zondag 13 oktober 2019

Igbo and Udu

This blog is mostly a reflection of my life and interests. A main interest of mine is percussion. The type of percussion I focus on, brings with it an interest in African and Afro-American musical culture. I specialized – perhaps – in certain countries more than others, as many do. In the Americas for instance, some are specialized in - or have a preference for - Brazilian music, including music and percussion from there, whereas many percussionists also have an interest for Cuba.

The latter also applies to me: Cuba got my interest, and I even have been there several times. Jamaica got my interest too. Afro-Cuban percussion and Jamaican reggae influenced me, while I specialized less in countries like Brazil, Colombia, or the Dominican Republic, even though there are interesting types of drums and percussion in those countries too. I still try to know something about the percussion in these countries too, keeping my interest broad and international.

Within Africa, I likewise have a bit of a specialization, but also that broad interest. The Yoruba and Congo cultures were both influential in Cuba (and parts of Brazil, by the way), so my percussion interest in Africa traced those specific origins and roots too, soon expanding it to other cultures.

IGBO

One of these is the Igbo culture, located in Southeastern Nigeria. Numerically in fact one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups, the Igboes were – like the Yoruba and Congo - historically very much affected by the colonial slave trade, with many Igboes forcibly brought to parts of the Americas.

In this post, I further delve into this Igbo influence, all the more since I discussed the Yoruba influence and Congo influences already in earlier posts on this blog, in fact in several posts.

UDU

The connection of the Igbo and percussion is with an instrument I have and use for quite some years now: the "Udu". It is an instrument, derived from a clay jug or pot, but with an extra hole on the side. It is played among the Igbo people, especially by women, mainly by hitting the open hand on the udu hole, interchanged by taps. It tends to have a bass function in Igbo music.

Since I got this Udu instrument, I knew it came from Igbo culture. Another instrument I would have wanted too, but could not afford it: the ekwe, a "log drum", or a slit, hollowed out (part of a) tree trunk, I encountered (and played) at times during percussion jams.

Due to these nice sounding instruments, my interest in Igbo culture increased, even though I always have found Nigeria a fascinating country in general.

An interesting musical and percussion culture, as there are more in Africa – after all the “most percussive” continent -, but there is an extra question.. What about this culture and music of the Igbo affected by the slave trade and brought as slaves to the Americas? Did it leave substantial influences, far away from Igbo-land?

IGBO IN THE AMERICAS

I already learned from earlier studies that enslaved Africans from different parts, tended to end up in different places too somewhat concentrated. As scholar Robert Farris-Thompson also pointed out: the relatively most widely scattered (and thus enslaved) African ethnic group – geographically - throughout the Americas were from the Congo area, thereby unifying to a degree culturally Afro-Americans from Argentina and Brazil to the US.

Then there were concentrations, besides the also present and often substantial Congo populations. In some countries, like Brazil and Cuba, slaves from the Congo area, made up over 30% of the African population. Elsewhere they are quite present too, such as in Haiti and parts of the US. In Jamaica, still over 20 % of Jamaicans have Congo foreparents, despite a strong Akan presence among slaves in Jamaica.

The Igbo also tended to be concentrated more in some places, especially in the Virginia and Maryland areas of the US they even formed the majority among slaves at one point, as they were on the island of Barbados. Some scholars even suggest that about 60% of all African Americans in the US have at least one Igbo ancestor.

This is interesting, also in light of my earlier posts in which I adress the musicologist distinction of African musical influence in the Americas: more "forest Africa" (Congo, Yoruba) in Cuba, and more "sahel/Mali/Mande Africa" in the US. This distinction is quite sensible and useful: indeed Afro-Cuban music (from which Salsa derived) has a traceable, clave/polyrhythmic origin from the Congo area, while US Blues and Jazz, in their "swing", shows evident influences from the Mande/Guinea ("Griot") parts of Africa. Yet, the quite numerous presence of other cultural groups in the US as well - such as the Igbo -, makes this distinction somewhat simplified.

In the case of Barbados, over 40% of the slave population once there, were said to come from the Bight of Biafra area, being mostly Igbo.

In Jamaica, the Igbo were also quite present among the Africans, alongside slaves of other (Akan or Congo, or otherwise) origins. Igbo were relatively most found in northwestern parts of Jamaica.

There is an Anglo-Saxon connection with the Igbo’s enslavement, as in Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonies, Igboes seemed less present historically. Historical records indeed confirm that English slave merchants from Bristol and Liverpool, having Virginia also as main market, traded relatively much in Igbo people, having access to the Bight of Biafra ports.

A partly related group from neighbouring areas in SE Nigeria - Calabar -, are the Efik-Ibibio, and these have been quite present in Cuba among Africans, known there as “Calabarí”. These Efik-speaking slaves were to some degree culturally related or with similarities to the Igbo, yet still also culturally and linguistically different enough from them.

INSTRUMENTS

Slaves were stripped from everything, their belongings, and eventually even their name. Of course, it is hardly likely that enslaved Africans were in the position to take musical instruments with them, even small percussion ones. The slave masters did not – or rarely – allow this, by itself being a strong sign of the utter dehumanization this slavery represents.

The musical instruments that developed among enslaved Africans, or their descendants, in the Americas, therefore were made “from scratch” locally, but according to African traditions and memories.

Interestingly, in the traditional music of Afro-Barbadians, there is an instrument made from a hollowed out tree trunk, very similar from the Igbo Ekwe, and probably influenced by it. Bottle and calabash use as instruments in Barbadian folk music as a whole, maybe show echoes of the Udu. Also, in Virginia an Igbo-type of drum – the Eboe drum – lived on in folk music.

Linguistically and otherwise, the Igbo certainly left some influences among Africans in the Americas, such as in Jamaican patois/Creole language, and some other Creole languages in the region, and African American dialects in the US. In Jamaican patois , the word “Unu”, meaning “you, (plural)” is quite commonly used, and comes from the Igbo language.

Also the term “backra”, for white man, - known also in other languages in the region, such as Surinamese Creole – has probably an Igbo origin.

In Jamaica, the Igbo were said to be a bit lighter or “redder” in their skin complexion, when compared to other groups, giving birth to the term “Red Eboes” in colonial Jamaica.

In Nigeria itself, in Igboland, skin tones tend to differ among the Igbo, while there is overall a somewhat lighter hue, compared to surrounding groups. Their origins are partly associated with Bantu people.

Igbo slaves were in most colonies not preferred as slaves. They tended to be rebellious, but also suicidal, as a common response among Igbo to escape slavery. Several cases in Georgia of suicidal Igbo slaves, in the US, attest to this. Igbo male slaves were furthermore called relatively “lazy” among white planters in Jamaica.

YORUBA AND IGBO

The Yoruba were another Nigerian (and around) group likewise strongly affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade, but there are differences. In spite of the “skin tone” issue, some Yoruba claim a Middle Eastern connection to their origins, while the Igbo feel more a connection with Bantu peoples East of them. Yoruba society at the time of the slave trade was quite centralized and urban organized, whereas Igboland at that time was more small village and rurally based, with local “democracies”. Possibly their less organized society made their confrontation with dehumanizing slavery all the more shocking to their worldview. Their suicidal tendencies, and the way they rebelled, might relate to this background.

Ghana and Yorubaland were more centralized and organized kingdoms, making the concept of slavery more known, but giving also a base for large-scale, organized rebellion, as indeed Akan-speaking slaves in Jamaica were known for.

Congo slaves, by contrast, were in several colonies (Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname, Brazil) known less for organized rebellion, and more for escaping/running away from the plantations. This might also be a reflection of the loose, small-scale communities, and rainforest life in the Congo area during slavery.

UDU AGAIN

Back to the Udu. In the Americas, the only instrument coming close to the Udu is found in Cuba, and is know as the “botija”, which is simply Spanish for “vessel” or “jug”, similar to what Udu means in the Igbo language.

The botija is however played by mouth, while sharing the extra hole on the side, and the fact that it is a clay jug as well. It also has a similar musical “bass” function, but is – as said – played with the mouth (blowing) – and not with the hands.

Via some African connection the Udu model might have reached Cuba too (English ships sold slaves to Cuba too), but in Spain a clay jug is also found as a friction drum, a rope in a skin, with a bass function, called the “zambomba”. Perhaps both served as cultural models.

INTERNATIONAL

The Udu itself has in fact in recent decades “gone international” to a degree, as its popularity increased among international percussionists. Some own Udu-based models were later developed by Persian/Iranian percussionist (e.g. adding a skin or more holes), and there were other innovations made outside of Igboland or Africa.

The original or adapted/reworked Igbo Udu is by now played internationally, mostly outside its original context, by percussionists worldwide.

This internationalization is such, that when searching on “Udu” in YouTube, one finds mostly Westerners and some Iranians playing (versions of the) Udu, with only few videos or examples of actual Igbo women playing them. That is somehow skewed, in my opinion, and has of course to do with economic power, but combined with non-African arrogance and lack of respect. Eugene Skeef is a researcher who does interesting work studying the Udu in its original Igbo context, as a counterweight against this appropriation. Skeef also has some films on YouTube, recorded in Igboland itself.

The fact that “big” companies in the percussion world, LP (US-based), Meinl (Germany), and Toca/RBI (US), manufacture their own Udu’s for the market, confirms this international popularity. It made Udu’s of different sizes and shapes available internationally and easily, that’s on the plus side. Also, some Iranian percussionists make Udu-based instruments themselves, in Iran, therefore more available there and around..

On the minus side of this, however, is that the “input” from the Igbo themselves is largely lacking, other than the original idea and invention, providing thus no economic possibilities for Igbo people themselves derived from the their own culture’s Udu’s increased popularity; money of it going after all to Western or Iranian companies.

Only if one buys Udu’s from Africa/Nigeria/Igboland itself - and it is not impossible to find these in Europe or North America - does it lead to actual reward for the cultural origins. My Udu, a basic and relatively small model, is such an African one.

I am not the only Udu player in the Netherlands, that is for sure. There might be some Nigerians of Igbo descent in the Netherlands playing the Udu informally, and there is such a community. Among the active percussionists, I know of people like Vernon Chatlein (originally from Curaçao) who composes and performs with Udu’s at times, Roël Calister (also born in Curaçao) and a few others, but it remains in the Netherlands overall much more rarely used in percussion than the common djembe, bongos, and conga’s,

In its original Igbo context, the Udu is seen as a connection with the forefathers, speaking as it were through the Udu, while it was initially only played by women. In traditional Igbo music, the Udu combined with drums, shakers, and often too the ekwe trunk, and bells/gongs. This music accompanied various ceremonies and festivities, including masqueraded ones. Men now play Udu’s as well among the Igbo.

Outside the world of the percussion aficionado’s, the Udu is not much known, not even in the wider music industry. In some genres, such as Reggae, Jazz, or Fusion, some experimental percussionists use them, and of course it can be found in Igbo music, old and new.

It did not reach international popular music as much as, say, the shekere, cuica, or djembe.

I use it is some of my compositions, of which some are certainly African-based, but I also use it in Reggae and Dancehall music. I like its “earthy” and clay tones.

REMINDER

However used or recontextualized, the Udu essentially remains an historical reminder of simpler, undisturbed times in Igboland – before slavery - when local communities were intact, and local festivities and events were traditionally celebrated with music..

dinsdag 17 september 2019

Why Columbus deserves no statue

Christopher Columbus is of course a controversial historical figure.

Long heralded in Western culture as an innovative global explorer, only quite recently more criticism came.

I encountered these critiques early on. As a child I read quite a lot, such as from the public library (pre-Internet days), including works by anticolonial writers.

Furthermore, I encountered this critique in a lot of Reggae lyrics. Reggae, developed by Afro-Jamaicans – victims of colonialism, as such -, and known for relatively many (Rastafari-inspired) socially critical lyrics, of course were critical about Columbus as starter of European colonialism as such. Lyrics by artists like Burning Spear, Mutabaruka, Peter Tosh, Culture, and several others, described and lamented the genocide of Amerindians, through disease and explotation, by first Spanish colonizers, and the enslavement of Africans and the slave trade it necessitated.

SLAVERY AND GENOCIDE

That first Spanish slave trade in Africans was not yet as massive and structured as it would become over time, but it certainly was the start of something bad and dehumanizing, including massive enslavement and transportation of Africans, and high death rates and short lives among these Africans. Especially the British and Dutch “perfected” and amplified this slave trade in Africans and plantation slavery (starting in Dutch Brazil and Barbados), making it even more massive, but also the Spanish and Portuguese later profited from this British and Dutch expertise; Spain for instance contracted the transport of slaves in part out to Dutch or British companies.

There was a large genocide among Amerindians in the Caribbean area, and other parts of Latin America to differing degrees too. In some countries, the Amerindians became part of the racially mixed population, including Spaniards, Amerindians, Africans, and even others. In the Caribbean few Amerindians remained, and several islands became mainly populated with people of African descent, or mixed with Europeans.

This was also the case in Cuba, where I have been several times. In some parts of Eastern Cuba (close to Baracoa) there was some remaining Amerindian blood in the population, but mostly it was disappeared or diluted in Spanish and/or African blood.

In certain other parts, such as the small island Dominica, some Carib Amerindians remained, while in Puerto Rico some Amerindian blood is still there in a part of the population, as it is in an island like Aruba.

The colonial period of exploitation inaugurated by Christopher Columbus caused therefore genocide, slavery, and poverty lasting for centuries (up to now), as European colonies exploited the American colonies, and later applied the same colonial logic to Africa and Asia. Racism increased strongly with Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, especially as part of a power and colonial logic. Amerindians and Afro-Americans are disproportionately more affected by poverty throughout the Americas and the Caribbean.

RACISM

If racism was "invented” with this American colonialism is harder to say. Arabs, Portuguese and Genoese already traded in African slaves before 1492, and saw them as inferior, and also in the Islamic world and parts of Europe and India there was historically a view of “inferiority” of African people, which can be viewed as early forms of anti-African racism. Significantly, there were also Black Africans in Islamic ruled, Moorish Spain (between 8th c-15th c.), besides locals, Berbers, and Arabs, but these Blacks were mostly slaves or servants. In that sense Blacks did not really rule over Spanish people, as I read somewhere about Moorish Spain; more North African Berbers and Arabs (along with converted locals) with Black African slaves.

This “White” or European sense of racial superiority, however, certainly got a boost with Columbus pioneering colonialism.

Columbus himself was neither in any way an heroic person. His biography shows perhaps an innovative, explorative, and adventurous man, but not a good, moral, and loving man. His zeal to gain more knowledge about the world – even if sincere – was trumped in his own mind by an egoistic urge to conquer and gain wealth: to rule and get rich. This at the cost of other people.

More details of his biography confirm this ruthless, wicked, and uncaring character, certainly as he forced women – even young girls - to have sex with him and others (i.e. raped them), and killed the weak and defenseless.

Only a deeply ingrained sense of Western, White superiority could make Europe blind for such moral and human considerations. Catholicism and Christianity was a part of this. Columbus, born in Genua, now Italy, later became a Portuguese citizen, called himself a Catholic.

COLONIAL GAINS

Though perhaps not the most devout Catholic, his stated goal to spread Christianity among the heathen was said to help convince the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella, to back his journey to the West in the year 1492. The promises of riches even more though.

Isabella at first articulated some objections against genocide and enslavement of other people – as contrary to what she considered Christian love – but her and others’ objections soon muted in Spain, as wealth and colonial power came to Spain. Certain groups in Spain suddenly got to live in luxury. In that pre-capitalist era, colonial gains were not yet always “invested” thoughtfully, as the British would do later. The Britons’ more strategic, so-to-speak “Protestant” treatment of colonial gains by investing in planned economic development, eventually enabled the leading role of Britain in the Industrial Revolution.

Also, the Calvinist Dutch invested their colonial gains (from Suriname, Indonesia and elsewhere) much more deliberate in their economies, than the more “loose-spending” earlier Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. So, one can say that blood money was either spent on luxury or invested more durably, but either way created wealthy elites in several European countries.

In this sense, it stimulated inequality, but in fact helped shape the Western world as we know it now. The tropical products that first entered Spain from its colonies, like tobacco, potatoes, rum, and much more, became popular throughout Europe. This is thus also what Columbus started and normalized: the exploitation of other parts of the world for their food or agricultural and raw products, removing their ownership from the local people. Multinational companies as such have their origins in the colonial era, many specific ones too (like Dutch-British oil company Shell), and these are very powerful in today’s world, as we know.

All this is by now quite well known, or should be. From exhaustive, lengthy scholarly studies about colonial history, to e.g. Reggae and Calypso song lyrics, the figure of Christopher Columbus is now presented in quite other lights: as a criminal, a murderer, a racist, a rapist, and a thief on a large scale. He was all this without a doubt, but he was at the same time influential politically in high places. He got, though first hesitantly, the support of the Spanish monarchs, and later inspired British and other monarchs, and British seafarers with colonial aims, such as Henry Morgan, and Francis Drake. Also explorers and pirates mentioned, by the way, in Reggae lyrics.

STATUES

Knowing all this, I find it simply absurd that there are still statues for Columbus in several places in the world: quite a large one in the city of Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain), somewhat smaller ones in other parts of Spain, a few in Italy (his native Genova, notably), some other European countries, and still several throughout the US (like in Central Park, New York), Latin America, and the Caribbean (like in Santo Domingo).

Objections and popular demands sometimes removed some of these, but many remain.

BARCELONA

The large one is Barcelona was the most noticeable, in my recollection. I went over a week to Barcelona, after I finished my academic studies in the year 2000. By then I was well in my twenties, and already a Reggae fan for over 14 years, plus I had read quite some anticolonial works. I was therefore not pleased with that large Columbus monument – close to the water front and where the Rambla begins – but neither paid very much attention to it. I was puzzled by the direction Columbus pointed, namely to Italy (his birthplace Genua), and not to the Americas from Barcelona.

ELSEWHERE: MADRID AND SAINT ANN'S BAY

I saw a few smaller Columbus monuments, after this, some of which I even almost did not see. Such as the one on the Plaza Colón in Madrid (named after Columbus, Colón being his name in Spanish). I was looking for a specific club on a nearby street, so my attention was here also distracted.

Mutabaruka, the Jamaican poet and musician (and radio host), once pointed jokingly at the irony of a statue of Marcus Garvey (Black Power thinker and activist) in his birthplace Saint Ann’s Bay, on the North Coast of Jamaica, with nearby in the same town a statue of Columbus. I went to Saint Ann’s Bay – a tranquil town with friendly, easy-going people - , and found the statue of Marcus Garvey, but did not see the one of Columbus.

OTHER STATUES

Of course, he was an influential historical figure, but a statue is a strange thing: it is not a impartial, neutral phenomenon. Inherently, statues serve to commemorate and praise at the same time. It implies that the person was a “positive model” in some sense and to some degree. There are statues of famous entertainers, musicians, or sportsmen/athletes too, but these were also seen as “positive” influences culturally somehow.

The final statues of Spanish dictator Franco have now mostly been removed all over Spain, even from Franco’s birthplace El Ferrol (Galicia). The same happened with any remaining public statues of Benito Mussolini in Italy. A public statue of Hitler in Germany or elsewhere is simply unthinkable.

Other statues of dictators, especially the more ruthless, oppressive one, tend to be removed as much as possible too in several countries, with the arrival of democracy in societies.

This is so because a statue – as said – represent by its nature a “positive model”, or even a “hero”. It is not a book with information about the history , or a neutral documentary or description: statues imply honouring and veneration: immortalizing historical figures for the future with a sculpture. To differing degrees, of course. In birthplaces of famous people a statue of them can often be found, even if only active in the arts, or being wealthy or a powerful politician. They might have achieved something, but not necessarily something that made our world better, more equal, or only partly.. they just had a lot of power and influence in a certain epoch or location.

By all means, these historical periods and people (good and bad) should be studied scholarly and otherwise, and can even be an interesting theme in a neutral, balanced museum exhibition about local history.

A statue is something else, though. Due to his personal history and overall negative historical influence, Christopher Columbus should not be honoured, venerated, or heralded. Not in the least bit. He deserves it no more than people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Mussolini, or other dictators like Pol Pot, Salazar, Pinochet, Idi Amin, and Franco, or even big-time criminals like Al Capone or Pablo Escobar.

Many sensible people in the world understand very well, and would agree that such people deserve no statue and were no positive, heroic models for humanity.

For some reasons, this consciousness about Columbus - and for instance the large statue of Columbus in Barcelona - is lacking. One of the reasons might be that colonialism is further back in the past, and another reason is that European people do not like to see their country’s history – and their foreparents - in a bad light, connected as they are to that country and history. All-too-human, but therefore not justifiable.

European countries are beautiful and varied in their own way, like all countries, Spain has a varied, rich history, culture, and natural landscape, being at a Mediterranean crossroads. Other countries, like Britain, France, and the Netherlands have equally interesting, unique aspects, developed over time in their own way.

COLONIAL HISTORY

Denying, the “dark pages” or a bloody colonial history, including slavery, only makes that “blood money” more decisive in the sensed national identity then it needs to be. That period was about money, racism, and exploitation, “ruling the world”, but let’s hope that there is more to a nation’s people, and a country’s culture than that. From interesting ways to shape a country, cultural peculiarities, food habits, and organized societies, to nice folkore: the castanets of Spain, the Dutch clogs (wooden shoes), to name something.. not even always based on things copied from elsewhere (like the Pasta in Italy, based on Chinese mie taken by proto-colonizer Marco Polo), but at least an equal sharing among cultures. Columbus was on the other hand about domination and exploitation, taking and capturing, not sharing.

DENIAL

In addition, I think the still heralding of colonial “heroes” where it is present, but also the structural denying of colonial misdeeds keeps people separated. This structural denial is found in Spain and Portugal, but also in Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where a seemingly more open and democratic atmosphere allowed more anticolonial critique as well as more neutral and balanced scholarly studies about the misdeeds. This anticolonial view has luckily increased recently also in Spain’s academic circles.

This anticolonial critique – both by migrants from former colonies, and local progressive intellectuals - was however only influential to a degree, and met its limits among a part of national elites and population, having still links with this colonial past. Former PM of Britain, David Cameron, had slaveowners in the Caribbean among his forefathers, Royal houses in the Netherlands, Britain, and Spain profited from colonial wealth.

Some cities or parts of them even were built with this “blood money” (colonial and slavery-derived income), Liverpool, Bristol, and Nantes being known examples, but also parts of Amsterdam, Seville, Barcelona (where many Catalan slaveowners in Cuba for instance invested money), Madrid, London, Bordeaux, and Paris, and to a lesser degree also other places and cities throughout Europe and the Western world. In that sense, the colonial history influenced not just economy but also culture, like all historical episodes (good or bad) do, of course. It also filled some museums, like the British Museum.

I argue therefore, that recognizing this colonial history openly for its misdeeds, even if of ancestors, is a mature and intelligent way of learning from the past, and keeping an open mind to the rest of the world. Ideally, we can learn from each other’s history and culture. In other places, slavery and exploitation, religious wars and such were known historically, just like in Europe.

Man kind never learns: from e.g. the unequal Indian caste system, common slavery in parts of Asia, Africa, and in the Islamic world, the dehumanized, lesser status of women in several societies worldwide, inhumane treatments of “outsiders” (or minorities) in societies, exploitation of poorer ones, religious fanaticism, and violence. Also, ethnic and religious conflicts, people feeling better than – and threatened by - other groups in the same societies and subjugating them, can be found on all continents historically.

All this is of course not just the domain of Europeans, and injustice and evil are found historically and presently among all humans, especially since we lost touch with nature. Some of these injustices, though, are certainly influenced by European colonialism and global inequalities.

REMOVE THE STATUE

All the more reasons why Columbus should not be honoured with a statue, in Barcelona, or anywhere.

The Columbus statue in Barcelona was made by well-known Catalan artists, and though it was entire Spain (and not just Catalonia) that obtained all these colonies, as made by a local Catalan, the statue connected to a regional pride within Catalonia, where many object to excessive centralist Spanish (Madrid or Castilian) influence on Catalan affairs.

I do consider such considerations however mundane, certainly in relation to the negative role of Christopher Columbus in history.

Removing that statue would be merely symbolic, I know, but it certainly would be an important and promising symbol..

donderdag 1 augustus 2019

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Sound Cista

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

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

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

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

Before this I have interviewed 7 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014. For my blog post of August 2015, I interviewed, somewhat more extensively, (DJ) Rowstone (Rowald). In August 2016, then, I interviewed Vega Selecta. In October 2017 I interviewed DJ Ewa. Then, for my post of September 2018, I interviewed for the first time a woman, namely Empress Messenjah or Empress Donna Lee.

SOUND CISTA

This time, close to August 2019, I interview another “sista” of mine, whom I know from the Amsterdam reggae scene. Her name is Carol Samson, also known under her selectress/dee-jay name Sound Cista or Sound-Cista. Carol is partly of Surinamese descent.

I chose to interview her, because I in time saw and heard her play as deejay/selectress more and more – these last years - , mainly at the Reggae-minded club Café the Zen, in Amsterdam East. She did also do other things in/for that Café. She also played on occasion in some other places and clubs in and around Amsterdam, and even outside of the Netherlands, as she got to play on a beach venue in the Spanish region of Valencia, not far from where the famous Rototom festival is held, in August 2018. She says she, as part of Jah Sister's (with DJ Jessi), will play there, in Valencia, Spain, again this year 2019, later this month (the 25th of August).

Her musical selections as selectress I enjoyed a lot, with a focus on good New Roots, and sometimes older Roots, by artists like Bushman, Lutan Fyah, Morgan Heritage, Capleton or Richie Spice.

Moreover, we spoke quite often the last years, in nice, open conversations, about Reggae music, but also life in general. Still, there is more than enough I do not know about her yet, arousing my curiosity. Underneath the photo you’ll see my questions and her answers, translated to English.

Where were you born and did you grow up?

I was born in Amsterdam. Before I reached the age of 1, we moved to Suriname. When I was 6 years old we returned to the Netherlands. I grew up in Amsterdam South East (de “Bijlmer”).

Since when do you listen Reggae music?

Since I was 15 years old I came into contact with Reggae Music. That is: other Reggae music than Bob Marley’s or Peter Tosh’s.

What attracted you to it, then?

The beat/rhythm and its lyrics. Reggae’s song lyrics were more about life, attracting me more than mainstream pop on the Dutch radio (like Hilversum 3).

What other music genres did you listen to?

I listened sometimes to what was in the hit parades, preferring most soul, funk, R&B, hip-hop. At home with my parents, growing up, I heard Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, and Bigi Poku (Surinamese music). From my period in Suriname, as a child, I remember that my parents also used to play a lot of Soul music, by Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Al Green, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Oscar Harris, and Ray Charles.

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

Yes, I also like old school hip-hop and rap, fado music, bossa nova, but I listen most to Reggae

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

I love Roots Reggae, “conscious” Reggae, both old and new. I really have no affinity with Dancehall. It does not even resemble Reggae anymore, in my personal opinion.

Is there really no Dancehall you like?

Some Dancehall songs are okay, as long as it is no slackness. I like for instance What If by Busy Signal. Overall, however, I do not really see it as Reggae; I really love Roots Reggae, nice basslines, and music that touches you. I don’t have that with Dancehall..

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

I bought my first dj mixer in 2014. In 2016 I played for the first time for an audience in Café the Zen (Amsterdam), on “open decks” evenings. In November 2017 I got every first Saturday of the month as regular playing gig in Café the Zen. That was the birth of Jah Sister’s, as I play since then every first Saturday of the month with my dj sis Dj Jessi.

How do you consider the gender (male-female) balance among Reggae deejay’s/selecta’s in Amsterdam/the Netherlands?

I know (Empress) Donna Lee as first female Reggae deejay/selectress in the Netherlands. In the present time, there are quite some more lady Reggae deejay’s/selectresses than before, in the Netherlands.

It is still a bit skewed and unbalanced, however. Most deejay’s are still men. That does not always need to be a problem, though. I played/spinned together with several deejay’s, and do not notice that much difference.

Are you active in other ways within the Reggae scene as well? E.g. radio, organizing events or otherwise?

For years I was a decent mother, caring for two children. When they left the house, I started doing more with my music hobby. I have been collecting Reggae music for years and wanted to do something with it.

Nowadays, I also promote the events of Café the Zen on Facebook, at times make a line-up in the case of different events on one night, or assist in other things when something is organized in Café the Zen. Furthermore, I make flyers for Jah Sisters, or for other deejay’s/selecta’s who do not have time for it.

I have also been a guest a few times on radio programmes.

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

I have a preference for Digital carriers: vinyl requires too much weight and space. So, headphones and USB sticks, though I also always carry some CDs with me, and can play with anything: digital and vinyl, even cassette, if needed. In that sense, I am well versatile. To listen to, I appreciate both Digital and Vinyl.

Why the selecta name Sound Cista?

“Sound” from, well, sound, and Cista from “Sister”, changing the first S to C, from my personal name Carol. Sound Sister.

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

I am not a Rastafari, nor do I have any religious conviction as such. I do however not eat any meat. In addition, I also do try to live in harmony with others. Regrettably, I notice that many – also in the Reggae scene – are polluted with the “Babylon” mindset, being very envious of others. They do not practice what they preach!

I mention this, because as a dee-jay/selecta/selectress, you come across a lot of envy and jealousy, people begrudging you, crossing you, or slandering your name.

I really do not have time for such “Babylon” things, and prefer to give my energy to positive people, on the same level and wavelength. The rest is unimportant for me, only distracting me from my mission: promoting Reggae, unity, and one love.

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

I prefer listening to Reggae, as I always searching for good music. In the past, Barrington Levy, Price Far I, Garnett Silk, Capleton, Lutan Fyah, Morgan Heritage, LMS, and Richie Spice were artists I listened to often.
Nowadays I hear a lot of beautiful songs, by both known or even totally unknown artists. At the present I listen, for instance, to the song Brother’s Keeper by Jerone, and Music Alone, by Ginjah.

REFLECTION AND COMPARISON

I myself now learned somewhat more about Sound Cista, or Carol, though she told me some of this before personally already. I hope the reader got to know now more about the woman behind the selectress Sound Cista, how she became a selectress, and her specific tastes and stances within the Reggae scene.

Her taste – and therefore her selection as selectress/deejay – are not so different from mine, being the reason why I personally enjoy her sets.

I prefer Roots Reggae over Dancehall too, although I focus perhaps a bit more on the Older Roots Reggae from the 1970s and 1980s. I am a Reggae (vinyl) selecta too, at times, and tend to play relatively a lot of chunes from the early 1980s or Late 1970s (by artists like Culture, Hugh Mundell, the Mighty Diamonds, the Itals, Twinkle Brothers, Don Carlos, or Pablo Moses) besides current New Roots by artists like Sizzla, Bushman, or Queen Ifrica. Sound Cista plays varied too, but a bit more focused on New Roots.

There is a bit more Dancehall I like, maybe, when compared to Sound Cista, though it is neither my main love within Reggae. So in that sense we roughly coincide, and seem to be kindred spirits.

COOPERATION

The jealousy and envy – and lack of cooperation - she mentions among Reggae deejay’s, is also noteworthy. I heard about it before, also from others.

Those kind of negative human character traits can be found among all humans and in all activities (workplace, hobbies, art, and elsewhere), but in the Reggae scene it is a bit more disturbing, in light of the espoused One Love and Unity in it, some claim to uphold. Of course, this then starts to reek of hypocrisy and hollow words. Many do not practice what they preach, Sound Cista justly says.

The lacking cooperation in the local (in this case Amsterdam/Netherlands) Reggae scene is also mentioned by other people I interviewed for my blog before, such as DJ Ewa, as well as others.

Kind of a ego-minded, self-interested “cowboy mentality”, I have called it before, and it’s there certainly, which is a pity. If you really have talent yourself, or work on it, you do not need to begrudge or keep down others, I often think.

Yet, there is besides this also enough cooperation within the Amsterdam Reggae scene, as selectas tend to combine and play together, or have so, on several events. Often changing combinations, in Café the Zen (Amsterdam), or elsewhere. Positive movements!

This goes even beyond gender or racial distinctions.
Nonetheless, some note in Amsterdam a distinction - or even division - between a Reggae scene with events dominated by White people (including foreigners, and some connected to the squatter scene), and one by Black people, dominated by Black people, mostly local Surinamese or African people (as audience and selecta’s), and with a matching different song selection or clubs to visit. Less Dub and more New Roots for a more Black audience, for instance.

I notice a bit of that distinction, but do not see it as that significant. Good music is good music, and good Reggae is good Reggae. It is all Black music, overall, in its cultural and musical characteristics. The harmony vocals from Older Reggae like of the Wailing Souls, the Viceroys, the Abyssinians, or the Mighty Diamonds are heard maybe more on some “White-dominated” Reggae events, nowadays, but on the other hand exemplify the beautiful African and Afro-Caribbean vocal (and percussive!) “call-and-response” characteristic, quite typical in Black music, to give an example.

I miss those harmony and call-and-response vocals a bit in current Reggae (with much more sole singers than groups), though I like much of the New Roots too nonetheless, because of the many talented artists, good grooves and musicianship, intelligent lyrics, and strong songs being released by Jamaican artists in recent times too.

Sound Cista certainly plays a lot of these great songs as selectress..

dinsdag 2 juli 2019

Young, Gifted, and Black

As Jamaican music became international over time, for obvious reasons Great Britain became the first hub of this internationalization, especially with regards to Europe.

True, “Bredda Bob” (Marley) and his popularity ended up doing a lot for Reggae’s international, worldwide spread since the mid-1970s. Jamaican music, however, came at least a decade before that, the 1960s, already to parts of Britain with Jamaican migrants to Britain, including also Reggae’s musical 1960s precursors Ska and Rocksteady.

It did however not remain a cultural heritage closed to outsiders: it influenced and reached British popular culture and White Britons, especially youth movements, already in the later 1960s.

Not unlike how earlier Black culture of the Jazz age in the US became seen as a “cool” model to follow for some hip White people, or how Rock & Roll followed out of African American Rhythm & Blues, Black culture became cool and “hip” among some young, white subgroups in parts of Britain: first Jazz and R&B, later Caribbean music, like Ska.

TROJAN RECORDS

In all this, the Trojan record label had a crucial role. I recently read a book about this British label – founded in 1968 - focussed on Reggae, with the title ‘Young, Gifted, and Black : the story of Trojan Records’ (Omnibus Press, 2018), after the UK hit of Bob (Andy) and Marcia (Griffiths) of that title (cover of a Nina Simone song). This song reached number 5 in the UK national chart, in 1970. This book was written by Michael de Koningh & Laurence Cane-Honeysett.

The book itself was readable and interesting, if somewhat chaotic and lacking of direction and structure. I have been used to scholarly works, with sometimes “too much direction and structure”, but the other extreme proved here neither to be very nice and stimulating to read. The timeframe is followed, a structure somehow there, but further many details are given, specific anecdotes told, about how the label started , people involved etcetera.. I often thought, however: “why is this told?”.. I did not think: “who cares?”: - that would be too harsh -, but did find difficulty sometimes to fit stories and facts in the book in the wider whole.

Overall, however, the book did give an interesting view on Jamaican music’s early spread in Britain.

Trojan was actually in its origins and finance connected to Chris Blackwell’s Island record label, and likewise White (and Indian) people were in charge in Trojan records too, using the talents of Black Jamaican people for selling records. Definitely skewed, of course, but common.

Lyrically strongly Rastafari-influenced Roots Reggae arose in Jamaica especially after 1972, and this book deals with also the period before that: earlier Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady or Reggae since the 1960s, with mostly love and party – sometimes social - lyrics, but with a Jamaican touch.

EARLY REGGAE

Early Reggae, arising around 1968, was relatively faster than later Reggae, and even often faster when compared to earlier Rocksteady. It had a certain energy, of course connected to new dances. Songs by Toots & The Maytals like Pressure Drop, Reggae Got Soul, or Do The Reggae are examples of Early Reggae, if Gospel-influenced. Other Early Reggae, such as by the Ethiopians, showed other, rural/folk (Mento) influences, but Early Reggae had a specific organ shuffle, higher-notes bass lines, and semi-fast rhythmic structures, among its recurring elements.

This Early Reggae seemed to be a specialty of Trojan Records, managing to release Ska, Rocksteady, and Early Reggae songs that became hits in Britain, and not just among Jamaican migrants there, by the likes of Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Ken Boothe, Dandy Livingstone, Desmond Dekker, the already mentioned Toots & the Maytals, the Pioneers, Lee Perry’s Upsetters, and some other artists. Most of these were Jamaican, but some of them settled in Britain.

As a “Reggae scene” is more than just fans of a genre, it should also include own artists, and those soon arose too, but not at first: mostly Jamaicans recorded songs for Trojan records to sell and produce. To reach the White market, the original Jamaican sound needed to be adapted to European and British tastes. The addition of strings, also to Bob & Marcia’s Young Gifted And Black, being an example of this. This consisted of an Europeanization, apparently, although violins were known in some Jamaican folk music . Further adaptations were also made at Trojan Records in order to reach different groups, and widen the market.

Some of the public groups Trojan was aimed at, consisted of new youth movements among White Britons, fads or fashions – or scenes -, such as the Mods in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Skinheads after them. The Mods were fashion-conscious, semi-intellectual and hip Jazz, R&B, and other Black music lovers (including Ska), but with expensive tastes.

The latter explaining perhaps the rise of another youth movement a bit later in Britain, since the late 1960s, partly an offshoot of those “Mods”, but more labour class: the “Skinheads”. These had often a preference for Jamaican and other Black music, including Ska, Rocksteady, and Early Reggae.

SKINHEAD REGGAE

This even gave rise to a subcategory within Reggae, some recognize and some not, known as “Skinhead Reggae”. Some authors – “Reggae historians” - just describe it as Early, faster Reggae lyrically aimed at skinheads. Some describe it musically as a phase between Rocksteady and Early Reggae. I myself still don’t know quite how to define it, although I know some examples of songs popular with Skinheads (Toots & the Maytals’ Pressure Drop, or the Ethiopians’ super-catchy What A Fire, for instance).

The connection to Jamaican music stayed a while among these skinheads, but the increased influence of Rastafari and Black nationalism on reggae and its messages after 1972, created a distancing of most white skinheads from what would be Roots Reggae. The song Selassie, by the Upsetters/Reggae boys, was one of the few songs musically in the Skinhead Reggae vein, but lyrically about Rastafari, that was popular among the skinheads. Another one was Laurel Aitken’s Haile Selassie.

Yet, as Rastafari-influenced Roots Reggae began to arise and dominate Jamaican music, a part of the skinheads lost interest.

Trojan records did not bet on this one horse, however, and sought like other companies to broaden its market, for more monetary gain, during the following decades , including Roots-focussed compilation albums, that however always maintained one foot in the preceding Early Reggae phase.

I know some of these compilations, such as A Place Called Africa, with songs about the African motherland, showing how even artists once popular with skinheads (like Desmond Dekker), lyrically could still be conscious and true to themselves, while also including songs of Roots icons (Dennis Brown, Junior Byles, Sugar Minott) Trojan also released..

EARLY INTERNATIONALIZATION

In reality, this was the earliest phase of Jamaican music’s internationalization. Jamaican migrants sometimes mingled with White Britons in some youth scenes: there were even Black skinheads, such as in bigger cities like London and Birmingham. This influenced the tastes of some white British youth. This would remain in later scenes in the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Punk movement, with bands like the Clash clearly borrowing from Reggae.

One moral problem, though, is that the Skinhead movement later got in a bad light, as Extreme Right and White Nationalists groups co-opted it partly, making many skinheads synonymous with anti-foreigner stances in Britain. This was not movement-wide, but did cause mistrust. The hooliganism from early on by some violent skinheads neither did help. There seem to have been, though, many non-racist skinheads, with just their own cultural interests and labour-class affiliations, some in to Black music, like Reggae. Perhaps predictably: some would become Punks.

The skinhead-aimed reggae hits released by Trojan, became British hits, at least in clubs or underground, and on occasion reached the national charts. Some reached outside Britain to become small hits in countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, or Germany, but not often.

Reggae’s much wider internationalization, of course came with Marley’s rising popularity during the 1970s, spreading reggae throughout the world, far beyond just Britain or even the US. It also put Jamaica on the map, outside of Britain.

Jamaica, a small island that the British captured in the 17th century, soon became a plantation-driven island, with the use of imported enslaved Africans, making today that over 90% of Jamaicans are of mostly sub-Saharan African descent. Jamaica remained a British colony until the 1962 independence, but ties remained, also due to migrations.

Racism in Britain was rife, and the arrival of West Indian migrants in the 1950s to a “White Man Country” like Britain, caused some hostility, even violence, against new Black residents.

The interesting thing about someone like Linton Kwesi Johnson is that this is a theme in his lyrics: the acceptance of Black people in British society over time, persisting, subtle or less-subtle racism and discrimination etcetera. Songs like Inglan Is A Bitch, It Noh Funny, and several others relate this.

CONCLUSION

This early popularity of Jamaican music on which Trojan records partly capitalized with 1960s and 1970s hits, among multiracial groups, even going to multiracial clubs, must of course not be idealized as “one big racial harmony”. Rather, it can be seen as a hopeful sign of people coming together through culture and music, beyond race, in an otherwise racist, pro-White British society that it was.

That many White skinheads or other more trendy Reggae fans lost interest with rising Rastafari influence is less positive, though.

Rastafari is after all a Jamaican cultural and spiritual movement, focused on Africa, related to Black people’s own history and identity. As Reggae it is a part of Jamaican culture.

A pity that the open mind seemed not so open for an own expression and culture, other than their own. Maybe some more White people would have learned early on this way about the history of slavery, or larger history, but such lyrics distracted them apparently from their want of dynamic “pumping” Reggae grooves in line with their white skinhead lifestyle. A bit in the same disrespectful vein as those men joking about their women, saying: “I like to have sex with her, but she likes to talk too much about her problems..”.

Some white Reggae fans in Britain may have indeed opened their mind with Reggae lyrics, even in this early wave, or perhaps even through having Black friends.

A later stage of Reggae’s internationalization, the 1970s, with Bob Marley’s and other Roots Reggae artists’ fame (Dennis Brown, Culture, a.o.) was in another cultural context (hippy movement and social criticism), while some anti-authority lyrics in Reggae - in fact quite common – appealed to some in the following, 1980s Punk movement, with their own purposes and interpretations, but hey.. Late 1970s Roots Reggae songs, like Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash were hits among Black Britons, but also among many Punks.

Reggae never “sold out”, due to the “honesty” of Rastafari-influenced and socially critical lyrics. Even Bob Marley, while commercially promoted by Island Records, kept true to these lyrics and messages against oppression of Black people.

Musically, Chris Blackwell cum suis, made some adaptations to the Wailers’ original Jamaican Reggae sound, to suit supposed “White tastes”, of Rock fans, this time.

At Trojan records, this occurred too, as the book ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’ relates. This included adding of strings in Britain to early, “rougher”, Reggae songs, while the changes by Island and Blackwell to Bob’s sound are also known and by now well-documented. I wrote about this on this blog too. Not much use, therefore, repeating it all here..

In short, production, mixing, and adding of instruments to suit White tastes occurred. The added instruments were now not strings or violins. In fact, I do not know of any Bob Marley song with violins. I think some electric guitar solos were added with a White (“Rock”) audience in mind, though there are also “quality” solos between them (like on the song Heathen), irrespective of the race it is aimed at.

All this helped Reggae to crossover, and eventually (by the late 1970s), once “crossed over” to other races and cultures, it became respected also by many White fans “on its own terms”, listening to the lyrics, and many White people started to consider themselves Rastafari, even though it essentially started as Black Power movement. Many even respectful, and not for fashion-sake, with proper knowledge to back it up.

This scepsis about “White Rastas” is all-too understandable, as White people throughout history more than once “copied to take over” what is not theirs. Yet, if respectful and sincere, it is another sign of hope of people coming together, joining as one, irrespective of racial or other background, against injustice. The surrounding British society is in the present (2010s) a bit more democratic and multicultural, but still in many ways racist, and pro-White (Britons). The whole Brexit issue showed that too.

The period on which the book , ‘Young, Gifted, and Black’ centers, the 1960s and 1970s, was in that sense harsher, though young White and Black Britons hesitantly came together in clubs, became friends, through music.

This was still exceptional, as it was also common that the first mixed-raced (black-white) couples in British streets in the 1960s were insulted, and often even chased or even beaten up by White men and youths. The demeaning entry signs on many pubs and other locales throughout Britain, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, have really existed, and were no invention, as some said. Historical photos have been taken and films shot of these discriminatory texts at entrances.

In such a context, this early reach of reggae of white markets, by Trojan Records, can be deemed as remarkable and innovative.

This quite recent (2018) work: ‘Young, Gifted, and Black : the story of Trojan Records’ gives some of these social glimpses and insights, but is overall more for the practical mind, than for the sociologically or scholarly interested. Many facts or events are described in business terms, how to gain profit, reach markets, business plans, legal rights, managerial choices.. Even music and the songs themselves get relatively little attention, and all the more whether it sold.

Their choice, but I personally do not find that interesting or pleasant reading material. I am more interested in culture than in business, more in humanity and life than in money.

The book is well-documented, on the other hand, including for a large part comprehensive lists of all Trojan releases, possibly of interest to record collectors.

zondag 2 juni 2019

Flamenco and I

It is in some sense part of my cultural heritage, Flamenco Music. My mother after all hails from the Southern half of Spain (not far from Córdoba), and the South Spanish region Andalusia, along with parts of surrounding regions (Extremadura, Murcia), is the place of origin of the Flamenco music, dance, and culture.

Flamenco is indeed one of the most developed and maintained folk music genres in Europe. While there is folk music everywhere, even in Europe, especially in more rural areas, few have such an extended, and internationalized tradition, safe perhaps the also quite well-known folk music from Ireland. For that reason, Flamenco is also on Unesco’s World Heritage List.

That Flamenco might be part of my cultural heritage is not that far-fetched a thought, since also what are probably distant family members (surname and place of birth, etcetera) are also active in Flamenco, such as singer Miguel De Tena, having the same surname as my grandmother.

So I encounter it due to my background, have some connection to it.. but do I like it, that whole Flamenco culture? Readers of my (this) blog could deduce that I am mainly a Reggae fan, though also a broader Black music fan. Yet here and there I also pay attention to other music genres, even world wide, including Spanish music.

The answer is yes, I like and appreciate Flamenco.

There are some nuances, though. I noted that there are quite some misconceptions, and divergent definitions and descriptions of Flamenco and its origins. It also is very broad and varied, with several varying subgenres and patterns. In that sense, Flamenco is not “one thing”, but rather a varied cultural complex centered on Andalusia, developing furthermore over time.

Contrary to what many think, Flamenco is not of Gipsy origin. The Andalusian Gipsy/Roma population soon became very active in it, as players and creators, but originally Flamenco combines several cultural influences within the Andalusia region itself, including local Spanish genres. It also is influenced by the Moorish/Islamic history of South Spain, also in some musical aspects, by Jewish presence, and other aspects, combining all this with Gipsy influences. It is thus local, and after all: if not, the Gipsy/Roma populations in Eastern Europe or elsewhere would have that Flamenco too as main expression, but do not.

MY KNOWLEDGE

Throughout my life, I have learned more and more about Flamenco: both its history and its current characteristics and variety. It started with vague information, also mistaken notions, but these got corrected, as I started to study more reliable and scholarly sources. The contradicting information and misconceptions – or deliberate false information spread – made some facts difficult to unearth.

I read the current (English-language) Wikipedia article on Flamenco, and derived from other sources, I can conclude that it is relatively correct and accurate.

Another source is the book 'World Music. – Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East' (London : Rough Guides, 1999), a book of over 700 pages about several countries, which dedicates a separate chapter on Flamenco music, and another one on other Spanish music.

It is overall more sketchy and less scholarly than even the Wikipedia article, let alone other, actually scholarly studies I also know. Some aspects are therefore not even entirely correct, partly maybe because of ideological reasons.

The author on the chapter on Spanish Flamenco in the World Music book, Jan Fairley, separates Flamenco from Spanish folk music as such more than elsewhere, stating “the roots of flamenco have evolved in southern Spain from many sources: Morocco, Egypt, India, Pakistan, Greece, and other parts of the Near and Far East”.. One country she seems to have forgotten: Spain itself (present local Spanish folk music, already there before the Moors conquered Spain, and the Gypsies came). Furthermore I do not really know what the Pakistani or Greek contributions to Flamenco consist of, but there might be.

Not entirely adequate, and probably a (transparent, thus failed) attempt at “political correctness” against a colonizing European nation as Spain, oppressing its minorities. It is a bit more complex than that. Besides, it is a bit less convincing when someone with an English name does that, England having at least a similar colonial, racist past as Spain.

To be fair, other parts of that same chapter are a bit more interesting and correct as an overview. Fairley rightly emphasizes the importance of “improvisation” in Flamenco music and gatherings, and discusses some important aspects, artists and subgenres and mixtures.

For a more correct and easily accessible description of Flamenco’s origins I however recommend the English-language Wikipedia article.

It is hard for me to say if I necessarily like all forms or forms of Flamenco, also because I do not know enough of all forms.

GUITAR

I am more a percussion man than a guitar man - I am a percussionist after all - and also play a drum kit at times. Some Flamenco is very guitar-oriented, and therefore possibly less appealing for non-guitarists. The connection to the classical guitar (Spanish guitar) is however culturally interesting, Spain being the place of origin of the guitar in that form. That form became in time very widespread and influential in international Western pop music, with all the later developments in the guitar outside of Spain (steel strings, electric guitar, country guitar, bass guitar, etcetera). The original acoustic guitar with nylon strings is still the norm within Flamenco, and I personally like the sound of nylon strings more than steel ones.

Both my brothers play guitars: one specialized in bass, the other in Spanish and Flamenco guitars, so I personally encountered it.

Besides music, there are also Flamenco dances, for which the same applies.

I certainly like to dance to music, but as naturally and rhythmically as possible: just following the rhythm. Some of the moves in Flamenco dances I find nice, but others a bit too stylized and rigid to my taste. At times the male-female distinctions of these moves betray old-fashioned, somewhat conservative gender relations, that I as a progressive, modern man do not feel so attached too. Still, even with such more stylized moves, I at times can appreciate the elegancy and grace, especially when it flows naturally with the music.

RHYTHM

What I like most, though, of Flamenco, is that it, for European music standards, has quite an important role for “rhythm”. It is a largely (acoustic) guitar-driven nature, but many styles of playing of the acoustic guitar are quite rhythmic, maintaining specific rhythm patterns, befitting the several subgenres within Flamenco (soleá, buleria, siguiriya, tientos, tangos, regional, etcetera). The recurring hand clapping in Flamenco (and feet tapping) also relate to this. These genre distinctions are defined by differing rhythmic patterns, around which the music is built, rather than chord/harmony structures, as in other Western music. I like this rhythmic focus within Flamenco, being myself quite oriented on rhythm.

Over time, all this became even more interesting, also for me.

SINGING

The vocal part I like too. The impassioned singing can be beautiful and heartfelt, with the melismatic, North African-like singing style adding some passion and fervor to the lyrics. Some, including my “family member” Miguel De Tena, can sing like this quite well, but Flamenco has and has had several great and original singers, such as the legendary Camarón De La Isla.

Regarding lyrics, I again have a caveat, however. Used to and appreciative of the “conscious”, socially critical messages common in Reggae music – rebelling against the system and injustice -, I cannot focus too long on lyrics lacking this. Many (not all!) Flamenco lyrics are about love affairs or romantic love. Nothing wrong with a sincere love song, or nice poetic renderings of “matters of the heart”, but love, heart break, lost love, etcetera, are well-trodden paths in much popular music. It is part of life, but there is more to life than that.

Luckily, there is some socially conscious Flamenco too, and not coincidentally one of those “conscious” Flamenco singers is one of the first I got into, in that genre: Manuel Gerena. A great, intense singer, accompanied by good, improvizing guitarists, plus having socially critical lyrics, often about poverty and exploitation of workers – and other injustices - in rural Andalusia. Spain being a dictatorship up to 1975, censorship probably limited such lyrics long, and as my mother explained to me about growing up during the Franco dictatorship in Spain: employers/bosses had “free reign” to exploit and abuse lowly workers, with few – if any – labourers rights, during this Right-wing, Fascist-like dictatorship lasting in Spain until 1975 (my mother migrated/”escaped” to the Netherlands, around 1966).

Still not the best-known Flamenco artist, Manuel Gerena, but at least his social lyrics are now openly possible. I certainly “felt” his songs, anyway.

AFRO-LATIN

Flamenco developed further, and another interesting direction came with the influences from the Spanish colonies, like Cuba. These “came back” to Spain, you might say, after Spanish music was mixed with African and Amerindian music in Latin America. Some Flamenco musicians, such as Paco De Lucia, were open to these influences, also after travels, and added Afro-Peruvian and Afro-Cuban instruments, such as the cajón percussion, becoming quite common in Flamenco, and at times also congas and bongos, and smaller percussion instruments of Cuban or Latin American origin.

Besides these musical instruments, new patterns and forms developed within Flamenco, influenced by Cuban and other styles, including a subgenre in Flamenco, known as “Rumba”, being Cuban-influenced rhythmically. The style known as “Tangos” in Flamenco is on the other hand partly Argentinian-influenced.

Some Flamenco purists object to these additions and changes, but many Flamenco artists welcome it at the same time, to differing degrees.

I personally like those Afro-Cuban and Latin American additions, and find them often groovy, and combining interestingly rhythmically with the guitar sounds. One of the best-known Flamenco songs, the classic Entre Dos Aguas, certainly has that Cuban-influenced groove.

Rumba-flamenco also spread to Gypsies, outside of Andalusia, notably to the Catalonia and Perpignan (France) regions. Hence, the band known as the Gypsy Kings, based in the South of France, who had some international hits in this rumba-flamenco style (Bamboleo).

More recently, some more innovations took place by musicians active in Flamenco. Flamenco came to influence in recent decades pop genres in Spain – predictably, maybe – resulting in Flamenco Pop and Flamenco Rock, with mixed results. There are several talented artists and musicians, however, active nowadays, mixing Flamenco nicely with not just Rock, but also Funk, Blues and Reggae. I like Makandé, from Cádiz, for instance, mixing Flamenco with funk, reggae, and other genres, adding percussion. He has nice, groovy songs.

Other groups and artists, such as Radio Tarifa, work together with African and other musicians, combining with Flamenco, as a broader “World Music” approach.

The mentioned World Music book names in this regard also, justly, Ketama (mixing Flamenco with Rock and Salsa), and Pata Negra (mixing Flamenco with Blues) as noteworthy bands.

Interesting I find as well some Andalusian reggae artists, e.g. Little Pepe from Málaga, that in their singing clearly show Flamenco influences, on Reggae riddims. Often to good and original effect.

IN CONCLUSION

I can conclude therefore, also from a personal perspective, that I like the Flamenco tradition, and in that sense also that I more or less grew up with it, consisting of a nice heritage. Musically, I went in different directions, and was inspired especially by Black music, like Reggae, already as a child, increasing as teenager.

My musical interest, however, has always remained broad and open-minded, while Spanish and Italian music had my interest due to my background (Italian father, Spanish mother), with Flamenco being part of that. I listened regularly to some Flamenco artists (Camarón De La Isla, Manuel Gerena, Enrique El Extremeño, Paco de Lucia, Fosforito, Antonio Molina, and others), with both Gitano (Gypsy/Roma) and non-Gipsy backgrounds.

Later I began making music myself, and in time specialized in playing percussion. I do not exclude the possibility that some Flamenco influences appeared into my approach to percussion playing, singing, or other music making..

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’.