donderdag 2 mei 2019

Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture: a book review

It is a book I have had in my possession for quite some years now. Over ten years, I imagine. I vaguely recall having bought it at a book section of a record store in central Amsterdam, a record store now out of business. This might even not be the case, being so long ago. It does not matter that much, of course, but it illustrates that I bought it long ago, and cannot remember well.

Yet, I never got around to read it up to recently. During those years, there was one thing that dissuaded me from reading it. The title and theme were appealing enough - “Jamaican warriors” - as was the subtitle and short summary, and the cover photo. Its author was Stephen Foehr, a travel writer from the US, living in Colorado.

What discouraged me, was a review I read once that was partly negative about it, describing the book as one clearly written by a non-Rasta, or someone disapproving of it, so even anti-Rasta. Since I was entering and later entered the (Rastafari) Livity around that time, I felt an apprehension to delve into this book. I heard that anti-Rasta, quasi-intellectual (quasi-, not really intellectual) critique a bit too much, consisting often of gratuitous observations, and irrelevant if historical facts, missing the spiritual and fundamental importance of Rastafari.

Recently I read it, and I’ll start positive: I was pleasantly surprised by this book ‘Jamaican warriors”. It was not noticeably written by an anti-Rasta zealot, but rather by a travelling journalist, sincerely interested – and appreciative! – of Jamaican culture and music. The way he wrote he seemed to me to be a Reggae fan. These nonetheless still can – of course – have some critique of aspects of Jamaican culture, or of Rastafari. I know Reggae fans, even some self-proclaimed Rastafari-adherents here in the Netherlands, that do not see Haile Selassie as divine, thus disagreeing with most Rastas on that, for instance. Others, even worse, reject Selassie as an outdated, absolute and undemocratic monarch.

The pleasant thing about Foehr’s book, however, is that such criticism on Rastafari does not seem to be a main focus. That focus seems more positive and investigating. Open-minded, neutral reporting, so to speak, on his experiences in Jamaica, and with its culture and music industry. He is used to writing travel stories, and the book can be seen as a travel account, centering on various experiences and aspects of Jamaica, but emphasizing music and culture.

NEGRIL

I have been to Jamaica too, and recognize some places he describes, so I can compare a bit with my own experiences. The book was written around 2000, and I went there in 2006 and 2008, so not that long apart. He describes his stay in Negril, which I have visited too: a tourist centre on the West Coast of Jamaica. I did not like it there. The days before, elsewhere in Jamaica, in much less touristy Kingston city and areas of the St Ann’s parish, I enjoyed much more.

This has largely to do with Negril being a very commercialized tourist resort of the more cynical type: poverty, inferiority complexes due to a colonial past, racial obsessions, and, well, commercial greed, all combined to having Jamaicans acting like manipulative gangsters approaching you, often – like a pimp - using a girl to lure White men, and when with the girl, a guy comes along to help rip you off. These were hardened criminal hustlers, with too much “street savy” and psychological, intimidating conning skills, built up over time.

Some offered cocaine to me, even after a semi-friendly – or quasi-friendly – conversation. I was as good as my money there, whereas the Jamaicans I met in Kingston were sometimes hustlers, but more often trustworthy, pleasant people, who might even be friends, with in some cases even character similarities with me, even though I’m a Dutch-born (originally Italian-Spanish), Amsterdam-residing European. You could even talk quite openly and personally with Jamaicans there, something which I not even always achieve well up to today with many (of course not all) Dutch people, or other Amsterdam residents.

Negril was on the other hand not so pleasant, I found. I walked the streets, entered a few bars, and talked with some Jamaicans in Negril. The few conversations with some substance (i.e. actually getting to know someone personally, and learning something new) – with a girl – was still in the context of manipulation: her “pimp” wanted her to make money off me (through sex, became clear), not have a loose conversation, and he became impatient and intervened. So I stopped that whole relationship – a manipulative threesome, as I can describe it -, before it was too late and I was robbed, after following eventual sexual arousal: a common trick. Cute and funny how she opened a bottle with her teeth, that I must admit, but the guy kept intervening, even slapping her at times. Brr.

Not very nice, all this, and a beach resort, like Negril is, can be nice, but was too corrupted. I had enough nice beach experiences elsewhere in Jamaica (Portmore, near Kingston), Cuba, or even in parts of Andalusia, Spain where I moreover had family living.

Well now, Foehr describes the offering of cocaine, the commercial, “artificial”, touristic atmosphere, and the general untrustworthy environment in Negril quite well, including a promised “concert of reggae stars” that never came. He even sets out consciously to find a female companion, as other hedonistically minded tourists there did too. Without success. That is however just one chapter in the book.

MAUSOLEUM AND MUSEUM

Chapters before it and after it, dealt more directly with music and culture, and related trips in different parts of Jamaica. These included again some places I also visited, such as Bob Marley’s mausoleum in the parish of St Ann’s (Nine Miles), close to the North Coast, or the Bob Marley museum in Kingston. The author seems really interested in Bob Marley as artist and person, plus he describes it well. It was – predictably – touristy, that mausoleum in Nine Miles, but without the cynicism and hardened criminal hustlers as at Negril. One a bit more persistent hustler wanted me to buy a spliff (marijuana joint) of him. Not that bad, nor disturbing.

Foehr had a similar guided tour through the Bob Marley museum (in a relatively wealthy, “uptown” part in Kingston: where Bob went to live as he got more successful), as I have had in 2006. Other epochs describe Trench Town (that I visited too), and other parts I went and not went.

He had a coffee-related trip, that is not really in my field of interest, although Jamaican coffee is known among experts for its distinct quality. He describes that trip engagingly enough, but I would not have made that effort, I think.

Later in life, I found out that there are only a few types of coffee I really got to like (the real, original Ethiopian coffee, with a nice taste), perhaps some cappuccino, but most often coffee was something I had to, rather than liked to, drink.

RASTAFARI AND LEONARD HOWELL

Foehr, in other chapters, investigates the history of the Rastafari movement, and the pioneering “first Rasta” personality Leonard Howell, and his life. He travels to the community Howell set up at Pinnacle Hill in the 1930s, using Jamaican contact persons to gain access, knowledge, broadened with historical documentation. Foehr gives an historical contextualization with those trips, including about Rastafari’s development over time and Marcus Garvey, that seems mostly correct, though not always. Howell sought to promote the worship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, as African saviour for Black people, spreading flyers and such. Foehr comments that Marcus Garvey did not allow spreading these leaflets by Howell at his headquarter. I do not know if this is true, but I read in other, objective and academic historical sources, that Howell and Garvey as persons went along well, met sometimes amicably, and shared ideas. They maybe disagreed at points, but were not foes.

INTERVIEWS

As a journalist, Foehr further not only travels through parts of the island, but also talks and has interviews with several people, important in Reggae, Rastafari, and folk culture. These include important and interesting personalities like Mortimmo Planno, a Rasta elder and teacher, scholar Kwame Davis, musicians like Skatalite Lloyd Knibbs, Toots Hibbert, Freddie McGregor, President Brown, Sugar Minott, Yami Bolo, U Roy, David Hinds, Ken Booth, Marcia Griffiths, the Wailing Souls and others, thus representing different generations in Jamaican music. Foehr does not really devote separate chapters to each interviewee, but rather spreads the conversations out through the travel accounts, and historical and general descriptions.

This might seem haphazard and chaotic, yet he keeps all this quite readable, I must say, showing he can write well, in an engaging way. Moreover, he did not criticize Rastafari so much as I feared. He is seldom disrespectful, but rather objectively descriptive, expressing some skepticism here and there, but reserving the same skepticism for established Western religions. Overall, he sees Rastafari, and the Roots Reggae it influenced, as a positive force, when compared to other “influences” in Jamaican society and music, before and after: the history of anti-African colonialism and slavery, as well as - increasing since the 1980s -: Western materialism values in Jamaica, gun crime, shallow or negative “slackness” lyrics in Dancehall music, moving away from the positive, edifying message in earlier Roots Reggae.

DIGITAL

Also, musically he discusses the change toward more “digital” Dancehall riddims since the late 1980s. Again, Foehr takes on a quite neutral approach, even arguing that there is “quality Dancehall” too, while deploring the general trend of moving away from acoustic or live instruments. That shift was never absolute of course, but a part of Jamaican music became digitally made in the Late 1980s and 1990s, while live musicians were likewise active.. Foehr, and most interviewees, favour a return to music with real instruments, and with more conscious lyrics.

This return already started with the rise of DJ’s with more “conscious”, Rastafari-influenced lyrics, turning away from their slack lyrics from before, like Capleton, or other upcoming artists (DJ’s and singers) with more conscious lyrics. This book was published in 2000, so some artists mentioned in it are still “rising” stars in this book, while more known or “household names” nowadays (Luciano, Buju Banton, Sizzla, who started around 1990, and others). 1990s developments are certainly included in this book, though.

FOLK BELIEFS AND TRADITIONS

Another strain throughout this work is “folk tradition” as such, of African heritage, surviving in Jamaica. Nearby Caribbean islands are well-known for such belief systems, notably Vodou in Haiti, and Santería in Cuba. In Jamaica, similar African-based “spirit possession” and ghost-related beliefs exist and live on, but became less an “export article” as for instance Vodou, including as simplified stereotypes (Vodou dolls) in popular culture and even Hollywood films.

There are several books I have meanwhile read about Reggae and Rastafari, and their history., including some scholarly ones . The same I can say for other themes Foehr treats in this book: the Maroons, colonial history. These segments largely repeat information from elsewhere, in that sense. He explains well the differences between Maroon communities within Jamaica: the one, with Queen Nanny, more rebellious and less complacent than the other one, that just secured its own independence, while at times even capturing escaped slaves to give back to English masters. Not everyone knows of these differences, I imagine. It has been written elsewhere too, though.

Foehr, however, makes his book a bit more unique by paying attention to such folk beliefs, even among common Jamaicans. He speaks with adherents of Kumina, a spirit-based faith found especially in the St Thomas parish in Eastern Jamaica, but also discusses Myal and Obeah, as other “spirit”, “magical”, or “healing” traditions, with African origins. “Obeah” is the magic that has a worse name – more used for evil “casting spells” on enemies or foes – whereas Myal is more known as good and healing.

While African retentions, the Rastafari movement largely took distance from most of such practices, especially the negative aspects of Obeah, as can be heard in many Reggae lyrics. Some aspects, musical (drumming) patterns from Kumina and Burru, and folk medicine for instance, found a way into Rastafari, though.

Besides this, Foehr, also points at a common belief in “duppies”, by at least a part of the Jamaicans. Duppies are ghosts out to get you, when you are least prepared, preferably on straight roads, it seems. Another African retention: in some parts of Africa today, roads and paths are still deliberately made winding, because straight paths may invite evil ghosts.

This all might seem superstitions by uneducated people, having no more intellectual sources to make sense of their world. This might even be true, but devalues it too as less culturally, perhaps unjustly. All cultures have this kind of “magic”, sometimes connected to the natural environment, such as the ancient Celts of Europe, for whom for instance the oak tree was “sacred”, and these trees and other natural aspects harboured “special powers”.

It is in a way interesting that all these beliefs and cultural legacies coexist, I find, in Jamaica. Interesting also, how Jamaicans developed an own culture out of all this. The good and bad. The colonial history with dehumanization and cultural deracination, or attempts of it, of transplanted Africans brought by force to the West, losing their names, and part of their culture. Persisting poverty of the majority in Jamaica, up to the present. Christianity as a colonial legacy, but reinterpreted as an African consciousness arose in Jamaica, returning to the roots, and centralizing an African Emperor in the case of Rastafari. These other beliefs (Obeah, Myal, Kumina, etcetera) only confirm that an Africanness lived on in Jamaica, on which Rastafari was founded, even if many Rastas, ironically, reject certain aspects (spirit possession), or translate other aspects differently, more symbolically (“ancestor worship” for instance).

CONCLUSION

All this combines to make Foehr’s book well readable, and quite unique. He can write engagingly, I must admit, but he does not just “repackage“ well the same information, found in other (scholarly and other) sources. That is a quality that should not be underestimated, by the way. Complex themes or histories are explained better by some than by others, as one may know from own experience. The didactic “now I get it!” effect.

Beyond this, though, Foehr’s book ‘Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture’, published in the year 2000, adds an unique quality because of the time of its release, and dealing with happenings/developments in the 1990s, giving insight in that specific period in Jamaica.

A time of crossroads in music (digital versus real instruments, slackness versus conscious lyrics), culture, social developments (increased violence and crime in Jamaica since the 1980s). Foehr intertwines these various dimensions skillfully through his travel accounts and interviews, interrelating his own impressions as a White US “outsider”, with interesting and knowledgeable descriptions by Jamaicans themselves, who know best from their experience. As in the better traditions of journalism..

Therefore I am glad I - finally! - read this book, not just because I felt I had to, as a task to be fulfilled or a burden to bear, but because I actually enjoyed it: also due to recognizing, or expanding on what I knew - .. and I even learned a few things from it I did not know yet.

And no, it was not an anti-Rastafari book as such. Foehr openly questions in one chapter some assumptions Rastas have about Haile Selassie, and also is slightly skeptical elsewhere, but it does not go much beyond that, and remains quite objective.

Some things Foehr wrote I considered not really correct, or had a few mistakes, though not often. He had mostly good sources, apparently. I mentioned already that Garvey and Howell in fact were not enemies, as Foehr seems to imply.

Regarding Jamaican music and lyrics, I largely agree with him and especially with what the ”conscious” artists say about the need for more positive lyrics, and “realer” music.

That the “African heritage” in Jamaican music got limited or to the background with the rise of Digital Dancehall is tempting to believe, but a bit simplistic. Purely looking at “rhythm”, Danchehall – even with digital sounds – kind of revives African polyrhythmic musical traditions, you can also say. Many do in part, at least. Not dissimilar to the Funk James Brown started to make, with more rhythmic patterns than in earlier R&B. More modern, yet with retained African, polyrhythmic traditions.

These are overall, however, minor points of critique to an overall well-written, readable book, with quite some information, though largely repeated from other sources, many of which I happen to know or have read already. This information is however placed in another context, making it even for me somewhat relevant in the whole.

The interviews I found also interesting, all the more because some of these were with artists not or rarely interviewed in other “Reggae books or documentaries”, like President Brown, Yami Bolo, the Wailing Souls, and others.

Moreover, a few of the places in Jamaica he visits – not all – I visited too. Some, on the other hand, I did not get to go to, so those descriptions were insightful for me.

Worth the effort and pleasant enough, perhaps even recommendable, reading this book ‘Jamaican Warriors’.

dinsdag 2 april 2019

Romantic love in reggae lyrics

One good thing about Reggae Music – in fact of course one of many – is that it has a large proportion of “conscious” lyrics, or “cultural” lyrics. In Reggae terminology this more or less means: about social issues, including social commentary, often including also a spiritual connection, mostly through Rastafari messages. Critique of the social and political situation in Jamaica, including issues like inequality, violence, and poverty, are thus common themes, along with Black history, and the African roots.

That is good, because it is necessary. Most musical genres, after all, pop, folk genres and classical ones, tend to focus lyrically too dominantly on what is known as “romantic love”. That has become a safe, accepted theme, even among the mainstream and cultural “gatekeepers” in many societies. Reason enough to mistrust it..

SAFE

Romantic love is a “safe” theme also politically of course, as in dictatorships and similar political systems with censorship, such romantic love themes are personal, small-scale human trivialities, not impacting upon the status-quo or affecting power relations. It is therefore stimulated. As an “opium for the people”, so to speak, not unlike big sports, or the “bread and games” of Ancient Rome.

It passes censorship in dictatorships or authoritarian societies, yet also in formally democratic societies, like in North America and Europe, there is an overall greater acceptance and support in popular music for romantic love lyrics. It is certainly more (potentially) commercially successful. It is in that sense also safe, but also recognizable/relatable for/by many people, as a pleasant, diversionary, and light theme, thus avoiding heavy themes like social inequality, poverty, exploitative bosses, corruption, etcetera etcetera.

Reggae, with its rich legacy of socially conscious lyrics, clearly counters that.

BOB MARLEY

Even the internationally most famous Reggae artist, Bob Marley, continued with socially conscious lyrics, even at the height of his international/crossover fame. I always admired that. It is simply hard to accuse Bob Marley of being a sell-out. Adaptive maybe, but never really selling out. Songs like Is This Love or Waiting In Vain are indeed about safe, “romantic love”. Did Bob have a broader audience in mind? Maybe a bit, but not so much.

When Bob Marley’s album Kaya was released, it got criticized by many for having too much “lovey dovey” lyrics: where was the social rebellion of previous albums? Also the non-love songs on that album were mostly about marijuana (like the title track) or other light themes as music and dancing itself (Easy Skankin’). Bob defended this as a needed break from the militant vibe, toward mellower vibes. Again: difficult to simply characterize as “selling out”, or just thinking commercially. There is some genuineness there.

Public reception is another thing, though. Songs of Bob that were love songs, Is This Love or Waiting In Vain, were among his biggest hits internationally, as was No Woman No Cry, which “seems” a love song lyrically. Granted, protest songs like Get Up Stand Up are well-known too, but a bit less, it seems.

What I like about Bob’s songwriting, though, is how it had a versatility lyrically: No Woman No Cry as well as another big hit, Could You Be Loved, seem superficially love songs, but in fact contain social criticism when you listen to the entire lyrics.

HOW DISCUSSED?

This all raises a question I find interesting: to what degree represents the “romantic love” theme in Reggae lyrics a diversion from the “social protest” or “spiritual norms”? Equally interesting: is romantic love discussed differently in Reggae lyrics, compared to other genres?

Being a Reggae fan over 30 years now, I should have some ideas and knowledge about that.

WHAT KIND OF LOVE?

A distinction is first in order. Notably between “love” and “romantic love”. The latter referring more to personal relationship issues between a man and a woman, the former more to a basic human need and desire, or connection between people, besides just “lovey dovey” hugging and kissing of those in love.

This last aspect is also found in Reggae, of course. Despite my slightly ironic phrasing I do not think there is something wrong with that, per se. It is a part of all our lives, we fall in love with some persons, have romantic relationships etcetera. It’s nice when someone describes eloquently passionate or lonesome feelings we also seem to recognize in ourselves. It can be a pleasant recognition I myself also found in Reggae love lyrics. Johnny Clarke’s I Wish It Could Go On was such a song I enjoyed especially when I myself felt in love with someone, once in a time. Also “heart break” or lost love songs I recognized and “felt”, such as the almost too beautiful “Closer To You” by Ijahman Levi. Gregory Isaacs – who had also “lonely lover” as a nickname – had also nice lyrics in this regard.

Also these lyrics (song One Who Loves You) by Everton Blender I related to, when I heard them: in my life then I had the dubious honour of being the good male friend a woman (actually a few women) talked to about problems with other men, only without the intimate advantages she or they allowed these other men, apparently.

The other “love”, though, is more about human unity in the world, or within the Black community, or among different races, which is more part of social issues, albeit with less “militancy”. This love is also a "higher" love, one can say, often also connected to spirituality or divinity (Jah/God). Seemingly less militant, believing in this higher love can be actually quite rebellious in many social contexts. That is also alluded to in many Reggae lyrics: Freddie McGregor’s song self-explanatorily titled We Need More Love In the Ghetto, or Israel Vibration’s Live In Jah Love, Culture’s Peace and Love (in the Dancehall), or Dennis Brown’s Love and Hate (can never be friends) etcetera. And of course Bob Marley’s One Love: a song of Bob I hear too much, when compared to others of him.

Current New Roots by people like Protoje, Chronixx, Lutan Fyah, Iba Mahr, Queen Ifrica, Sizzla Kalonji, Buju Banton, Morgan Heritage, Luciano, Richie Spice, and others, continue this “love as social rebellion” strain in some of their lyrics, usually interchanged with more militant lyrics, spiritual lyrics, and, yes, on occasion also lyrics on “romantic love”, also by these artists. Also part of human life, of course.

I like that Reggae lyrics are about everything in life: Rastafari, social conditions, injustice, but also human relationships: backstabbing friends, betrayal, parasitic behavior, fake people, and also romantic relationships that offered some relief from the struggles, or that ended, unluckily for the lover still in love.. Reggae lyrics have the whole versatile “pallet” of human life and needs, you can say.

LOVERS ROCK

More specialized within reggae is the subgenre of Lovers Rock. This especially became strong in especially British Reggae around the 1980s, for some reason. Well.. “for some reason..”, some sociological explanations have been given for this. The different lives and economic situations of Caribbean migrants in Britain, when compared to Jamaican ghetto or “poor rural” life, with an almost inevitable adaptation of British Jamaicans to the, one might say, “bourgeois” lifestyles of white people in the Western world: working to pay the bills, settle down in an own house with a loved one, etcetera etcetera.

This does not explain all of this popularity of Lovers Rock in Britain, though. Being Black and of Jamaican descent in a “White man country” like Britain is not easy. Britain seems open, modern, multicultural, and democratic, but the racial discrimination and exclusionary mechanisms are likewise there, only more hidden and perhaps confusing. British Reggae acts like Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots therefore have mainly socially critical and Rastafari-inspired lyrics, and to a lesser degree also Aswad (whose band names means after all “Black” in Arab). The biggest hit in the “mainstream” of Aswad was, predictably, a (romantic) love song: Don’t Turn Around.. An “okay” song, certainly better than much that was high in the pop hit parades, but hardly their best song.

The origins of Lovers Rock, however, are rather Jamaican, showing how the “romantic love” theme has never been neglected, sidelined but never abandoned, in Jamaican music. Not even with the rise of Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae, since around 1973. Gregory Isaacs, is more or less seen as the originator of Lovers Rock as such, although Alton Ellis, Freddie McGregor, Ijahman Levi, and Dennis Brown also influenced it.

Many Reggae artists, like Freddie McGregor, Half Pint, Cornell Campbell, Ijahman Levi, Don Carlos, Horace Andy, the Mighty Diamonds, and Ini Kamoze have quite some love lyrics – about love relationships -, as do later artists like Chronixx, Junior Kelly, Tarrus Riley, Romain Virgo, Bushman, Sizzla, Jah Mason, or Lutan Fyah. Even as these do not “specialize” in them as such (as e.g. Beres Hammond).

More “Rootical” or spiritual artists like Burning Spear, the Abyssinians, the Congos, the Wailing Souls, the Gladiators, or Culture, are less known for such romantic love lyrics, but even of these there are some (exceptional) examples, on some of their albums.

This brings me back to what I mainly want to discuss in this particular post. “How” are the romantic love lyrics in Reggae discussed, especially when compared to other music genres world wide?

I have a Spanish-speaking background (Spanish mother), and understand Spanish since I was a child (in fact before I learned Dutch, even if born and grown in the Netherlands). For that reason I can compare with lyrics in Spanish pop (Julio Iglesias for instance) or folk genres like Flamenco music, having a rich poetic legacy. Moreover, I understand lyrics in Latin American and Spanish Caribbean genres too: Cuban music, Merengue, Salsa, Colombian cumbia and other genres.

This knowledge of languages – I also understand many Italian, French, and Portuguese lyrics for instance – gives me more “material” to compare with. This besides the fact that have been listening to varied Reggae music (old and new) since my early teenager years, and already knew English quite well then.

MAINSTREAM

Well, romantic love lyrics tend to be more commercial, better for crossing over to other audiences, or the main stream. Reggae artists experienced this, although not always due to a conscious, commercial strategy. Rastafari and socially rebellious lyrics of Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs – of which there are many examples too, of course – never became (relatively) big hits for them like Brown’s Money In My Pocket (his biggest hit, overall, commercially, ranking e.g. high in British charts), or Isaacs’ Night Nurse. The same applies to an artist like Ras Shiloh, whose biggest hit up to now is still Are You Satisfied, while he arguably has better (but more conscious) songs.

I consider myself more or less a Gregory Isaacs fan, but admit that I by now have heard Night Nurse too much; I grew tired of it. Its lyrics are perhaps more sexual than “romantic love”, but either way not “conscious”’.

With romantic love you reach the mainstream, because supposedly is more recognizable by “others”, outside the musical culture or scenes. They seemingly represent universal, human traits beyond a specific culture (like in this case Jamaica’s..).. or does it?

To a degree, I think, yes. Being in love is being in love universally, a largely biological, human need and behavior, with similar effects across cultures and races.

SPECIFIC CULTURE

There are, however, cultural specifics that I find must be emphasized. There are many cultures in the world where “boy meets girl in a social setting, flirting, and eyes meet etcetera” is not the norm. Arranged marriages through parents are there the norm, leaving actual “love feelings” to the hidden, clandestine areas. In the more strict Hinduist and Islamic interpretations this is still the case. Earlier in history also in Europe: my mother told me a story about (landowning) parents in her village of birth in South West Spain, objecting to and trying to keep their son from having a love affair with a very poor, peasant girl in the same village.

Also “macho” cultural norms and historical male privileges in culture and society can disturb such “love relationships”, as certain insecure men actually expect women to be more their servants or concubines, rather than another equal person that you have warm feelings for, and share minds and hearts with, on the basis of equality.

Most Jamaicans are of sub-Saharan African descent, a cultural heritage inevitably mixed with slavery and colonialism with European culture, mostly of the Anglo-Saxon type in Jamaica.

The cultures and areas where enslaved Africans were taken from to Jamaica, relatively many from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, had historically no lesser place for women than in Europe of the time. In some areas, African women even had more rights, up to around the 19th c., than in countries like Britain at the time, with a Protestant rigidity, or Spain and Portugal, where Catholicism combined with remnants of an Islamic past to keep women as subservient to and dependent on men in society and families, resulting in a “machismo” cult.

I think a reason why this “backward” myth of African gender roles still persists, is the place of “polygamy” in African societies. This tended historically to be formally rejected in Christian Europe (but hiddenly practiced, and more or less accepted if by men, a bit more openly in the “Latino” countries), while it was more openly present and accepted in African societies, in the same period (around the 18th c. AD). In many cultures, such as in Ghana before Christianity really became influential there, and in the area of Nigeria and Congo too, men and women of mature ages tended to live apart in their own, separate dwellings, occasionally “visiting” male or female partners for amorous encounters: mostly “visiting” several women (and men!) in the same life period. Among the more isolated (African-descended) Maroon communities in Suriname this practice is still maintained up to the present, by the way.

There is however a strong Christian influence in Jamaica too, so these remnants of this variant of “equal” polygamy – differing from the male-directed one in Islam – are discarded for single partners, marriages, exclusive relationships, etcetera, i.e. family values from European Christianity.

Womanizing or polygamous tendencies are certainly strong in Jamaica, to be sure, fathering children with several women in fact quite common, for example. These are however influenced also by the slavery past, when White slave-owners tended to have (then mostly forced) sexual relationships with several female slaves, even when having a wife at home (many slave-owners were single men, other had wives in England). A bad example on the former slaves, so to speak.

THEMES

All this somehow shapes the “romantic love” lyrics in Jamaican Reggae, partly having similar “tropes” as in Anglo-Saxon or many Latin “pop” love songs (do you love me, give me love, please be faithful, and I saw you with another man). There are for that reason similarities between such romantic love lyrics, in content, between Reggae artists, and those in quite other genres, such as Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, French “chansons” like of Jacques Brel, or songs by artists like Van Morrison, songs in Salsa, Merengue, Bossa Nova, Rock or Blues, or even of Country artists. There are different accents per genre, that is true, but also similarities in treating themes like being in love, wanting someone, heart break, breaking up, cheating, lost love, etcetera.

If you would translate lyrics by, e.g. Latin crooners like, for instance, Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic), Julio Iglesias (Spain), or his son Enrique, from Spanish to English, some lyrics would resemble superficially some of those you hear in Reggae “you don’t love me and I know..”, “what I won’t do for your love”, “for the love of a woman”, “don’t be afraid of my love”..such themes. So do, of course, many Soul music lyrics since the Motown days, even influencing some Reggae artists.

On the other hand, some themes recurring in Reggae love lyrics are more unique to the genre though, and there it becomes interesting..

PRINCESSES AND EMPRESSES

After comparing, there is one aspect of male-female relationships that are more common in Reggae than in other genres. One is the referring to women as “African Princess” “(African) Empress”, “Lioness”, or “Roots daughter”, as part of the Africa-centered movement, that Rastafari is. There are love lyrics praising a loved woman with proper Rastafari values, or those lamenting women lacking them.

This was all there since the 1970, way before Tarrus Riley had his big hit She’s Royal, with such respectful lyrics. Another song that is fine, but I have heard too much by now..

GOLD DIGGERS

“Gold diggers”, or women seeking money through relationships with men, are very common too. Several Reggae lyrics lament women only wanting or faking love to get money from them as men, thus playing games. These exist in Reggae already since around the 1970s. Understandable, perhaps, in a socioeconomic context with much poverty as Jamaica’s. Women in such contexts search ways to “hustle” too (like men), to get by, using like other skilled hustlers weak spots, such as those of men. Such opportunistic behavior got and gets quite some attention in Reggae lyrics. It is not the only genre where one finds this, it is also heard in Hip-hop. The term “Gold Digger” from Hip-hop also reached Jamaican lyrics in more recent times.

SENSUAL

Some lyrics can be categorized under “romantic love lyrics”, but are rather more “lewd” or sexual and sensual in main focus. This cheeky “double entendre” has quite a tradition in some Caribbean genres (calypso, mento a.o.), including in Cuban or Dominican music. Of course there is an obvious interrelation as love can be expressed sexually in healthy, or more meaningful relationships, but some songs – also in Reggae – focus more on the sensual/sexual part. In Dancehall this is often more “slackness”: explicit (more “pornographic”) lyrics, more sex-focussed, and often degrading to women or consisting of empty “machismo” boasting. Literal references to body parts, i.e. genitalia, tend to recur there too. Shabba Ranks’ (in my opinion mediocre) dancehall hit song Bed Room Bully, that for some reason is lately played a lot in clubs here in the Netherlands, is one such song.

In Reggae and Lovers Rock, lyrics are less explicit and more sensual, especially Gregory Isaacs was good with that. Often it combines with humour. Night Nurse is best known, but there are several other examples among his songs: sexual, but not cynical: Soon Forward, the self-explanatory If You Feeling Hot, I Will Cool You, Private Beach Party, the funny Bang Belly, Welcome To My Room, Rosie, etcetera, etcetera.

Other old and new Roots Reggae artists on occasion also make a “lewd”, sensual song to interchange the more conscious or social lyrics. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, Junior Delgado, the Twinkle Brothers (It Was A Vision I Had), Junior Reid, Romain Virgo, Lee Perry, Sizzla, Buju Banton (Batty Rider, for example), and others.

Then there are more Lovers Rock reggae artists, both in Jamaica and Britain, whose lyrics became mainly about romantic love, with an occasional conscious tune. So, they became specialized in romantic love, lyrically. The other way around from other (Rootsy) Reggae artists, let’s say. Beres Hammond being a main example, Jah Cure another, or Tanya Stephens, and to a lesser degree also artists like Glen Washington, Sugar Minott, Etana, Sanchez, Gyptian, or Busy Signal.

Humour or explicitness is sometimes there, when these Reggae artists have romantic love lyrics, but seldom cynicism. Rarely are they also degrading to women: degrading in whatever sense: as a “religious” keeping down of female freedoms or denying their rights when compared to men, or the other sense: as treating women like primarily sex objects or pieces of meat.

In Dancehall Reggae this is more often the case, though often more “close to it”, because the women’s equality in the whole is seldom denied. Stupid or aggressive macho boasting, perhaps, but glorifying forced sex or rape is hardly there, even in the “slackest” Dancehall lyrics.

CONCLUSION

As an universal and biological human need, feelings of romantic love and male-female relationships, have much in common. Being in love is not stimulated in all cultures in this world, but remain inevitable, or – more poetically put – indestructible. So are longing for a significant other, sensual feelings, missing a partner, or having a heart broken and being left alone, after strong feelings developed.

For that reason, many lyrics on this theme of “romantic love” in Reggae, and its precursors Ska and Rocksteady, from the 1960s to the present, share tropes or emotions with many other genres: Do you really love me? Don’t leave me for another.. I am glad I met you.. and other such themes.

In Roots Reggae, such love lyrics tend to be sidelined relative to conscious and spiritual lyrics, but still recur, with some artists more than others.

The male-centeredness of Christian-influenced Rastafari, but also of the reggae music scene (as other pop music genres), might have caused a male bias, or a mysoginist tendency. Luckily, this is not really there in Reggae. Here and there one notices disdain of (too) independent women in some Reggae lyrics, but the same (and worse) can be heard in, e.g. Country or Bachata lyrics.

Lyrics tend to be sensitive, and present the women as equal, not as uppity slaves or disobedient children, as would do men who see women as unequal beings. Sex and love are after all a thing between adult and equal people. The critique of female gold diggers is more from a “male” perspective, but understandable. Of course, it can be vice versa too, occurring in the Caribbean too: local “good time guys” on beaches starting hot affairs with female tourists from wealthy countries, often at the same time having another Jamaican (or Cuban, Barbadian, or Bahamian etc.) girlfriend. Those are gold digging men, one might say.

That’s a positive thing in Reggae lyrics: the equality between sexes is mostly respected. Another positive thing, at least in my opinion, is that love lyrics overall are not overly “prudish” in Reggae. Sensuality is openly discussed, and playfully so, avoiding the “heavy sacredness” some main religions (Christianity, Islam a.o.) claim to propagate. Hypocritically, often. There is room for “lewd” and sensual lyrics in Reggae.

Furthermore, there are many nice “romantic love” lyrics in Reggae, with recognizable, eloquent lyrics for many people, even able to support or console people listening with similar feelings. By Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, the Mighty Diamonds, the Gladiators, Beres Hammond, Glen Washington, Half Pint, and, more recently, Jah Cure, Chronixx, Fantan Mojah, and many, many others. Too many to mention, simply.

Enough, but luckily not eclipsing the important conscious and “message” strain within Reggae, at least not among real Reggae fans..

I made a mix of Reggae songs I played as (vinyl) selecta with such romantic love lyrics, from somewhat earlier artists (around the 1980s), but this is just one of the mixes/selections that can be made, based on my taste and collection, of course..

zaterdag 2 maart 2019

Fonko and soul definition

I recently saw the quite recent documentary film ‘Fonko’ (2016), which was about the “new” Africa told through its current music. Its screening was organized at Café the Zen in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), on the initiative of the organization Soul Definition: a platform with real-life films for a better society (https://souldefinition.net).

Whatever the context of its screening, I found it an engaging documentary. It was narrated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, of course a well-known Nigerian musician, who died in 1997.

Fonko was in fact more about the new Africa, socially and politically, than about music as such. Sure, newly developed modern music genres – combining traditional and modern (foreign) influences – in several African countries, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Senegal, Burkina Faso, South Africa, got some attention, for instance certain hip-hop artists, and some artists involved in what is called Afro-House, similarly mixing influences.

The lyrics and messages of the musicians seemed of more relevance, though. This was in line with Fela Kuti’s narrations throughout the documentary, about the need for Africa to find her own answers and identity and get united, away from Western colonialism and its legacies, capitalist neocolonialism still dividing Africa today, or from Islam, wanting to turn Africans into Arabs, just like Christianity wants to turn Africans into White Americans or Britons/Europeans.

The musicians and others in the documentary expressed their views, and certainly had an idea of an own African identity, albeit modernized in this computer age, through digital equipment. This modern, by definition Western, technology, was used by these African musicians for their own musical explorations, but using African musical idioms, departing in that sense from “traditional African music”, yet still maintaining an Africanness, even in Techno/Digital or House-like music forms.

IRONY

There is an inherent irony in this, of course, but the history of Black music – also in the African Diaspora – is full of such ironies. Western technology, modern instruments, might mostly be Western inventions – or dominated by Western companies –, but played all central roles in the development of genres, and in spreading Black music. It was a welcome means made use of for self-expression, in that sense a case of “fighting them with their own weapons”.

Lack of money often inhibited and inhibits poor people – certainly also in Africa – from buying these modern studio equipment and instruments. Yet, this was circumvented in various, creative ways, though not always in the interest of companies wanting to sell their products. For instance, through illegal copying. A musician in the documentary Fonko funnily turned it around: he argues that those companies should consider it a “privilege” for them, that their computers and other equipment got used in developing modern African music. An interesting way to look at it: culture over money.

That self-expression as an African, remained the most important theme in the documentary, indeed through current music genres, and accompanying dances, especially among the poorer people in several countries, like Ghana, Burkina Faso, or Angola. Also in South Africa, after all, as musician Hugh Masakela pointed out, after Apartheid’s end and the arrival of democracy, the poor Black South Africans remained just as poor and limited, only with a bit less police harassment, and now with the ability to vote.

Music became thus a main vehicle for rebellion, and the expression of an African identity, and not just a way to copy Western culture, which was a positive aspect of pride and self-expression in the documentary.

Again, there is nothing new under the sun here. Looking at Black music in the Americas, one notes throughout history a similar trajectory, in Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Reggae, Funk, Hip-hop, and other genres musical instruments and equipment were used, that were all – in those forms at least – Western inventions and products, part of a capitalist system to make profit out of other people’s hobbies or professions.

This is, however, purely the material aspect of it. The “soul” of the music is something else of course. When a cooking pit is made in Germany, for instance, it does not mean one must only prepare German food, or if one drives a Fiat car one must not by necessity “drive as an Italian” (whatever that may be). No one makes that ridiculous assumption. As Bob Marley once eloquently said: “the White man has the technology, the Black man has the wisdom..” combining it thus in producing current music.

Relatedly, in a Reggae lyric of the Gladiators, in their song Looks Is Deceiving, there is the line: “don’t watch the tool the work it can do, watch the man that behind it..”

SOUND

An aspect that me, as a percussionist, intrigues me overall most, though, touches on the very essence of music: sound.

Actually, I myself have got to known MIDI - simply said digital “samples” of real instruments -, quite early on in my life, mostly through music software, in my early adolescence. We are talking about the later 1980s and Early 1990s, now..

In fact, I remember even using it (with my brother) on an “old-time” Atari computer, before the PC and Internet days. On the PC I continued with it, making songs with instruments that were copied sonically in MIDI. Standard "band instruments" like bass, guitar, and drum, or piano, but also instruments regarding which I did not know yet what “the real thing” looked like (Shamisen?), from different cultures in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, also beyond known European instruments (At least more known to me, growing up in the Netherlands).

I have always been quite rhythmically focused, and paid quite some attention to drum patterns, in Reggae and other genres, and also when I tried to make songs myself. I even added an occasional MIDI-sampled bongo, conga, scraper, bell or other percussion sounds to the “groove”.

REAL PERCUSSION

Years later, especially after some Cuban trips, I expanded my latent interest in “real-life” (acoustic, natural) percussion. I think those Cuban trips of mine (I took these, also having friends Cuba, between 2001 and 2006) played a role because Cuba has a rich musical culture and life – as some may imagine – but with the added distinction that mainly “acoustic” regarding instruments were – and still are – used in Cuba. These included the conga’s and bongo’s, timbales, scrapers, bells, maracas, and other percussion instruments – being quite prominent in (Afro-)Cuban music after all – but also different types of guitars, and an occasional trumpet, flute, or old piano.

Elsewhere on this blog, I remarked that I do not recall having seen much “drum kits”, as we know them from Western pop groups, in Cuba: mostly percussion had their function there. Yet, neither do I recall having seen many electric guitars in Cuba.. only a few times a semi-acoustic – or semi-electric - (standing) bass or guitar. Since the norm was acoustic in Cuba, maybe there it is better to say “semi-electric”, than “semi-acoustic” as said in Europe and North America with so many electrical instruments, seeming thus the norm. In some special centers, there were also electronic keyboards, alongside the acoustic instruments.

Anyhow.. experiencing many live performances in Cuba with real percussion instruments – not the “faux-MIDI” hand drum or percussion sounds I already knew –, I developed a love for acoustic drums/instruments, sensing it as “realer”, more natural music somehow.. “Purer” music, perhaps even..

Not long after these experiences, I started actually playing percussion instruments – including taking lessons -, starting with hand drums like the bongos, and conga’s. Soon after this I started to play also djembe, ashiko, talking drum, and “small” percussion like shakers, scrapers, bells, rattles, woodblocks, flexatone etcetera.

I make my own compositions (including percussive-based ones) and play with other people now (as a percussionist), resulting from this trajectory. This can often be found on my YouTube channel, like this video.

I had before that of course also my acoustic “fix” during live concerts, with actual drum kits by live drummers, and often added percussion sets, such as during many Reggae concerts I visited. I enjoyed that very much. Even Dancehall of the more digital kind got played at times with a live drummer and drum kit.

DIGITAL

I heard about drum machines, synth drum, or MIDI drum, and heard what some did with it, such as in Hip Hop, House, Drum & Bass, Techno, and even some modern Reggae and Dancehall. Some digital drums were used in Caribbean genres like Zouk and Reggae and Dancehall, creating a somewhat disorienting – or experimental – feel. Sometimes I thought it was okay, especially when rhythmically creative and groovy, and sometimes I missed “the real thing” (the acoustic, natural drum sound). There are catchy, groovy Digital Dancehall riddims/instrumental, even if sounding “bleepy” and unnatural, or with digital drums, as long as it is rhythmically strong. I still enjoyed them, or could appreciate the creativity, despite my personal interest in (and, in many cases, preference for) acoustic drums and percussion.

Something of that I saw and heard in the documentary Fonko, mostly focused on young Africans in different African countries making this mostly digital music (easier to make after all: needing less equipment and instruments), derived in part from local music genres. The digital, nontraditional sound might at first be disconcerting and slightly artificial – especially when one, like me, knows and is inspired by the rich percussive legacy in traditional African music. Still, a good rhythm is a good rhythm, being thus the African “soul” remaining stronger that a mere “computerized”/digital sound, however “bleepy” or technological and unnatural it superficially sounds.

CULTURAL IDENTITY

In that sense, it represents a good metaphor for Africa’s also social and political development in these modern times, using more and more modern technology, having to keep up with the Europeans and Asians.. but in an own way, and with an own cultural legacy, identity, and pride.. That need not be betrayed, as had occurred too often before, during colonialism, and as outside forces, as Fela and others pointed out, tried to Europeanize or Arabize Black Africans culturally and religiously.

As someone in Burkina Faso said in the documentary: “know your history, even if it is your misery”.. One of several memorable phrases and oneliners uttered in the documentary.

Technology is in that sense like money: useful as a means, if used well and intelligently, but in the end with negative effects when it becomes an” ideology” by itself. Then one is selling one’s soul. An ideology, moreover, of power differences, as of course the Western world, and places like Saudi Arabia, Japan and China, have obvious advantages over a continent like Africa, in both money and technology. This results in, besides a false sense of superiority, also in more and continued exploitation.

COMPARISON TO CUBA

This has to do – of course – with international capitalism (or: neoliberalism) reaching (and exploiting) Africa, explaining also some differences with the situation in Cuba, I discussed before. Cuba remains formally Communist, and with relatively limited connection to international capitalism or the market place, but also limited access to some of its few advantages, such as modern technology, or the Internet: Internet access is even limited when compared to the poorer parts of Latin America.

Failed or oppressive states/governments in parts of Africa, especially after the leaving of inspiring political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) or Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), led to the necessity of popular rebellion and inventiveness, whereas the very strong, but overly present and authoritarian (censorship, lack of free speech, etcetera), state/government in Cuba at least formally supports local musicians educationally, albeit with more meager funds than could be applied. Plus, the added disadvantage of being censored or otherwise controlled.

Inequality between a rich elite and the poor masses, is unfortunately also a reality in Cuba, despite idealist images of the Cuban reality some may hold. A Dutchman from Brabant I spoke in Cuba summarized it well, I think, when he said (something to the effect that): “the bottom is a bit less low than elsewhere in the developing world – with some, if scarce, state-funded securities - , but that bottom is much more broad..”

COMPARISON TO JAMAICA

I am a Reggae fan, and have also visited Jamaica a few times. I love mainly “live-band” Roots Reggae, and got overall less into the Digital Dancehall or Ragga. Only over time I can say that I got to appreciate some Digital Dancehall, especially rhythmically, combined with a certain energy. The modern technology entered Jamaica too, and more than in Cuba, due to its connection to the capitalist world. Electric bass guitars helped shape Rocksteady and Reggae in a sense, as with amplification it could make bass lines more dominant in music pieces. Electric guitars or electronic keyboards also came to Jamaica since the 1960s, and later also synthesizers, and synth drums, especially since the 1980s. So came digital innovations. One of the first Digital Dancehall Riddims was “Sleng Teng” for the song Under Mi Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith in 1984. This was actually based on a pre-programmed pattern in Casio keyboards, thus creatively used or “upgraded”, one might say.

The rhythms that developed since then in Dancehall – also the digital ones – departed from existing rhythmical structures (a faster version of the Rockers drum pattern for instance), and included further influences older folk traditions, and even some added polyrhythmic aspects, making it closer to the African roots of Afro-Jamaican culture than one might think. This later mixed with modern, foreign influences (such as from hip-hop or R&B).

In that sense, there is a strong parallel with the musical expressions in Fonko, as capitalist influences in both Jamaica and parts of Africa included this access – albeit troubled – to new technologies, music software, and other equipment sold as products on capitalist markets. Products that for that reason do not reach communist Cuba so much.

CONCLUDING

Musical and rhythmical – or broader cultural – characteristics are all shared throughout Afro-Cuban, Afro-Jamaican, and African music, as part of the African Diaspora. Polyrhythm and “call-and-response” as basic recurring components, with added variations in different countries. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Africa, also came from the countries featured in the documentary Fonko: relatively many Africans in Cuba came from the Congo region and the South of Nigeria, and relatively many in Jamaica from the Ghana region, albeit with also a sizable percentage of African slaves from the Congo region in Jamaica historically too: estimated at about 25%, compared to about 40% in Cuba. As slaves from the Congo/Angola region were quite widespread throughout the Americas, by the way, the “Congo” influence on the music in the African Diaspora, or Black music, should not be underestimated.

The musical characteristics travelled with these enslaved Africans, when they were forcibly brought to the West. These remain at the “soul” of the music, through whatever instruments expressed (acoustic, electric, or digital).

Perhaps that was what the engaging documentary film Fonko was essentially about: the strength of music itself – as culture and art – or specifically: as way for poor people to express an own (African) cultural identity - to maintain that in the current, modern global arena, despite global Western-led, exploitative capitalism, mass inequality and poverty, or (capitalist or communist) oppression.

SOUL DEFINITION

This positive, motivational messages expressed in documentaries, seems to fit the wider purpose of the (Dutch-based, but internationally oriented) organization Soul Definition, responsible for Fonko’s public screening, when I saw it last 24th of February 2019 in Café the Zen in Amsterdam. It has as motto, after all, ‘Edutainment for a better society’. The specific documentary Fonko even had as a theme, in a sense, "soul definition", like the organization's name.

Soul Definition – founded and led by Dutch-residing Greek Dimitris Meletis - has for those interested its own website, and on it you will find more information about the international documentaries it screens and promotes, and its goals (the latter under the Join section). See: souldefinition.net.

As of the 1st of March of 2019 (just before I wrote this!) these documentaries will be available worldwide through Soul Definition and its site (souldefinition.net). I saw a few of them, including thus Fonko, and enjoyed them and learned from them: it was truly “edutainment”.

vrijdag 1 februari 2019

Haitian music

I read quite a lot about the country Haiti during parts of my life. This was for a period also in a professional context, as I worked, for years, for an academic, anthropological library, specialized in the Caribbean.

SLAVERY

Haiti’s history is of course dramatic, both in horrors and grandeur. The successful slave revolt resulting in an independent Black nation in 1804. The preceding slave regime, which was known as exceptionally cruel and intense. I read that there were relatively high numbers of continuous imports of enslaved Africans, especially since the Late 17th, and throughout in the 18th c., certainly matching the total figures for Cuba or Jamaica. This was due to a specialized focus on sugar cultivation through plantation slavery, as it developed within the French colonial economic system. Even in spite of the mountainous terrain of the part of Hispaniola Haiti is on. This sugar plantation slavery specialization was such, that St Domingue, as Haiti was known during French colonialism, became known as a “slave society”, similar to Jamaica, while Cuba rather was seen as a “society with slaves”; i.e. less dominantly focused on plantation slavery, only in certain parts of Cuba (Matanzas in the West, a bit around Santiago de Cuba, in South East Cuba).

Enslaved Africans in French St Domingue (now Haiti) had to work in a harsh, demanding system related to the profitability of produced sugar. It was the case, that St Domingue became one of the main producers of this cane sugar at its peak in the 18th c., in the region and globally, and the French colonists wanted to maintain this profitability. This led to the increased overworking of the enslaved population and resulting in higher death tolls, shorter lives, and thus the need for continuous imports of enslaved people, directly from Africa, even at a time when in other colonies in the Americas the colonists could more and more largely manage with locally born African slaves.

This, even relatively, harsh, deathly slave regime in St Domingue almost inevitably led to slave revolts. Not unique in Caribbean or American history, but eventually becoming a more concerted, colony-wide rebellion against White colonizers, and an independent country, renamed Haiti (a former Arawak name) in 1804. The interesting historical figure, a definite hero, Toussaint Louverture played an important role in all this. It is said, though, that Louverture at first wanted just to abolish slavery, and not per se become independent from France.

AFTER 1804

Then there is the troubled history since 1804. Of course France not, but neither other European countries, recognized this independence. They were all, after all, deeply involved in colonialism and slavery of Africans in their colonies.

Quite cynically, France demanded of the new country Haiti a large sum of “indemnification” money for former slave-owners end lost profits, in return for this formal recognition, to which Haiti, even if poor, tried to oblige. Scandalous, of course: like having to say sorry to a rapist for not being able to rape you anymore. This large sum (the word “debt” is of course not appropriate) to pay to France of course kept Haiti economically backward, being known today even as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”.

Then there was the political history, including of the Duvalier (father and son) dictatorships between 1957 and 1986, to which much academic literature was devoted. As part of that same scholarly literature, I also read quite a lot about the Vodou spiritual beliefs, and its place in Haitian culture, historically and presently, vis-à-vis Catholicism.

Due to the mentioned history, Haiti is a racially predominantly “Black” country – with a mainly African-descended population - , but with a sizable, or at least disproportionally influential, “brown” population, with some European blood, and related to that generally more wealth and power. Not unlike the situation in Jamaica, where there are also relatively privileged (partly European) “browns”, compared to those of a darker hue.

I found this all very interesting, and having to read about this (I made for the library catalogue even “summaries” of publications for a period) was not bad, for a job. Plus I always liked to learn. There are worse jobs imaginable, let’s say. Some of these I sadly had to encounter later.

I am a trained Librarian, but the work has been decreasing for decades in the Library field, so also for me.

MORE AND LESS ATTENTION

Either way, I have read a lot about Haiti for over 10 years. I learned a lot. Looking back, though, I can recall that some aspects of the Haitian reality and history seemed to get overall more attention in the main scholarly literature on Haiti (often published at university presses in the US, by the way). The political history of the 20th c. and Early 21st c. got a lot of attention (Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier dictatorships, and what followed), the slave revolt and independence (1804) and aftermath, the history of slavery, and Vodou beliefs as important cultural force among the Haitian populace.

Other aspects or phenomena got in comparison less attention, also compared to the literature on other Caribbean islands. One of these is music: both traditional and popular Haitian music.

I noticed this, because I am a music lover, and have by now a long-time interest for both Jamaican music, I am a Reggae fan since my teens, as well as Cuban and Afro-Cuban music. I even went to Cuba several times, and also to Jamaica a few times. It is safe to say that Jamaican music and Cuban music shaped my musical tastes, and even my life. When I started to play more and more percussion instruments about 8 years ago, I started partly with Afro-Cuban patterns, alongside some rhythms directly from Africa. I also listened to percussion in Reggae, or Afro-Jamaican traditions like Kumina. Further, I also let some Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Puerto Rican, Afro-Colombian, or even Spanish Flamenco and Jota influences (from my maternal, Spanish side) slip in.

At times I studied Haitian percussive forms as well, such as the Vodou-derived Yanvalou rhythm patterns, for my composition Apwoksimasyon (Haitian Creole for “approximation”). I remember the bell pattern in it was quite complex and difficult to play, seeing that as a nice educational challenge at that time..

Jamaican and Cuban music remained relatively overall larger influences on me, though.

Nonetheless strange that I got to know relatively less about nearby Haitian music, almost neighbouring Cuba and Jamaica. I travelled several times to Eastern Cuba, where there are some historical Haitian musical/cultural influences, e.g. those known as Tumba Francesa traditions. I heard some of it.

A question that I therefore am going to explore in this post is this one: part of the same African Diaspora: what is Haitian popular music really like, and how can it be compared to Cuban and Jamaican popular music?

A question I want to answer equally for myself – filling a “knowledge gap” so to speak -, as for any readers out there.

INTERNATIONAL?

Of course, it is well-known that both Jamaican and Cuban music had a disproportionally large international impact, even on global pop music, and reaching the US and Europe as well. Originally Afro-Cuban Conga’s and Bongo’s are nowadays among the best known percussion instruments, Salsa (mostly based on Cuban music) is widely known, and Jamaica’s Reggae music, and especially, Bob Marley, likewise. Haitian music seemed to have internationalized less.

Many people might not even be able to name Haitian pop music genres, even if they know other Caribbean ones, like Reggae (Jamaica), Merengue & Bachata (Dominican Republic), Son, Salsa & Rumba (Cuba), Calypso & Soca (Trinidad & Tobago) etcetera etcetera.

That Haiti is relatively poorer might be a reason, but also the language barrier. In fact, there are Haitian music genres with a long history, that were even internationally influential. Vodou drumming music as part of traditional music, Rara and Carnival music is also a living and maintained tradition in Haiti, showing strong African influences.

Relatively many slaves ending up in Haiti were from what is now the Benin and Togo area, and were from the Fon- and Ewe-speaking groups, just West of Yorubaland. There were however also other African influences, such as from Senegambia, the Yoruba, and the Congo area. These all shaped Vodou, and its accompanying music, as well as other traditional music.

MÉRINGUE

Combined with French colonial influences this resulted in a local music genre developed in Haiti, called “méringue”, appearing historically around 1850. It combined influences of French ballroom music, notably contredanse and other music, with African music, such as from the Congo area, noticeable in the rhythmic, syncopated five-beat pattern in it, as Wikipedia says: “borrowed from the Vodou rhythm “Kongo” (also known as “Petwo”), having this five-beat pattern as timeline.

Other sources also point at more pan-Caribbean genres among enslaved Africans (also found in St Domingue/Haiti), influencing Méringue in its genesis, called “calenda” or “chica”. These genres are as much dances as music forms known since the 17th c., calenda being kind of a martial art form as well, while both these dances were known as “erotic”. Regarding the African origins, also these are mostly associated with the Congo region.

While historically related, Méringue differs from Dominican Merengue from its neighbor the Dominican Republic, being overall slower, and played with string instruments, rather than the accordion, as traditional Dominican Merengue. The mellow, swaying groove feel of Haitian Meringue became popular in Haiti itself, but also in other French colonies, like Martinique and Guadeloupe, influencing music forms there.

COMPA(S)

An updated version of méringue, called Kompa/Compas (also Kompa Direct), developed over time in Haiti, around 1950. It became somewhat more modern and international, and also became likewise popular in other former French colonies. Compared to the more string-based Méringue (which also had drums) it was a bit more rhythmic and focused on dance, in part by adding some drums. In time, it absorbed other influences, such as from calypso or hip-hop.

The Zouk music genre that developed in Martinique and Guadeloupe is in fact largely derived from such Haitian Kompa models. Not everyone knows that.

CADENCE

While Compa can be seen as a modernized Méringue, another modernization on Compa followed suit, in the 1960s, called the Cadence, and even more focused on dancing. It added a second drum, sounding the fourth beat of every other measure. This second, added drum was a lower one than the other. It changed the groove a bit, on the same Méringue/Compa basis.

INTERNATIONAL!

At first Haitian music influenced neighbouring parts of Hispaniola; Dominican Merengue in essence derived from Haitian Méringue, with own accents, including instrument changes and a faster pace. Also something that many might not know. Or deny.

However, this Haitian/French Caribbean music influenced also other areas, such as elsewhere in the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe, Martinique, a.o.), but even non-French colonies, such as Cape Verde/Cabo Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the West African coast. Also, in some other African countries, Haitian music became an influence.

So, one can conclude that Haitian music internationalized as well, only with less connections to the English-speaking or Spanish-speaking world. Now, well-known groups (even outside the Francophone world) as Kassav’ from Martinique in the Caribbean, but also Cape Verdian artists like Cesaria Evora, show Haitian musical influences in their work, particularly from Compas music. There is a strong Haitian influence on Cape Verdean music. Quite similar to how Cuban music genres like Son influenced some Congolese music.

HAITIAN PERCUSSION

I am a percussion aficionado. I have been playing various percussion instruments since around 2011, having had several lessons for conga, bongos, and further also djembe, talking drum, some small percussion instruments, taking it further through self-study.

I have thus gathered quite some knowledge on the world of percussion instruments, of different cultural origins, though specialized in the African Diaspora. Of some countries more in detail than of others, I admit, but broadly speaking I know quite something about Caribbean percussion by now.

The national instrument of Haiti is called a “tanbou”, and is a barrel drum. Other drums, including those in Vodou, are in shape somewhat comparable to the Conga, others with a slightly conical shape remind of the Ashiko drum, to which I devoted another blog post/essay. The use of cow-skin makes such drums even more comparable to the Afro-Cuban conga, also in sound. The three-drum combination (father, mother, and child) in many Vodou rituals furthermore has clear similarities with (Afro-Cuban) Santeria drumming. Santería and Vodou generally share that they are danced, spirit-based religions, in which drumming is important.

They further have several spiritual and ritual similarities, also due to their origins in “bordering” parts of West Africa. Santería is mostly Yoruba-based, but Vodou has a Fon and Ewe base (from an area in Africa just West of Yorubaland: Benin/Togo) with several other influences from the Yoruba and Congo, also influential in Cuba. Papa Legba, a Vodou “Loa” (deity) connected with crossroads, and an intermediary between Loa’s/deities and humans, has an equivalent in Afro-Cuban Santería in the deity Elegguá. Also the expression “Leggo Beast” in Jamaica, for a possessing spirit, is etymologically related to this.

Just one of several “pan-Caribbean” African retentions. Also Trinidad knows a Yoruba-based religion called Shango, due to the proportion of Yoruba among the enslaved Africans there.

How do these broad cultural similarities translate to music?

PUTUMAYO’S FRENCH CARIBBEAN ALBUM

Putumayo is a label having released World Music compilation album, including one on the French Caribbean in 2003, with some Haitian songs. In the liner notes, though, the origins of Compas are not described correctly, it seems, at least when compared to other sources. To cite: “Musically, the style (Compas) has incorporated influences ranging from Dominican merengue, Trinidadian calypso, American jazz and swing, and, recently, hip-hop”. While there is some truth to the jazz and calypso (or hip-hop) influences on Compas, it is based on Haitian Méringue – as I said before – which in turn influenced Dominican Merengue. Not the other way around.

The liner notes further point justly at the pioneering role of saxophonist Jean-Baptiste Nemours in Haitian Compas.

Added to all this can be the influence of Cuban music on Haiti, which has been documented for a long time, just like there were vice-versa Haitian musical influences in Eastern Cuba, notable in historical Tumba Francesa associations, and for instance in the Santiago de Cuba carnival.

COMPARATIVE REFLECTIONS

This leads me to some final comparisons and reflections.

There is I think some truth to the Spanish saying “las comparaciones son odiosas” (comparisons are hateful), but comparing is in fact common practice in the academic and scholarly world, of course. This is in turn part of the Western focus on classification and categorization, which for sure has some negative and reductive aspects, but can - despite reasonable objections - be useful for analytical reasons.

CONGO

Historically, from an African Diaspora perspective, the Congo influence on Haitian popular music genres, like the mentioned Méringue and later Compas, has been more than documented. This occurred largely through Congo-based Vodou percussive patterns.

This Congo influence has been documented in Cuban music too, notably in Eastern Cuba (with proportionally more Africans from the Congo area), where the Son developed: a main precursor to Salsa. Also in Rumba there are Congolese influences, historically.

In Jamaica, influences from the Ghana and Nigeria regions were a bit larger, but among the enslaved Africans there, there was quite a high percentage from the Congo region too (estimated at about 20%). This influenced music too. The Kumina faith and music found among Afro-Jamaicans, especially in Eastern Jamaica is furthermore of Congo region origin, and has influenced rhythmically both Nyabinghi Rastafari (drumming) music as, through this, Reggae, notably in the “heart-beat” rhythmic base.

From my perspective, I do note some similarities between East Cuban Son music, as well as the Changüí music (a precursor to Son) in the Eastern Cuban province in Guantánamo. With the meandering, walking guitar throughout, around a steady pulse, it can be compared to Haitian genres like Méringue or Compas. These are, however, neither overly similar. The Haitian genres tend to be more gently “swaying” and “flowing”, and Cuban genres more “staccato” and poignant. A bit of a different feel. These might relate to differences in African influences – despite a shared Congo base -, but also different other (colonial and European) influences: Spanish and French folk music are different too, after all, historically, and genres like Flamenco and Fandango, as well as Canarian music, are known to have reached Cuba quite early.

Superficially, there are vague similarities between some Haitian genres and Trinidadian Calypso, with Jamaican historical Mento music, and even rhythmically here and there with some Dancehall and Reggae rhythms from Jamaica. All part of shared African origins of course, but with also clear differences, and own accents.

Just one example ofa Dancehall Riddim that I find has some characteristics in common with Haitian music is the Shack Riddim: a quite danceable one, by the way.

CONCLUSION: SWAYING

This leads me to conclude that Haitian music is quite unique, in its synthesis of African and European influences, being specific Congo rhythms (mainly) and specific French ballroom and other music, resulting in a feel I would describe – in fact, I already did a few times – as “swaying”. It is often mid-tempo but kind of mellow and “flowing”. A continuous pulse, with less closed rhythmical patterns as known in Jamaican Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dancehall, and less “spatial” and closed as well, when compared to much Cuban music, or some Brazilian genres.

How this “swaying” or “gentle” swaying as some describe it, can be explained, I am not quite sure of. It can be a specific interpretation of Congo rhythms. At the same time, it could be the influence of French courtroom and ballroom music (Contredanse, Waltz a.o.), showing how Haiti was a French, and not a British or French colony.

After all, just like there are many different cultures within sub-Saharan Africa itself, so there are also cultural differences within Europe. Even between Catholic, “Latino” countries like Spain, France, and Italy, due to some historical differences, and perhaps the environment. Spanish folk music tends to be – generalizing a bit – somewhat more “rough-edged” and rhythmical when compared to many more melodic, subtle, “mellow” folk music genres from France or Italy, especially in South Spain, where Flamenco is from. More “fire” let’s say. In Northwest Spain there are Celtic influences as in other countries (including France), while Catalonian music in Northeastern Spain tends to have that subtle, gentle swaying more in common with music from neighbouring France (and the Provence), than other parts of Spain. Maybe similar to how the Catalan language has more similarities with Provençale, French, and Italian than Castilian Spanish.

All this might have impacted on how European influences mixed with African ones, resulting in a relatively gentle, swaying feel of much Haitian music, and a somewhat “rougher-edged” rhythmic feel of former Spanish colony Cuba.

The common denominator – though – remains the rhythmic base deriving from African origins, including rhythmic patterns, principles like “call-and-response”, and instruments, all also found in Haitian music, of course.

Interesting, how from both African and European influences in the Americas different music genres developed, with own accents and “feels”, but with also shared features, such as the rhythmic pulse.

That is the beauty of culture and music development, I guess, the space for variation and “free” diversity in expressing oneself musically, from different or even similar influences and sources.

The similar influences in this case being how African, mainly Congo-based percussive/drum patterns from spirit belief systems (Vodou in Haiti) fed into the popular music rhythmically, and shaped each genre in an own way, and mixed with different other aspects, e.g. from Europe or the Amerindians. There is therefore a subtle, yet maintained relationship between spirituality, rhythm, and dancing in all Afro-Caribbean genres.

How you dance to them can differ, of course..

woensdag 2 januari 2019

Reggae on Unesco's World Heritage list

To be honest, I kind of developed a liking for what is known as the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage list. Interested in culture, travelling, and internationally minded, as I am, it could hardly be otherwise. Certain travels and journeys I made were even more or less guided by the World Heritage List: studying it even, when deciding what sites to visit.. This was especially the case in Spain and Italy, and some other countries, like Portugal, Britain, and France. Later also Cuba and Jamaica. Rarely was I disappointed by visiting what was on that list, be it buildings, neighbourhoods, or other things. I found it interesting how such historical buildings/sites fit in the wider history of the country and region.

Maybe a role that others only preserve for their “hip” Lonely Planet travel guides. I think the World Heritage List is a step further, or higher, though..

As a Reggae fan, it therefore certainly pleased me that on the “immaterial”, or cultural, part of that Unesco’s World Heritage List recently was also added - in Late 2018 – the music genre of Jamaican Reggae music. The placement on this list implies protection and preservation.

ENDANGERED

On his own Vlog, British Reggae singer Lloyd Brown commented on this new status for Reggae (protected as cultural heritage). Among other things, he raised the interesting question: from what Reggae needs protection? In other words: in what sense, by what is Reggae endangered?

That’s a good question. A question that Lloyd Brown answered a bit himself, suggesting that that status was needed to ease travel of performing reggae artists at the interest of festivals like Rototom (held in the Valencian region in Spain), or other big festivals, such as in Germany or France. The Rototom festival was even specifically mentioned at the Unesco meeting in the acceptance speech, by the Jamaican delegates (to illustrate Reggae’s important international status).

The urgency of this increased after all with the Brexit developments: probably bringing more travel restrictions for Caribbean artists travelling through Britain to the EU, of which it then will be no longer part.

Lloyd Brown can somehow understand such a reason for protection, but wonders why they did not state this more openly, if this was the case.

Interesting, but it also made me think further. Are there really no more reasons Reggae might need protection? Of course it is a living and maintained tradition in Jamaica, and popular world wide. Modern genres appearing later, as offshoots from Reggae, notably Dancehall, did not really replace Reggae.

DANCEHALL

Not really “replace”, but it affected it. There are certain areas (geographical and cultural) where Dancehall is more popular than (Roots) Reggae, where Dancehall pushes Reggae even to the background. The New Roots revival in Jamaica since the 1990s luckily kept Reggae music as such alive, along with actually “live band” musicians, alongside digital inclinations of modern Dancehall music. In Jamaica itself nowadays, especially among newer generations, Dancehall as genre is however much more popular than Reggae. Reggae is still there in Jamaica, but secondary, it seems, to Dancehall.

There are much more Dancehall parties held in Jamaica. This was already the case in 2006 and 2008, when I went to Jamaica. To be sure: there was Reggae to be heard, and there were (Roots) Reggae in Jamaica when I was there: only relatively more Dancehall parties.

I went to a nice (Roots) Reggae-minded party in the ghetto area of Rae Town, in Kingston, Jamaica, on a Monday, with good music from Black Uhuru, and other good Roots, from the speakers. It was held in an entire street, also outside.. Pleasant, cosy popular ghetto vibe, and I liked the vibe there. I recall the mighty chune General Penitentiary (bass line!) blasting through big speakers in a Rae Town bar..

I recall that the party was called something like Roots Revival. In the land of Reggae..you can only REvive something that was not already alive and present. That’s what that name says a bit. Just like having Throwback in a name for an event: it suggests it is not presently there.

Also a reason I can see the relevance of the “protected” status Reggae music’s placement on the World Heritage List implies.

Interestingly, in Jamaican musical history, Reggae can be seen as a synthesis, not as a passing stage. Ska and Rocksteady eventually synthesized, or sublimated, - some say “came of age” – in Reggae music, appearing around 1968. Some still play Ska and Rocksteady, of course, but these genres were also transitional phase, for all intents and purposes. Reggae, on the other hand , was kind of an end-stage for them, not a stage toward something else. Dancehall developed as offshoot too, but did - as said - not replace Reggae as such. It “threatens” it in some senses, though, albeit as yet only partly and marginally. Dancehall is relatively more popular than Roots Reggae in many places, including Jamaica itself – like I mentioned already - and the New York area, and even parts of Europe.

Travelling Reggae artists noticed that certain areas were more focussed on Roots Reggae than on Dancehall focused. The recently freed Buju Banton (he served a prison sentence up to Late 2018, for supposed involvement in cocaine traffic) commented on this years ago: in California, Roots Reggae was stronger and in New York/the East Coast of the US on the other hand Dancehall more. Buju, as other artists, adapted their set lists even a bit to this when performing in those places. Also Reggae dee-jay’s (selecta’s) I spoke with in the Netherlands commented on this, such as Amsterdam-based DJ Ewa on this blog playing more Roots Reggae outside of the busy urban area in the West of the Netherlands (with big cities Amsterdam and Rotterdam), and within it more Dancehall.

MORE REASONS

Protection from Dancehall dominance, is another protection, besides securing tour dates for festival organizers. More reasons for protection? Well, in a general sense, there is the fear of co-option of Reggae into other genres like Hip-Hop or Pop, while it itself becomes endangered. This can happen with every cultural expression or genre, of course. It can also be neglected and disappear altogether, but as said: Reggae is alive and well, and a living culture in much of the world. “Pollution” or “corruption” from outside is thus the main danger threatening Reggae, besides expression restrictions (due to travel restrictions on artists, and laws).

WORTH PRESERVING

Besides such practical/material/political considerations, I love the very idea of Reggae being deemed “worth preserving” by a UN organization.

Other music genres, but far from all, have achieved the same status through and by UNESCO. Flamenco, actually a combination of folk music genres in Southern Spain, mainly Andalusia, has also this protected “cultural heritage” status. Also justly, in my opinion.. Flamenco is found in specialist circles in parts of Spain, specific clubs for connoisseurs, but there are also watered-down forms for tourists. Flamenco mixed with other genres, resulting in some cases in interesting and genuinely artistic mixes with Funk, Latin/Afro-Cuban music, Reggae, and Jazz, but also in a type of commercial “flamenco pop” reaching the mainstream much more than real Flamenco. Tango music/dance from Argentina is also on that list, to give but one more example.

As with Reggae, therefore, the “preservation” or “protection” of being on Unesco’s World Heritage list, has also to do with “guarding authenticity”, which I think is a good thing. The artists themselves can do that of course too, but some help may be necessary, especially when the cultural climate is not favourable. Moreover, the money is in this world often not where “real art” is.

That Reggae is “worth preserving” is also good in relation to its, well, tainted or polluted image. This is world wide, notably the association with the use of marijuana, a stereotype burden shared with the Rastafari movement.

It is of course a terribly simplified and generalizing stereotype, which is as much true as it is untrue, making it in the end no truth. Yet entire national policies and policing are in several cases based on them. Special control and arrests at Reggae parties due to marijuana possession and use seem to be policy. Maybe I am too optimistic, but Unesco’s protection might be helpful too in protecting an art form, separating it, from fanatic and excessive “anti-drug” policies.

ROTOTOM

The already mentioned Rototom Festival, an international Reggae festival held yearly in August, always managing to get big names, also in less commercial Reggae, is since 2010 held in Benicàssim, in the Valencian region, in Eastern Spain. A pleasant little town in a nice region, but Rototom used to be held in alpine Northern Italy (near Udine).

It had to leave there because of what was described as harassing and repressive policies against marijuana, increasing with a Right-wing upsurge in many parts of Northern Italy.

The Italian organizers of Rototom then struck a deal with Spanish parties in Benicàssim (a common festival location in Spain, also for other genres, perhaps because of the strategic location: as far from Madrid as from Barcelona), after finding out that marijuana control laws were more lenient in Spain, and certainly less enforced.

An example of how side-issues and legal machinations of states inhibit free culture, such as in this case a Reggae Festival in Italy.

The UNESCO is of course an international organization, so it seems appropriate to further address the “outernational “ spread of Reggae, that is outside of Jamaica. In Jamaica itself, as I mentioned, Dancehall is more mainstream and overall more popular, especially among younger people. Roots Reggae, especially in a modern variant New Roots (Chronixx, Tarrus Riley, Anthony B, Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Morgan Heritage, Protoje, etcetera etcetera), is however present and living in Jamaica too, and a maintained tradition. Roots Reggae continues to be made in Jamaica, by several artists, with quite some variety.

JAPAN (& CJ JOE)

Reggae’s gone “international”, especially since Bob Marley rose to international popularity in the 1970s. After Europe and North America, it also reached quite early on the “Far East” country of Japan. Japan became known for a grown market for Reggae, starting with Bob Marley touring there in the 1979, but in time followed by several other Jamaican Reggae artists, that in time had quite some fans there. Japan had become a big Reggae market, including regular reggae festivals, and specific reggae labels/record companies, such as Mute Beat, to name but one.

That is more or less all I knew about it, but I had the opportunity to learn more about Reggae in Japan, speaking with Japanese Reggae singer CJ Joe, at present visiting and staying in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and whom I met several times by now. Reggae – and Rastafari - in Japan also compared to other countries - became part of our conversations, but I also chose to ask concrete and specific questions to him. Maybe that way I get to find out whether Reggae needs “protection” in Japan too.

Underneath, under the questions (in bold letters) you can read CJ Joe’s answers (in Italic):

How would you describe the Reggae scene in Japan presently?

It's more of the New Generation than the old school. Mainly Dancehall is bigger than the Roots Scene.

How would you describe the Rastafari movement in Japan presently?

There is little communities around Japan but very limited. The Majority would be out of the Big Cities because of the fast life and corrupt society. Nature protects and strengthens them.

How have these changed over the last decades?

After Bob Marley came to Japan in 1979, there were a lot of Hippies that chose to go into Rasta lifestyle, because they were the peace makers in that era of time. So you had a lot of followers. It was definitely a revival that start a fire to the nowadays Reggae scene. But now the Dancehall is the most active because a lot of the old school people left the scene or passed away. I am still a generation in the scene that is still alive I guess and keep the foundation “Respect to di Eldas”, long before me.

What are the main differences with Europe, regarding both Reggae and Rastafari?

I think it has to do with language. People in Europe still speak much more English than the Japanese. You see I am a International one Educated, not only in Japanese but through English by the Americans back home. But people like me are a minority so I am Blessed to know more deeply what Reggae and Rastafari means. But even though they don’t speak they feel through music because Music has no barriers, I guess. Plus I feel more deepness into the Reggae that many would fly to Jamaica constantly more than myself.

As for Rastafari, I think there is more of a Respect on peoples religion or lifestyle here in Europe or I would say Western Society. In Japan there isn’t a choice to be different. In society in Japan it’s a Must you must be the same and if you isn’t your automatically strange or not accepted. Of Course A Natty Dread would be a Outcast of Society and because of the stereotype minds on herbal usages it is strictly forbidden. So basically if a plant does not receive water or sun or earth it cannot grow just like how a Rasta is always on peer pressure, not a Easy life or way to go. It is much easier to follow the rules of the normal Japanese life style. ..

and with other parts of the World you know? Asia, America?

I would say it matters where in Asia. I can say there is a massive Reggae Scene in countries like Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand. Korea and China follows… They don’t have a history of Reggae like the Japanese, but because they speak more English they are fast learners so they can pick up very fast about the Reggae. I think in the next decade you will see thousands of Artists Bands etc. rising up just like Europe did to the now. On terms of Rastafari, in Asia there is more I think now than Japan, because for some places Bob Marley is what they would only know w/ some more Big Legendary names. Rasta equals Bob Marley so I see a lot of Natty Dreads around these days when I go to perform or visit.

Likewise Japan some places would more dangerous for any kind of herbal usage etc. But it depends where you are at that time; for example beach tropical areas surrounded by nature. Cities can be hardcore at times.

As for America, Reggae has been there for a long period of time because of the Bob Marley Boom So I would say back in the days Reggae was massive 90s to early 2000. Europe I think is just like the US Scene back in the days. Rastafari is there just like Europe because as you already know there a lot of Jamaicans living there all over. I would say states that have a big population of Jamaicans and Caribbean Africans most definitely you will find Rasta Communities there.

What artists have had relatively much influence in Japan, besides Bob Marley?

Garnett Silk, Dennis Brown, Jimmy Cliff, Shaba Ranks, Super Cat etc.

Is the Roots (Reggae) scene bigger or smaller than the Dancehall scene, in Japan?

Much more smaller than the Dancehall . Before It was more Roots Bands than the sound systems. Now it’s Sound Mecca. World Clash is popular you have the World Champs around here and there constantly playing dances every week.

Is there much Reggae in the Japanese language?

It is a massive Japanese Reggae Scene there. I would say at least 200 that have name value Many more maybe 1000 that I dont know??

What artists are important to know within Japanese Reggae, besides yourself?

The first ones to go to Jamaica were Nahki Rankin Taxi Joe Yamanaka. Afterwards Ackee & Sailfish. Now days you have Rankin Pumpkin Yoko in Jamaica.

About yourself: when have you started as musical artist, and how was the reggae scene in Japan at that time?

I started back in 1991 and I wasn’t a dreadlocks more like a rude boy ragamuffin style like Buju back in the days. It was more for me 90s dancehall but of course Roots was still very popular, but more of a mature crowd.

Was it difficult for you to have a musical career in Japan?

Yes, many ups and downs for sacrificing my life for Reggae. At times I was living on the street Because I left my house at 17 or 18?? But I been doing my Reggae half of my lif, so this is all I have to give.

How difficult is it for Rastafari in Japan?

I cannot express in words you’ll have to be extremely tuff in society. Many lose their minds and go crazy for life. Some even go to the hospital to rehab and later on leave Rastafari.

What foreign (or western) music tends to be most popular in Japan?

US Billboard or UK music. It all is connected from the war because US dominated from there It became very Americanized especially through music and lifestyles.

CONCLUSIONS

Conclusions I can draw from all this – including this recent interview with Japanese reggae artist CJ Joe -, is that it is good that Reggae now has a Cultural (World) Heritage status at the UNESCO, suggesting protection and preservation.

Now at the end of 2018, I furthermore notice that Reggae, notably New Roots of Jamaican artists like Sizzla Kalonji, Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Anthony B, Chronixx, Protoje, Morgan Heritage, and Lutan Fyah, has an international spread and popularity, with new Roots artists appearing regularly, securing generations.

Reggae’s offshoot, Dancehall, is overall more popular in Jamaica itself, as in some other places, including thus also Japan, as I learned recently, threatening in some sense Roots Reggae. Or maybe it’s still just a “threatening threat” (if you still know what I mean, haha).

In some countries and regions outside of Jamaica, however, Roots Reggae is relatively more popular than Dancehall, such as in some European countries, or in California. In parts of Latin America, a simplified offshoot of Dancehall (rhythmically derived from the Shabba Ranks tune Dem Bow) – called Reggaetón - is actually more popular, though in parts of Latin America there are certainly developed Reggae scenes, with good artists. So “the real thing” is still there.

Japan has very strict anti-marijuana laws, I also learned from speaking with CJ Joe. I also learned how this affected quite directly both the Rastafari and Reggae scenes in Japan, even threatening their development. Reggae being protected as cultural heritage might help here, although Rastafari certainly needs protection too, I argue, from Western society, as well as from the intolerance of main religions/belief systems, as the Islam and Christianity. With that we enter the terrain of basic human rights, a main idea behind the United Nations history.

Within the United Nations, however, the UNESCO is the cultural and educational organization, so it deals with cultural protection and preservation, rather than economic, religious or political rights. Cultural rights are however just as important, even if less material, being a reason why I always liked the idea behind the Cultural Heritage list of the UNESCO. It is not just nice, it might be even necessary, especially as protection against precisely those economic, religious, and political forces oppressing culture.

LYRICS

Protection is needed because of anti-marijuana laws, but also discriminatory travel laws against people of colour, or people from “poor countries”, prejudices connecting Reggae and Rastafari automatically with marijuana use, but also many of the lyrics in Roots Reggae and New Roots. These lyrics are often socially critical, and anti-systemic, causing much deeper dimensions than the marginal anti-gay lyrics of some artists that got so much media attention, because of some protests by gay people. These gay groups have of course the right to protest like everyone else, but I still think it is blown out of proportion. Lyrics in Reggae are about much more than that, and quite socially critical. Rastafari is an inspiration for many of these lyrics of course, that are in fact mostly positive. Dancehall has more Slackness and violent lyrics, but so do other genres in the Western world, as some Heavy Metal or Gangster Rap albums with cynical, awful lyrics show, often being worse than even the “slackest” Dancehall on “pussy” and “cocky”.

One thing I like about Bob Marley’s popularity, is that despite some musical/production adaptations to Western tastes, Bob mostly “kept it real” lyrically: socially critical “chanting down” Babylon and oppression/downpression, colonialism and neo-colonialism, inequality etcetera. He more or less got away with it, although conspiracy theories about Bob’s early death (that it was not really an inevitable result of cancer, but some think manipulated) exist. Of course, the most famous and heard songs by Bob Marley throughout the world are not the most socially critical or protesting ones: the omnipresent One Love, No Woman No Cry, or Stir It Up, for instance, but others (more “rebelling”) are heard as well. I like Bob’s Them Belly Full for instance too, but do not hear that song so much being played, to give but one example.

Yet, overall, as became evident with other Reggae artists, the more socially critical, Rastafari-inspired, or protesting your lyrics, the less success you have as Reggae artist, making you stay outside the Western mainstream. Inner Circle’s (Girl I Wanna Make You) Sweat, a both musically and lyrically mediocre song (in my opinion) being a case in point: Inner Circle’s most commercial (yet mediocre) hit, of a band that can do much better. Wayne Wade’s Lady, admittedly a nice cover and well-sung, was also Wade’s biggest hit, but Wayne Wade – a great singer - has better songs too, with more social and spiritual messages. And so on..

In short, and for obvious reasons, the “powers that be” have no interest in socially critical messages, speaking out against social injustice, and demanding equality and personal freedom, although in democratic societies they cannot stop them: they can only hinder or discourage them. Making it impossible to earn your living with conscious Reggae music proving to be, unfortunately, a wicked, if effective way.. Or otherwise excluding you from society.

In the Western world ("Babylon") this is of course evident, but as CJ Joe's story shows: also in Japan. though you can argue that it is also part of the "Western" or at least modern/capitalist world.. All these things – so including inhibiting “free speech”, "free opinion" (lyrics are part of this!) and "freedom of movement" - in some senses also “threaten” Reggae’s free development internationally. If not wholly, at least partly.

International recognition and protection through a UN organization like Unesco might just help, if substantial. Time will tell..