route.

So I come back to the felt mental bond with musicians: the drummers thus became important for me. I got respect and admiration for Sly Dunbar as an important and influential reggae drummer, heard from other drummers as well, Carlton Barret (of the Wailers) being one of the more famous, and also playing on some non-Bob Marley albums I enjoyed (Burning Spear’s Hail H.I.M. for instance) and danced to. Other names… Santa Davis, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace (I know some groovy songs he drummed on!), and some less well-known though adequate, and among the more well-known also Lincoln Valentine “Style” Scott. Scott became part of the band the Roots Radics.


The latter, Style Scott, unfortunately died not long ago, in late 2014, probably as the result of a murder. He was 58 years old. That is very sad and tragic. As a session drummer he played – often as part of the Roots Radics – on many, many reggae albums, especially since the later 1970s. Many albums that I liked and that are among my favourites – and thus important in my life – had Style Scott as drummer. Most notably, in my opinion, the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock album from 1980. This was early in Scott’s career. Aside from drumming for many Jamaican artists and groups (Israel Vibration, Bunny Wailer, Don Carlos, Dennis Brown, and many others), Style Scott later became known for his connection with British producer Adrian Sherwood, of On-U Sound. For the Singers & Players albums Style Scott was important as musician, and he was also crucial in dub-focussed groups like the Dub Syndicate or Creation Rebel.

Style Scott was influenced by, among others, Sly Dunbar, whom he saw and heard drumming when he hung around music studios in Jamaica in the later 1970s. In fact, it was Prince Fari who spotted the talent of Style Scott and requested him as drummer, also for tours. Scott followed in Dunbar’s footsteps to a degree, you might say, though he also received other influences. Yet, he had an own touch, and also there were musical changes within Jamaica at the time that he became more active as a drummer. Among other things, Scott's own style was considered relatively "tight/regular" and "metronomic".

There was a development toward Early Dancehall in Jamaica since around 1978, from the slower, “mystical” Roots Reggae era that went before. That transition was not always so clear. I read somewhere that the Wailing Souls Firehouse Rock from 1980 had some Dancehall influences. Maybe the writer of this was mistaken, but I found it to be a Roots Reggae album with a Roots Reggae vibe. Israel Vibration’s album Why You So Craven? - from around the same period - was also said to show such influences, though I could discern these only in some songs. The beautiful song ‘On Jah Solid Rock’ on that Israel Vibration album, for instance, is a classical (and classic in the other sense) Roots Reggae song. As time progresses and technology changes this tends to result in different sounding recordings (regarding “clarity” for instance), but that is not what separates Roots from Dancehall, essentially.

Perhaps at the time I first listened to albums I did not realize it yet, but Style Scott was the drummer (he would – with the Roots Radics – steadily combine with e.g. Israel Vibration also on tour) on Firehouse Rock, and several other albums I enjoyed, thus shaping my musical experience. Especially on albums which I consider Late Roots or Early dancehall, such as Just A Passing Glance (1984) by Don Carlos, and other great 1980s albums, like Culture In Culture (1986), or the Itals’ Cool and Dread (1984). That is how deep such a bond goes. I consider for instance the song ‘Just A Passing Glance’ by Don Carlos a genuine 1980s reggae classic, and Style Scott drummed on it.

Though it perhaps was not my favourite type of reggae, overall, I also enjoyed several (British-based) On-U Sound albums (of Singers & Players for instance). In my mind I thought that to be a “British reggae sound”, while Style Scott – who kept living in Jamaica even when working then regularly in Britain – actually was the main drummer.

I think the relatively recent and great album African Roots (2005) by Michael Rose is a good example of Style Scott’s talent as drummer. Here you can hear variation and creativity besides tightness and/or regularity.


I appreciated however consciously and subconsciously the “tightness” of the drum by Style Scott on those and other albums, though there were other, more subtle aspects to Scott’s style. In recent descriptions of his drumming style he was compared to Sly Dunbar, who was known as overall more innovative and experimental, while words like “precision” and “tight” were more used for Style Scott’s style. Like each drummer, though, he had his own style and innovations he brought to reggae songs. They might only be more subtle or gradual, so a bit harder to notice. Besides this, the importance of “tightness” of the drum and timing must not be underestimated as part of the reggae feel. Just experimenting and meandering is not enough when a groove must be set, unless you are trying to make very free jazz.

You might say – and I experience it a s such – that Style Scott made an art out of the tight, regular precision of the drumming, required for the mostly Rockers-type of reggae riddims, that had come to the fore when he started.. Rockers riddims became more common since the late 1970s, following on a period of “One Drop riddim” dominance. Rockers riddims have a bass drum on beat One and Three (or Two and Four if you count: One-AND-Two-AND-Three-AND-Four) and a snare drum at Three (or Two), whereas earlier One Drop-riddims did not have that bass drum on the One (or two). Gregory Isaacs’ well-known song ‘Night Nurse’ (with a typical Rockers riddim) was also played by Style Scott, and was a common Rockers sound of the 1980s in reggae.

Indeed, many examples of songs with drums by Style Scott seem tight, but less “experimental” then many of songs where Sly Dunbar drummed on (Sly pioneered Rockers drumming on the Mighty Diamonds album Right Time from 1976, for example). Yet, it still had crucial variation. That was also said in recent obituaries and descriptions of Style Scott’s place in Jamaican music, a tribute tragically hastened because of his sudden death. The more tight and steady a drumming pattern, the more variations here and there “stand out”. Style Scott applied this logic well and artistically.


I referred to it already, but at his death – and also before – Style Scott’s drumming style was described as being relatively “tight”. In the book ‘Rub-a-Dub Style : the roots of modern dancehall’, by Beth Lesser (2012) a bit more attention was paid to it. In this work it was pointed out that Style Scott, who definitely joined the Roots Radics band in 1981, after working with Prince Fari and others, followed Santa Davis, and had a different style from the jazz-influenced and improvisation-favouring Santa Davis. It is worthy to quote in length from this work by Lesser:

Style Scott didn’t have any of Santa’s little flourishes. He was pretty straight ahead, maintaining a regular, metronomic beat right through. “Style just played slower,” recalls Jimmy Becker, who played with the Radics on several sessions. “He didn’t throw in any of the little nuances that Sly would throw in. And at times, I think it [Style’s way of playing] was a little harder” (Rub a Dub Style, 2012).

What’s interesting about this, I think, is that it is not a matter of better, or even more creative or not. Making music in a band is a group effort wherein each instrument complement the other ones. Style Scott keeps the steady, regular pace, leaving space for, for instance, more creative percussion additions. This is definitely the case with the album Firehouse Rock by the Wailing Souls, which overall has great percussion.

Yet..is there really not more to Style’s style (sorry, this word play joke had to be made once) than the metronomic tightness?


An interesting special issue of the (US) monthly magazine for drummers 'Modern Drummer' was the one of August 2012, which was devoted to “Reggae ska and rocksteady grooves”
This special issue ( a “special collector’s issue”, they called it) also had separate chapters on influential Jamaican drummers, including Style Scott. His importance for and innovations in Dub, with the Dub Syndicate, and also in Britain with On-U Sound, was emphasized, but interestingly there was no mention of “relative tightness”. In fact, it was Sly Dunbar who said in the interview in the same issue that he was one of the first who maintained a “constant pattern throughout one whole song”, that song being the Mighty Diamonds’ ‘Right Time’ (1976). Up to then such a constant pattern was not so common in reggae drumming.

In the interview with both Sly Dunbar and Santa Davis something about these drummers’ innovations in Jamaican music were discussed, albeit somewhat broadly, in a technical sense, including some terminology that (mostly) only drummers really understand. Less so in the page about Style Scott, though his innovations in Dub over time were acknowledged, and also other innovations hinted at.

Some songs were mentioned as typical of Style Scott’s/the Roots Radics’ drumming style, specifically on Gregory Isaacs’ song ‘My Only Lover’ (1981). There is definitely some tightness there.

In his obituary after Scott’s death, reggae expert and writer David Katz does not emphasize (like others) the drummer’s famed “tightness”, but points more specifically to his own style, including how he sought to mirror with his foot drums reggae’s walking bass lines, and was highly creative with “his offbeat rim-shots and vibrant drum rolls”
(http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/oct/30/style-scott). The latter presumably as variations on his very tight, steady patterns, and therefore all the more noticeable. One of the interesting things with rhythmic music: small or infrequent variations have relatively much influence.. I myself notice this when I made my “percussion instrumentals” (to be found on my YouTube-channel).

I think the issue of the journal Modern Drummer I mentioned before missed a bit the opportunity to compare the respective styles of different Jamaican drummers discussed in the issue (who further included Carlton Barret, Willie Stewart of Third World, Steve Nisbett of Steel Pulse, while also the Studio One days with Lloyd Knibb and Winston Grennan were discussed). Specific styles or characteristics of individual drummers were mentioned, but not consistently. Still the issue mentioned several interesting things, such as the influence of Lloyd Knibb, the role of Carlton Barret in developing the One Drop pattern (probably invented before him, though, by Winston Grennan).


A pity that the influence of percussion traditions in Jamaica – such as Nyabinghi, Pocomania, Burru Burru, and Kumina – on trap drummers were hardly mentioned; other sources point at this. Even the One Drop logic, with the snare drum dropping after two heart beats (characteristic of the Nyabinghi hand drumming) developed in reggae – some say – in response to Nyabinghi patterns. I also read elsewhere that the tightly tuned and “hard” snare drum sound in Jamaica came about due to influence from the Cuban “timbales” instrument. I find that percussion-trap drum connection interesting, pointing also at genre-crossing. The Modern Drummer issue did not say much about it, but did reveal, however, that the drummers Sly Dunbar and Santa Davis were also influenced by polyrhythmic African music.

Besides this, several of the mentioned drummers (including Style Scott) occasionally played and play percussion as well, a transition that does not sound so strange. Scott also produced and/or composed sometimes (especially Dub Syndicate and some other Dub albums), and on occasion played bass, or did (background) vocals. His main activity was of course drumming.


One of the first albums I got into after a few Bob Marley & the Wailers albums (with Carlton Barret drumming, of course), was On The Rocks (1983) by the Wailing Souls. I mentioned this in an earlier blog post. Style Scott (as part of the Roots Radics) drummed on that album. So also in my personal trajectory within reggae and as reggae lover, Style Scott was somehow important. I did not separately focus on the drum too much then, of course, since such music is a combination of sound/instruments. A team effort, if you will. Yet, as I mentioned, the drum is the heat beat of reggae music, thus was crucial in the overall experience.

Online sources, such as Allmusic.com, point out that the 1983 album On the Rocks was produced by the Wailing Souls themselves, while their earlier albums Firehouse Rock and Inchpinchers were produced by Henry “Junjo” Lawes. Lawes tended to emphasize the drum (by Style Scott) more in the mix. I liked especially Firehouse Rock a lot, so to good effect, in my opinion. On the Rocks, on the other hand, had the trap drum a bit less emphasized, but had prominent percussion.

The Allmusic website, by the way, has a useful overview of the work and contributions of Style Scott as drummer and otherwise. See: http://www.allmusic.com/artist/style-scott-mn0001597272/credits.

I retained much attention to the drum as well. In hindsight, Style Scott’s metronomic tightness, and relatively hard hits on the snare drum (depending on the mix) influenced how I experienced several albums I enjoyed. Especially those from the 1980s. I liked Sly Dunbar and other more varying and experimental” drummers as well, but as part of the team effort Style Scott was influential.

A good example of a different drum feel can be found by comparing two Hugh Mundell albums: Africa Must Be Free by 1983 (1978), produced by Augustus Pablo, and the later one, Mundell (1982). On the latter Style Scott and the Roots Radics played, on the former Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace. There is an audible difference in the drum feel of both albums. The album Mundell has the characteristic tight Style Scott drumming, a bit more modern and “harder” sounding than the earlier, more “airy” (but strong) Africa Must Be Free By 1983 album. Anyway: I enjoyed both albums and both “feels”.

One must realize the times in which Style Scott began drumming on Jamaican records: the late 1970s and then through the 1980s and the 1990s, until digital drumming became more and more common (and actual drummers less in demand) in Jamaican music. (He nonetheless kept drumming for international reggae acts, notwithstanding). The influence of dancehall was there then, as were other modern influences on reggae. A personal drumming style is thus shaped by the personality of a drummer, his personal creative contribution, but of course also by the broader musical and cultural context. This is perhaps self-evident, but nonetheless interesting..

In this recent interview (2014) Style Scott tells in his own words about his drumming career:


(Perhaps it is superfluous to mention, but all songs inserted in this post have Style Scott as drummer.)

zondag 4 januari 2015

Deeper consciousness

In another blog post I talked about “Word Power”, a term also used in reggae and Rastafari lyrics. There is an interesting concept behind it. It is even a Biblical idea: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God..” (Genesis). Rastafari people tend to use it broader than this: the “consciousness” is important in Rastafari, and formulating your grievances, “speaking out”, pointing out in words, through speech what is unjust, how you are oppressed, is a crucial aspect in the “message music” that much of reggae music is. Through the power of the word, consciousness is achieved and expressed. This I find an interesting psychological phenomenon: the creative potential of language, expressing things.


“Potential”, indeed, because in my opinion talking or saying things are just as much used to obfuscate, to trick and hide things. Talking around things like a smoke-screen. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri likened in this sense politicians to magicians. Not just politicians, but also other powerful people like presidents of companies, head teachers, or also people trying to gain power over people or profit from them - or people who try to keep people away from them - use language as smoke screen, hiding their true feelings and opinions. This is defendable when it is a matter of politeness or being well-mannered. If you do not like – such as out of prejudice – certain people, in formal situations it might be better to keep that to yourself. When you want to buy something in a store, you would not really appreciate to note the negative views the shopkeeper holds about the ethnic group you seem to represent.

The same Ben Okri - a writer I recently got more interest in - points in his writings on the power of “stories” in shaping societies and the world. For good and for bad, he explains, but at the same time intricately human and unavoidable. To quote from him: “It is only our storytelling sense that can work with this immeasurable data of life”.. You can deduce from his arguments, however, also that stories are not necessarily the same as “the verbal” or (written or spoken) texts as such. Stories are also lived, experienced.

Either way, either to express truth or hide the truth, words are indeed powerful and influential. It is part of the very basis of humanity; people who are not listened to do not matter, are not as “human” as you. Self-expression is essential for all humans. The easy response of turning loud and aggressive is perhaps not the most intelligent one, but it is understandable from a human point of view: if you listened with an open mind in the first place, the other party would not have to “scream” (literally or metaphorically). Power relations and prejudice are thus intricately related to the spoken word.

Many oppressed and discriminated people feel they are “not listened to”. Listening is here likened to caring. Justly, I think. That is why reggae is I think so valuable as “message music”. It is, as many said, truly the voice of the people. It has a degree of consciousness.

Especially in Rastafari-inspired reggae music, the rebellion against "Babylon", representing the Western oppressive system - and/or "evil" in general -, or decrying Babylon's wickedness, is a crucial part of the lyrical expression.


That is, of course, not to say that all music and lyrics made by poor people in the world are socially conscious and express this; many “escape” in party and love (or sex) lyrics, eschewing wider social critique. This has I think a variety of reasons: the political situation including censorship, social movements (or lack thereof) in certain countries, and level of education/knowledge. It is self-expression, only more superficial.

I myself speak and understand Spanish, and I noticed a difference between the lyrics in Spanish Caribbean music and British Caribbean music. It is not an absolute difference, but somewhat generalizing you can say that in both (much) reggae and much calypso, social critique in lyrics is common, while in Cuban, Dominican, or Puerto Rican music much less. Love, party, and relationship lyrics dominate there. This need not be - not consciously at least - using language to “hide” or even worse “trick”, as I said before, but can be matter of simple enthusiasm, focussing on daily life, and avoiding complexities. Or just a lack of consciousness and knowledge. Or political censorship, especially the case in Cuba.

Also in Jamaican music such “lighter” lyrics exist, but balanced more with social critique.


Another aspect that might explain such differences is the degree of individualism in societies. Individualism is a much misunderstood term in this world, I think. It has been (mis)used by Western people to express e sense of superiority of their culture (“negative word power”, so to speak). Interpreted broader, however, African, and also Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American cultures can be seen as individualistic in some ways too. Even in more profound ways than it is commonly interpreted in the West. In the Western (European) culture individualism is supposedly valued, especially in modern times, and is said to have inspired liberalism or even capitalism. The Wikipedia article (in English) on individualism only refers to Western philosophy and schools of thought, which is a missed opportunity, I think.

It has a social-class connection and is commonly (justly or not) associated with the West, but individualism is certainly noticeable among poorer-class Afro-Caribbean people, for example. Case in point: varied and creative language use: in Jamaica, for instance, most common people speak Jamaican Creole among themselves, sometimes mixed to differing degrees with (standard) English, or use English only in formal situations, as English is still the only official language in Jamaica. This by itself requires an individual manoeuvring, as do all class – as well as cultural - differences. Jamaican Rastafari-adherents also creatively invented many new words, expressing their ideas (such as “I and I”, or Downpression instead of Oppression). The very fact of the presence of a broad and varied creative culture (musical and otherwise) in Jamaica, originating new music genres (like reggae) from different influences, and that in Jamaica also a new religious/spiritual movement – Rastafari – originated that would become both (reggae and Rastafari) global, all point at a strong sense of individuality.


There are regional differences though. In many countries of Latin America, dancing alone - by yourself - is rare. Especially on some genres, like salsa music. You usually dance in couples. Dancing by yourself is not absent, but neither is it common. In Jamaica, on the other hand, dancing alone, by yourself is much more common, even the norm, unless you are in a romantic relationship with someone who is also at the dance. Or in cases where people “bubble” or “dagger” (dances that simulate sex, but are not sex). I myself travelled to Cuba and Jamaica some years ago, and went to many dances in both countries, so I experienced this also first-hand.

This difference in dance orientation has always intrigued me. I relate this to the presence of more socially conscious lyrics in reggae. Social consciousness is in the end an individual process of awareness. You cannot as a person be curtailed too much by people around you, if you want to achieve this mental awareness, which by definition is individual. This is compensated by connections (community, spiritual, social) to other people of course, so it is not totally isolated. That is maybe one of the misapprehensions about individualism: that it’s the same as isolation (from man kind). It need not be. In fact, I think you respect other people’s individuality even more when you truly respect and know your own individuality on a deeper level.

As much reggae is “message music”, how you dance to it therefore also expresses your own interconnection with and awareness of the music and lyrics. You need to be personally involved to truly get into it. Your own mind can then not be distracted too much. If the lyrics are on the other hand superficial and do not go deep, attention can more easily be given to social obligations around you and formulaic dance moves. That is basic psychology.

It relates also to the idea of “individuality” within the Rastafari movement. A movement that after all developed in Jamaica since the 1930s, among Afro-Jamaicans. It also largely influenced the “message” and rebellion in reggae music, of course. The term “individualism” is problematic here, because Rastafari adherents do not believe in “isms”. For the very same reason that the term Rastafarianism is not liked by everyone. Anyway, there is a strong presence of a sense of individuality within Rastafari, called “epistemological individualism” (or individuality).

In the book (collective volume) ‘Chanting Down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (ed. by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane’, from 1998) it is related to ideas of radical freedom, liberation from oppressive structures, as well as to the “I and I consciousness” of the divine (and thus the source of truth and life) present within each individual. This expressed subjective agency has a self-actualizing, emancipatory effect. The pronoun “I” – representing respect and dignity for the human person (in connection to Jah/the divine) - is used much in Rasta speech. At the same time there is – through this shared divinity – a connectedness with other humans (and nature)..but on an equal basis.

It seems reasonable that this also contributed to certain ways of dancing to music: individually rather than collectively experienced.


There is also another dimension to all this.

Some things you know, but not yet really know. You know them, so to speak, on a subconscious level, you live something, but had no theoretical, textual explanation heard or read as yet. There is a power that precedes words. A deeper power: spiritual and natural. It includes basic, seemingly simple biology and natural forces. Also on the tactical, sensory level.

The music genres I mentioned from the Caribbean: reggae, calypso, salsa – and other genres of course – have partly African origins and influences. Music is by itself a phenomenon that goes beyond words. It touches you also without words/lyrics. The heart beat a unborn child hears though its mother is the first “rhythm” a human being hears and feels, and an essential, life-confirming one at that. This pulse (and breathing) are rhythmic, and at the same time the proof that you are alive.

That brings me to something I recently read. In reality one of the more interesting things I read in the whole year of 2014. It brought so much things home to me, so to speak. It added words and consciousness to what I more or less already lived and “knew” from experience. Still, I valued it and experienced it in that sense as “life-explaining” knowledge (more than as “life-changing”). It brings me back to the theme of “dancing”.

In the book (actually a collection of texts, interviews and photos) ‘The aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music’ (2011), by Robert Farris Thompson, Thompson explains how music making and dancing differs culturally in Africa from Europe. He points out how musicians play apart in African traditional music, while musicians in European music “play together” (symphony and unison). On the other hand in Africa “music and dance” are not separate, while in Europe music and dance are.

This very fact – that European music is played more “together” - essentially contradicts the common notion that the West is individualistic whereas other cultures are collectivistic: African music, such as on percussion and drums, leave much room for individual improvisation and free deterrence from any meter or norm. Some relate this to the fact that African cultures were long more “oral”, and Western cultures more “scribal” (with fixed texts) leading the latter to more conservatism. Seems reasonable to me, at least as part of the explanation.

Black US (and other) comedians sometimes joked that white people dance irrespective of “the beat” (read: the music), unlike black people. Eddy Murphy had a joke about that, back in the days. More recent comedian Dwayne Perkins said ironically in a comedy bit that white people dance therefore better, freer: not as limitedly confined to the beat. This perhaps relate to this original difference, surviving the times (and the slave trade).

Also regarding that inherent “playing music NOT together/in unison” in African culture, the room for improvisation at least partly survived slavery and colonialism. One only should think of jazz, but also of the percussive polyrhythm and syncope setting Black music in the West apart from music with no African influence. There is an individual freedom there that is lived, sensed, rather than formulated in text, or in some “ism”. Fixed texts tend to systematize, thus constrict.

What’s interesting about this philosophically is that the individual musicians’ freedom shaping African music is celebrated by dancing to it. Dancing to the complex rhythms.

Dancing without set norms (freely yet on the beat/rhythm) is celebrating this individuality even more. Individuality that is – like the Rastafari I-and-I concept - inherently combined with connectedness with other humans, such as the musicians combining patterns variedly in one polyrhythmic whole. In that sense many European dances (not all) are often more collectivistic and in unison, just like the music. Leaving less space for improvisation. In the same book ‘The aesthetic of the cool’, Thompson stresses that even dancers in what are known as African “couple dances” do not embrace each other so much (as in European couple dances). Just to maintain personal flexibility of movement.

At the very least this sheds another light on the commonly formulated difference between individualist and collectivist cultures in this world.

In the same vein, of course, dance is important as part of the spirituality in many African and Afro-American religions, to the point where for instance Vodou (and Santería a.o.) are termed “danced religions”.

This is a deeper, more essential (or “spiritual”) consciousness that is lived, danced, not given power by words or literacy, but naturally by life and the “heart beat” itself. Mere words cannot capture it fully, but only can partly explain it, raise consciousness about it.


An interesting series of documentaries on Dutch television write now, as I write this, has to do with “word power” in more than one sense: influential speeches by political and other leaders: the series Speeches (VPRO). I recently saw one that centered around the speech H.I.M. Haile Selassie I gave in 1963, at the United Nations in New York. Selassie is of course the most important man/figure for the Rastafari movement.

The speech is the one which Bob Marley made lyrics from, for the song ‘War”: “Until the philosophy that holds one race superior and another inferior.. “.

Selassie’s speech in 1963 was indeed a beautiful, impressive one, due to its content, but also because of its historical time and context. Africa was then in a process of decolonization, and Selassie pointed out that Africans must be respected by the world as equals. He became a spokesperson for Africa, and visited many international leaders. The speech’s content has up to now lost none of its necessity. Africa is still not valued as an “equal continent”: an analysis of the world situation makes this clear. The economic and political power of African countries is limited strongly by neo-colonialism and interest of Western/richer countries over African resources. Selassie was early in pointing this out, and to raise consciousness about it. This continued through the Rastafari movement, with Bob Marley’s lyrics made of Selassie’s 1963 speech being one known example of it.

The documentary on Dutch television seemed partly quite neutral and objective, though it repeated some dubious claims made once in a book about Selassie by Ryszard Kapuscinski (a Polish journalist who became known as a fantast). This book by Kapuscinsky unfortunately also has (negative) “word power” it seems. For the documentary further Ethiopians who knew and worked with Selassie, and a Jamaican Rastafari adherent who went to live in Ethiopia, who also helped to spend texts and speeches by Selassie to Jamaica. Some aspects remained too superficial in this documentary, I think. Others were simply mistaken, such as things taken from Kapuscinski’s biography.

The irony was formulated in this documentary (which I heard and read before) that Emperor Selassie I stimulated the education of Ethiopians and that this eventually turned against him. Some of the students and educated people turned against him and sought to overthrow him. While sounding as a somewhat literary “irony of history” – like there are so many historical ironies in world history – it also shows how knowledge and written words can be interpreted differently.

Not just written texts, being the main focus of schools and universities. During the documentary an Ethiopian explained how the situation of a famine in a part of Ethiopia (Wollo) – which he said was in process of ending/being resolved – was nonetheless used by Mengistu, the (Communist) revolution’s leader who overthrew Selassie. The Communist revolutionaries showed an earlier documentary (by an Englishman) on this famine on Ethiopian television, and publicized this much, even organizing public displays in rural areas. Images of the famine in Wollo were in the documentary interchanged with images of wealthy, food-rich banquets Selassie were said to have with foreign heads of state, and how he fed his animals. Of course this manipulated contrast was for propaganda reasons.

This brings me to yet another dimension that since then has only become more influential. The power of images (television, film) as mass medium, surpassing so often those of words. Dictatorships would make use of this “visual” aspect as well. Psychological studies revealed that visual imagery can be much more impactful than words, influencing one even more strongly. “Image power” can indeed be stronger as “word power”. However, like words images and film can be manipulated, used to trick and deceive, hide the truth, as a smoke-screen. The global influence of subtle manipulation via Hollywood, television, or other powerful media parties, on cultural tastes, and shaping prejudices! etcetera should not be underestimated.


I think that a deeper consciousness, the one that precedes words: pure intuition, the natural heart beat, life itself, may seem (as so-called “subconscious level”) to be influenced by such image or word power play, but is not. Digging deeper within one self I think one is able to learn how to sense the real from the unreal, the lie from the truth, the good from the bad.. you somehow sense that there are wrong intentions, at least eventually. That comes down to really thinking free, thinking for yourself as an individual; genuine intuition (not confused with prejudice). This thinking for oneself in the true sense has become somewhat undervalued in the Western world with the “fixed” written text or “fixed” imagery/film, shaping – eventually oppressive! - political, educational, economic, and media systems. Just like in traditional European music musicians have to play together.

Also, the entire social and economic systems in the Western world are aimed at degrading, limiting as much as possible individual human consciousness. You need for them to contribute to economy, which in most cases comes down to contributing to other people's wealth and power, by accepting a few crumbs from them, figuring as "extra" in their dream. This also belies the self-claimed "individualism" of Euro-Western cultures. At the end individualism is amore an "ism" than truly individual.

Rastafari reggae artists speak in their lyrics, by the way, not just of “word power”, but of “word power.. AND SOUND”. That “sound” can be defined as the realm of music and dance, but I argue that it likewise can mean a deeper consciousness, beyond words, that is both natural and individually human..

Of course, you can rightfully argue that humans also have the natural capacity of speech, to talk, use words. It is – like I said in the beginning of this essay - a basic human need too. To speak out against injustice, defend one's rights, confirm one's existence, for self-expression etcetera.. A combination (and interaction) of this with such a nonverbal consciousness, however, can open up boundless creativity, with beautiful effects. Liberating effects. Maybe this can be called a "higher" or "heightened" consciousness as well..

dinsdag 2 december 2014

IDFA, Podemos, en (nogmaals) Zwarte Piet

Het voordeel van een internationale oriëntatie is dat het je meer vergelijkingsmateriaal biedt, en je horizon verbreedt. Toegegeven: talenkennis is hierbij vaak ook belangrijk. Met beheersing van het Engels kom je al een heel eind in deze geglobaliseerde wereld, maar ik spreek en versta ook goed Spaans, bijvoorbeeld.

Ik was laatst (november 2014) naar een aantal films gegaan in het kader van het IDFA: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. In Amsterdam dus. Het was zo internationaal dat Engelstalige films, die ik zag, niet eens ondertiteld werden naar het Nederlands, en dat de Q & A na afloop ook als vanzelfsprekend in het Engels was. Ik beheers Engels goed, dus dat was op zich geen punt.

Spaans beheers ik ook goed genoeg om complexer nieuws te kunnen volgen. Ik vind dat goed om bij te houden (voor de taal), en daarnaast volg ik de ontwikkelingen in het land Spanje ook wel, vooral ook omdat ik half-Spaans ben (van mijn moeders kant).


Gedurende de maand november van 2014 dat het IDFA in Amsterdam was, begon ik mij toevallig ook te verdiepen in een nieuwe Spaanse politieke partij die opkwam, genaamd ‘Podemos’, wat Spaans is voor “we kunnen (het)”. De woordvoerder ervan is de jonge Pablo Iglesias Turrión, een Madrileen die voorheen hoogleraar was aan de Complutense universiteit in Madrid, en aardig wat academische titels heeft. Interessant genoeg zijn deze titels in redelijk verschillende discipline’s, zowel politiek als de kunsten, bijvoorbeeld. Los daarvan, positioneert hij zich politiek aan de linkerkant.

De partij Podemos, waarvan Iglesias ook mede-oprichter was, heeft zeker wat aanhang gekregen in Spanje, en ook Pablo Iglesias, die als welbespraakt en charismatisch bekend staat, is bij veel mensen populair. Het is natuurlijk geen toeval dat de nieuwe partij op komt terwijl Spanje meer dan de meeste andere EU-landen last heeft van een economische crisis, en van armoede en werkeloosheid.

Recente cijfers wijzen erop dat thans ruim 20% van de Spaanse bevolking onder de armoedegrens leeft. Dit is veel voor Europese begrippen, en bijna twee keer zoveel als in Nederland (rond de 11%). Over de hoge jeugdwerkeloosheid in Spanje (meer dan 50%) is ook al vaker bericht. Recente algemene (jeugd en niet-jeugd dus) werkeloosheidscijfers van Spanje liggen al sinds 2013 boven de 25%, terwijl die in Nederland thans rond de 8% ligt. Dat (als deze cijfers kloppen) de armoede verhoudingsgewijs in Nederland ongeveer de helft van die in Spanje is, maar de werkeloosheid minder dan een derde, roept ook wat vragen op (meer “working poor”? of meer alleenstaanden?), maar het voert te ver om daarop nu in te gaan.

Hoe dan ook, op deze problemen in Spanje zal de nieuwe politieke partij Podemos een antwoord willen bieden. Ook bij sommige familieleden van mij was Pablo Iglesias populair. Me verdiept hebbend in de persoon, en hem opgezocht hebbende op YouTube – zijn speeches, zijn tv-optredens en deelnames aan debatten - , denk ik dat ik dat wel kan begrijpen. Hij heeft lange haren in een staart, draagt vaak “hippe” armbanden en vlotte kleren, en komt al met al wat jeugdiger en hipper over dan de oudere, vaak “grijze” politici in pakken die ook in Spanje de politiek domineren. Los van dit uiterlijk en imago kan hij – vind ik – ook goed praten. Hij brengt de boodschap goed over en lijkt analytisch en inhoudelijk goed onderlegd. Ook lijkt hij de werkelijke noden van Spanje goed te kennen. Iglesias is verder trouwens ook lid van het Europees parlement.

In de video hieronder een recente speech van hem (Engelse ondertitels op te roepen, via 2e button rechts-onderin):

Hij is jonger dan ik. Dit deed mij me een beetje oud voelen, eerlijk gezegd. Dat is vaker wanneer invloedrijke politici jonger dan of van dezelfde leeftijd als jezelf blijken. Sommigen hadden dat bij het concluderen dat Barack Obama dezelfde middelbare leeftijd als hen had, zoals Stephan Sanders eens schreef in zijn column in de Vrij Nederland. Pablo Iglesias is zelfs vier jaar jonger dan ik, nu dus ongeveer 36 jaar oud. Hij had een jonger broertje van me kunnen zijn.

Hij lijkt me een intelligente, welbespraakte jongeman, met standpunten waar ik het grotendeels wel mee eens ben, denk ik. Denk ik, want ik woon in Nederland, maar het grootste deel van mijn familie in Spanje is van de arbeidersklasse en zijn vaak teleurgesteld in de grote partijen. Ze herkennen de problemen van machtselites in Spanje (vaak met nog connecties teruggaand tot de Franco-dictatuur),en de sociale en economische problemen en ongelijkheid in Spanje, die Iglesias ook benoemt en wil aanpakken.

De tijd zal uiteraard leren of hij een positieve verandering teweeg zal brengen, maar voor de rest van dit bericht – dat ook internationaler dan alleen Spanje zal worden - wil ik vooral focussen op een interessante uitspraak van hem tijdens een speech die hij hield in Mérida, een stad in de regio Extremadura in West-Spanje. Mijn moeder is overigens ook geboren in de regio Extremadura (provincie Badajoz). Linkse organisaties hadden hem daar, samen met anderen, uitgenodigd voor een bijeenkomst. Ze hebben het leuk gemaakt, want ook een flamenco-muziekgroep uit het naburige Andalusië trad op.

Zijn speech aldaar is op YouTube te vinden en was uiteraard in het Spaans, wat ik dus gewoon kon volgen. Hij zei, vrij vertaald: “Patriottisme is niet alleen iets van “rood en geel” dragen (van de Spaanse vlag, bedoelt hij), of het nationale team met voetbal steunen, maar zorgen dat alle burgers in je land goed en menswaardig kunnen leven”. Daarmee vermoedelijk ook doelend op politici die enigszins populistisch steun aan dat voetbalteam gaven of de kleuren van de vlag droegen.

De huidige regerende partij in Spanje is de centrum-rechtse Partido Popular, en om een complex van historische maar ook deels onnavolgbare redenen heeft in de Spaanse politieke cultuur Spaans (nationaal) nationalisme een “rechts” imago. Regionalisme (Catalaans, Baskisch of anders) of regionaal separatisme heeft daarentegen een “links” imago. Hoewel “zelfbestuur” iets links lijkt te hebben, is dat eigenlijk weinig zinnig. Vooral als men bedenkt dat Vlaams nationalisme of Noord-Italiaans separatisme/regionalisme (Lega Nord) toch vooral rechts is. Dat Catalonië economisch een van de welvarendste delen van Spanje is (evenals Spaans Baskenland) doet doorredenerend twijfelen aan het werkelijk linkse karakter van gewenste afscheiding van Spanje, zoals een deel van de Catalanen lijkt te willen. Is het in de kern niet meer dan welvaart voor je zelf houden, om armere landsdelen niet te hoeven financieren? Maar dat terzijde..

Interessant uitgangspunt in ieder geval: echt patriottisme uit zich in goed zorgen voor de (alle!) burgers van je land. Welvaarts- en welzijnsverschillen verkleinen, met andere woorden. Het zal vermoedelijk wel eerder door ook anderen dan Pablo Iglesias zijn gezegd, vooral door linkse politici, uit en met betrekking tot andere landen. Hoe dan ook is het vanuit dat perspectief ook interessant naar andere landen te kijken, zoals Nederland, dat ik uit ervaring het beste ken. Ik ken de debatten die hier spelen, zoals de Zwarte Piet discussie, over asielzoekers, minderheden, moslims, homo’s en andere thema’s als de zorg, de welvaartsstaat etcetera.


Ik ga eerst nog naar een ander land. Eén van de documentaires die ik zag op het IDFA heette: ‘Beats of the Antonov’ (2014) en ging over het land Soedan, in Afrika. De filmmaker - Hajooj Kuka - heeft ook een Soedanese achtergrond. Voor deze documentaire naar Amsterdam kwam had deze documentaire al een prijs gewonnen op een vergelijkbaar documentaire film festival in Canada (Toronto). Het thema van deze documentaire was dat het land Soedan vanuit de politiek een Arabische nationale identiteit propageert – lees: opdringt – en daardoor de meer Afrikaanse culturen en identiteit in delen van het land onderdrukt, zelfs met oorlogsgeweld. Dit gebeurt nog steeds.

Een brute onderdrukking en oorlogssituatie die sommigen deed vluchten naar het aangrenzende “nieuwe” land Zuid-Soedan. Zuid-Soedan is vooral Christelijk en animistisch, maar onder de vluchtelingen waren ook Soedanezen die nominaal Islamitisch waren, maar dit blijkbaar naar de smaak van Soedaneze machthebbers teveel combineerden met eigen, Afrikaanse culturele praktijken. In ieder geval (op zijn zachtst gezegd) een land dus dat “niet goed voor alle eigen burgers zorgt”. Dit vanuit een identiteit die, zoals wel vaker, een deels illusoire keuze is. Ook de zichzelf “Arabieren” noemende en Arabisch sprekende Noord-Soedanezen, inclusief de aan diverse oorlogsmisdaden en massamoorden (Darfur!) schuldige president Omar al-Bashir (zie hier op Wikipedia), zijn puur raciaal voor een groot deel een mengvolk van Arabieren met zwarte Afrikanen. Die zwarte Afrikaanse kant wordt zoveel mogelijk ontkend. Dit wellicht vanwege geloofsfanatisme, en een eenzijdige identificatie van de Islam met Arabieren. Islam = goed, Arabieren brachten de Islam = ook goed. Het andere is slechter. Dat is min of meer de redenering. Dat er Soedanezen zijn die hun eigen interpretatie van de Islam weten te combineren met een eigen Afrikaanse cultuur en erfenis, vaak via een mystieke “Soefi” achtige benadering (er zijn parallellen met het Maraboutisme in Senegambia, Guinee en andere delen van Afrika) is blijkbaar niet goed genoeg voor deze “Arabische” Soedanezen. Dat is dus het conflict.

Dat de dominantie van een Arabische Islam in Afrikaanse landen parallellen vertoont met het Europese kolonialisme, was mij al langer bekend. Het is niet bij iedereen bekend dat het bijvoorbeeld in Egypte bij veel mensen gangbaar was om de Arabische afkomst te benadrukken, en te ontkennen van (deels) zwart Afrikaanse afkomst te zijn, ook als je dat laatste bij iemand een beetje aan zijn trekken (wat donkerder huid, kroeshaar e.a.) kon zien, of bij iemand met “Nubische” trekken. De Arabieren brachten immers de heilige Islam. Zoals in door Europese landen gekoloniseerde landen ook wel gebeurde: de elite in de Dominicaanse Republiek minachtte lang de Afrikaanse kant van de nationale identiteit (de meeste Dominicanen mengen Europees/Spaans en Afrikaans bloed), of zoals in Britse kolonies je zo min mogelijk Afrikaans moest zijn en zo Brits mogelijk (raciaal en/of cultureel) om iets te kunnen bereiken. In de Britse Caraïben, maar ook in landen als Ghana of Nigeria was dat deels zo. Hetzelfde gold in Franse kolonies.


Dit loochenstraft tegelijkertijd een stelling van de (Baskisch) Spaanse filosoof Miguel de Unamuno. Een stelling die ik al lang ken, maar waar ik altijd een beetje twijfels bij had: “de taal is het ras”. Ik had twijfels, maar nu weet ik zeker dat ik het er niet mee eens ben, mede door de voorbeelden die ik hierboven aandroeg. Deze andere Miguel (ik: zo noemen ze me wel eens in Spanje..vertaling van Michel) zegt: “het ras is NIET de taal”. Wel kan taal een machtsmiddel zijn, ook ter vorming van een identiteit. Die is echter vaak illusoir. Dat Unamuno, van wie ik andere uitspraken wel zinnig vond, dit zei verbaast me ook. Het zou bijvoorbeeld betekenen dat alle Italianen, maar ook Spanjaarden, Fransen, Portugezen, Roemenen etcetera, van de Romeinen afstammen. Zowel historisch als genetisch is het allang aangetoond dat dit nauwelijks waar is: in Italië zelf mengden de Romeinen zich al met daar aanwezige volkeren, maar in een land als Spanje waren de Romeinen nog veel meer slechts een van de vele volkeren die aan het genetisch materiaal hebben bijgedragen. In Frankrijk worden de (Keltische) Galliërs als voorouders gezien, maar ook dat is slechts gedeeltelijk waar.

Het ras is ook niet de taal, als men denkt aan het kolonialisme. Neem de “Francophonie”: de meeste formeel Franstalige mensen, deel van deze francophonie, in deze wereld, leven in Afrika, waar Frankrijk veel kolonies had. Daarna volgt getalsmatig pas Frankrijk zelf en oostelijk Canada. Tegelijkertijd zijn veel zwarte mensen (van Afrikaanse afkomst dus) in deze wereld Engelstalig, en veel Spaanstalige mensen in Latijns Amerika van gemengde en soms zelfs geheel niet-blanke afkomst. Etcetera etcetera.

De film over Soedan op het IDFA ging over een raciale/culturele identiteit die een staat wilde opleggen aan de burgers. Nationale politici houden zich ook bezig met de staat, maar in een heleboel opzichten denken mensen toch graag in termen van de begrensde staat. Het land, de staat waar men vandaan komt wordt dan de kern van de identiteit. Daar zijn wel meer parallellen met de “taal”, hoewel dat ook niet altijd samen valt. Taal is wel een belangrijk symbool voor de eigen nationale identiteit – en voor delen die zich willen afscheiden (denk aan sommige Catalanen, Vlaanderen, of separatisme dat ook in Franstalig Canada bestaat), maar kan wel degelijk andere verschillen verhullen binnen de bevolking. Veel van die onderdrukte Soedanezen spraken net als die onderdrukkende machthebbers Arabisch. Zwarten in de VS spraken en spreken gewoon Engels, en zo zijn er wel meer voorbeelden te geven.


Een andere film/documentaire die op het IDFA draaide (en 1 december 2014, jongstleden dus, ook op de Nederlandse televisie kwam) is van Sunny Bergman, en heette ‘Zwart als roet’ (2014). Het is in zijn geheel op Internet te bekijken, zoals hier, dan wel hier, of via 'uitzending gemist'. Het ging over de Zwarte Piet-discussie die nu enkele jaren wat prominenter in Nederland gevoerd wordt. Ik heb daar in een eerder blogbericht al mijn mening over gegeven. Inhoudelijk heb ik daar niet zoveel aan toe te voegen. Ik heb nog steeds dezelfde kritiek op het fenomeen Zwarte Piet, en ben in die zin (net als anderen) in grote lijnen een medestander van Bergman, die dit ook bekritiseert met deze documentaire.

Interessant is soms ook om tussen de regels te lezen. Uitgedost als zwarte pieten gingen de filmmakers naar Londen om te kijken hoe dat in Groot-Brittannië zou vallen. Aanwezige Britten in een park wezen erop dat dat in Engeland niet geaccepteerd werd. Goed, maar toch even die nationale trots binnengesmokkeld, dacht ik ergens ook. Ook niet-Engelsen hebben bezwaren tegen racisme, dacht ik toen. Sterker nog: onder Engelsen zijn er ook racisten: niet minder dan andere landen, dacht ik zo, mogelijk wat verhulder. Maar misschien zeiden ze dat alleen omdat Bergman er bij uitlegde dat deze “Black Face” deel was van een kinderfeest in Nederland.

Bergman’s documentaire wees er in ieder geval goed op hoe het “witte privilege” werkt in Nederland. Niet alles was nieuw voor me. Dat de omroepen, ook de “vrijzinnige” VPRO, voornamelijk blanke bestuurders en medewerkers heeft, bracht Bergman goed aan het licht, maar wist ik ergens ook wel (ik noem dat ook in dat eerdere essay van mijzelf). Andere gesprekken in de documentaire vond ik zeker inzichtelijk en interessant.

Het lijkt me ook boeiend om vanuit een ander perspectief naar deze documentaire te kijken, namelijk vanuit de stelling die ik eerder aanhaalde, in directe zin aan de nieuwe Spaanse politicus Pablo Iglesias ontleend: “echt patriottisme houdt in: goed zorgen voor mensen in je land”. Ook het genoemde “opgelegde nationale identiteit” perspectief (uit de documentaire over Soedan) is in dezen interessant.


Het kinderfeest Sinterklaas symboliseert voor veel Nederlandse mensen de eigen Nederlandse identiteit. Die indruk wordt in ieder geval gewekt. Dat snap ik een beetje, maar niet helemaal. Ik snap dat de kinderjaren vormend zijn voor een eigen identiteit, wellicht ook een connectie met je land via je ouders en je familie. Dat kan ook als je ouder bent en op eigen benen staat extra gewicht krijgen, als je terugkijkt en je positie bepaalt. Ik vind het alleen een wat beperkte visie op nationale identiteit. Er zal vast meer zijn waar Nederland trots op kan zijn: een land goed organiseren en welvarend houden, om maar iets te noemen. In zekere zin is het ook een ongelukkige keuze, want de figuur Zwarte Piet is niet alleen een karikatuur van zwarte mensen en in die zin racistisch in historische zin, maar ook in de hedendaagse praktijk: het stimuleert racisme nu, en het uitschelden of pesten van zwarte mensen (jong en oud) via het flauwe scheldwoord “zwarte piet”.

Nu is de Nederlandse cultuur naar verhouding hoe dan ook wat “sarcastisch”, naar mijn ervaring – vergeleken met andere culturen die ik ken (Nederlanders zelf prefereren zichzelf als “direct” te zien, maar ik zie dat anders) – maar mogelijk is dat het probleem juist. Nederland herken je als sarcastische cultuur vooral als niet-Nederlander, als “buitenstaander”. Dan gaan ze je makkelijker beledigen, simpel gezegd; je hoort er immers niet echt bij. Dat treft zwarte mensen die toch door veel (niet alle) Nederlanders als “mindere Nederlanders”worden gezien, ook als zijn ze in Nederland geboren uit ouders uit een voormalig Nederlandse kolonie. Ook in de behandeling van andere etnische minderheden (Marokkanen,Turken, Chinezen e.a.), of zelfs ten opzichte van een licht-verdwaalde toerist in Amsterdam tonen veel Nederlanders dikwijls hun meest sarcastische kant. Vaak alleen op uiterlijk gebaseerd. Dat wil zeggen: zogenaamde “grappen” die eigenlijk vooral beledigingen of zelfs vernederingen zijn, en je verbaal uitsluiten. Alledaagse pesterijtjes hebben eenzelfde functie. Andere (nonverbale) manieren om vooroordelen of etnische voorkeuren te uiten zijn specifiek/gericht negeren of oogcontactvermijding (puur op uiterlijk of vooroordelen gericht: ik heb het niet over het begrijpelijke negeren van een junkie die je coke probeert te verkopen, of iemand die van je wil profiteren), en ook die "uitsluitende communicatie" passen veel Nederlanders in het openbaar verkeer wel toe. Okee.. allemaal minder erg dan bommen gooien op woongebieden zoals al-Bashir in Soedan doet bij Afro-culturele Soedanezen, maar ergens toch in de kern voort komend uit een vergelijkbaar sentiment.

Patriottisme is goed voor de mensen in je land zorgen, maar wat als niet geldt “de taal = het ras” (zoals Unamuno stelde), maar “het land = het ras”. De verharde Zwarte Piet-discussie in Nederland, en vooral wat het reflecteert over het bredere en diepere racisme in Nederland, wijst erop dat een deel van de Nederlanders dat vindt: “het ras is het land”. Wie daarbuiten valt kan dan hoogstens een “tweederangsburger” in dit land zijn. Of “anders oprotten”, zoals ook weleens direct wordt gescholden tegen anti-Zwarte Piet-betogers.


Mijn indruk is dat het racisme in Nederland veel raakvlakken heeft met dat in Groot-Brittannië. Beide landen hebben een “linksig” en democratisch, multicultureel nationaal imago gecreëerd, dat voor een groot deel meer imago is dan werkelijkheid. Er is een flinke dosis hypocrisie hieromtrent, alsmede “verhulling” bij een deel van de bevolking in beide landen. In beide landen zijn – misschien ironisch – “zwarte” cultuuruitingen relatief populair, ook bij een deel van de blanke autochtonen, die er zelfs dingen van overnemen. Er zijn in beide landen relatief veel raciaal gemengde relaties. Door dit alles wordt verhuld dat zwarte mensen ook in die landen relatief vaker geconfronteerd worden met discriminatie, sociaal-economische achterstelling , en met vooroordelen en stereotypen. Ook heeft Groot-Brittannië zelf ook flink wat, wat Russell Brand in de documentaire van Sunny Bergman noemde, “colonial hangovers”. De Britse premier Cameron heeft onder zijn voorouders eigenaren van Afrikaanse slaven in het Caraïbisch gebied, net als veel andere elitaire Britse (en Nederlandse) families. De Black Face of Minstrel traditie is dan wat eerder dan in Nederland verlaten en in de ban gedaan, andere problemen zijn er nog steeds. Hetzelfde geldt voor andere Europese landen, maar Bergman vergeleek in haar documentaire Nederland voor een deel met Engeland.

Een deel van de Nederlanders (en van de Britten) is ook echt multicultureel en open-minded, maar dat deel van de bevolking is kleiner of minder invloedrijk dan velen denken (of willen doen geloven). De Zwarte Piet discussie maakte dat ook deels duidelijker.


Echt “patriottisch” trots zijn op je eigen, zogenaamd multiculturele, tolerante land, kan wellicht beginnen met echt multicultureel en tolerant te zijn. Rekening houden met minderheden omtrent raciale stereotypen, al dan niet gepropageerd via een nationaal feest voor kinderen (kinderen die de vorm van het feest zelf niet zoveel interesseren), zou daarbij een goede eerste stap zijn .

Culturele en internationale verschillen die niet kwetsend zijn verrijken je wereld en referentiekader, zoals ik in het begin ook zei. Nederland heeft iets eigens en interessants, zoals elk land. Mijn ouders kwamen uit Italië (vader) en Spanje (moeder) en kwamen hier in de jaren 60; zij begrepen ook niet alles van de Nederlandse cultuur, of maakten er grappen over (andere feesten, afspraken voor bezoek, zuinigheid, het eten… de bekende beelden, die soms te generaliserend waren). Aan de andere kant waardeerden ze ook aspecten in de Nederlandse cultuur die ze in hun landen misten. Mijn moeder verliet het door de rechtse dictator Franco geregeerde Spanje, en ervoer in Nederland de aanwezigheid van iets als “arbeidersrechten” als een verademing. Ook de landelijk goede organisatie, het regelmatige onderhoud, en de financiële degelijkheid vonden ze in Nederland relatief beter. Toegegeven, niet echt “spannende” dingen om als Nederlander trots op te zijn (“ik ben cool want ik ben financieel degelijk”, hoor je weinig), maar ook waardeerden ze in Nederland – net als veel andere mensen van buitenlandse afkomst - de naar verhouding democratische samenleving, de relatief kleine sociaal-economische verschillen, formele participatiemogelijkheden, de uitgebreide ruimte voor educatie, de internationale gerichtheid en talenkennis, én.. de ruimte voor culturele variatie. Dat alles is wel degelijk iets om trots op te zijn als Nederland.

Een oude traditie met racistische stereotypen als Sinterklaas kan ofwel aangepast worden, of eventueel vervangen worden. Daarnaast: misschien is de echt Nederlandse folklore van de “klompendans” – of zijn andere Nederlandse tradities - wel cooler dan veel mensen denken, en kunnen dergelijke organisch ontstane, oude Nederlandse tradities afgestoft en wellicht bijgeschaafd worden en van ouders op kind worden overgebracht. Zoals je in een land als Cuba vaak ook van jongs af aan de salsa leert dansen, Ierse volksdansers hun vaardigheden ook vaak aan hun kinderen leren, en mensen in Spanje die met flamenco dansen bezig zijn dat vaak ook aan hun kinderen door geven.

In deze en veel andere landen in de wereld bestaan immers ook eigen, lokale dansen, culturele tradities, of desnoods carnaval-achtige festiviteiten, die soms iets van een eigen nationale culturele identiteit uitdrukken, en tegelijkertijd de band met je familie of (nationale/regionale) historische voorouders bevestigen. Zonder dat andere bevolkingsgroepen in het land daarvoor per se gekwetst, vernederd, of buitengesloten hoeven te worden. Een kwestie van keuze en instelling..

Ik eindig dan ook met de zin waarmee ik dit essay ook begon:

Het voordeel van een internationale oriëntatie is dat het je meer vergelijkingsmateriaal biedt, en je horizon verbreedt.