dinsdag 12 mei 2020

The flexible spread of the tambourine

Within the wide variety of percussion instruments there is also the tambourine. Over time, the instrument obtained a certain popularity, also in “mainstream” Western pop and rock music. Whereas other percussion instruments, even if quite well-known internationally, such as congas, cowbells, cabasa’s, or even woodblocks, have maintained their more or less “exotic” or “world music” image – as stemming mostly from Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music -, the tambourine has become more mainstream, even in Western, or “white people” music (simply said) as Rock, Pop, Beat, Folk, or Country. The tambourine is seen often played by known pop and rock stars, as it is often played by singers too. The Bob Dylan song “Mr Tambourine Man” connected it in the popular imagination stronger with US folk music traditions.

How can this relative “mainstream” appeal of the tambourine in Western (US or British) pop music be explained, when compared to other (shaker) instruments, known as more “tropical” ones (maracas, cabasas, chekere)?

I do not know, but I would like to explore that in this post.

ORIGINS

The origins of the tambourine as such are known to lie in the Middle East. Well, many “vaguely” know this, but the history of its spread is complex.

The English Wikipedia article about the tambourine seems to be quite certain that the instrument originated in Ancient Egypt, which is not only interesting, but also quite probable. They were there known as Tof among the ancient Hebrews, and were used in religious contexts. It is even mentioned in the Bible.

VAGUE AND CONFUSING ASPECTS

Origins and early spread

This Wikipedia article, however, has other vague aspects or omissions, compared to other information on the Internet. Maybe because it is not a very good or complete article. Elsewhere – in other sources - I read, after all, that the tambourine came from the Middle East, via North Africa, to Spain and Portugal, with the Moorish rule in Iberia (between the 8th and 15th c.). Again, quite probable, as so did other musical instruments, notably lutes, and the forerunner of what would become the Spanish guitar (which the Arabs in turn derived from Persian instruments). Other sources, however, date its arrival to Europe somewhat later, to the 13th c., and not per se via Iberia.

This explains why in Brazil types of tambourines, such as the “pandeiro”, are much used in popular music, as in other parts of Latin America. It also explains why many Spanish folk music genres include the “pandereta”, as the tambourine (with drum head and bells) is called in Spanish. Yet: it does not explain why it is similarly found in folk music in parts of Europe without that Moorish (or Arab/Islamic) past, such as Italy, France, the Basque country, but also Russia, and Ukraine. Somehow, its appeal made it spread, even when a direct cultural link seems absent.

Types and characteristics

Another confusing aspect is what the “tambourine” looks like, according to definitions. Originally the term was used for a frame drum with a drumhead (or: membrane), with bells on the side, hence also the name deriving from a diminutive of “tambor” (drum in Spanish), or “tambour” (in French). In Italy the tambourine is similarly known as “tamburello”. In the Provence there was also a drum of the name “tambourin”, ultimately giving the present-day its name. The Provençale language is linguistically related to Catalan, by the way. The word “tambor” in Spanish (and similar words in Portuguese, Catalan and Provençale) for “drum”, derives from Arabic “tunbur” (in turn derived from Persian) originally. The Spanish word for “tambourine” is “pandereta”, in turn linguistically related to the word “bendir” for similar frame drums in North Africa.

Frame drums or tambourines?

This brings us to another confusing aspect regarding its definition. I thought of it as a general circular frame drum with bells on the side So, a small drum with bells (or jingles, or cymbals). Yet, without the drumhead (membrane), as a round “jingle bell” so to speak, it also got known under the name “tambourine”. That double meaning I was aware of..

More confusing to me (also in the Wikipedia article) was the mix-up with other “frame drums”, even without the bells. I consider those personally rather as “frame drums”. They can have similar playing styles with fingers as such, but lack the bells defining the tambourine as a whole. For the sake of this blog article, I will define the tambourines as having the side bells. Those without them I consider as “frame drums”, and are not the main theme of this post.

Overall, the “tambourines” can be of different sizes, and tend to be round, most often.

PLAYING STYLES

The playing style of the most common tambourine in Western pop music includes beating on the side (hip) of the body, on the other hand, or just shaking the tambourine. Worldwide there are varied patterns and hand and finger uses and hits on the drumheads, dependent on genres and music cultures. The use of separate fingers recur throughout, hands as a whole, and in some cultures just the hand palm is used, or the tambourine is only shaken.

Rhythmically, it varies from more “monorhyhmic” musical cultures, to a bit more syncopated, “polyrhythmic”, or swinging ones. The Arabs, other Middle Easterners and Europeans have more monorhythmic cultures, and sub-Saharan Africans more “polyrhythmic” ones, but in parts of North Africa – such as among some Berber musicians – such polyrhythmic or “swinging” (Griot culture) influences got to show, as even in some Andalusian folk music, maybe due to African or later Latin American influences.

PANDEIRO/BRAZIL

All this, makes the extensive use of the Pandeiro (Brazilian tambourine) in Afro-Brazilian music so interesting. It is a commonly used instruments there, thus in yet other musical contexts. It is commonly used in Samba, Chorro music (some call Chorro a more “sophisticated version of Samba), as well as to accompany Capoeira, along with other drums. These Afro-Brazilian genres share the 2/4 rhythmic base, as well as certain polyrhythmic characteristics, as much Afro-American music, especially with roots in the Congo or South Nigerian and Ghana regions (as most Afro-Brazilians, especially Congo/Angola and Yorubaland). Quite a step from its (probable) Middle-Eastern origins, via – as is said – Iberian (Portuguese and Galician) forerunners brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. The Pandeiro thus translated flexibly to different cultural and musical contexts.

To be clear, the pandeiro refers to the round frame drum with side bells or jingles; another small frame drum – but without bells – is also known in Brazilian music, but known as “tamborim”.

I asked someone I know who plays Afro-Brazilian music, including for Capoeira, and he explained to me how patterns he plays with the Pandeiro, on Samba, tend to be continuous, yet following the 2/4 rhythmic pattern and accents, in line with the other drums and instruments. In a subgenre of Samba, called Partido Alto – a distinct Pandeiro-playing style is employed, he also pointed out, having e.g. more slaps/hits on the drumhead/membrane, besides the cymbal shaking.

In Capoeira, he further explained, the Berimbau (musical bow) leads the rhythm that the other instruments, including drums, and often pandeiros, follow. It depends on choices by specific Mestres (“teachers”) in Capoeira schools, whether Pandeiros are used as accompaniment to the fight/dance Capoeira, though they tend to be common.

In Chorro music pandeiros are also used, while Chorro is a bit less rhythmically oriented than its relative Samba (wherein string instruments also tend to play rhythmically).

CUBA

An interesting difference with Cuba, also, where I have been several times, but did seldom see tambourine-like instruments being played in music clubs (and I visited several). Mostly “maracas” had in Cuba the shaker function in music, instead, especially in Afro-Cuban music. Neither is the small frame drum without bells (or cymbals), as e.g. used in the Puerto Rican Plena genre, really used in Cuba. I guess those that like “jingly belly” or cymbal-like shaker sounds should check other percussive cultures than the Afro-Cuban, where it is largely absent. Originally at least. This is comparable to much of sub-Saharan Africa, especially those parts where Afro-Cubans tend to have their origins mostly (the Congo region, Yorubaland, the Calabar region).. There are some “jingle bell” shakers known in sub-Saharan Africa, also “foot bell shakers”, but they drown amidst the many other shakers (of e.g. seeds).

Ned Sublette says something interesting in this regard, in his book ‘Cuba and its music : from the first drums to the mambo’ (Chicago Review Press, 2004), in relation to the spread of Afro-Cuban music to higher (White, Euro-centric) often slave-owning classes within Cuba. “..the rhythms were taken up but were shifted over from the drum to the tambourine, an instrument not associated with the vileness of the negro..”. These adapted/watered down Afro-Cuban rhythms developed since around the 18th c., and reached Argentina, and Europe (e.g. Spain, in the Habanera pattern) too.

That cultural difference between (hand) drums as African, and tambourine (European) in the quote of Sublette above, is interesting, and in fact recurring historically here and there, though it is also a somewhat simplistic distinction. The Brazilian Pandeiro, for one, obfuscated that distinction. Black Churches later too.

SPAIN

In Spain – the tambourine has – on the other hand - a long history, similar to Middle Eastern and Arab cultures. It at least goes back to the Moorish rule since the 8th c., but might have been there before (Phoenicians, Romans). It is used in various folk music forms throughout Spain, with special variants per region.

Spanish folklorists argue that the Northern half of Spain specialized for some reason a bit stronger in tambourines in its folk music than more Southern parts, but also in parts of the Central Meseta (highland) of Castile and León, and of the South (e.g. Andalusia) tambourines are quite common, albeit often less “central” in percussion than in some North Spanish forms. After all, hand-clapping and castanets – along with drums –have rhythmic functions in Jota and Fandango there too, and in South-Spanish Flamenco even feet and guitar cases.

In Northwest Spain, Galicia, a region with Celtic influences, a local tambourine (with own characteristics, such as crossed bells) developed (similar to one in Northern Portugal) and often combines with bagpipes, as in bordering Northern Portugal. More with string instruments in Central and Southern Portugal.

In the Basque country, a local tambourine called “panderoa” is used in Basque folk forms, usually combined with an accordion. The playing style in Basque music is relatively fast – with much 16th or even 32th notes (shaken) – and continuous.

In Central and Southern Spain the tambourine combines sometimes with the castanets, some drums, and guitars, and is sometimes slower, but mostly less “continuous”, having more often “closed patterns”, or emphasizing a main beat. It often interrelates with castanets, resulting in syncopation, in e.g. the Sevillana style, and other Andalusian or Extremaduran forms .. Syncopation is a bit less common in European folk music – which tends to be mostly “monorhythmic” as Arab music -, but might be an influence from the Moorish past (when there were also enslaved sub-Saharan Africans in Spain), or from Latin America and Cuba.

Overall, the tambourine's use is a bit more extensive in the Northern half of Spain, which may relate (as I learned from earlier studies) to the presence of instruments in South Spain in turn less common in North Spain, including percussion instruments that can take up the tambourine's "time keeping" role. These include the wooden castanets (though also known in Central Spain), certain bells, and a friction drum, known as "zambomba", aside from the Spanish guitar, originating in Andalusia, that can be played rhythmicallly too, and the "colonial" influence over time, e.g. the increased commonality of the (originally Afro-Peruvian) "cajon" (box drum) as time-keeper in much Flamenco. The castanets can be found in some subtypes of Flamenco, but in most not, and likewise the tambourine is not absent, but neither very "essential" or common, in South Spanish Flamenco music.

ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE

Some parts of Italy use local (smaller and larger) types of tambourines in regional styles like in South Italy, including in the well-known and popular South Italian Tarantella music genre and dance (originally from Apulia, spread all over southern Italy, Calabria, Sicily, including Naples). Like in the Basque country and South France, it often combines there with an accordion, or other drums, though with own patterns, Tarantella being a distinct (and lively) genre of its own.

It is also known in folk music of Sardinia, where it combines with a local type of flute, and other parts of Italy.

Another sign of the tambourine’s flexibility: it combines with different instruments, even in small combinations (bagpipes or accordion in North Spain, guitar and castanets in Central and South Spain, accordion and other drums in Italy and France).

This made me curious about with what instruments it combined elsewhere, or when only with vocals.

ASIA & NORTH AFRICA

In the Arab and Middle Eastern world, the “riq” (a tambourine in the classic sense) is a common and much used instrument, often even a main, “leading” percussion instrument. It usually combines with string instruments, like the Oud in Egypt and other parts of North Africa, including violins, or with (clay or stone) kettle drums like the darbuka, and vocals.

The playing styles of variants of tambourines differ again elsewhere in the Middle East, or South India and Sri Lanka, though also mostly monorhythmic, as Arabic music. In Sri Lanka, local tambourines tend to combine with local types of double-headed drums, including the Dholuk, also found in India. They respond of course to respective musical cultures, such as the complex Indian musical systems, making it for the untrained ear difficult to recognize straight rhythms, even when one is able to in even polyrhythmic Africa. Indian and Sri Lankan music is complex structurally, but not so much rhythmically, to put it simply (often basic beats).

In Jewish culture, the tambourine now known as Timbel has a long history, even connected to the tambourine’s very origins in Egypt. This also shows the “flexible route” of the tambourine over time. It once was used in religious, liturgical contexts, often therefore relatively slow and “solemn”, quite different from the connection to its use with fast dance and secular folk music, as we saw in other places.

The religious use of tambourines continue in the Islamic world, as they are still sometimes played during Quran recitations, as well as among the Christians, as the Salvation Army more or less popularized its use, that spread also to other Protestant and Evangelist churches, accompanying songs of praise. With that we now ended up in North America.

NORTH AMERICA

Likewise interesting, is the tambourine’s following journey after going from religious to secular, namely to a modern Anglo-Saxon world of “pop” music in North America: US folk music, R&B-influenced “Rock”, but even to even “whiter” Country & Western music.

US BLACK MUSIC

As said, starting with the Salvation of Army, several Protestant Churches, including Black ones in the US South, began to use tambourines much. It thus continued its original religious function in Egypt and among ancient Hebrews, though its easy use and small size might have played a role too. It thus obtained a common place in Gospel and early Soul, and with many African Americans escaping the openly racist US South, traveled to the cities in the North (New York, Detroit, Chicago, Philadephia a.o.).

There is an interesting parallel here with the harmonica or “mouth-organ”. The small metal wind instrument the harmonica, that became common in Blues, is actually of South German and Austrian origin, played there to fit local Tyrolean and other genres, often with accordions for instance. With German migrants to the US (many from South West Germany) it arrived in the US, also in parts where many (poor) African Americans lived. The latter appreciated its flexibility, practical size and, moreover, relative affordability. The playing style in “Country Blues” and later “City Blues” became of course markedly different than from the harmonica’s use in the German, European music.

Similarly, the tambourine was played differently by African Americans, than before. The tambourines became even a trademark in the sound of Motown, as I wrote elsewhere on my blog. Its link to the Black Churches – and Gospel - made it apparently popular and appreciated. Some within Motown thought it was a good idea to, besides adding a kind of pleasant “shuffle” or “swing”, also emphasize the main beat accent with that tambourine too. Apparently, Motown owner Berry Gordy thought that too. I do not really agree with that (preferring a bare, sharp “snare” drum hit), but who am I.. It became anyway part of the popular and recognizable Motown sound of bands like the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and many others, and obtained generally a place in Soul music.

US AND BRITISH POP MUSIC

Perhaps due to that connection to Gospel and later Soul, tambourines became common and popular percussion instruments in the 1960s likewise in US folk, rock & roll, and country music (Bob Dylan a.o.), and British Beat music (by the Beatles and others), eclipsing often other percussion instruments. It remained common since then.

In Rock music and R&B, the “jingle bell”-type tambourine (without drumhead/membrane) became most common, as in Country. In turn, in places like Mexico, the original tambourine as in Spain (with drumhead/membrane) became more used. Moreover, while in some parts of the world (e.g. Ukraine) a beating stick is used, in Spain and in the Berber and Middle Eastern worlds, the drumhead is played with the hand and fingers.

There is apparently something about that shaken “jingling-bells”sound that many musicians in some cultures like, maybe to “glue” all patterns together. Like cymbals and hi-hats of the (trap) drum set – in time mainstream in Western Rock and pop music – the tambourine tended to play “continuous” and walking patterns during songs. Thus it got to serve – as some describe it – as a “carpet” for the other instruments and rhythms. This is a bit comparable to how the Cuban shakers (maracas) function in Salsa, for instance: continuous, hardly interrupted patterns. It “bathes” or “adorns” the rhythm/beat, rather than “varying” on or “answering” it much (notwithstanding occasional variations). This is certainly the case in Rock and Country.

JAMAICA

As a Reggae fan since my teens, I of course find it interesting how the tambourine – as part of this “flexible spread” – got used in Jamaican music genres, like Reggae.

Historically, Reggae music originated in Jamaica from earlier local genres Ska and Rocksteady around 1968, being early on influenced by both Blues and R&B (and Jazz) “swing” influences from Black US music, as well as by African retentions and local Jamaican Afro-folk music with more “polyrhythmic” qualities. In time US Soul and Gospel influenced Reggae a bit too, though some artists more than others.

Already in the first Ska songs around 1960, that following on an earlier more rural genre in Jamaica, called Mento, tambourines could on occasion be heard. Interestingly, in Mento, the “shaker” role was more played by Cuban-like maracas or shakers, with a less “jingly belly” sound. With more “urban”, Ska music, the more ”modern” or Western tambourine made its hesitant way into popular music in Jamaica, so after 1960.

Hesitant, because its use was not standard in Ska, neither in following Rocksteady or Reggae. Some musicians, percussionists, chose to use tambourines on occasion, as one of the many percussive addition options to choose from. Just as often, though, they chose other shakers, like maracas, or woodblocks, scrapers, hand drums, etcetera.

Over time tambourines became, like in US Soul and Funk, a bit more common in Reggae songs, but hardly as “standard” presence. The more extensive hi-hat drum set patterns in Reggae since 1968 (with more 16th notes, when compared to earlier, “emptier” and “metronomic” Rocksteady), made the tambourine often less essential or fundamental in most Reggae grooves, with seldom continuous/walking patterns. More often, it rather got to add a “swing” or “shuffle” feel to many Reggae grooves, or even a polyrhythmic feel, as “responding” to the other rhythmic patterns in songs.

On the other hand, the very sound of the tambourine is comparable, but not similar to the hi-hat (though both are essentially "cymbals"), so it can add an "extending" shuffling feel to the hi-hat patterns, although it might "drown" amidst full hi-hat patterns, or along other shakers in the song, or when mixed in with a soft sound, in Reggae songs. Yet, even when quite soft, it of course still has a - subtle - musical function in the whole groove, only not so much "in your face".

Again, all this is a sign of the “flexible global route” of the tambourine, to another cultural and musical context.

USE IN REGGAE

It is certainly interesting to study the tambourine’s use in Reggae. Such a study is however not easy, because the written liner notes mostly tend to state “percussion” in general, and not specific instruments. Percussionists in Jamaican music and Reggae – such as Bongo Herman, Skully, Sticky, and others - tend to be flexible in their use of a variety of percussion instruments, differing per song. In that sense there are less standards or obliged choices (or “unwritten laws”) for Jamaican percussionists, unlike in other genres, and they are more free to choose. Reggae developed besides from a mix of influences, ranging from US R&B, Black Churches, and Jazz to African polyrhythms, hand drumming, and spiritual music, as well as some Afro-Cuban influences. In Brazil and other parts of Latin America, there are more unwritten rules regarding this.

It comes down to this: you have to actually listen to Reggae songs to know whether a tambourine is used. There are no percussionists that specialize in it more than others, or artists that use it more than others. It differs per song, and perhaps album.

Like I explained before: the hi-hat patterns are relatively “full” in Reggae, therefore often fulfilling a similar “carpet” musical role, as a tambourine can do. The tambourine thus became less essential in Reggae with such full (varied 8th, 16th notes) hi-hat patterns. Yet, this differs per song and artist too: not all drum patterns in Reggae are that “hi-hat full”, and even so, some percussionists still found a creative way to add something to a groove (e.g. a “shuffle” feel, or a counter-rhythm), if they chose to use a tambourine on that song. In Reggae the membrane-less jingle tambourine is common, though some Jamaican percussionists (like Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson) said they used the other tambourine with drumhead on some recordings too.

One album where it is used relatively a lot, in combination with other instruments, is on the Culture album Harder Than The Rest. Further analysis showed that the band Culture uses the tambourine relatively often, also on other albums (e.g. Good Things and Payday).

Other artists using it include Ijahman Levi, Gregory Isaacs, the Wailing Souls, Dennis Brown, the Itals, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Rod Taylor – and others - but – with all these artists - more occasionally than commonly. Only on specific songs. The same applies to more recent and current artists and productions in Reggae and Dancehall (Sizzla, Chronixx, Tarrus Riley a.o., who partly reuse older Reggae riddims). It can occasionally be heard in some newer Reggae songs and Riddims, as other percussion instruments

It in any case never became a standard instrument in Reggae. Not really ignored, but at most an occasionally used one. Predictably, the Gospel influenced Toots & the Maytals used a bit more regularly tambourines, but neither on all their songs.

Tambourines are – anyway – used in some well-known songs in the Reggae world, such as Ijahman’s Jah Heavy Load, Black Uhuru's Plastic Smile, Dennis Brown’s Should I (adding a nice shuffle feel around the hi-hat pattern), the Wailing Souls’ Jah Jah Gave Us Life, Culture’s Payday and Free Again, or Peter Tosh’s Pick Myself Up.

Bunny Wailer’s Boderation is an example of the tambourine with a “counter rhythm” function, reminding of polyrhythmic patterns, also found in Ijahman Levi’s beautiful song Are We A Warrior. Elsewhere, tambourine patterns remind of the Black churches or Gospel, as there are several also in Jamaica (Black Protestant churches with music). Often subtle (due to the nature and size of the instrument, of course, but effective.

Luckily, despite some Soul or Motown influence in Jamaica, even on Studio One (they say even equipment was taken over from Motown), luckily (in my opinion) the loud tambourine on the snare (mostly accentuated on the 3 in 4/4 beats in Reggae) as in some Motown Soul was not imitated in Jamaican music: tambourines tended to play around that accent, making it to my tatste often nicer and groovier. Also when on the snare drum accent (as in Culture's Tell Me Where You Get It, or Chronixx's Most I) it was not too loud.

MYSELF

I play in and rehearse with a Netherlands-based Reggae band as a percussionist for a few years now (Flavour Coalition). I use various small and big instruments (including hand drums, scrapers, bells, rattles, etc.). The other members were mostly appreciative of my percussion additions, yet someone nonetheless asked me why I did not use so much the tambourine. It was a Reggae band, and since he knew it is used in Reggae too, he found that a pity. He noticed other percussionists (in Reggae and other bands) used it often, I hardly.

I ended up responding that it was not my preferred percussion instrument, finding the tambourine sound too “cliché” or Poppy (Euro-mainstream), something like that, I said.. I also pointed at the lacking necessity, in light of the “fuller” (and similar) role of the (drum kit’s) hi-hat in many Reggae songs. I therefore preferred some “sharper” hand drums, scrapers, blocks, or bells, or other types of shakers (like the nice Cabasa), I liked a bit more, and considered more necessary.

Apart from personal preference, my personal “musical route” in and toward percussion also would explain it. I caught the flame of my love for percussion for a large part travelling to and in Cuba (between 2001 and 2006), where I heard and saw - often up-close - many live performances of Afro-Cuban music groups, often largely acoustic, and with percussion instruments. These did in Cuba seldom include tambourines, but instead bongos, scrapers, or congas, maracas, shekere variants, etcetera.

I immediately found some of these Afro-Cuban percussion instruments groovy and intriguing. The first instrument I took lessons for, in the Netherlands, was therefore the Bongos, with the two attached cylindrical drums of different sizes, of which I liked the edgy, groovy sound, as well as its inherent flexibility. This was followed by lessons for the Conga, another hand drum instrument I more or less fell in love with, and enjoyed playing a lot, including later in improvizing jamsessions, playing different genres: in the good tradition of legendary Cuban conguero Chano Pozo, varying from Jazz, to Blues, Pop, Rock, to Salsa, Reggae, and (relatively often) Funk.

I also went to specifically Reggae jamsessions, but mostly to play congas or bongos, or some small percussion instruments, like scrapers, or wood blocks. I certainly enjoyed myself enough, and felt no need to add so much the “cliché” tambourines, even if present. I also played cylindrical kete drums, during Rastafari-inspired Nyabinghi chants, often also shakers. Again, tambourines were not common there.

Over time I learned the basics or even advanced skills in other instruments I found interesting, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world that intrigued me since I was a child. I delved into Yoruba, Congo and other cultures, and thus into instruments like the (Yoruba) Ashiko, Djembe, the (Nigerian) Udu, and the Talking Drum, including even taking some djembe and talking drum lessons..

Growing up as a youth, with my Spanish mother, we had a few small percussion instruments at home, such as a toy drum, bells, and castanets, but seldom (as I recall) a tambourine as such. I did enjoy the castanets’ flexibility, and picked them up later as percussionist again. Maybe the regional origin of my mother in South Spain played a role, if we would have been Galician, we maybe would have a tambourine in our house, but instead our culture approached more the Andalusian model.

Neither was my Italian father from the Tarantella areas, but from the Alpine North. He played accordion and harmonica in his youth days, he told me. Combine this whole trajectory of mine (starting in the Afro-Cuban school of percussion, sub-Saharan African interest) - and simply not stumbling upon tambourines - with the fact that I have been a Reggae fan since my teens, and in Reggae music tambourines were not unknown, but neither standard or required.. Then it is largely explained why I am not the most fanatical tambourine user of all percussionists in the Netherlands. Another part of the explanation is my personal preference..

CONCLUSION

Yet, to be clear. Though it is not my main preference, and find it a bit too well-known, I certainly do not dislike the tambourine in and of itself. I have obtained some (both with and without membrane/drumhead), used it in some compositions, or sometimes with bands and in live performances, to variate with other instruments. For instance, I use it in my Vodou-music based composition Apwoksimasyon (in Haitian music the tambourine is used sometimes), of which particularly the bell pattern was a nice challenge for me. Also I used it in a composition based on Spanish Paso Doble (Paso Doble Adelante) and e.g. one on Samba (Samba Natty), and the tambourine without drumhead also, e.g. on Kafue. Just to give some examples of my own use as composer.

I recognize and appreciate its occasional “softening” and “jingly” possibilities for – like other percussion instruments – embellishing or even strengthening a groove or rhythmical interplay.. It is on the other hand only one of the many possibilities and options within the varied world of percussion.

In addition, as is shown above: the tambourine’s history, trajectory, and spread is very interesting, showing a tremendous flexibility and resilience over time and across cultures and countries, despite (or perhaps because of) its somewhat “subtle”, understated sound. Granted, its small size played a role in its spread (they say many sailors brought it with them, across the world), but of course also its possibilities and distinctive sound.

zondag 12 april 2020

Truth(s) and Right(s)

In reality, it is part of what is called “Rasta speech”: the term/combination “truth(s) & right(s)” (singular/plural variates). Rasta speech is a term for specific terminology and vocabulary that the Rastafari movement, that arose in Jamaica since the 1930s, originated and created, to fit their worldview and spirituality. Other such terms are “I and I” –perhaps more enigmatic than “truth and rights” , “Livity”, “Nyabinghi”, and more derived yet original terms, like “Inity”, “Ital”, “Heartical” and “Churchical”, or wordplay to accentuate meaning, such as “downpression” instead of “oppression”, etcetera, etcetera..

Among this own developed Rasta speech, there is thus also “truth(s) and right(s)”. Of course this seems derived from common English words with apparently clear meanings. For some reason, though, it got special significance among the Rastafari movement: the search for truth and human rights. Who know something about Black and Caribbean history can guess why.

It represents certainly a moral stance: no more lying and trampling of rights, is the call. The term “truth(s) & right(s)” found its way from the beginning into Rastafari’s Nyabinghi drumming chants, and later and before into mostly Rastafari-influenced Reggae music.

With the strong Biblical influence on Rastafari, I wondered whether the term as such was originally from a Bible quote or phrase, taken to another context by the Rastas. I could not find it. Some religious scholars argue that the main aim in the Old Testament is “justice”, in the New Testament “love”, and some Islamic scholars argued that the historically later Islam sublimated those two in having “compassion” as its main aim.

Interesting, but not even in the “justice”-focused Old Testament that combination of words, truth AND rights, is found as such. As singular (the) Right, perhaps separately from the Truth, though what we later came to understand as (human) rights is of course implied in the stories about slavery, liberation, but so are “love” or “mercy/compassion”.

As a word combination, it can be found among some social activists in Western countries, and some philosophers, like Michel Foucault, having used the two terms combined in some writings.

In the time of the Bible, terms like “rights” or even the “truth” did not have those meaning they would obtain after several freedom struggles of oppressed peoples, up to modern times, with an upsurge in the relatively rebellious 1960s and 1970s.

PEACE AND LOVE

In those same decades another term became more known, that entered into Rastafari’s idiom: “peace and love”, associated with hippie-like youth and anti-war protests in the US, later internationalizing. Much like “truth and rights” it is a combination of common words with clear meanings, as well as a moral (pacifist) stance. It (or turned around: “love and peace”) became a well-known, international catchphrase, associated stereotypically with pacifist, hippie movement origins.

Interestingly, another “catchphrase”, “truth and rights”, internationalized or widened its audiences less, and maintained its popularity mainly within Rastafari or related circles. It was not used as much by White hippies (when compared to Peace & Love) is one obvious explanation , but what intrigues me overall is the difference in meaning and aim.

It reminds me of the song of Reggae artist Peter Tosh, Equal Rights & Justice, singing about how everyone sings about “peace”, but none is crying out for “justice”, and in the same lyrics: “I don’t want no peace.. I want equal rights and justice”.

Again, obvious and easy explainable as the difference between the privileged (White youth in a rich country) and the underprivileged. Different situation, different rebellion.

I think oppressed and discriminated Black and other people, feel the need for respected “rights” much more: rights to freedom as a human being, as these are trampled on. This message needs to be expressed, and not all voices are heard, oppressors hide the truth from the world, also easily explains the combination of Truth and Rights in one common expression or catchphrase, common throughout Reggae lyrics.

The terms therefore carries a strong cultural, even “carrying” or “defining”, meaning within Rastafari. Its meaning is wider, however, than partisan or esoteric (“in-crowd”) concerns.

COVID 19

I notice this also with the current Corona crisis, with mass quarantines of entire populations globally, because of the outbreak of the dangerous – easily transmittable - Covid-19. Such drastic measures leave quite some answers to be answered, especially since the morbidity and mortality degrees and levels of this disease, are not that high when compared to, e.g. the common flu, and even less than diseases we know longer, and still have more fatalities, such as malaria, cancer, etcetera.

Also its origins, from bat-to-man contact, does not seem so plausible as one might think: viruses from one type of animal (or host) to another type require much more adaptation, gradually over time, mostly generations, to do as much damage to the new host, poisoning its cells, etcetera.

These unresolved, yet reasonable, questions, awaken the demand for “Truth”, whereas the forced “quarantine”, with governments ordering us to “stay home”, i.e. be confined, tramples our basic human “rights”. This would be lambasted more, of course, if it was not motivated by public health concerns, and the fear of infection/contagion, spread throughout the media (“truth?”).

Still, I wonder: is “confinement” of citizens on such a mass scale really the only way? If the coronavirus affects the elderly and sick much more, why not isolate, protect and test them specifically more. Also here “human rights” issues.

Temporarily, we cannot use our right to move freely, so long taken for granted in Western democratic societies, especially after the fall of Fascism in the mid-1940s. Especially the “totalitarian”, global character of this quarantine during the corona crisis is kind of “shocking” as a change, to me and many people. We heard about “oddities” in countries like Iran – with the added discrimination of women - and the absurd, “privacy-denying” state interference in private life in China, still going on today, using modern technology to regulate citizen behavior. An extended military and police apparatus tends to back such repression up, rendering the notion that, as a Spanish Fascist regional governor once said in response to street protests in Spain, beaten down (some say: “too”) harshly by authorities he commanded: “the street is mine/ours” (i.e. “of the state”), and not the people.

I personally find it a frightening prospect when the “street belongs to the state/government”, preferring it to stay “free for all equally”’.. With this quarantine: the street has become more of the state/government. Necessary to protect our health? Perhaps so, perhaps not.

I would not be surprised, anyway, if all this serves a “hidden agenda” of powers that be. While I am not really a “conspiracy thinker”, some of these explanations (G5 rollout facilitation, stopping protest gatherings, or vaccine promotion) seem quite probable and credible. Far-fetched, because this would be a scam of an absurdly massive, unprecedented scale, people like Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Laden, Mao Tse Toeng, or Mussolini, could only dream of: telling/ordering half of all inhabitants of this whole world (billions of people) what to do, limiting their rights, and confining them. It is the work of psychopaths, using modern technology.

This might well be the case, yet cannot be sure, mainly because vested interests of the rich and powerful in this world, are by definition - and by necessity - hidden. If it was all known and “open”, those people would not be rich and powerful.

In that sense the Rastafari expression: “Truth and Rights’ is certainly relevant here, as it represents the demand for human and equal rights, interconnected with “knowing the truth”, by the poorer masses, of the wealthy and powerful few in this world.

Though remarkably massive media campaigns like “Let’s all stay at home, so we protect our fellow-citizens”, gives this corona quarantine a semi-emphatic community or “good citizenship”-feel, we must still not forget that all these quarantines, have been ordered, enforced upon us by higher authorities. There was no consultation, fear seemed largely enough, and little causes more fears than “death”, or at least “disease”? As we all subconsciously or consciously know: ultimately our health, our body is all we have, even when we lose all our material possessions, or even all our friends and family. If healthy, we at least have the energy to start anew, from scratch or nothing.

If this is all a scam by elite forces, like e.g. Bill Gates c.s. or the G5 proponents (I myself as yet reserve my judgement until all facts come out), than it certainly is a wicked, crafty and effective one.

Anyway, we all now sense the need for “truth and rights”, even if most people of course do not want more people to die from this virus, young or old. Yet do we know all that there is to know? British journalist David Icke said he found after long research that Covid-19 does not really exist, but Icke is known as a “conspiracy thinker”. He sees a relation with the need for a G5 rollout, vaccination, microchips, and ultimately global control of the population through artificial intelligence, enabling through the chips what citizens should do, as robots or slaves. An elite around Bill Gates has this as plan, Icke argues. Absurd as this may sound, when I heard David Icke explain it, I considered some elements quite plausible.

On the one hand I thought: no psychopath would go that far, ultimately being a human too, and less so in this age of openness and more democratic control. On the other hand, I recognized how elites with large “vested interests” and power and wealth to defend, can go far to maintain this superior, dominant position, hereby forgetting basic humanity, driven by greed and vanity. Not totally unthinkable, as much injustice prevailed in human history, because some found themselves more worthy to be free than others (hence slavery, feudalism, servants, employers versus employees, exploitation, etcetera, etcetera).

"Truth and rights" is relevant also here. It shows this Rasta term's wider progressive and humanitarian scope and (universal!) possibilities, from its departure from poor, disadvantaged Afro-Caribbean ghetto dwellers, among which the Rastafari movement developed. It is perhaps just a matter of scale or time. What the world needs now, I argue, is “truth and rights”, besides “health”.

What the powers that be, and the mass media are doing now during this coronacrisis – and that’s what I find most odd – is that they sacrifice the one for the other: one needs dignity (freedom, rights) AND health and long life, not just one of these options. That is one of the reasons why I doubt that the coronavirus is truly of a natural origin: anything nature creates, it resolves/heals itself (via our immune system), for nature is always cyclical, as is life. Not so this coronavirus, seeming therefore man-created/manipulated..

CONSCIOUSNESS

It is my own philosophical reasoning and thinking that got me to this (tentative) conclusion, not (just) some convincing articulate conspiracy thinker I heard or read talk about it. We must after all keep thinking for ourselves, even in this stressful situation. As Marcus Garvey (important for Black history and Rastafari) once said: “you can enslave the body of men, but not their minds”..

This is what the Rastafari call “consciousness”, another term common in Rasta terminology, but of course also just a word in English. The Rastas recontextualized the meaning, though. In English “come to realization” or, colloquially, “waking up” or “opening your eyes”, come closer in meaning than how Rastafari mostly intend the term “consciousness”. It is related to “truth(s) and rights”, perhaps even a needed step before “truth and rights”.

REGGAE SONGS

Expectedly, there are quite a few Reggae songs with “truth(s) and right(s)” (either singular or plural) as or in their title. I would not so “countless”, but rather “quite some”. If one would include all Reggae songs with “truth(s) and right(s)””as expression somewhere in their lyrics, we would probably end up with countless Reggae songs.. too much to count.

Not so much outside of Reggae, - I found out after Internet searches - showing how the expression is most related to Rastafari and Reggae, to a higher degree than “Peace and Love”, an expression also used a lot in Reggae, but also in other music genres.

I think it is interesting to analyze how the “Rasta expression/”catchphrase, “Truth(s) and Right(s)” actually figures and is used in those lyrics, especially in songs having it as main theme.

The best known of all Reggae songs with it as title is Johnny Osbourne’s Truth and Rights from 1979. It can be deemed a Reggae “classic” and in a sense a “big hit” (within the international Reggae scene). It is covered a lot by other artists, up to recent times..

Always intriguing why such one song appeals to so much people, but it can be for a variety of reasons, including musical, artistic ones, but also social or content/lyrics reasons. For Johnny Osbourne’s Truth and Rights, also giving the name to his debut album for Studio One, both aspects apply. A strong, catchy Studio One riddim (instrumental part, used before on Al Campbell’s also nice Take A Ride),a good melody, and nice, soulful singing of Johnny. In addition, the lyrics are conscious, addressing social issues and rebellion, attracting many people, and moreover in a “to the point” way. It does not go overly deep, partly just including common (including Biblical) expressions, but deep enough, and expressing a sincere sentiment.

Its line “the truth is there for who has eyes to see”, expresses the link with consciousness. Osbourne had by then already “sighted” Rastafari, he later told interviewers, despite his still short hair (baldhead)..

A great song, and the biggest hit, but there are other songs with (in) the title “truth(s) and right(s)” that stand their own. Due to some strange coincidence (because a less-known song within Reggae), I think Ras Michael’s Truth and Right was the first song I ever heard with that title, shortly thereafter Johnny Osbourne’s one, but this one earlier. I liked Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus song a lot, but had a “rawer” vibe than Osbourne’s song, with also more spiritual, Nyabinghi echoes of Ras Michael. It sounds less “tight” and “catchy” than Osbourne’s song, but is good nonetheless.

The lyrics of Ras Michael’s song are also not very extensive, and rather straight-forward, though go a bit deeper lyrically than Osbourne’s. The basic message “how long can you hide from the truth and right” expresses that.”It swims on top like oil” in those lyrics, remind of what Spanish writer Cervantes once said, about the “truth”, that it like oil (I suppose olive oil, back then in Spain), always comes out on top in water. In Ras Michael songs Truth and Right is connected with spirituality.

Another song is also not so well-known, but is coincidentally (or not?) another great song with that title: Barry Brown’s Truths & Rights. On a very nice, groovy Riddim with a crucial bassline, Brown sings effectively, in his own way. I got to love this song, but had to grow into it a bit longer, especially the vocal part. With Osbourne and Ras Michael I loved the singing immediately too.

With Barry Brown it took some time for me, to conclude he also has a nice, but original singing style. In fact, you can somehow say that he is in the Burning Spear school of singing, but with a different voice and timbre. Both Burning Spear and Barry Brown employ seemingly simple semi-rhythmic “chant” lines, repeating these on different parts of the Riddim, thus “playing” with the underlying rhythm, and keeping it so interesting and appealing. That is an underestimated art by itself. While Burning Spear surely pioneered or even originated it within Reggae, similar chanting structures go back to the Afro-Jamaican Kumina chants in rural Eastern Jamaica, as well as other, often Congo-derived, song traditions in the African Diaspora.

So, Brown’s song has not that rigid Verse-Chorus-Verse-Bridge –Chorus etcetera structure as in so many pop music genres, and is more “meandering”. Due to repetition and right phrasing the lyrics and message still come across well. “If I would fight, I would not fight for money, but for truths and rights (and morality)”, is one such interesting lyrics in Barry Brown’s song, and that he is out to defend the rights of his brothers and sisters.. “Tired of being down on the ground”. “Truths and Rights and Morality” is further rhymed with “you gotta face reality”.

In these, and other lyrics, the relationship between “truths and rights” and social conditions or woes are emphasized. These relate in part to the situation in Jamaica. Gun violence and crime, are such problems addressed, besides the oppression of powers that be (“Babylon”) keeping poor people down. These are to be blamed, but that consciousness must be raised within the own community too, some lyrics argue.

Johnny Clarke’s song mellow song with the title Truth and Rights simply says “Teach the youths truth and rights, so they can all unite”, ultimately to “overcome the wicked one”.

Dennis Brown’s song (Fight For) Truth & Rights, relates how Dennis’ was taught to “stand up for truths and rights” by his mother. It does not go much further, though it is significant enough, containing further lyrics as “don’t let the pressure get you down”, and “know your enemy”. In broad lines and general terms, what “fighting for truth and rights” includes.

Ernest Wilson’s takes a more poetic, story-telling approach in his nice song Truths And Rights, a main line in its lyrics being “only the truth can justify this day”.

In later Reggae, among newer waves of Rastafari-inspired New Roots artists, the term “Truth(s) and Right(s)” remains common. In the song Truths and Rights by Protoje, ft. Mortimer, there are quite some lyrics, elaborating on the need for truths and rights, including inequality, an oppressive system, and “people living a lie” and youths kept poor.

Bitty Mclean calls for “Truths and Rights”in his song of that name, against crime and inequality, including the lines “we can’t take no more, another Black soul at heaven’s door” and “life is no game of do or die”.

Then there is the early dancehall song by Dickie Ranking called (Let’s Seek) Truths & Rights, calling for serving Jah, but also to “wake up” and stop the fuss and fight.

Jimmy Riley has the song Truth & Rights on the Marcus Garvey Riddim (from a Burning Spear song), calling in its lyrics also for peace, to love your neighbours as yourself, love and respect, and harmony. It is a response to Jamaican conditions, with high murder rates. The truths and rights thus relate in that sense to peace and love, as they ideally of course should.

NETHERLANDS

To make it a bit more international, I will focus also on Reggae outside of Jamaica, specifically the Netherlands, that I know best, and where I reside. I always have “lived" in the Netherlands, but now with the quarantine I really have to “reside” there, haha.

I myself released the song Rastafari Live On in 2012 containing the line “To defend truths and rights, Babylon we fight”, describing Rastafari’s main aims.

Empress Black Omolo is a talented singer and songwriter of a Kenyan background, but like me based and living/residing in the Netherlands. She even went to Jamaica to record a video for one of her songs.

Black Omolo’s song called Truth and Rights, from 2017, is not her best known one “in the scene”, but is a good song. In its lyrics the aim for truths and rights, is toward fighting poverty, being fooled, and “politricks”, while she also mentions the exploitation of Africa, and poor people worldwide. Again, as in other songs, the relationship with equal rights and equality.

IN THIS TIME

That link between “lying” and “inequality” is implied in this Rastafari expression “truths and rights”, and is in fact a quite original, yet sensible, connection.

Like I wrote before, for obvious reasons, wealthy, powerful people in this world, have to hide this as much as possible, to maintain that position.

I reserve my judgement, until I know more, but became skeptical of the world and national powers because of this whole “corona crisis” course of events. I do not know what to believe either, at the present.

Yet, let’s just say, that – as some conspiracy theories go - this whole “pandemic” crisis and global quarantine policy, was a trick or part of it, to obtain global domination through technology, microchips etcetera, by a few wealthy, powerful people, striving toward some global, fascist dictatorship, controlling the world majority.

If that is really the case, even if partly.. then we certainly need a strong degree of “truth and rights” in this time, including equal rights and freedom of information, even more than before. Perhaps we might have to “fight” for it, as articulated also in some Reggae lyrics..

As it now stands, the scale of mass quarantine and confinement globally at present, is extreme and unprecedented in recent world history. Due to fear for an infectious disease that seems to be real. Well, the fear and quarantine is real, about the actual or exceptional danger of this virus we are still not fully sure, are we?.

Until all the facts come out, I am not saying that we all should break the law or start a mass revolution against this ordered quarantine. I am only saying at this stage, that a bit more of the rebellious, critical, and freedom- and human rights-defending spirit inherent in the expression “truth(s) and right(s)” would be welcome. Especially Reggae fans could have known better..

woensdag 4 maart 2020

Dancing feet

I still do not know how I feel about “tap dancing”. I know it exists from since I was a child: television, films. I thought it was lively and somehow intriguing. I liked Gregory Hines’ dancing, and his natural charisma. He seemed like a nice guy. I also saw Sammy Davis jr. and Fred Astaire performing tap dancing since young, but only heard of “Bojangles” until later in life. Hines seemed to me the “coolest” tap dancer, from what I first saw.

Later in life, I became a percussionist, playing rhythm-focussed music and (small and big) percussion instruments. Even before this, I liked to dance to “rhythms” of music I liked: Reggae mainly, but also Latin American music, Funk, and African music. I even tried to dance – in some multi-genre-focussed clubs – to other genres like Blues, Rock, Jazz, Techno, Pop, even Country.

SKANKING AND ROCKSTEADY

My dancing was influenced by Reggae dancing, such as what is called “skanking”, and other Rocksteady, Reggae, and Dancehall dances that developed over time in the 1970s and 1980s in Jamaica. In Jamaica itself, I picked up the dance called “water pumpee”, nicely fitting most Reggae rhythms since the 1970s, while the original Rocksteady dance – characterized by a stationary grid – also appealed to me, perhaps especially because it was stationary. I felt no need to walk around, and considered it in busy places even impolite.. The Rocksteady dance made me instead move more my hips, shoulders, and torso, also arms. This fitted the Jamaican grooves (since Rocksteady) I liked so much.

An earlier Jamaican music genre, Ska, had a different dance. Since I liked Ska less, I also liked the accompanying dance less. Ska dancing – described as “Shake it, and Catch it again” - is less stationary and hip-centered, instead involving moving about and walking (so more leg and foot), and arm movements. It fitted the faster Ska rhythms.

The “Skanking” of later Reggae, mixes Rocksteady daces, with a few Ska, and other influences, and involves a “slow-running-like” motion, a bit less stationary than the Rocksteady dance.

I say all this, because it explains why I did not focus on the feet so much, when dancing. Not in my own dancing, where I tend to be stationary and focus on my middle body and hip and arm coordination. Semi-skanking. However, neither did I became very fascinated with “footwork” dances I encountered.

SALSA

When I went to Cuba, I got a few “informal” Salsa dance lessons.

Though I liked Cuban music and percussion – more or less fell in love with it there - , the Salsa couple dance was a bit too rigid for my taste. Not so much "stiff": it is as much African as European in origin, with also hip and pelvis movements and other African dance principles (found e.g. in Rumba dances too)- especially in Cuban variants - but the feet lead, making it rigid. Even if Salsa music as such (a genre term coined in New York) is for over 70% based on (Afro-)Cuban music, and people dance on it in Cuba too. I danced however rather “a mi manera” (in my own way) and alone to it, I mostly told my Cuban friends, when we danced, just moving naturally to the rhythm. The Salsa dance that I did not really get into, involved footwork, and “counting” steps. I felt it distracted me, ironically, from the music, one was supposed to dance it to.

The Irish River dance dancers, I still found aesthetic and skilled, and I saw some engaging “tapping” in jazz and other genres.

PERCUSSION

So we come slowly and surely to the elephant in the room: the connection between the “feet dancing” and the music.. Feet responding to it, but also tapping as sound, becoming an (extra) percussion instrument. This I found a bit more interesting. The folk Zaouli dancers, among the Guro people in Ivory Coast, Africa, focusing on fast, rhythmic footwork on percussive music of mainly drums (with bells on the feet), while being masked, engaged me a lot. It had a magical, meditational appeal.

That was the first time I thought – I was by then already years playing percussion -: maybe I should explore more the relation between footwork and percussion and rhythm. Another percussive aspects, so to speak. After all: the (trap) drum kit has the “kick” bass drum, and I had “foot shakers” (as the Zaouli dancers used), and a hand drum that could be played while sat on, muting the tone with heels. Partly subconsciously – like other musicians – I also tapped along with my feet on rhythms and beats, a s a type of metronome.

In other words: my activities as musician involved sometimes using feet too.

EUROPEAN OR AFRICAN?

An interesting, related question is a cultural one. Is it perhaps an European characteristic, that focus on feet, footwork, and walking in dancing? In line, after all, with e.g. the marching bands. It is found in folk dances, some say, of European peoples, like some Celtic peoples, in Slavic dances, in ancient Rome and Italy, and Greece. Europeans apparently have to walk around when they dance.

Then there is the stereotype that hip, pelvic, and torso movements are originally African ways of dancing, not found so much in Europe (or Asia or elsewhere), where dances are “stiffer”. A stereotype that is partly true, if simplistic. Some European, Asian, or Amerindian dances involve – more often for women – hip or buttocks moving too, although much less common than in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is true, however, that African, particularly sub-Saharan African, culture has an own concept of dancing, that is more advanced and spiritual than elsewhere in the world. This was partly retained in the West among Afro-Americans. Crucially: it involves all body parts, also separately. Of course, there is a tight relationship with rhythms and music in Africa, and African music is more percussive than that of other continents. Focussed on the pelvis, hips, buttocks, and torso, but dependent on the music and its (spiritual) function, every body part can be emphasized, as is shown with the mentioned masked Zaouli dancers in Ivory Coast, and their rhythmic footwork.

European dances, in comparison, seem stiffer, with the body as a whole held stiffer, even if footwork patterns are followed. This is noticeable in dances like the Waltz, the contredanse, and other dances that also went to the Americas with colonization. African descendants in the Caribbean and elsewhere often gave an own, looser interpretation of these “stiffer” European dances.

Spanish Flamenco dance is also quite well-known, and has some of these “stiffer” aspects too, though it is a bit overemphasized. I know, after all, the difference between original, “pure”, folk Flamenco, and later stylized versions in academia, with other European influences.. These stylized versions made some Flamenco moves stiffer than they originally were. Spain, even South Spain where Flamenco is from, is of course still Europe, but original folk Flamenco dances was more loose and flexible in body and hip movements, certainly for European standards.

The same applies to some other Spanish folk dances like Jota, Fandango, or even Paso Doble, the latter also presented as one of those stiff “white man” dances, while it originally was looser. Here, Spain’s colonial past (colonialism was in essence connected with white supremacy and an European sense of cultural superiority) even made it rewrite its own history, instead of rewriting other people’s history, as Europeans also have done.

Not all Spaniards liked the French philosopher Voltaire’s famous statement “Behind the Pyrenees begins Africa..”, he made once, for the same reason. Voltaire meant this both culturally and economically in the time of writing. In some senses, it might be a bit true.

Yet, also dances in other parts of Europe than Spain (parts of the Balkan, Italy, some Celtic dances) were a bit looser and more hip-focussed than one would assume of European folk dances.

MUSIC AND DANCE

There is, despite these nuances, one overwhelming truth, though, as also concluded by scholar Robert Farris Thomson in his book 'Aesthetic of the cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music' (2011), regarding the difference between African and European dancing. Namely: that in European culture musicians play together (harmony, unison, chords), but that music and dance are separate. In African culture, on the other hand, musicians play apart (cross-rhythms, counter-rhythms, own patterns), but dance and music are on the other hand intertwined. A deep cultural and musical difference, explaining also the differences in dancing, broadly speaking, between Europe and Africa.

Pure anatomy: the feet carry your whole body, and Western (harmonic) music perhaps require solid, singular body movements: bodies as united and solid as the music piece, as exemplified by the waltz dance moves. No attention or need for separate body part movements, not even the hip or arms.

In that sense, tap dancing shows its (partly) African origin. Some describe it as a mixture of African and Irish traditions, which is an interesting mix, although first troubled by its early appearance in the racist Minstrel shows, stereotyping tap dancing. Despite this, there are actual foot/leg dance traditions among African Americans, and the jig tradition among Irish Americans.

ZAPATEO

Somewhere in-between these “tap/footwork” dance traditions, or perhaps besides them, is the use of feet and tapping in Spanish Flamenco music, known as “Zapateo”, or also “zapateado”. Both terms describe subgenres, or rather “techniques”, within Flamenco music, being both percussive and dance, and derive from the Spanish word for “shoe”.

Many historians assume a Gipsy origin of zapate(ad)o, i.e. brought by the Roma migrants into Spain, historically present especially since the 16th c. Flamenco music is not of Gipsy/Roma origin as such – a common misconception -, rather mixed-Andalusian/South Spanish, though without a doubt Spain’s, especially South-Spain’s/Andalusian, Gipsy population influenced Flamenco’s development strongly over time. Some claim they added thus the zapateo dancing.

How does this Zapateo relate to the mentioned anthropological differences between dancing and music in Europe, Africa and elsewhere? I guess Andalusia is of course at the brink of Europe, being geographically closer to Africa than any other part of Europe: the Strait of Gibraltar is at its smallest about 14 km wide. Andalusia and more Southern parts of Spain have of course a Moorish past (North African/Islamic) rule, so already for these reasons Flamenco can hardly be seen as prototypically White or European.

Due to colonialism – and its associated Euro/White supremacy ideas - spread to Latin America, Spain got in several Latin American countries the image of “White Europe”, as the benchmark of it. Notwithstanding the even whiter, and more Northern Britons, Germans, or Dutch.

The long reign of Catholicism, mixed with militarism, and later even fascism, in Spain, enforced that distorted image of Spain as THE European nation. Voltaire’s comment: “behind the Pyrenees begins Africa” is no less true or exaggerated. Spain simply received several influences, especially Mediterranean ones, including from the African side. The known percussion instrument the “castanets”, have been known in Spain from before the Romans, and probably have a Phoenician or Egyptian genealogy.

Moreover, some African influences returned to Spain, as also related in the mentioned book of Farris Thompson, because of Spain’s colonialism, from Afro-Cuban music for instance. This would later also help shape forms of Flamenco rhythmically, notably the Tangos or Rumba subforms of Flamenco, and in the Sevillana folk genre in Sevilla.

Yet, apart from such theoretical frameworks: how is that Zapate(ad)o in practice? How does it come across? As stereotypically “stiff European”? More African than one would expect, perhaps?

I am somewhere in between, having seen Zapateo: on media, but also live a few times, even of the “authentic Flamenco” kind: I mainly see and sense a link with Jazz. Tapping is also connected to Jazz, quite similar to how Zapateo is connected to Flamenco. The taps in both cultural contexts serve to “instruct” or “lead” the musical response, in the case of Flamenco often of the Spanish guitar and other instruments. However, the Ivory Coast Zaouli dance has the same principle.

The sound with the shoes in Zapate(ad)o are varied – not unlike the castanets -, including taps, but also semi-rattle, or “sliding” sounds. These become than another percussion instrument in a rhythmic and musical improvisation, as in Jazz. Let’s just call it “free” and “creative” instead of Black or White, or European or African.

Either way, along with the Zaouli dancing among the Guro in Ivory Coast, it increased my interest in the relationship between “tapping” and foot movements and percussion.

woensdag 5 februari 2020

Nobel prize for the other Bob?

Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 2016.

This was then quite controversial, as - after all - the prize was implicitly intended for literary authors, and awarded as such. More specifically, fiction-writers. George Bernard Shaw, Gabriel García Marquez, Albert Camus, and Ernest Hemingway were among the authors receiving this honorary prize, which has been awarded since 1901.

CRITERIA

It was stipulated in the will and testament of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel that prizes should be given “for those who confer the greatest benefit on mankind”, and in different fields. The Nobel Peace Prize is also well-known. Besides Peace, there are 4 other Nobel prize categories: Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Economics, and the already mentioned Literature.

I guess it is some kind of honouring those with merits for mankind, and I imagine that many in the world have this idea about the Nobel prizes, as connected to some type of idealism.

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

This is most clear and explicit with the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to those, such is formulated, advancing the “fraternity between nations” and, well, “peace” worldwide.

Regarding the other Nobel prizes than this Peace one, though, this idealism is to a degree vaguely formulated, even cryptic, and often a matter of controversy. “Outstanding contributions” in the said fields is an explicit criterium, but “influence” or advances in a certain field – say Chemistry -, does not necessarily mean that the world got better, more equal, etcetera, as a result. This nonetheless seems to be implied in initial stipulations since the prizes started in 1901.

LITERATURE

Specifically regarding Literature the Nobel prize is equally cryptic and vague in its criteria. Literally, Alfred Nobel stated to award authors "in the field of literature, with the most outstanding work in an ideal direction".

Quite cryptic and general, and open for interpretation. Some read “idealistic” instead of “ideal” for instance.

The list of laureates of the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1901 is in fact quite varied regarding the “type of writers”: these include those influential artistically, or even popular, but not always very politically or socially engaged, say “idealistic”, writers, though the latter are certainly among the laureates.

As can also be read on Wikipedia, the controversy was always there, with some considering the awarding of Nobel Literature Prizes to certain writers/people as too biased, either too politically motivated, or too little. Others notice a European and pro-Western bias.

BIAS

An overview of all the Nobel prize laureates up to the present unfortunately confirms this pro-Western bias, regarding all the said fields. Most laureates are from the US and United Kingdom, followed by Germany, France, and Sweden. After this follow many country with fewer laureates, though the Netherlands with 21 are relatively well-represented (compared to e.g. 8 of a country like Spain).

Then there are some countries with one or a few laureates or none at all, especially developing countries. Only recently for the first time an Ethiopian became the first laureate: the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019 to Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Nigeria also has still only one, of Literature, to Wole Soyinka, awarded in 1986.

So, hesitantly over the years it became more international, those Nobel prizes, while still remaining definitely skewed and biased.

In spite of all this controversy - including just critique - over the years since 1901, the Nobel Prize for Literature has nonetheless become the world’s most prestigious literary prize.

SONG LYRICS

As said, in 2016 musical artist Bob Dylan won the Nobel of Literature. Of course, this also met controversy, such as among more conventional “writers” (i.e. of novels), while others in turn appreciated the broadening of “literature”, to include song lyrics.

An interesting idea, to include song lyrics. It is an interesting art form, after all. As in every art form – though - there is a lot of “cliché” and kitsch among it: unoriginal, uncreative, non-innovative lyrics, with no philosophical “depth” or message for mankind. Romantic love songs recur throughout all popular music genres globally, albeit reflecting some cultural differences, of course. Disturbed male-female relationships, machismo, or feelings only betraying an egoistic worldview, or an urge for sexual intercourse, generally do not result in literary interesting texts, though there are some nice poetic texts and lyrics putting “love” or even “sex” in a more original, deeper or more humorous, perspective.

That Bob Dylan won the prize in 2016, however, shows perhaps the socially engaged aim Nobel implicitly had with the prize. Dylan is known more for his socially engaged or philosophical lyrics than for “lovey dovey” lyrics.

I find that this choice is quite arbitrary, though, as others might argue with other laureates over the years (“why this one, and not that one..”) of this prestigious award..

I argue that another musical artist named Bob, Bob Marley, would be an equally valid laureate for this Nobel prize of Literature as Bob Dylan, perhaps even more so. Purely lyrics-wise.

BOB MARLEY

In February 2020 there is some kind of anniversary as it’s the 75th birthday of Bob Marley, born the 6th of February in 1945. He would have been 75 years old, were he still alive. He unfortunately died quite young – as other great musicians – but was very influential internationally. As to be expected – as best known Reggae artist – many tribute festivities on Bob Marley will be held around the 6th of February in this year, 2020, in several countries. Also in the Netherlands, where I live.

“I and I no come to fight flesh and blood, but spiritual wickedness in high and low places..” (from Bob Marley & the Wailers – song So Much Things To Say).

I am a Reggae fan, and write a lot about Reggae on this blog, including some articles/essays on Bob Marley. In some, I criticize the commercial exploitation OF him (not BY him, but OF him), and his watered-down sound for White audiences. At the same time, I expressed respect and appreciation for Marley as overall a great artist, and person, “keeping it real” with his message as much as possible, while helping to popularize and spread Reggae music world wide.

Personally, though, I am a broader Reggae music fan, and not just of Bob Marley. Not even primarily. Other Reggae artists I listen more to, and find more authentic, and Marley was just another great Jamaican artist and songwriter. As there were several since the 1960s.

“Why can’t we be what we wanna be. We wanna be free” (from song Rebel Music).

His fame “above Reggae” can be attributed to commercial manipulations by Island boss Chris Blackwell. Some assume racial motivations, with Marley being promoted for being half-White, whereas other contemporary Reggae artists – even with already some popularity – who were more fully Black, less so.

Others, while recognizing these commercial influences, still point at “special” musical talents or gifts of Marley, making his fame not fully arbitrary or racial. His outstanding charisma (also on stage) is mentioned by many – in Jamaica and outside -, even his physical attractiveness, in reaching people.

More musically, some point at his strong songwriting skills – even since he was a teenager -, showing throughout his many catchy, appealing songs. Jamaican producer Lee Perry, who had worked with Marley, specifically indicated how Marley “had the best melodies”. Some also like Marley’s singing.

“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So if you ride into the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind” (from Wake Up And Live).

I recognize all these things, but only partly. They do not explain his fame “beyond other Reggae artists”. He was a fine singer, but his singing voice was not the best one in Jamaican Reggae, at least in my opinion. He used it well musically, though. There were further other great songwriters in Jamaican Reggae, some even almost as prolific, such as Bob Andy, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, John Holt, Ijahman Levi, Ken Booth, and others. Some of these had strictly speaking better singing voices than Bob. Like Bob, they had good musicians around them too, rendering some great Reggae songs. Also, other artists were just as charismatic as Marley.

“Mysteries I just can’t express. How can you ever give your more to receive your less” (from Misty Morning).

BOB MARLEY'S LYRICS

There is one quality, though, that I am willing to accept as being outstanding of Bob Marley, even within the varied and culturally rich Reggae field. A quality described by Lee Perry as well: good, conscious lyrics, but “worded in simple ways, so that everyone can understand”.

“When it’s time to have your fun, you see the tears run on down from your face. Then you stop and think a little, oh.. you’re the victim of the system” (from I Know).

I agree with that: Marley’s lyrics were in my opinion his strongest point, not so much his voice, his guitar-playing, or even his songwriting. His songs are mostly fine and good, but do not always “blow me off my socks” because of their musical strength, as other Reggae songs achieved with me. Ijahman Levi, the Mighty Diamonds, the Abyssinians, the Wailing Souls, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, the Viceroys, Hugh Mundell, and several other Reggae artists, had great beautiful songs that even mesmerized me, taking me magically to other spheres.

A few songs of Marley, I admit, achieved that with me too. I like for instance Ride Natty Ride, Rebel Music, Misty Morning, Guiltiness, Trench Town, and Forever Loving Jah. Fine, engaging musical pieces, that touched me, but also because of their lyrics..

“Only a fool leans upon his own misunderstanding” (from Forever Loving Jah).

However, what I personally mostly recall and appreciate from Marley’s entire oeuvre, are lyrics and phrases that stand the test of time, even if the songs are not among my favourites, or could be produced “edgier” musically or rhythmically, etcetera. That is the field of “literature”, these lyrics.

“Every man’s got a right to decide his own destiny.. And in this judgement there is no parciality” (from Zimbabwe).

Bob had many good, seemingly simple lyrics, about the human condition, especially regarding poor people of colour, in Jamaica and other developing countries, with many references to Rastafari and Africa. Yet, I contend, that these lyrics were universal regarding the human and world conditions. They were educational and insightful beyond the Rastafari movement, or the Jamaican ghetto. Inspired by it, but broadened and made accessible for all kinds of people, all over the world. Bob had the talent to do that with his lyrics and songwriting.

“No bullet can stop us now. No need to beg, no we won’t bow. Neither can we bought nor sold. We all defend the rights. Jah Jah children must unite. Life is worth much more than gold..We’re jamming..” (from Jamming).

SPOKESPERSON

Not for nothing, his lyrics appealed so much to many people, especially poor people, world wide. They recognized his struggle, and he even spoke for them. In Africa and elsewhere. Not unlike the roles of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or Bob Dylan, but perhaps even more international. Kuti and Dylan have fans worldwide, like Marley, but with a stronger regional specialization. Dylan in the US and Kuti in Nigeria and Africa, even if later broadened.

Marley’s lyrics touched “sufferers’“ themes that needed to be touched, combined with the right to-the-point formulations, at the right places within the songs. This showed his songwriting talent.

“They say it’s hard to speak. They feel so strong to say “why we?” (from Trench Town).

RHYME

In addition Bob’s lyrics mostly rhymed well, as is the norm for pop songs: sentences in lyrics have to rhyme. Take the lyric from Bob’s Misty Morning: “The power of philosophy floats through my head.. Light like a feather, heavy as led”.. Good, deep lyrics, and at the same time rhyming well. Marley was a maestro in those kind of lyrics. Dylan maybe too, but the other Bob too..

“They’re sailing on their ego trips.. on their space ships. million miles from reality. No care for you, no care for me..”(from So Much Trouble In the World).

Even from his love songs. Also his “lovey dovey” lyrics often stood the test of time: early in his career the sweet, sensitive lyrics of I’m Still Waiting, to interesting reflections as on Is This Love, nice sensuality as in Turn Your Lights Down Low. These songs, and the fine Waiting In Vain, also appealed to people worldwide, and from different cultures. There must be a reason for that. Some songs I heard by now too much, I admit, such as Is This Love, and the bland, watered-down Island production does not help, but I still see their quality and potential appeal.

“Love to see when you move in the rhythm. I love to see when you’re dancing from within..” (from Jump Nyabinghi).

Bob’s Rastafari-inspired and “conscious” lyrics also go beyond formulaic Biblical quotes, just repeating wise words of others, like Marcus Garvey, or repeated standard Rasta sayings or phrases, stated as well by other Jamaican artists. They rather have an uniqueness and sense of direction in them, making them even open eyes and minds. The line “These songs of freedom, is all I ever had”, the line in Redemption Song, one of Bob’s latest studio recordings before he deceased, is of course of an intense beauty.

“Never let a politician grant you a favour. They will only want to control you forever” (from Revolution).

INFLUENCES AND CONTEXT

Granted, not all lyrics of Marley were unique. Like other Rastafari-inspired Reggae artists he quoted Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie I, repeated tested Rastafari and Black Power expressions, used Biblical allegories and references, or even just general expressions known in several European languages.

Lines such as “big fish (always) eat up the small fish” – in Bob’s great song Guiltiness - is a standard expression that I know from Spanish: I remember my Spanish mother saying it sometimes, even before I heard Guiltiness. I imagine it is also an expression in English, or maybe it is mentioned in the Bible. The same might apply to “how can you give your more to receive your less”, while a phrase like: “the rich man’s soul is in the city, but the poor man’s heart is in his family..”, is nice, but from the Bible..

The famous line “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds” is a great line, but is a quote from Marcus Garvey, one of the inspirers of the Rastafari movement and Marley.

In these cases, it is rather “how” and with what purpose Marley used these standard expressions. That purpose was redemption and liberation of Black people, Africa, and poor people, or even stimulating “fraternity” between nations, as also formulated as aim for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“You must have had the wrong interpretation, mixed up with vane imagination” (from Stiff Necked Fools).

One also might - justly – argue – do not worry I’ll do it for you, haha – that other Reggae artists had good, unique lyrics too. Many even. I was however talking before about the international influence as criterium of the Nobel prizes, for mankind as a whole. Bob simply reached more people worldwide because of his fame as “King of Reggae”, while great and talented Jamaican artists like Culture, Ijahman Levi, Bob Andy, Dennis Brown, the Abyssinians, Israel Vibration, or Burning Spear became more international, but mainly among knowledgeable Reggae fans. You might even say that Marley “represented” them internationally with his fame. This makes a Nobel Prize for Literature for him even more sensible and appropriate: representing Rastafari-inspired Reggae lyrics globally.

“We refuse to be, what you wanted us to be..”(from Babylon System).

Marley shares as mentioned with e.g. Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti that he was a “spokesperson” for the poor and rebels with his lyrics, with the added aspect that Marley’s lyrics were more varied regarding the range of human emotions, like good literature. It was not just narrow “preaching”. Rebellious and angry were many of his lyrics, but some also “dreamy, reflective”, about daily life, some sincere and vulnerable, and some truly spiritual.

CONCLUDING

Okay, I more or less made my case in the above text, yet it might be necessary to analyze what makes Bob Marley’s lyrics so special, as to “deserve” a Nobel Prize of Literature? A good question.

According to Nobel prize criteria such as “outstanding contributions” and promoting fraternity between nations and peace globally, Marley’s mere international fame – as most famous Reggae artist, and first “Third World rock star” – make his lyrics meet those criteria more easily, after all reaching more people, while “crossing over” to many interracial groups on all continents, that before never listened to Rastafari-inspired Reggae lyrics, or even Caribbean music. He thus had international influence.

“No matter what games they play, we’ve got something they could never take away… And it’s the fire..that’s burning down everything” (from Ride Natty Ride).

He made the plight – and history - of the poor people and of Black people known more widely in the world, and made them more or less acceptable. To degrees, as some lyrics were considered “safer” than others (nonpolitical or nonrebellious love or party songs, for instance). Marley’s lyrics were partly censored in South Africa during Apartheid, especially those calling for African resistance and unity. His “lovey dovey” songs are mostly more accepted in mainstream (Western) Pop than his more conscious ones, that is also true.

Bob Marley was still known and had fans on all continents, having thus even a wider reach than other worldwide known “rock stars” (e.g. Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones), who are more connected to the Western world than Marley.

“You’re running away. But you can’t run away from yourself” (from Running Away)..

COUNTERING BIAS

Marley's nomination for a Nobel Prize for Literature would moreover counter the criticism of Western bias, the prize received in the past, which according to facts are a just critique. It would be the first Jamaican laureate of a Nobel prize too, and have a nice symbolic meaning: just shortly after an Ethiopian became the first laureate of a Nobel prize, Ethiopia being so important in the Rastafari movement.

LITERARY AND ARTISTIC

There are also purely literary and artistic arguments I can give, to further make my case. Of course, other musical artists have interesting and varied, and poetically and well-formulated lyrics too, including with social or deeper messages. I can name, besides Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Jimi Hendrix, the Talking Heads, Lou Reed, U2, and also artists like Tom Waits and Nirvana have interesting, mind-provoking lyrics. They lack, however, the mentioned universal appeal and spokesperson role of Marley, and the consistency of his social and global rebellious – and uplifting! - message.

“Why do you look so sad and foresaken. When one door is closed, don’t you know, another is open” (from Coming In From The Cold).

As I already said, Marley could formulate his message well, even rhyming, with the right word choice, and fitting these lyrics well musically in the songs in a varied way, referring to a wide emotional range of a strong personality. From rebellion, anger, and sadness, to love, celebrating life, and relief, and deeper philosophical and spiritual reflections.

These lyrics contained besides Rastafari references, recurring universal positive messages, identifiable for all kinds of people, not just Rasta brethren or Jamaicans, rendering them inclusive. That’s an important literary quality, not to be underestimated. Many cannot overcome “preaching for their own kind” even within higher art, but Marley could and did, appealing to different kinds of people.

In addition, they were indeed positive lyrics, lacking demeaning or patronizing stances toward women, and while pro-Black and Rastafari-inspired, the lyrics were not racist against other races, or persuasions. Rastafari adherents often have own ideas about “proper” lifestyles and morality, but even when discussing e.g. prostitution, as in the song Pimper’s Paradise, or other people “losing themselves”, he expresses human compassion.

“Every need got an ego to feed” (from Pimper’s Paradise).

For all these reasons combined, I can honestly not think of a better nominee for the Nobel Prize of Literature, according to its criteria of “international humanity”, than Bob Marley.

“Have no fear for atomic energy, cause none of them can stop Jah time” (from Redemption Song).

Yet, only 4 years after an exceptional musical artist and lyricist (Bob Dylan) - as opposed to usual novelists – won that Nobel prize, another musical artist as laureate might result in controversy, and (again) objections of “conventional” writers.

Still, in my opinion the idea stands solid as a rock.

dinsdag 7 januari 2020

African continuities

For many years now, I find this an interesting theme: African continuities and retentions in the African Diaspora in the Americas: among the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas: the US, the Caribbean, Latin America, and South America. I have read a lot about it.

This has naturally come across on this blog of mine, in fact being one of the most recurring themes on this blog. Having studied Trans-Atlantic slavery for many years, both in a professional context, and personally, this interest followed automatically and logically. After all, I am very much interested in culture and music, and always have been.

How much can you maintain of your culture despite all and massive efforts of deculturization and dehumanization, Africans endured during the trans-Atlantic slavery? Not even their family names, these enslaved Africans could keep, while also losing their original languages, cultural contexts and bonds, and faiths.

DERACINATING

This “losing” is the crux, though. The oppressors wanted the African slaves to lose it as much as possible, especially when interfering with their production goals. In reality, the “losing” was luckily relative. Against all odds, the original cultures and the underlying ideas and values were never fully lost. While of the African languages the slaves spoke, only fragments are maintained to the present, with some exceptions among e.g. Maroons or in ritual contexts (with more of the languages maintained), and the original family names seem to really be lost (though in cases traceable, but difficultly), the culture and cultural values – on the other hand - were maintained much better. To differing degrees and in different ways, but for real and undeniable.

This begs the question: in what ways can you maintain an ancestral culture, threatened for whatever reason? In the case of enslaved Africans, this threat was their forced removal from their own land, their enslavement, and the mentioned dehumanization and attempts of deculturalization. Quite a bigger and more destructive threat and attack on an ancestral culture than just “modernization”, outside cultural influences (on further still preserved and respected own cultural contexts), all old cultures in this world face. African enslavement in the West was in that sense more “deracinating”, besides destructive.

Against all these odds, there are undeniably still African cultural continuities among Blacks in the Americas. This is both interesting and beautiful. For these reasons, I delved much in that theme during my life.

I am a Reggae fan since my early teens, love other Black Music too, and am interested in several countries in the Americas, as well as in the African continent. All this, kept my interest in the theme of “African retentions in the Americas” surely alive.

I am also interested in the Rastafari movement, feeling myself even associated with it. In a book – a collective volume – about the Rastafari movement, these “African continuities”, also in the movement, are also treated. It is the work ‘Chanting down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (Temple University Press, 1998), edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane. A Neil J. Savishinsky wrote an article in it on ‘African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’, but other essays/articles in the same work, by other authors, address the theme too.

The Rastafari movement is interesting in this regard, since it is known as “Afrocentric”.

CREOLIZATION

Other books and works, such as by Robert Farris Thompson, referred to elsewhere on my blog too, and several scholarly works on “creolization” and “Négritude” in the Caribbean and around, also deal with African continuities in the Americas.

Négritude and Creolité are terms that arose among French Caribbean intellectuals, notably Aimé Césaire (from Martinique) who emphasized the remained Africanness among Caribbean Blacks (Négritude), whereas other authors focus rather on the inevitable adaptation in the Americas of Africans, and cultural mixtures, albeit with underlying values (Créolité), of which Raphaël Confiant was an exponent.

These were partly literary movements, but had their more general sociohistorical and cultural counterparts, also in the English-speaking Caribbean. Thus the term “creolization”, became common as cultural description among scholars in Caribbean Studies, referring to the cultural adaptation of Africans (and others) in the Americas, toward a new essentially mixed culture. This still maintained African retentions, but more indirectly, in values.

The equivalent of Négritude in the British Caribbean would probably be Black Power or Afrocentric thought.

The usage of these terms often take their significance far beyond merely academic, historical descriptions, supposedly striving to neutrality. They even became ideological or political stances among intellectuals and politicians; at least an assertion of chosen cultural identity.

Such biases or ideologies aside, or rather “behind” those ideological and biased surfaces, it remains interesting to study as neutrally and impartially as possible, what African continuities and retentions actually remain in the Americas, despite what movements or ideological currents claim or aim to.

RASTAFARI

The Rastafari movement from Jamaica is an interesting case, because it is a movement of a – one might say – ideological and spiritual nature. It arose in the 1930s in Jamaica, largely under the influence of Jamaican thinker and activist Marcus Garvey. It is a Black Power movement, focusing on African/Black upliftment, “Africa for the Africans”, and with the eventual aim of repatriation to Africa.

Garvey did not expect a prosperous future for the Black race, anywhere in the Americas, even limitedly in “Black majoritarian areas” in it (Jamaica, Haiti a.o.), opting instead for freeing Africa from White colonialism, making it the home and power base of all Africans and African-descended people. As far-fetched and quite ambitious this idea and goal might seem, it had some solid reasoning behind it by Garvey and its followers.

This essentially Black Power movement obtained an important spiritual dimension with the rise of the Rastafari movement, who began to worship the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as divine or at least crucial, as a kind of fulfillment of prophecy, also found in the Bible. The ultimate aim of repatriation centered on Africa, but now more specifically also on Ethiopia, as ”Zion”. This was opposed to the “Babylon”, Rastas and all Black people were forced to live in, i.e. the Western world, including the Americas.

The Rastafari movement thus read the Bible from a Black perspective, but was overall focused on Africa, making it truly Afrocentric in stance.

There are stances and there are facts . An interesting article in the Rastafari reader, deals with these historical and cultural facts; “neutral”, scholarly knowledge, so to speak, about the actual African (cultural) characteristics of the Rastafari movement, looked at it academically and factually.

In other words, is Africa mostly an (ideological or philosophical) goal or aim within the Rastafari movement, or is the movement itself inherently already mostly African (culturally and spiritually), lost in a wrong context (the Americas). If so, to what degree?

An intriguing question, being as old as the Rastafari movement (since the 1930s) - or even the Garvey Movement (active since the 1910s) - themselves.

An uneasy question should be asked too: is it, painfully, maybe so that Blacks in the Americas are too Westernized or ”creolized” over time, to adapt easily in present-day Africa?

NATION OF ISLAM

I think a comparison between the (US) Nation Of Islam and Rastafari is useful here, for a broader historical perspective. The comparison between these two (originally) Black Power movements is quite logical and can lead to insightful results. Both movements have “spiritual” dimensions beyond politicized Black Power, and both movements are in fact somehow related historically, with connecting historical personalities, and notably with deeper origins in the Garvey Movement. The readable work ‘Marcus Garvey and the Back to Africa Movement’ (Lucent Books, 2006), written by Stuart A. Kallen, says about this:

Elijah Mohammed, who led the influential Nation Of Islam, or Black Muslim organization, from 1934 to 1975 was a corporal in the Chicago division of the UNIA (Garvey’s movement) in the 1920s”.

In the same book it is recounted how both Malcolm X’s parents (his mother was from Grenada in the Caribbean) were UNIA members, and his father even vice president of the Detroit division.

Malcolm X himself indeed recognized the pioneering role of Marcus Garvey, having stated: “It was Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of Pan Africanism that initiated the entire freedom movement..”

This post is about African continuities or retentions in the Americas. This is somewhat problematic in the case of the Nation Of Islam. It is more wishful thinking and ideology than real historical facts, that the “Islam is the original Black Man’s religion” as some Nation Of Islam leaders claimed. It never was and is, as such. The Islam originated on the Arabian peninsula, where indeed also some people with a darker hue (migrants or slaves from Africa, included) were found, being often slaves. The prophet Mohammed had an Ethiopian slave who became free because of his conversion to Islam. Historically, this Islam, developed after Christianity already has taken hold in Africa itself, notably Ethiopia, where it even became a state religion, and other parts, such as what is now Egypt and Sudan.

The conquering spree from the Arabian peninsula from the 7th c AD onward, spreading Islam to the whole of Northern Africa, and even somewhat more to the South (the Guinea and Mande regions for instance), parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, and elsewhere, was exactly that: a conquest from outside. Only in time this was “Africanized” culturally, such as in the Guinea and Senegal regions, among Oromo in Ethiopia, and other groups, diverging a bit from the imposed “Arab model”.

The Nation Of Islam seems to deny this fact that Islam was more or less imposed on the African continent. The Arab slave trade made many Black Africans as victims, proportionately much more than the “white slaves" (Slavic, Mediterraneans, or others) some like to overemphasize. True, also many in Africa converted more or less willingly, since at least nominal conversion to Islam is relatively easy, even for illiterates: Islam is centered on rituals, rather than on complex writings. It is in any case not an African religion, and the type of Islam propagated in the Nation of Islam, even by current leaders like Farrakhan, seems to strive to the “pure, Arab” kind, ignoring or at least downplaying direct African cultural retentions. Relatedly, the Garvey-ite “Back to Africa” repatriation focus has been abandoned by the Nation of Islam. A separate Black nation - but in the US - came to be instead the norm within the Nation of Islam, at some point.

It is therefore safe to say, that Rastafari and the Nation of Islam, while sharing some same goals (Black upliftment), moved in separate directions, seeking different solutions.

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES

This is where Robert Farris Thompson, and other cultural history scholars, and their studies, become useful: African retentions and cultural heritages worked out a bit differently throughout the Americas. Enslaved Africans came from different parts from Africa, and got concentrated in different areas – relatively -, shaping some cultural differences. Only, Farris Thompson states, slaves from the Congo region spread relatively evenly throughout the whole Americas: from South America, to the Caribbean, and the US, Congo Africans becoming a kind of “binding” or “connecting” cultural group within the African Diaspora.

Further, there were some differences: slaves from the Ghana regions ended up in some colonies more than others, having to do with European access to trade in Africa. Relatively much in Suriname, Guyana, Jamaica, St Croix, proportionately less in other colonies. Yoruba slaves (from present-day SW Nigeria, and Benin) ended up more in Spanish and Portuguese colonies like Cuba or Brazil, Igbo slaves in some British colonies more, Fon and Ewe slaves relatively more in Haiti and other French colonies, Senegambian slaves more in the US, etcetera etcetera.

It is still important to point out that African slave populations within all these colonies were in the end mixed: so also culturally. Partly Yoruba-influenced Cuba still had also about 40% of its slave population from the Congo region, and (partly Akan/Ghana-influenced) Jamaica, also about 25% of its slave population from the Congo region (besides Igbo and others). In Suriname, slaves of Fon and Ewe origin (from present day Benin, Togo and around) were also quite numerous, according to some linguists still noticeable in structures of the Surinamese Creole language (Sranan Tongo), besides also noticeable Ghanaian/Akan remnants among Afro-Surinamers.

To return to the Nation Of Islam and African Americans in the US: in the US the slavery regime while of course still dehumanizing, was overall a bit less deadly than elsewhere in the Americas (more nutritious food for instance), enabling slave populations to reproduce in much of the US, and with less needs for new African imports. This diluted the culture more from the African roots, though some African retentions still remain in African American culture, only more indirectly. The partly Senegambian/Guinean origins of US Blues are beyond doubt, but there are more examples of indirect African retentions among African Americans in the US.

This found its way in a movement like the Nation Of Islam, whose present-day leader (Louis Farrakhan) is by the way of Caribbean origin, but the increased emphasis on a purist (Arab) Islam might have disturbed that.

BACK TO AFRICA

One of the differences between the Nation Of Islam and the Rastafari movement is that the latter still espouses the “Back to Africa” ideal of Garvey, up to the present.

This “Back to Africa” can be taken both literally or of course metaphorically or mentally: as a mental, spiritual process, all the while still residing in Jamaica, the US or elsewhere. Some Rastafari adherents among reggae musicians, likewise chose a maintained main residence in the Americas, though having travelled now more to Africa. The aim is there.

How much does this connect to actual African cultural values among most Rastafari adherents?

SAVISHINSKY

In the article in the 1998 collective volume ‘Chanting Down Babylon : a Rastafari Reader’ I mentioned earlier in the post, the one titled ‘African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement’, the author Neil J. Savishinsky discusses that.

Regarding the “dimensions” of the title, Savishinsky distinguishes between “direct African continuities”, “indirect African influences”, and “African parallels”.

Among the direct continuities, he categorizes the music. He includes in this “neo-African” (mixed African) continuities, rather than just exactly similar musical patterns from, say, Ghana or Congo, but now in Jamaica. There are nonetheless still some regional, and strong continuities: the Kumina rituals in especially Eastern Jamaica, having many, quite intact/maintained musical and drumming patterns stemming from the Congo region, considering the diverging histories.

Burru drumming, elsewhere in Jamaica, shows some evident Ghanaian/Akan/Coromantee influences. Both these traditions, Burru and Kumina, influenced what would become known as Nyahbinghi drumming among the Rastafari in Jamaica. The types of drums more influenced by the Burru, while drumming patterns themselves, and rituals and terminology, are influenced by Kumina, including the “heart beat” base of rhythms.

Equally significant, Savishinsky, points justly at the underlying values regarding the role of music in faith, spirituality and in cultural expressions. In African culture, music and dance are necessarily intertwined, while the sacred and the profane are also merged, consisting of a profound difference with imposed European culture, where music plays usually different roles, bearing other values and functions. Some folk European music genres come a bit closer, but Burru and Kumina, Maroon music, but also Jamaican “pop” music genres that developed over time from these influences (Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Dancehall), still maintain that essential “Africanness” in the connection between music, rhythm, dance, and spirituality.

MARIJUANA

Regarding what he calls “drugs”, the use of marijuana among many Rastas, Savishinsky also sees interestingly an African continuity. Interestingly, because many – even some scholars – associate the common use of marijuana in Jamaica, including spiritually among Rastas, with an East Indian influence, as Indians interacted with Africans on the island. The term “Ganja” is also of Indian origin, as is another common term for “weed” or “herb” (all terms for cannabis/marijuana), namely: “collie”.

Savishinsky rather sees more African cultural historical parallels, pointing at the historical role of marijuana use in the Congo region, among several groups, also for spiritual reasons, not unlike among the Rastafari adherents. Another term for marijuana, popularized by artist Bob Marley & the Wailers, namely “Kaya” is of Congo/Central African origin, bringing this point home. It is the name of a song and album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, but also a common term among Rastas for “the herb” (alongside other terms like ganja, herb, lamb’s bread etcetera). This opened my eyes a bit, as I began to take the East Indian influence too much for granted: it might not be only that influence.

DREADLOCKS

Savishinsky also mentions “dreadlocks”, but as more indirect African influence. I think it is a more “direct” one, though. Like other scholars, he also sees a possible East Indian influence here, as in India, long-haired, dredlocked priest-like figures, known as “saddhu’s” are known for a long time, within variants of Hinduism. These connect spirituality with dreadlocks, similar to Rastas.

In time, I studied more sources, and came to doubt these Indian origins of dreadlocks in Jamaica, not as sole source, anyway. There were – after all - historically in Africa, from long before slavery, people with dreadlocks, often also with spiritual functions: e.g. the Nimba in Northern Namibia, in parts of the Congo regions, other Bantu-speaking regions, in the Guinea regions, the Nigeria/Cameroun areas, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. The way the Maasai wear their hair is quite known, but other groups in Africa wore dreadlocks looking more similar to Jamaican Rastas nowadays, and have done so since long.

Savishinsky instead points at the influence of the news on the anti-British colonial Mau Mau warriors in Kenya (appearing around 1952), known to have wore dreadlocks, and Afro-Jamaicans emulating this. Indeed the rebellious Mau Mau from Kenya were an influence on Jamaican Rastas starting to wear dreadlocks, but based on deeper African roots, and - I argue - more than on Indian Roots. Besides, even among European or other Asian groups (some Celtic or Viking groups, Eskimo’s, Tibetans) dreadlock-like long hair has been found. It is not exclusive, let’s just say..

As other African “indirect” influences, he mentions the Rasta colours (red, gold, and green or red, black, and green), while he also pays attention to other Pan-African parallels, following on international exchanges, and the international influence of Marcus Garvey, also on the African independence movements. He also discusses Biblical rereadings by Rastas from an African perspective.

All interesting and true, but more in the terrain of stances or ideological choices, or an “identity search” if you will. All valid and even positive and successful, but studied elsewhere too.

CONCLUSION

What’s in this case more interesting though, I opine, is that Africa was already there in basic cultural values, musical and spiritual ones, as examples, among the Rastafari adherents. All this, despite centuries of attempts of deculturalization, Judeo-Christian, and European influences.

These basic African values guided all what came after, including later adaptations, emulations, mixtures, or new creations. The focus on Africa, veneration of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, and the goal of repatriation to Africa (theoretical or not), all made sure these African values remained the guides. As “the tree with good roots bearing good fruits”, as Marcus Garvey once described it.

“Rhythm” and drumming are important parts of this, as also became clear from an interview with Ras Michael, Jamaican artist and Nyahbingi veteran, in 1986 for the Modern Drummer magazine (see: https://www.moderndrummer.com/article/august-1986-ras-micheal-the-roots-of-reggae/). Hand drums, and even later trap drums in Reggae, Ras Michael argued, ensured the African historical connection in its very patterns, of Rastafari, but also in broader Jamaican (musical) culture, and in modern reggae, even with modern digital instruments. Rhythm and music as an essential heart beat, keeping Africa alive. Likewise, the drummer with Bob Marley & the Wailers, Carlton Barret, pointed out how that he as drummer within Reggae especially carries that weight of “African retentions”, even more so than other instrumentalists.

Perhaps, this living cultural practice in the end outweighs any Islam-derived (as the Nation Of Islam) or Christianity-derived (as Rastafari) beliefs, movements outwardly espouse.