vrijdag 1 augustus 2014

Reviews reviewed: the "aura of neutrality" and Colin Grant's biography 'Negro with a hat' on Marcus Garvey

Reviewing work by others is a multifaceted, complex issue. In this day and age, with mass media, broadly developed publishing and journalism, extensively developed cultural sectors and industries - especially in wealthy societies -, it is perhaps unavoidable that new works - be it biographical books, fictional and nonfictional books, music albums, films, or concerts - are scanned and discussed (opinionatedly). This is typically done by experts (or self-declared experts) on certain matters and fields, through mass media.

I guess this has – like so much in this world – pros and cons. Pros: there is much being published and offered, with new releases regularly, that even aficionado’s with relatively narrow interests cannot keep up. A review might just stimulate a choice to check out a book, writer, or artist. It can make curious and trigger interest. The simple fact is that you don’t have the time in one lifetime to check everything yourself that somehow interests you. The plethora of reviews might give you a hint what to choose/select from the bunch of cultural offers.

A main con of reviews, on the other hand, is that they are exactly that: “reviews”. That is: by definition opinionated; else it would be a summary or “abstract”. No, a review is an opinion by a person who for some reason got “authority” in a specific field, recognized by others around him/her, including his/her employers. This is especially the case when these reviewers work for big, well-known newspapers like the New York Times, or other big newspapers, journals, or journals with smaller, but demanding readerships, such as academic journals. Even this seems reasonable in some sense: if – by way of example – someone has studied and researched for over 20 years the Irish-British author Oscar Wilde, in a scholarly, profound manner, even including field work, and has read all previous biographies on Wilde, it is perhaps not a bad choice to let this person give an opinion on a new biography that appeared on Oscar Wilde. His opinions would then be well-informed.

However, at a deeper level even this can be problematic as well, because reviews are, again, opinionated. Academic researchers – and reviewers among them – might have the aura of neutrality. They have a purely rational, balanced, yet opinionated focus. The problem with this is that this is humanly impossible. In the whole wide world there is not one – not one! – human being who is fully able to detach oneself from oneself, so to speak. To have a rational, neutral analysis separate from one’s own personality, history, and biases. The selection of facts, and way to interpret these facts can only partly (if at all) be separated from deeply entrenched personal biases. One can – admirably – strive for balance or neutrality, that can be reached only to a degree.

I myself read reviews of music, albums, books (fictional and nonfictional), concerts, theatre plays, films, or television programmes. Besides this, I actually write reviews myself: for my blog (music, films, and books) and for other sites (of reggae albums mostly). So, I have to face these pros and cons of reviewing as well. I like to write, and in writing I also try to cultivate humbleness. This can be solved in writing by adding words indicating that it is “my” opinion, and with what I (with my knowledge and history) am able and willing to compare works. Terms like “In my opinion..” or “I find..” and “I think..” are very useful in this regard.

Not all reviews seem to have this overt humility, and I admit that I also have enjoyed reviews that are very humorous, though not seemingly modest or humble. I then find them “over the top” in a funny way. A reggae reviewer once said about a song on an album he found overall mediocre (and which he found less in quality than others by that artist): “the less said about this song, the better..”. This appears to be a harsh, arrogant, personal opinion about other people’s artistic effort, but is at the same time a funny way to put it. That compensates somehow.


I delve into this theme of “reviewing”, because I got curious about the critiques or “reception” of a book I personally appreciated very much. A pleasant and informative read, I found it to be. I am talking about ‘Negro with a hat : the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey’, a biography of Marcus Garvey – the Jamaican-born Black Power thinker and activist -, written by Colin Grant – a Briton of Jamaican parentage -, and published in 2008.

I understood quite some research for this biographical book has been carried out (secondary and primary research), resulting in a quite voluminous book of about 530 pages. I also liked its quite humorous writing style. Besides this I felt I learned a lot more about the nuances of Marcus Garvey and his movement. The author Grant had proper attention to social, political, and historical contexts, while I felt I got to know the person Marcus Garvey better as well, through his life story.

Specifically, Grant addressed Garvey’s personality, including his contradictions, good character traits, as well as flaws. This made the biography in my opinion all the more “real”. Of course he was a (pro-black) thinker and ideologist, as well as activist – and pioneering and influential at that -, but separating that from his personality is so functionalistic that it becomes artificial and absurd. Thus unconvincing. I know.. many such biographies – called “intellectual biographies” – on the ideas but with only superficial sketches of the person who had them - have appeared, and some I read, but most of these failed to convince me fully. There are, however, interesting philosophies and ideas independent of persons who formulated them, but they did not arise in a vacuum. I think Colin Grant in his 2008 biography on Garvey shows he grasps this unavoidable connection between person and ideas. A matter of credibility, in essence.

It also eases sympathy, at least in my case. Eventual “blind spots”, flaws, contradictions, irresponsibility of Garvey as a person or leader Grant describes as well, alongside “positive” character traits and actions, and certainly his noble goal of uplifting an oppressed people. Realistic, because no human is perfect. In essence it shows Garvey’s humanity: at times irresponsible, spiteful, paranoid, distrustful, even unreasonable.. it is all there.. but are those flaws not latently present in all of us, depending on circumstances? The importance is that you learn from your mistakes to improve yourself, and Garvey - as the “self-made man” par excellence, wanting to help downtrodden Black people forward - did just that: learn to then improve, as he recommended as well to his followers. In that sense he – despite that he was criticized for having a too big ego - showed more self-reflection than other leaders the world has known.

The flaws in his character further did not seem of the truly “wicked” kind to me. Maybe because he was a very honest and direct person, he lost the avenues to really fool or hurt people consciously. Though Garvey himself advised leaders to present themselves well in public and keep certain things private, his talent for hypocrisy proved overall too small. His rotund opinions on some issues could sound harsh in some ears, but inspiring to others: the same is the case with all “innovative” leaders and thinkers: including people like Rousseau, Kant, or Mahatma Ghandi. Or Buddha and Jesus Christ for that matter.

I think it is useful to give my opinion on the work with some argumentation, but before this part turns in a review of Colin Grant’s book (by me, this time), I think it is time to focus on how reviewers in the press and media, the US, Britain and elsewhere responded and discussed this book.

The biography has appeared in English in 2008, and a French translation, by Hélène Lee, has appeared under the title ‘Le Nègre au chapeau’ in October, 2012. The same Lee also wrote the biography on Leonard Howell ‘The first Rasta’. Also Garvey was of course very important for the Afro-centric Rastafari movement, as main inspirer, including of Leonard Howell and all early Rastas of course. Some describe this as a John the Baptist-like function that Garvey had for the Rastafari movement, that first arose in Jamaica in the 1930s.. not long before Garvey’s death in London in 1940 (after a stroke) at the age of 52.

So a French translation has appeared, and not yet in other languages as far as I know, however..the bulk of reviews of ‘Negro with a hat’ I could find were in English, and appeared in US-based, Britain-based, or (Anglophone) Caribbean newspapers and journals. These include the big newspapers Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and the larger British newspapers.

How did these reviewers read the same biography I read? What recurs or differs throughout these reviews, what is remarkable, what is emphasized or ignored? In the remainder of this post I will try to answer such questions..


“Las comparaciones son odiosas” – meaning “comparisons are hateful” - is an interesting Spanish expression, I did not hear yet in other languages. This is interesting, because not just reviews, but all analytical and scholarly work rely partly on comparison. Are all these analysts therefore hateful, or do they simply weigh pros and cons? Either way, I pointed out before that biases are ALWAYS there, even among known scholars who have (and cultivate) an “aura of neutrality”. This is an illusion, though recommendable as a goal.

That the person Garvey, as well as his social ideas and movement, all get attention in Colin Grant’s biography reflects in the reviews I read. Both Garvey as man, and Garvey’s ideas and movement get attention, also in these reviews. Balanced, it seems, but the aspects of his person and his movement that get emphasized at times surprise me somewhat. In some reviews they also annoy me.

The “authoritative” New York Times review (2008) states that the Garvey movement had Fascist characteristics. Inappropriate, I think, not just because I do not want to hear that, but because I read Marcus Garvey’s own writings as well. The recurring humanity in them, his espousal of equality among man kind (beyond racial conflicts), the nuances, despite radical aspects and indeed “collectivistic” aspects of his movement, sets it apart from the basic tenets of Fascism, first developed by Benito Mussolini in 1920s Italy. The context was also different: Italy was then an independent, if relatively young, nation and state. It wanted to make its mark, and perhaps was jealous of the imperial power and pasts of other European countries. Blacks in the time of Garvey, on the other hand, were – simply put – not even free in their own lands of origin in Africa: apart from Ethiopia, and a few other regions, most of Africa was subdivided among and controlled by European colonial powers. Blacks/Africans outside Africa were generally in a dependent and oppressed position. The Garvey movement was therefore an emancipation movement, aimed at acquiring basic human rights. It lacked the cynical (some would say; “male”) power and conquest rationale of Fascism.


This and other parts of the New York Times review – that was overall quite positive on the biography as book, by the way – made me doubt whether the reviewer Paul Devlin has read also ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’, wherein Garvey relates his own views, and adds some biographical aspects. He might have, I don’t know. Some parts of his review describes the biography well, though his focussing on Garvey’s dealings with the Ku Klux Klan borders on the sensationalistic. It was perhaps an odd move by Garvey, but explainable in some way. Even some African-Americans today prefer the direct, overt racism of white supremacists or less organized “rednecks” over the hidden, hypocritical racism – or “white dominance” equally present among many white Americans, and covertly/hidden present in social and organizational structures. “Better the devil you know and see coming”, so to speak. Instead of this KKK episode, Devlin could have emphasized more Garvey’s pioneering role in giving Black people pride. He somewhat neglects Garvey’s historical significance and legacy.

Another authoritative newspaper, Britain’s The Guardian reviewed the biography a few months before, in February 2008. Maybe because Colin Grant is British himself, reviews appeared earlier in Britain than in the US. The reviewer for the Guardian, Margaret Busby, justly emphasizes Garvey’s pioneering role in black pride, more than Devlin. She summarizes also in a well-balanced way, on the whole. Busby, on the other hand, also mentions some aspects that seem a bit sensationalistic. That he had two wives, and married another one after separating from the first, is not that extraordinary nor immoral. The contributions of these women are more relevant, yet discussed little. Busby – as do other reviews – also mentions the odd circumstance that, after one stroke, some thought mistakenly Garvey had died, while Garvey still could read the premature obituary on himself. Not long after that the fatal stroke came.


Some say that irony/humour and death do exclude one another, yet some of these reviewers – perhaps unwillingly – seek to combine irony/humour and death. It is an anecdote worth telling, perhaps an interesting one, but not a very amusing, or even relevant one. The cause of death was a stroke: why this, and what could have caused this (hereditary, stress, health problems, poverty)? This seems more relevant to me. In the biography his mother died of a stroke as well (or “apoplexy” as it was called), also relatively young. The fun fact of someone reading his own obituary outweighed this crucial biographical detail, apparently.

I must point out, in all fairness, that Busby does not emphasize sensationalism or irrelevant anecdotes too much, and overall I found her review well-written and quite accurate and balanced.

I am also positive about Kevin Le Gendre’s review in The Independent, also published in February 2008. He gives a well-balanced description of the biography, and points – more than other reviewers – to Garvey’s lasting legacy, albeit in abstract terms. Not much I disagree with here, further, and Le Gendre points at the paradoxes in a good way, the opposition against him – note especially the second paragraph of this review.


I think Le Gendre has read Garvey’s own writings, including ‘The philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey’. A minor flaw is what became a cliché in reviews on Garvey’s biography: his dealings with the Ku Klux Klan, but I mentioned that already. At least the “obituary-anecdote” is refreshingly absent.

In the short review by Kirkus Reviews (anonymous?) both these clichés recur, but at least Garvey’s “genuine commitment to bettering the lives of blacks” was recognized. It argues, though, or worse: “states”, that this was compromised by Garvey’s outsized ego. As I mentioned elsewhere on this blog (e.g. regarding the biography of James Brown) sometimes things like “bluffing” or “an outsized ego” are nothing more or less than the only way of “survival” in an hostile world.


The extensive review by Eric Arnesen in the Chicago Tribune is actually quite critical, and partly negative. Both regarding Grant’s book as on its subject: Marcus Garvey. I think Arnesen exaggerates Garvey’s character flaws. I do admit Arnesen has some good points of weaknesses in the book, as well as of Garvey and his movement. With some of his conclusions I do not agree, however. I do not think Garvey treated his wives as servants: they were for their times quite independent already, and Garvey respected that. If anything, compared to other intellectuals and leaders from his time (white and black) – or even later times – Garvey seemed relatively more to favour female equality. The later Nation of Islam (partly influenced by the Garvey movement) in the US, had at times a barely disguised “(Black) women should be servants and get out of men’s way” focus – though differing per Nation of Islam-member. Even Malcolm X – who I overall consider to be intelligent and open-minded – in his own writings showed here and there this expectance of female obedience (to Allah/God, and then to men), probably derived from conservative Islam and conservative Christianity. Garvey had this much less.


At most, Garvey tried too much to be rational and practical, neglecting complex and strictly speaking “weakening” and “paralyzing” personal things like affection, emotions, relationships, love, and friendship. That is unfortunate, but understandable with a certain life history : Garvey soon – in his early teens - had to become independent, and in time he developed broader goals for his people, the world, and not just himself. A rational focus seems required for that.


Then there are reviews more aimed at a scholarly and academic public, in more scientific and academic journals. These tend to be more extensive and detailed – as can be expected. The scientific and scholarly world cultivates its “aura of neutrality”, which as I pointed out is in fact an illusion. Yet, many journalists do the same. At least some scholars strive for objective analysis, and that in itself can lead to new, valuable insights.

Huon Wardle of the University of St Andrews wrote a thorough and in itself fine review of Grant’s ‘Negro with a hat’. I find it only unfortunate that Garvey’s lasting legacy is sidelined in it a bit, and that Wardle focuses on his mass support at the time itself. He does not say this, but like that mass support depended more on circumstance or “magic” than on content. I think maybe the message itself was necessary, explaining the mass support, and not just Garvey’s good oratory skills or organizational and promotion capacities. Also, Wardle cannot avoid to go down almost sensationalistic side-paths too: his negotiation with the Ku Klux Klan, or the extraordinary uniforms he wore. Wardle pays much attention to the fact that Garvey was a Jamaican migrant in the US, and that his support included at first many other West Indians. This is only partly relevant, I would say. He soon got much support among African-Americans/US Blacks as well, making his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), by the early 1920s, the biggest mass organization of Blacks the world had yet seen. The attention he pays to the extravagant uniforms UNIA members and Garvey himself does not seem that relevant to me, but I do find interesting how Wardle (unlike other reviewers) draws the connection with the Caribbean carnival tradition of “inverting the order”, not to mimic but to rebel in a playful way.


I do not agree with Wardle at the end of his review, seemingly a conclusion. He wrote: “The sudden explosive growth of the UNIA is an instance where a submerged nexus of utopian ideas and values briefly pierce the membrane of what actually exists and acquire a reality of their own”. This is even derogatory in some sense, and ignores the deeper message and significance of the Garvey movement: black self-determination, a self-determination other races and nations already had. From that line of reasoning “nation” ideas like Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom, China, USA, India and so on, are likewise “utopian”, as well as political parties or interest groups. Some ideas seemed once temporarily utopian because they were too progressive, different from the status-quo. They remain utopian because they are repressed by the powers that be.

Paul M. Heideman, writing a review on the biography in 2009 for the African-American Review, has some interesting points, I think. Like me, Heideman opined that the contradictions/complexities of Garvey come well to the fore in Grant’s biography, and that it is well- documented, -written and accessible. In addition, Heideman states that Grant “lets these contradictions speak for themselves”, by simply relating Garvey’s actions and reproducing Garvey’s own writings. This lack of authorial explanation has its advantages, but can also be a flaw at times, Heideman states. I agree partly. I also found some explanation lacking in Grant’s book regarding Garvey’s choices; not just regarding Garvey’s distancing from Marxism and the Left over time, but also his enigmatic religious choices. Garvey became Roman Catholic – while raised Methodist - , called himself even Catholic, despite his own critique that religious sculptures of Jesus and others in Catholic churches looked white and European. The irony is that Roots Reggae lyrics by Rastafari-adhering artists mention Garvey a lot positively, but also often criticize Rome and Catholicism (or mainstream Christianity). Some Rastafari-adherents might deplore Garvey’s adherence to Catholicism, others may explain it historically, but Grant unfortunately does not pay much attention to Garvey’s religious choices. Maybe, no information or sources were available on it, that is possible.


Anyhow, I found Heideman’s review all in all okay and balanced, albeit a bit limited in scope.

In the Caribbean Reviews of Books journal, Jeremy Taylor reviewed the biography in 2008. Quite critically, and not in all aspects positively. I do appreciate how Taylor does pay sufficient attention to Garvey’s historical influence and legacy, especially in the final part of his review.


Some aspects he found missing in Grant’s biography, I found missing as well, such as religious issues. The pop song Garvey wrote while imprisoned in Atlanta (1923-1927) could further equally receive more attention in Grant’s book.


It would recur partly in lyrics of some reggae songs, such as this one by the Twinkle Brothers (‘Give Rasta Praise’ from 1975): a few lines are taken from this pop song Garvey wrote (and named ‘Keep Cool’).

Jacob Dorman, at the University of Kansas, wrote a review of ‘Negro with a hat’ that was critical and even more negative. He even made me doubt if I read the biography that well, and if Dorman might indeed be right, if I look at the book in another way. I think this is only partly the case, because Dorman failed to note a main theme in the biography: the idea of the “self-made man” that Garvey represented. I think Grant really aimed at showing contradictions and complexities of Garvey, and did not aim at a negative portrayal.


Certainly, Garvey could be harsh, right-wing in some issues, sided sometimes with the wrong persons, was at times insensitive, inconsistent even theoretically, or mistaken. He was human and could make mistakes. Another glorified and influential self-made man, Henry Ford, also had inhumane, harsh, right-wing, and even anti-Semitic ideas, if one checks it out. Worse than the worst statements of Garvey, who overall at least seemed to believe in equality of races and people, despite criticizing some ethnic groups generally at times during moments of frustration.

Dorman misses the deeper layer: the story of someone starting with nothing, belonging to a poor oppressed race in a poor, marginal land, working himself up to lead a Black mass movement in the US by the late 1910s. A pioneer that inspired other, later Black leaders, influenced partly by his ideas but going beyond that.

The Rastafari movement – a “Black Power movement with a theological nucleus” (dixit Mutabaruka) is described as “using Garvey to go beyond Garvey”. After all, Garvey was Catholic, more European/British influenced in his cultural tastes, even colonially influenced, and Garvey even became critical of Haile Selassie, the main, revered person within Rastafari. Garvey applauded the coronation of Selassie in 1930, but later criticized in harsh terms as “cowardice” the strategy of Selassie in dealing with the invasion by Fascist Italy (i.e. by allying with other European powers against Italy), instead of organizing African unity at that time (later Selassie did help shape African unity, by the way). Garvey should have been more diplomatic, I think, but he was only partly wrong: the British, in hindsight, had a dubious, double role during Italy’s invasion, eventually favouring Italy and other imperial powers over Ethiopia’s (or Africa’s) interests. However, Selassie might not have known this neither at that time, and was then naïve rather than cowardice.. Besides this, Selassie’s strategy had some wisdom from a geopolitical perspective.

Similarly, also Kwame Nkrumah, other African independence fighters, like Kwame Nkrumah, initially also Nelson Mandela, several Black Power movements and intellectuals in the Caribbean and the US, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.. all have been influenced by Garvey, without copying him in every single thing. The positive and necessary essence of Garvey’s Black emancipation and African redemption and repatriation ideas lived and live on. A good example of how “the good you do lives after you..”. Bad or nonsensical things one did or said stay behind, since they do not inspire.

Like some other (academic) reviewers Dorman describes Grant’s biography as a good, and readable introduction, but not much more than that, lacking according to him proper use of research and scholarly methods, and lacking also attention to aspects about Garvey himself, or the motivations of his followers. With the last aspect I agree: Grant could have paid more attention to why different Black people chose to follow Garvey and his movement..


Dorman’s reviews differs strongly from other ones I discussed, but had similarities with others. Reviewers even say the opposite from each other: some find that Grant wrote a sympathetic portrayal, some say a a balanced one, while – like just mentioned – Dorman characterizes Grant’s portrayal of Garvey as a negative one. Some reviewers called Grant’s biography “definitive”, others (especially in academic circles) as merely introductory.

It goes to show how perspectives on the same phenomenon differ from person to person, from reviewer to reviewer in this case.

Some things recur through all these reviews, though. They all seem to agree that the social and historical contexts of the Garvey movement were related well by Grant in ‘Negro with a hat’. Most agreed that Garvey as a person was in some aspects described too little in it, though not everyone found this. Likewise, more than one review noted that Garvey’s followers got too little attention, but several did not mention this as a flaw.

I criticized before the recurrence in reviews of sensationalistic anecdotes over relevant facts. The meeting with the KKK by Garvey, and the fact that he read his own (premature) obituary is remarkable enough to mention somewhere in a biography, but not in every single review of it (as is nearly the case). These became clichés. Another recurrent anecdote or description was on the, some find, extravagant “imperial” hats and clothes Garvey and other UNIA members wore. That does not seem the most relevant thing to me. Maybe it can be related with the “inverting order” notion of Caribbean carnival traditions, and some reviewers relate it to this. An interesting analysis would I think consist also of a psychological explanation: regaining dignity in a public way. In a few reviews something like this is hinted at.

Unfortunately, this clothing is used in most reviews to illustrate how egotistic, or megalomaniac (not always formulated in such words) Garvey according to some was. This ultimately devalues his importance and his movement’s. The same “school yard” insults due to appearance as a thick-spectacled, red-haired, or otherwise “different” child hears from the vane, bullying “cool kids”. This is meant to exclude such strange or nerdy people from their circle. That this sarcasm aimed at Garvey’s clothing or trivial aspects – apart from the content and goals - is also found in academic journals by scholars is not really surprising. The same exclusion through ridicule as nerdy kids in a school yard endure.

That is what Garvey and the author of this biography on him, Colin Grant, share. They stepped on privileged toes: such biographies are often written by respected academics, not by a journalist like Grant. The condescending “nice try, but we can do this better” message is barely disguised in some of these academic reviews.

Also, as discussed in the biography, WEB. Du Bois was an academically schooled Black leader with some influence in the US at the time that Marcus Garvey arrived, and developed and broadened his movement, but with a different message for the same people. Du Bois and others saw this as unwelcome competition for Black support. Privileged positions are disturbed and threatened, making ridicule and repression a final recourse for these privileged people: they have the power and connections to do this. Another, even more privileged group – the White establishment – eventually invented a “post fraud” charge to be able to incarcerate and later expel Garvey to Jamaica (he did not have the US nationality, but a British one).

Several sources – and also recurring in reggae lyrics – point at betrayal of Garvey by other Black people, in the US, Jamaica, and Britain.

Some of the reviewers I mentioned are themselves Black persons. It is good that they remain critical and try to be as neutral as possible on the subject: worshipping is different from reviewing, even if Garvey is seen as a hero by many. That being said, I still find it unfortunate and exaggerated to put the emphasis that much on mistakes, organization flaws, and supposed character flaws of a man like Marcus Garvey.

Garvey has inspired many people and was historically influential. He had maybe flaws, but nothing really came across to me as calculatedly wicked or evil. The FBI at one point even asked his wives, and other people close to Garvey, private questions, hoping to find some “hidden sins”, in order to put him away. Yet they could not find anything illegal in even his private activities. If he were an abusive husband or father (he had two sons), had buried people he killed somewhere, raped women (which for instance Benito Mussolini has done, as a youth, but still became a popular dictator in Italy), or made enslaved people work for free – to name just something – it would have been known at that time. Neither was he involved in financial fraud, extortion, robbery, or violent reprisals against people. Any of this the FBI hoped to find, but couldn’t.

So why this ridicule and critique as a way to downplay Garvey’s influence, among many reviewers?
Attacking the person instead of his/her message or what he/she says is a common distraction tool from what needs for some to be overshadowed or obfuscated: an unwelcome consciousness.

Are some of these reviewers really not open to hear his message and recognize its significance, even today?

That would be ignoring the fact that the world is still unequal today, in 2014. Racially and economically. In 2014 Africa still has less control over its own resources and economy than Europe. Black people in the Americas and elsewhere are overall still on the lower levels socioeconomically, and racism still exists, in daily life and in policies. Slavery as a historical crime against humanity is still only limitedly recognized until today by European nations.

Or, as the reggae group the Mighty Diamonds sing eloquently in their song on Garvey, ‘Them Never Love Poor Marcus’ (1976): “Now the human race in such a squeeze..”

Apparently, people in privileged positions - as part of this same racial and economic order - are not too keen to really ponder on the essence of Garvey’s message: they might feel, well, a bit ashamed or guilty.

That is the hidden bias I found in many – though not all- of these seemingly neutral reviews. Talking about being egotist.. The complexity of Garvey as an individual can be seen as intriguing as well, and other biographies – on other persons – actually embrace such complexity to give depth to a person. I guess to embrace some one’s complexity you must respect or love that person, else you would not care about his or her various traits. That is basic psychology. On Facebook nowadays many “life lessons” and philosophical quotes are shared, too much and too cheap some say, but some I like: like this one I read: “We judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions”. Seems relevant here.. Besides, anyone can test for themselves through this thought experiment; think about this: do you want to know how your mother – or grandmother - lived when young?, or how she felt about certain crucial choices she had to make, even long before you were born? Many would say..yes I am interested in that. Yet..are you equally intrigued about the younger life of, not your (grand)mother, but another woman who you do not even know and who is not related to you?
The same I think applies to symbolical “mothers” and “children”..

Admittedly, other reviews were more balanced, quite neutral, with good argumentation, and also had attention to positive aspects and legacies of Garvey. Both among scholarly and non-scholarly reviews positive opinions were found on Garvey and this biography by Grant.

It’s a pity though that, from the reviews combined, the overall image that remains of Garvey and his movement is of a megalomaniac failure that mainly through some magic and slick propaganda skills got mass support. The overall image of the biography/book that remains is that it is an accessible, well-written work - not without humour - giving good historical contexts and some information on the complexities of Garvey. On the other hand..also that it is not much more than introductory and should have been written by an established scholar/academic. Not all reviewers say this last thing so directly, but if these reviewers can exaggerate or simplify complexity in such much read newspapers and journals – and several do -, I can do the same regarding them..

Negro with a hat: the rise and fall of Marcus Garvey: Colin Grant . – 530 p. – Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 0-19-536794-4, 978-0-19-536794-2

woensdag 2 juli 2014

Football/soccer as tabula rasa?

There is something about sport that makes it be experienced - and welcomed - like a “tabula rasa” (or empty, blank slate). It must be the mere physicality of it. Here there is just body movement that really matters. No difficult, indirectly driven, and hidden ideas or mental exclusions. Just what you came in the world with and in time naturally grew: your body. You have it and it can make a difference, in a direct way: in the field with a team, or individually.

It may seem like a tabula rasa, but events as the World Cup Football/Soccer – like the one that is going on as I write this (in 2014) in Brazil – contradict this. In fact, most sports do. I will explain why I think this, a bit later on.


First I think it’s good to explain that of all sports, I am most interested in.. soccer/football. That does not make me terribly original; the same can be said of many people in the world. I have played in a local Dutch football club (in the town Nieuw-Vennep, Netherlands) for about 4 years. Roughly between my 8th and 12 years of age. In and around that same period I played a lot of football (I use that term for soccer from now on) on the streets as well. Often with team mates from the same football club, as well as others. I mostly played centre-right in the clubs. I often took the corner shots on the right side, which I enjoyed, but it was probably because the right-forward player preferred scoring chances and positioned himself in front of the goal.

I say this because this experience – actually having played “for real”, under real circumstances – still makes you look different at football games now. More technical, or professional perhaps. More analytical. Others, even while aware of how it works, know the rules and when is scored, have this probably less. They recognize less.

This harkens back to my “tabula rasa” idea on football: simple physical steps: as practical and basic as learning how to walk. Back to basics. That in my case (and for many others in this world) playing in an actual football team is at the same time a memory of childhood and youth, seems to strengthen this “back to basics” idea. A new start, unaffected, with open possibilities.


“Seems” only.. because it is hopeful, though rather naïve. Like with all basic human activities – e.g. sexuality, agriculture, eating, music, beliefs and rituals, and sport and “play” - certain powers (economic and otherwise) for a large part gained control over it, trying to shape it in relation to their interests.

Football is no different. Financial interests in professional football are well-known, but it also is influenced by international politics, race relations, rich and poor countries, social inequality within countries, cultural imperialism, and nationalism.. all this is found in football. Nationalism seems obvious. In the World Cup countries compete. National pride and biases get heightened, mixing with – or even replacing – actual interest in football as a sport/game. “We” have to win. This “we” refers to deeply sensed identities, what you are or want to be. It can be fanatic, but is not always “fixed”.

A too fixed identity cannot help but become dubious: such an unchangeable, exclusionary “blut und boden” idea may be only part of a play, a football game, and nothing too serious. I am afraid, however, that it remains not reserved for this play. I know man kind. In both directions: they feel better than “other” people from other countries – that is why they support their country’s team so much. At least they can identify with it better.. Understandable, some might say: but in a multicultural, varied society..would these same people befriend or “hire” someone they don’t identify with? Just because of his/her ethnicity/background? Maybe they are less inclined to… Football fanaticism – with all its apparent innocence – might stimulate that. Like political competition or populist politics, even “playful” sport competition can sharpen contradictions and social divisions. This just might make social relations more tense.

It is a sport, a game, but not all human beings have psychologically as much talent for “playful, theatrical competition”: many are one of the two: either more competitive or more playful/creative.

That is why I like creative, playful styles of football: both at an individual level, and team-wise. This off-sets the “cold” competitiveness with “creative play”. I therefore like South American football, how some African teams play (I like how Ghana plays in this World Cup 2014 for instance), and the playing styles of several Spanish teams. The rules of the football game are of course internationally the same, but local, “cultural” differences may influence playing styles.

I do not like as much the tactically linear, aggressive, “hit hard, run and score” teams. A style of football that neglects the ground (“groundation” is also a Rasta term), and the middle-field. Neglecting - metaphorically – the joy of the process, by over-emphasizing a peak or end-goal.

The ground-football with short passes (“tiki taka”) of Spain’s national football team, proven to be successful in the period 2008-2012, in line with this, certainly had my appreciation, and not just because I am half-Spanish (on my mother’s side): others without that connection liked it too.


I have travelled to Cuba and Jamaica in the Caribbean several times, in the period 2001-2008. One trip involved the two countries over a period of about 3 weeks (two weeks Cuba and from there a week to Jamaica). In retrospective, it would be interesting to look at these travels from a “sports” perspective. Not that that was any consideration in my choice to go there: I was more focussed on music, culture, sociology, and history. But of course: sport cannot be separated from these broader areas.

An interesting difference: in Cuba baseball (ironically: like in the “nemesis country “ the US) is the biggest, most-practiced sport. In Jamaica it is – like in much of the world – football/soccer, though followed closely among older people by cricket. In Cuba, also other sports than baseball have some practitioners and aficionados, especially basketball and athletics. Baseball is most massive though, like football in Jamaica. When children play sports, they mainly play this sport: it became that culturally ingrained.

It is known that Bob Marley loved playing football, and he was reputedly quite good at it. It was a football injury that made physicians discover the cancer he had. More recent artist Lutan Fyah was a professional footballer before he chose a career in reggae music. When I was at Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica – in 2008 – the young people present (artists and friends) placed two small metal goals within the yard to play football from time to time.

(I took the above photo at the Gargamel studio in Kingston, Jamaica in 2008)


In the lyrics of reggae music, however, references to football are rare. Not even indirect references – as metaphors of life or sayings – are found that much. Some artists (deejays and others) sing or chat about how they used to play football when they were younger. In fact, references to other sports (boxing or cricket) are a bit more common in Jamaican music. A ska song by Alton Ellis gave the example of a then well-known boxer – Bunny Grant - as model to strive for instead, for youths prone to violence at parties (on the song ‘Dance Crasher’, from 1965).

A song, ‘Big Fight’ (1976), by dee jay/chanter Prince Fari further opposes in a metaphorical boxing game the dreadlock Rasta against Babylon.

Special occasions, such as World Cups – also the one in Brazil in 2014 – inspired some Jamaican reggae songs, also when Jamaica went to the World Cup, held in France in 1998.

Therefore, a cultural link between reggae music and football/soccer seems far-fetched. Overall it is reserved for the play area, outside of music and dance. Brazilian football seems to be the most popular, as among many people in the Caribbean. British football is also followed relatively much..

The latter brings me to another point: football is known as an English invention. Like cricket, British imperialism helped spread it, albeit football was deemed more working class than cricket.

While other expressions of British cultural dominance among African Jamaicans were reworked or cast aside, football was maintained. It must be – again – the mere physicality of it, the “tabula rasa” idea. Defeating the British in their own sport, as before with cricket, became a not-so-hidden desire. An idea of rebellion, in a playful way.

Furthermore, again, a cultural difference may also create - to a degree - an own football playing style, expressing a type of cultural identity. The same way some called – albeit somewhat stereotypical - Brazilian football “samba football”.


An interesting topic is the relation of race to football. A likewise interesting study was based on football commentary on Dutch television in the season 2007-2008, specifically regarding the ethnic and racial stereotypes that were expressed by the commentators. This was a study by Jacco van Sterkenburg, finished in 2011. See this link (with summary in English of the study) at the Utrecht University: http://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/205609.
A main conclusion was that Surinamese, black, or African football players tended to be more often described in ”animal-like” terms – strong, athletic, fast – whereas white, European players were described more as tactical, intelligent, and resourceful. Also the stereotype of the “slick” and selfish Latin American recurred.

I was not that surprised by this study’s results. In that sense football, and everything around it, reflects life: with all the good and bad. Stereotypes, racial, and national preference. The façade of respect for your opponent is held up often, and some commentators or fans genuinely respect some players of other teams, or try to remain open-minded. However, personal biases often do come through in the end, even if hidden behind semi-neutral analyses.

For instance: my whole life I heard that the Netherlands – with the generation of Cruyff - were so original in football. Innovative – with the concept of “total football” – introduced by Cruyff in Barcelona, Spain, and then with worldwide influences. The reality is that “total football” was played in Latin America historically - by some clubs - before it was in the Netherlands. Even the Spanish way of playing (“tiki-taka”) that many deemed attractive – and with which Spain won the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa – was described by some as a belated result of Cruyff’s/Dutch innovations in Barcelona. There is in reality no evidence for this relation.

Also the political influence that some even claimed is nonsense. Cruyff went to play for FC Barcelona in 1973, when Spain was still a dictatorship under Franco (until 1975). Some claimed that making Barça (Barcelona) as a football team strong helped the rebellion it symbolized as a free place of Catalan nationalism, and therewith – a strange causal connection, by the way – changes in the whole of Spain politically, the dictatorship by then being in its latter days. Of course this is nonsense as well.

The essential injustice of the dictatorship of Franco was its suppressing of basic human rights of all Spanish citizens. Catalan (or Basque) nationalism was far from the only thing it repressed: that was more a marginal consequence of a “one state” policy.

Besides, free-thinking Scandinavian, French and other tourists that came to visit Spain in the later days of the dictatorship, had at least as much influence on many Spaniards’ mind-set as Dutch footballers of one Spanish club. Even more influence, though, had the Spanish people’s own discontent with the dictatorship, as well as liberal, democratic ideas from abroad. More than a football player like Johan Cruyff, who stated not to be too interested in politics, and was even slightly conservative.

Claiming ownership of things one has not really contributed to is a wicked, false, and covert way to show a sense of superiority. More refined and seemingly “sophisticated” than the fools who throw bananas at black football players, or shout racist remarks, but in a deeper sense part of the same basic emotion: “we are better”.

Football commentaries, for instance during the last (2010) and this World Cup (2014), differed in quality in my opinion. Some commentators showed in some remarks a bias, some with racist or stereotypical overtones. Mostly it was hidden and subtle. Dutch commentators focus all their analyses on the Dutch team when still in the race – even when other teams play -, showing their bias thus. In other countries the same might happen. National bias is of course there, not just in the Netherlands. He is a good player: a pity because “we” have to play against him in the next match.

I am sad to say that commentaries made during matches of African teams were still a bit more about the “physical”, than about their intelligence. Teams like Ghana and Nigeria had interesting, thought out tactics. The mid-field, passing focus of Ghana was at its best moments, as good as Spain’s in its heyday of 2010. Players positioned themselves well in the field and behind players. This was not or rarely mentioned.

Often commentaries were more neutral and seemed better to me: good things were mentioned by any player (of any race), but some stereotypes recurred here and there.


The final thing about football and race relations is the distinctly multicultural make-up of many national teams. Many see this as a positive sign of integration and possibilities for ethnic minorities and migrants in these countries. France for some time now, as well as of the Netherlands, England, and Belgium (this 2014 world cup), and more than before Germany, set themselves apart with their multiracial and multicultural national teams. In these countries there are relatively many ethnic minorities, and there is also a longer history of migration, also related to former colonies. In that sense it is a bit reflective of the societies.

Yet only in that sense. That ethnic minorities are represented in football teams with a higher percentage than their actual demographic representation in the countries, is a sign that sport allows possibilities that are absent elsewhere in society. Sport (and likewise music and entertainment, for example) are of course also known as alternative, playful areas where more is possible without affecting the structural status-quo of racial power and privilege.

Chris Rock, the US comedian, pointed at the fact that Blacks/African-Americans dominate main sports in the US (basketball, baseball a.o.) as a result of slavery: the historical selection of Africans with certain physical characteristics for slave, plantation work, during the slave trade. This most probably plays a role, but so does social and economic exclusion in other parts of society.

Thus, the tabula rasa, clean slate idea I associate with the interest in sport/football of so many people seems to apply here, but only limitedly, and relegated to the margins of society and power, to an area of mere “play”. That is: a freer area of possibilities: but without any influence or change toward meaningful equality or dignity in the rest of society.

Perhaps that is why sport/football references are relatively rare in the lyrics of socially conscious reggae music artists, even though football is a popular sport in Jamaica. Social critique and “consciousness” require attention to injustices that matter, that are real and powerful as part of an oppressive system. Football is from that perspective a distraction at the margins of that same system.

woensdag 4 juni 2014

Copyright and Jamaican music

“..When I ask ‘what’s there for me?’, you say ‘what will be, will be’.. ” ~ Ini Kamoze (song ‘Pirate’, 1986).

Copyright infringement is a big, and persisting, problem in much popular music. This is however even more the case in Jamaican reggae music. A recent, general development in popular music is the shift to digitalization and the Internet, which to a large degree augmented the copyright problems. The ready availability of songs in mp3 format - through Internet - can in that sense be seen as both a blessing and a curse.

The Jamaican music scene has always been mainly audience-driven, due to its strong popular base. Sound systems and dancehalls, or performances, were since the 1960s an important avenue for Jamaican upcoming artists to let their songs and voice be known among the local audience, often in direct interaction with it. This could make or break their popularity, maybe enhance their fame, increase recording/studio or paid performance opportunities, and as a later step boost sales of their recordings/disks, even abroad. In wealthier countries, outside of Jamaica, there came to exist in time enough reggae fans willing to buy (or pay for) Jamaican music. Reggae’s internationalization since the popularity of Bob Marley especially enhanced this market (beyond Caribbean migrant circles, as initially).

Music was – and is - for many Jamaican artists a “way out of the ghetto”. Inspired and often talented, but also searching for a means of income. A strong, creative musical folk culture - with various African retentions - , combined with a need to escape poverty, eventually made the Jamaican music industry relatively large for a small island with between 2 and 3 million inhabitants. And for a poor, developing country.

In that developed music industry - from the vinyl days to present digital availability – say: between 1960 to the present –, however, copyright and legal protection of especially composers’ rights have remained in Jamaica, to differing degrees, problematic. A complex of inequality and poverty problems comes here to the fore. Reggae experts/historians have - based on testimonies by artists themselves - pointed out how local Jamaican producers, who generally owned studios and had other means, tended to “rip off” artists. Artists recording would get some pay after studio work, in some cases even just some food, generally in a haphazard, informal nature. Pocket money or ready cash, in other words.

The informal, creative flow common in the music scene perhaps contributed to it, but mainly opportunistic "money sharks" as interested parties in relatively powerful positions, eschewed a structured legal protection for composers.

Big Youth, a rootical reggae dee jay/artist starting in the 1970s, called, during an interview at the Rototom reggae festival in Spain (2010), such producers “criminals”. Indeed like criminals, these producers lacked real intelligence regarding empathy or solidarity, and compensated this with a “colder” cleverness on humans: that of knowing how to make selfish use of weak spots or inadvertence of powerless people. In this case poor artists, uninformed, yet eager and desperate to reach somewhere.

Sometimes producers or studio owners kept the legal rights of songs by artists (who were as said paid only once after recording), and thus ensured for themselves a continuous, if capricious, income. In many cases, producers not even ensured royalties or legal rights for themselves that much, but just generated income from disk sales or dances where the songs were played. All in all they ended up with more money than the creative artists themselves. In British law furthermore the one “financing” creative endeavors obtained legal rights, i.e. a studio owner who might not have contributed anything to the creation of the song or music (“riddim”/instrumental).

In many cases, the lack of a larger, organized legal protection in Jamaica caused that almost nobody within Jamaica really profited sufficiently from songs, even if these got popular outside of Jamaica.

Piracy (illegal copying) and – international - distribution without compensation (or knowledge) of artists were of course also rampant, well before digitalization. Some Jamaicans and/or foreigners profited from this, not the artists.

With older folk songs this problem is well-known, also outside of Jamaica.‘Day O : the Banana Boat Song’ has been a Mento classic in Jamaica, and from early times shared within Jamaican oral and musical culture. Long before Harry Belafonte got a big hit with it in 1956. Its individual author is – as with many older folk songs – historically hard to pinpoint. That was, however, another time, in other conditions. A music industry as such was not yet developed.


In a later stage, the semblance of a modern record industry developed in Jamaica – mainly since the Ska era began around 1960 -, and when Coxsone Dodd opened Studio One in 1963. It was the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica. It therefore had a stronger connection with the Jamaican people, especially with poorer people in downtown areas. It was for them more accessible.

Indeed, Studio One provided a way for aspiring artists to record songs, e.g. through auditions. Unfortunately, Coxsone Dodd wasn’t someone who ensured legal rights in writing, while many artists were partly unaware or inadvertent of such a need. They just went with the creative flow, and tried mainly to reach a public, get exposure, and in some way make money with music. In a humourous way, Colin Grant explains in his biographical book on the three Wailers (‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, & Wailer’, 2011) how Studio One as a studio/business did not have departments (like a Marketing or Accounting Department or whatever) but simply was Coxsone Dodd, revolving around him. Artists thus were dependent on him and his whims, and he tended to keep at times people – like artists with demands - away, with the help of some “tough guys” around him.

Okay, one might say, these are problems – “teething troubles” – of a just beginning business in a developing country, still figuring things out.


One must conclude however, that from then (say 1963) to the present problems still remain regarding Jamaican music’s legal rights. Some things seem to have improved, though. There are many studio owners in Jamaica of a poor, black background, also in the ghetto areas. This increased since the 1970s and afterward. Other studios were maybe owned by more wealthy “uptown” people, but still gave poor artists a chance to audition or record, or offered a regular job or function in studios. Several artists, disappointed from dealings with and dependence on producers and getting little reward, opened their own labels and studios, such as the Wailers, Lee “Scratch” Perry (Black Ark studios), Abyssinians, Augustus Pablo, and later e.g. Gregory Isaacs (with Errol Dunkley), Bunny Wailer, Ijahman Levi, and Burning Spear.

This increased number of studios certainly did offer opportunities, and the Jamaican music industry of course expanded since the 1970, especially with Bob Marley’s rise to international stardom. Reggae went international, and more people worldwide got interested in reggae artists beyond Bob. Though there were/are also many who foolishly think that Bob Marley is/was the only interesting reggae artist. All in all however, artists like Jacob Miller, Black Uhuru, Culture, Burning Spear and others reached to differing degrees international markets. Less though, when compared to the more commercial sound of a band like Third World, but still: since the later 1970s reggae fans in several European countries, the US, Canada, Japan, and other continents bought, for instance, Black Uhuru or Burning Spear albums.

Reggae became since the late 1970s a well-known Jamaican international commodity, and a massive, cultural Jamaican export.

Culturally this is a great achievement and success. A small island really put itself on the global map. Often through a distorted image, but at least reggae spread and made its voice and presence known globally. That many people then can only respond to this with prejudice or superficial or racial stereotypes is still unfortunate (I discussed this in other blog posts), but does not diminish that fact. The lack of mainstream support for “real” reggae or dancehall is also a problem of course, but also authentic reggae reached international markets - often in a “niche” manner -, despite all this.

Great, in a cultural and artistic sense, but it has generally speaking not been a very big success financially. Not for Jamaica as a whole, its music industry, let alone for the artists (composers, musicians) themselves.

Earlier cases of exploitation and copyright infringement or ignorance (sometimes infringing and ignoring comes down to the same) - in fact: too many to mention - confirm the historical persistence of this injustice. This injustice has been perpetrated also by foreign parties. ‘Rivers of Babylon’ was recorded first by Jamaican group the Melodians in 1970, and was composed by Brent Dowe. It became a hit in Jamaica. The pop/disco group Boney M. – consisting of a few performers of Caribbean descent - , produced by the dubious German producer Frank Farian, had an international hit with it in Europe in 1978, eventually cashing millions. Most of it went to Frank Farian, and practically none of it went to Brent Dowe of the Melodians. Copyright was simply not ensured enough in an early stage for this composition and recording. Brent Dowe/Melodians were mentioned in the written credits on the Boney M. record, but without financial effects. Between, say, two US or European artists, such a cover without due compensation, was and is almost impossible, or at least much less easy.

The state of legal protection therefore reflects global inequality.

Such examples demonstrate how “big time” crooks outside of Jamaica, easily replaced “small-time” crooks exploiting artists within Jamaica. From “getting money where you can, and hold on to it” as a common survival mechanism in response to ghetto conditions – I discussed money in Jamaica in another blog post – to shrewd, international business getting even “more” money and hiding it. An example of neocolonial exploitation, if you will. Helped by an infrastructure of legal advise and structures, commonly available in wealthy countries.


Besides such more or less organic developments, larger legal developments caused changes for the positive. Internationally operating labels – partly of Jamaican origin – such as VP, Greensleeves and Jet Star - tend in recent times to observe copyright norms, including royalties for their Jamaican artists. Many artists prefer therefore that their material be distributed by these international companies. There remain however still objections regarding actual just recompense for Jamaican artists by these companies.

Jamaica adopted a modern copyright act only as late as in 1993. Although in Jamaica after this date, as the article in the journal ‘Popular music’ (and also found online) titled ‘The riddim method: aesthetics, ethics, and ownership in Jamaican dancehall’ (2006) by Peter Manuel & Wayne Marshall, states, regarding "post-1993":

..negotiation and registration of copyright and collection of subsequent royalties by musicians and composers continue to be irregular


Hence, most DJs (in the sense of artists-MC), except for major stars, may continue to value making records primarily for the flat fees they may receive, and for the prestige which can lead to more stage shows.. ”.

They, however, also point at some improvements and increased copyright awareness among artists since 1993.

This extensive article by Manuel & Marshall is in any case interesting reading with regard to copyright issues, also because it partly relates it to the current digital age. Over two decades after the (thus limitedly effective) Copyright Act adopted in 1993, in a general sense the opinion is that Jamaica and Jamaicans still do not get the just recompense for their reggae music and artists. That the economic and copyright situation currently still leaves much to be desired becomes evident from this (very recent) interview by Mutabaruka with Andrea Davis.

The current digital age is also discussed in relation to this.

Not just legal protection is discussed here, but also added economic revenues: merchandising, tourism development, and targeted marketing. The downtown, ghetto areas where reggae mainly originated, especially the Trench Town area of downtown Kingston (the capital of Jamaica), along with bordering areas as Waterhouse, Andrea Davis proposes, could be made into a walking itinerary for reggae fans internationally, boosting tourism income. A very good idea, I opine.

When I went to Jamaica I noticed that tourism attractions related to reggae were only developed when it had to do with the biggest name: Bob Marley. The Bob Marley Museum, mausoleum, studios or statues are well-organized and –marketed for tourists. Reggae is however much broader than Bob alone, I also wrote before on this blog.


Digitalization has also some artistic effects, beyond the practical. This is largely a matter of taste. Against people who claim vinyl “sounds” inherently better, others say digital music (wav, mp3) in time got to sound just as good or better. I think it is maybe so that the 0s and 1s of digital transcription of sound causes that music sounds a little bit less “flowing” or natural, but I can appreciate music in digital formats as well.

Another artistic effect is less discussed, I notice. The ready availability of mp3 songs changed the focus. The consumer selected what interested them: a certain song of an artist, and do not “download” or listen to other songs or albums of that artist. The very idea of an artist’s personality, in turn effecting his wider “artistic or cultural concept” gets lost in this: just a bit of his output is liked or heard, fitting a consumer’s whims. Reggae is not known for many “concept albums” and is traditionally mainly “single-oriented” (single songs tend to appear before they appear on albums).. though there are some great examples of concept albums within reggae, but still.. This is thus not too big a change, and partly a matter of distribution rather than substance. However: to get to know the artist behind the songs, it is not enough to just obtain an isolated, or superficial bit of his oeuvre..

The latter is especially the case due to the main advantage of Internet: there is so much at once available. This means that much more can be found more easily of more artists. This increased choice can be seen as a good thing, of course, but it can stimulate a too superficial attention. Before the Internet there were also many singles you could encounter in stores, of artists you did not have or know much of yet. On the Internet however, with so much music and information, even unique artists can get rather “drowned”..

Artistic considerations aside, the fact is that many people nowadays obtain songs in digital format through the Internet, or listen to it via streaming or e.g. YouTube on the Internet itself. This increased strongly since the last 10 years, to a higher degree in wealthy, developed countries. It is self-evident that this brings all kind of copyright and legal problems. In relation to this it brings economic revenue problems. This affects all genres, not just reggae.

Not too long ago artists could live off the records they sold, that they’ve put on the market. Downloading (illegally) through Internet diminished this income drastically, and made it even unprofitable. This caused – as readers might know – the increased emphasis on (and prices of) touring, concerts, and live performances by artists. Alongside income from merchandising and advertsing and such. This became simply more necessary to keep the music career profitable.

I think that this is not in all senses a positive development. I myself recorded a song in a professional studio in 2012: I had to pay (recording) studio time and musician’s fee, besides the mere effort of recording (which I saw as interesting as well, of course). Imagine how much entire albums cost and when you have to rent a studio for weeks or months, and you also have to take care of the marketing, with extra costs etcetera..

(By the way: my Indie publisher/label for that song – CD Baby - has the copyright issue well-organized: the copyright of the song, called 'Rastafari Live On' – which by the way had an original, “fresh” riddim - rests with me and is protected – also on the Internet - with percentages of royalties which were transparent from the start.)

There are of course also many proponents of the free availability of music, without copyright obstacles. These were there also before the digital age, in the early stages of Jamaican music. In line with a folk tradition, and a supposedly “non-materialistic” culture in Jamaica (different from the West) aimed at sharing culture among the people. Often the Rastafari worldview is also presented as supporting this “sharing” and open availability of music and songs, or instrumental “riddims” to vocalize on. Others contest this, and say that reggae artists (also Rastas) want their individual rights to be respected.

In conclusion, there is increased awareness and attention to this in Jamaican music in recent times. As Manuel and Marshall also explain in their article: only the “high profile” cases (big hits in the US for example) tend to receive legal attention from Jamaican parties owning copyright. An example is Mr Vegas pressing charges against well-known Pit Bull and Lil John’s song ‘Culo’ (2004) for using parts of Mr Vegas’ song – the chorus – ‘Pull Up’ (2003) for this (along with a simplified version of the accompanying Coolie Dance Riddim), without Mr Vegas’s permission or involvement. Indeed the songs are very similar, and Mr Vegas thus seems to have a strong legal case.

The large, “underground” and international reggae scene using extant Jamaican riddims or even song melodies tends to remain largely off the hook. Even when some of these latter artists actually put it on the market under their own name or perform with it for money. Gaining actual income using music of others, without their – or their legal titleholder’s - involvement or permission, is strictly speaking illegal and a case of copyright infringement. Most probably, though, it is too widespread and ephemeral to be handled, especially when done by obscure or relatively little known artists. I think that a poor country with a limited legal infrastructure also lacks the mean to address all this. By contrast, I imagine that even an obscure artist recording an unauthorized cover of a Rolling Stones song and making this public (via YouTube, Soundcloud or otherwise), will probably soon encounter legal repercussions by the Rolling Stones’ legal people. Again, global inequality..


In another post I wrote on this blog, of 16 February 2011, called ‘To know is to belong?’, I discussed “ownership” of Jamaican reggae music in another sense. It was a response to Eek-A-Mouse angered outburst at a festival in New York in 2008, in which he lamented the fact that white artists making reggae became famous and rich easily, get signed by big labels, unlike black Jamaican reggae artists. “Dem no waan black people fe run reggae music” he said. His criticism was based on race. He therefore mentioned mixed-raced or lighter-skinned Jamaicans as well (like Bob Marley), as unjustly favoured over black reggae artists. Eek-A-Mouse also complained that he got no money, unlike some other artists.

That critique of racial bias is I think largely just and founded. The fact remains, however, that – while less than could have been – many reggae fans all over the world search reggae records, even without mainstream support. In some countries the reggae fans seem to numerically increase relatively the last 10 years.

Even if artists are popular and their music paid for/bought, despite the mentioned odds and biases, limited legal protection might still impede artists getting their due reward. I know several reggae fans who bought all or near-all albums of certain reggae artists (in actual physical stores back then): Burning Spear, Culture and other artists. This is the Netherlands, and I’m sure several such committed, spending fans can be found in for instance Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Japan, USA, and Canada. Many of these countries have sound system scenes playing reggae music. These local dee-jay’s/selectors need to buy records (often old-time vinyl) as well. Some parts of Germany have many sound systems, Japan as well, as does Italy. Sound system scenes are further coming up in countries in Latin America, Africa, and East Asia, and in Spain.

A proper legal protection combined with a structural copyright registration seems to me a first step in securing that Jamaicans keep – or regain, better said – control over their own music and cultural creation. It is in essence humiliating to have other people control what comes out of you. It dehumanizes and in a sense paralyzes.

Along with big companies favouring certain (white) reggae artists, and distorting reggae’s global, mainstream image with their power, also the limited copyright protection stems from wealth differences in the world and global inequality in development and possibilities. This translates as differences in power. Thus even to the degree that some people do not even have power over their own artistic and cultural inventions and expressions.

That is the deeper –and sadder truth – behind the chaotic and deficient copyright protection still affecting Jamaican music. Poor black people like Jamaicans lack control over their own economy, and - as part of that - over their own artistic expressions, and legal protection. This makes the goal once formulated by Marcus Garvey, black self-empowerment, all the more necessary.


As the opening quote of this post may have indicated, this theme is also discussed in several reggae lyrics. Reggae lyrics are partly known for dealing with “reality” and social critique, and this type of injustice is part of that. Burning Spear (Winston Rodney) has been talking about it for some time now in interviews and statements; he said that since his very debut single (in 1969) he did not get for his music what he was entitled to, reason why he founded his own, independent label in a later stage. He also mentioned it in some songs. ‘Legal Hustlers’ (from album Rasta Business, 1995) or ‘Wickedness’ (from album Jah Is Real, 2008) being examples from later albums.

Piracy (illegal copying and distributing of music) is discussed in the song ‘Mr. Pirate’ by Eric Donaldson, to give but an example, while financial misconduct or conflicts, or “bandwagonists” and “parasites”, are alluded to in several other reggae lyrics, as are specific cases of exploitation of artists by both fellow Jamaicans as foreigners.

The nice ‘Rasta Got Soul’ (2011) by Fantan Mojah, also refers to this, to give just another, quite recent example.

The interesting thing about the song ‘Pirate’ (1986) by Ini Kamoze (recorded with Sly & Robbie) is the broader, historical vision behind its lyrics. Whereas in reggae lyrics “pirate” or “old pirate” as in Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ often refer to the old colonial white exploiters and enslavers (pirate Hawkins and others) of Africans, Ini Kamoze connects this image with “pirates” in the form of current exploiters and oppressors, while “collecting my royalty” in the lyrics directly refers to the music business.

Such a connection seems, as I already reasoned, to make historical sense: black people were historically oppressed and sidelined for over 400 years, still persisting in the present, and manifested in limited control and power economically, politically, or legally in the present-day world. Specifically – and tragically – even limited control over their very own creations and works.

vrijdag 9 mei 2014

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Manjah Fyah


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

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

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

I started this series on this blog with the post on the 5th of June 2012, when I interviewed my “bredda” (Jamaican Patois for “brother”, but also “friend” or “mate”) Abenet, who was in his late 20s (see: http://michelconci.blogspot.nl/2012/06/reggae-music-lovers-in-netherlands.html).

For a post about 10 months after this – 10 of April 2013 – I interviewed another “bredda” of mine, Bill. See: http://michelconci.blogspot.nl/2013/04/reggae-music-lovers-in-netherlands-bill.html


This time – over a year after the last interview in the series – I interviewed another bredda of mine: Manjah Fyah. He is now in his mid-30s of age. I met him years ago in the capacity of Selector (DJ) in some reggae-minded clubs in Amsterdam, first in Café Frontline in central Amsterdam, as well as elsewhere in “reggae-minded” places. He also played regularly in the important reggae-minded club Café The Zen in Amsterdam (east side). I soon found out he was Italian (Sicilian to be precise).

His song selection when he was DJ was – I recall - quite varied within the reggae realm: from Beres Hammond to New Roots to Dancehall to older Roots.

This is practically all I knew about him, so now I asked him some specific questions, especially in relation to his love for reggae. This I will then compare to the other two people I have interviewed before for my blog on reggae (Abenet and Bill), and with myself..

Whereas for the interviews with Abenet and Bill I chose the indirect tense to represent the answers they gave me, for this interview I have chosen the direct tense: i.e. literally how he (Manjah Fyah) answered my questions, with his formulations (he did this in writing, by the way). Okay..here and there I corrected some mistakes in his English.. but furthermore it is literal.

So here it is: my questions and Manjah Fyah’s answers (italic):

1. You are from Sicily. Since when/what age (or year) do you reside in the Netherlands?

I’ve been living in The Netherlands since October 2007; I left Sicily in 2003, since than I lived in different countries across Europe and before moving to the Netherlands I was living in Dublin, Ireland. I was 29 years old when I moved to Amsterdam.

2. Since when (what age) do you listen to reggae music?

I started listening to Reggae music when I was a teenager, like 16 years old. My first Reggae “music cassette” was from a local Sicilian band called “Calura Posse” and I’ve got stuck with it… I still play sometimes Calura Posse inna di dance, especially in Sicily. My first CD was a present by my Mother…Peter Tosh “Legalize it”...and it also stuck with me …. Actually since then I’ve been stuck. During my University years I went deeper into the Sound System scene, Jamaican artists and culture, understanding Reggae from day one till now.

3. Was there a reggae scene back then in Sicily?

Sicilian Reggae back in the days was defined by very few local Reggae bands, singing mostly in Sicilian dialect, and there was not a sound system scene yet. Within a few years the scene grew big! Nowadays the Sicilian scene itself is much bigger than the Netherland scene in comparison of number of sound system and regular dances. The island lacks (of) big live concerts though, something that here in The Netherlands is not an issue.

4. What appealed to you in reggae at the time (when you got into it)?

Definitely the bass! The sound of the bass coming out from that wall of speakers….maaad! Also as a ganjaman this music makes me meditate and match my spirit and soul. Love the guitar skanking!

5. What other music genres did you listen to then?

Before Reggae music I listened and still listen to Rap and Hip Hop; that marked the start in my music life journey. Public Enemy, Run DMC, De La Soul, Cypress Hill, Company Flow etc etc. Heavy metal/trash, tekno and drum n’ bass were just short chapters of my life.

6. Has your music preference changed since then?

Not really, I’ve maybe just gone deeper in the genres and making quality really a must for what I hear and also play. Listening, traveling and meeting almost constantly new people contributes to getting to know new genres and styles although I keep my music preferences solid. I try to keep myself away from all what I consider negative in the music I promote, something that nowadays can be considered a job.

7. Since when are you a reggae selecta/dj?

Since 2001 I went to every dance everywhere I was, if the possibility was there. After a few years I started to “play” with the laptop and in 2004 I decided to become a selector and I bought 2 Technics turntables, a mixer and 2 speakers… put them in my back yard shed and Jah know the hours I spent in that blessed shed! Since then I neva stopped! In 2006 I joined 90 Degree Sound System.

8. Do you have specific preferences within the broad reggae genre?

Sometimes I listen more to modern roots, sometimes I listen more to dancehall, sometimes I listen more to roots. It really changes from time to time, like phases. It’s like if you have a collection of cars and sometimes you prefer to ride one instead of another, without any specific reason. Now I’m in the phase of digital Reggae…Biltmore Era.
Live I play all Jamaican Reggae and dancehall genres from early, up to the time…you might also catch in what phase I’m in… Besides my genres preferences, I’m dubplate addicted.

9. Do you play musical instruments?

Percussion(s). I was playing percussions before I even started to listen to Reggae music; I really like the deep sound of the bass, especially in the djembe, that was what attracted me to percussions and, possibly led me to Reggae, dunno.

10. Does the Rastafari message within (much) reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your background, and your own spirituality?

My religious background is represented by a typical western youth growth in a Christian religious society and system. With the music I discovered Rastafarianism as a good and positive spiritual way of living. My trip to Jamaica and especially to Ethiopia was very intense and helped me better understand Rastafari.

11. What kind of music (reggae or otherwise) do you listen to at the moment/right now? What specific artists? Any new musical “discoveries” you would like to mention or recommend?

Trip Hop is one of my favorites right now after Reggae and Hip Hop. Especially trip hop from Bristol like Portished, Massive Attack, Tricky etc etc. For the rest I listen to lots of Reggae dancehall sound clashes audio and mixtapes.

12. Any other things you want to mention?

I wanna big up yourself Ras Michel, give thanks for the interview. I wanna big up all Massive and Crews worldwide, give thanks every time for the love and affection!! Stay linked, on http://www.90record.com, and get ready for the next dance! Respect n manners.


From this I can deduce that Manjah Fyah is about 5 years younger than me (now in his mid-30s), but he is still a bit older than the other two reggae lovers I interviewed before (Abenet in his late 20s, Bill in his late 10s).

The most interesting parallel between all 3 reggae lovers I interviewed is that independently from each other they pointed at their preference for “positivity” in the (reggae) music, while they lament the “negativity” in part of the music and lyrics: read: the “slackness” and violent lyrics found in some dancehall (and some hip-hop) lyrics. They appreciated the “conscious”, uplifting Rastafari message as a positive contribution, and I heard the two selectors (Bill and Manjah Fyah) indeed play mostly Conscious reggae (lyrics-wise) at dances I went to, though with some variation with slack or “party” lyrics. A bit more than Bill, Manjah Fyah also plays Lovers Rock, I noticed, alongside (New) Roots.

Then there were differences of course as well. Their music taste within reggae was similar, but with some differences. Interesting, but explainable because each individual is different. Though I also believe that some music or some songs are so beautiful that they will appeal to a variety of individuals. Both Bill and Manjah Fyah were/are DJs (“Selectors” in Jamaican parlance) and listen to – and play – a broad variety of Old and New Reggae at dances. Bill likes Dub or Steppers relatively more I think, and Manjah Fyah in turn tends in “phases” more to Digital Dancehall. Interestingly, both also like some modern British (partly reggae-influenced) music. With differences, though: Bill mentioned Dubstep, Manjah Fyah Trip-Hop. Both (Bill and Manjah Fyah) were initially also attracted to the strong/relatively heavy Bass in reggae music. So a Dutch and a Sicilian guy can have things in common, haha. Another thing they have in common, is that they like(d) to listen also to some hip-hop alongside reggae (and other genres).

Abenet, who has an Ethiopian background, was not active as a reggae Selector/DJ, and perhaps therefore delved less deep in the variety in reggae, and has a broader musical taste, but in this Roots Reggae (e.g. Morgan Heritage) is still important, as the interview with him showed.

That reggae has truly gone international is another interesting aspect I got from these interviews. Sicily, the Netherlands, and Ethiopia have all got reggae scenes, with some different accents.

Sicily is still one of the poorest regions of Italy: more rural and marginal as well. Some prejudiced Northern Italians tend to call all (poorer) Southern Italians “terroni” (meaning something like: peasants or farmers), in a derogatory manner. This caused even some frictions among visitors of the clubs for Italian migrants in the Netherlands that my father (who is from Northern Italy) regularly visited.

Similar to Spain, Jamaican reggae artists often select a few big cities to perform in: in Italy mostly Milan, Turin, and Rome, and in Spain at least Madrid and Barcelona (occasionally another bigger city or festival): but in other, more rural places reggae has also fans. Manjah Fyah even said that the sound system scene is now probably bigger in Sicily than in the Netherlands. Similarly, I heard about a recently increased number of sound systems in the poorer, more rural South of Spain, e.g. Andalusia, or - even more outside of the tourist areas - in the rural province of Badajoz (region Extremadura), where my mother was born. Reggae spreads out, haha.

This says something about the spread of reggae not just internationally, but also beyond just modern, urban or internationalized centers in countries..


I found interesting how Manjah Fyah talks about “phases”, while also Bill had “periods” with a specific (dominant) musical focus. I myself do not really have or have had this in my life, I think. For over 25 years (!) now I prefer to listen to Roots Reggae, but interchange this recently more with Dancehall..just for variety sake. I prefer then the Dancehall I find of better rhythmic or lyrical quality (for instance Capleton, some songs by Ward 21, Demarco, the “groovier” digital riddims, so to speak..), but after this I soon return to Old and New Roots..

I have some things in common with them though, in that I also got to like some hip-hop when I was about 15 years (Public Enemy, De La Soul, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, Poor Righteous Teachers, BDP), but I listened to reggae then as well. I sometimes interchange(d) reggae also with African music – I still do -, or Afro-Cuban music, but these were not (or just partly) “phases”. In practicing my percussion and drumming I sometimes now return to some Afro-Cuban rhythms at times, as well as to “new” rhythms from Africa itself..

I also liked soul and funk. As a child – before I got to know reggae – I liked Stevie Wonder for instance, and later some songs by James Brown or Curtis Mayfield. But in my case hip-hop followed after reggae, which says something about how I experience reggae, I think. Hip-hop fans who in a later stage turn to reggae have a different focus than myself, I imagine: more toward dancehall. They initially seem to search for “hip-hop like” reggae/dancehall.

Manjah Fyah also mentions him being a “ganja man”. I presume he means he uses ganja (marijuana): in Jamaica it can also refer to someone selling it (like “collie man”). The connection between ganja and reggae music is almost a cliché, and a recent interview by Bill Maher on US television (HBO), with Ziggy Marley, confirmed the existence of this image (or stereotype, if you will). Manjah Fyah points out that in some way ganja matches the vibe he experiences from reggae music, which is understandable, I think (many others have that too, of course). Selectah Ill Bill neither makes a secret of his ganja/marijuana use. Yet, in my case, I learned to love reggae music – and got into it – years before I smoked or even got near ganja or marijuana. So it is not a prerequisite, haha.

Both Bill and Manjah Fyah mentioned the (heavy) Bass which drew them (among other things) into reggae. In my case this is also a bit different, if I remember well. From the first time I listened to reggae – since when I was about 10 years old - I mostly recall that I focused not just on the bass, but was also intrigued by drum patterns and harmony vocals. And lyrics of course..


Manjah Fyah said that he learned more about Rastafari through his travels to Jamaica and Ethiopia. I also went to Jamaica a few times. I mostly socialized and “hung” with people connected to Buju Banton’s Gargamel studio in Kingston, but traveled also throughout the island. In my case I thus learned more about “the function” of Rastafari for poor, Black people.

I have read about the origins of Rastafari (Leonard Howell, Marcus Garvey) within Jamaica. In practice, beyond just theory, I also noticed how in Jamaica Rastafari functioned as positive alternative (there is the word “positive” again) to self-disdain or a life of crime, which result in a parasitic, negative lifestyle. Through contacts and friendships – and getting to know people better - I learned how Rastafari provided individuals a mental way out of this, even if with different degrees of strictness: not all who called themselves Rastas were as strict with diets (some kept eating regularly Jerk Chicken or Curry Goat and such), but that variety is also there within and between different Rastafari mansions. Besides this there were some who called themselves Rastas but were not really, and only pretended to be (or were even criminals), but I am referring to those who at least tried to live a righteous and truthful live.

Manjah Fyah also went to Ethiopia, and I have not been there yet. So he must have learned during those travels about the Rastafari adherents’ promised land. The first person I interviewed on my blog, Abenet, was from Ethiopia, and even lived there later again for a year, so he learned probably more about the deeper cultural layers and connections.


Finally an interesting parallel is in percussion. I did not know Manjah Fyah played percussion earlier in his life (the djembe drum he specifically mentioned). In the present "phase" of my life I am very busy and active with percussion: I started a few years ago with bongos, now other drums as well (djembe, talking drum, dundun, fundeh, kete a.o.). This is partly connected to how I listen to reggae, and my interest in drums, just like Manjah Fyah presumed (see his answers) that his love for percussion influenced his love for reggae. He mentioned, however, the “bass” in Djembe drumming – especially with tones in the middle area of the drum hide -, while my interest in reggae started out broader than just the heavy bass (as I already said).

Bill also played – and plays – musical instruments, but more chording instruments: guitar, melodica.. though he also was interested in e.g. Nyahbinghi drumming..

All in all, I am glad I got to know somewhat more about Manjah Fyah and his love for reggae, and how it developed..

donderdag 3 april 2014

Eten: van biologisch naar spiritueel en cultureel

Je zou eten (en drinken) als iets puur fysieks kunnen zien. Als iets praktisch. Dat is het ook in feite. Het dient om in leven te blijven: daarna kun je je richten op andere, “diepere” dingen. Het moge evenwel bekend zijn dat door de mens historisch “symboliek”, of anders gezegd “geestelijke betekenis” is toegekend aan het eten (als daad), maar meer nog aan afzonderlijke voedselwaren of levensmiddelen. Rein of onrein voedsel is daarbij veelal een basis-tegenstelling. Dit overstijgt meestal het fysieke/biologische, of zelfs gezondheid op zich.

De culturele en symbolische scheiding tussen geest en lichaam schijnt volgens velen typisch (modern-) Westers te zijn. Dit is mogelijk ten dele waar, maar kan wel genuanceerd worden. Met name als men naar voedsel- en eet-symboliek kijkt, treft men daarvan ook vele culturele voorbeelden in Westerse landen aan: de nationalistische/regionale trots op de eigen keuken is een voorbeeld daarvan. Is die “eigen” keuken altijd lekkerder qua smaak – wat ook subjectief is veelal – of inherent gezonder voor het menselijk lichaam? Vaak niet eens, maar het is deel van de culturele identiteit geworden. Vaak is het niet eens echt altijd “eigen”: de pasta kwam oorspronkelijk via China en Azië naar Italië (reizen Marco Polo).

Religies en spirituele beweging zijn er natuurlijk ook in het Westen. Het Jodendom en Christendom zijn uiteraard historisch invloedrijk in Europa, en de Islam heeft verwantschap met deze andere Abrahamische religies – de Koran bouwt deels voort op de Bijbel - , en had ook wel indirecte culturele invloed op Europa (o.m. via Moors Spanje), ook op culinair gebied. Niet iedereen weet dat het verbod op varkensvlees bij Moslims, oorspronkelijk overgenomen is van de Joden, die Mohammed trof in Arabië. Christenen hadden en hebben ook symbolische eetgewoonten: vasten (verminderd in vergelijking met de Islam), en, bijvoorbeeld, geen vis op vrijdag bij katholieken.

In de historisch nogal invloedrijke Bijbel, Leviticus 11, en de regels voor Nazireeërs (Bijbelboek Numeri 6:1-21) staan ook richtlijnen voor voeding.

Meer recent heeft ook de in Japan ontstane en op het zenboeddhisme gebaseerde macrobiotiek (een eetcultuur en levenswijze) invloed onder mensen in het Westen. Vaak onder spiritueel zogenaamde “New Age” aanhangers.


De stappen voorafgaand aan eten in de menselijke geschiedenis, verzamelen, later tuin- en landbouw, zijn even zeer vooral als iets praktisch en prozaïsch te zien. Symboliek hoeft daar niet aan verbonden te worden (gebeurt vaak wel): sociale betekenis lijkt echter onvermijdelijk. In een recensie die ik ooit schreef van het boek ‘Antropologie voor Dummies’ vond ik interessant dat ook zoiets praktisch als de opslag van voedsel de menselijke culturele ontwikkeling uiteindelijk beïnvloedde. Zo werd men erdoor sedentairder en kon men verhandelen. Iets met ergens een hoog “nogal wiedes” gehalte, maar toch ook weer even goed om te beseffen.

Bij een grotere schaal (en opslag van overschotten) kwam immers ook de handel met omliggende gebieden. De nog grootschaliger wereldhandel van later begon toch vooral met het imperialisme en kolonialisme: het Romeinse Rijk was daar een vroeg voorbeeld van, gevolgd door bijvoorbeeld later Arabieren, en Italiaanse stadstaten als Genua, Venetië, en weer iets later het kolonialisme van Spanje, Portugal, Groot Brittannië, Frankrijk, Nederland e.a.

Voedsel werd van ver gehaald en ver verbouwd om klimatologische redenen. Daarbij kwam historisch zoals bekend heel wat dwang, overheersing, en uitbuiting bij kijken. Het kolonialisme versterkte het racisme en de superioriteitswaan van Europese volkeren, waardoor we weer bij de culturele symboliek zijn beland. Globalisering en internationaal kapitalisme vloeien historisch voort uit dit kolonialisme.

De voedsel- en levensmiddelenmarkt is sindsdien natuurlijk uitermate geïnternationaliseerd. Veel van wat tot het gangbare voedsel in Europa is gaan behoren: aardappelen, bananen, kiwi, en heel veel andere levensmiddelen komen oorspronkelijk uit andere werelddelen.


Ik zou verder willen in gaan op de band tussen eet- en drinkpatronen en culturele (of religieuze) identiteit. Ik voeg dus de variabel “identiteit” toe aan het voorafgaande. Die identiteit kan van een groep zijn: generationeel overgebracht en collectief (zoals bij georganiseerde religies), of recenter - vaak in Westerse landen - een individuele keuze van mensen die vrij willen denken, maar toch ergens “cultureel”of ‘symbolisch” bij willen horen: de groene beweging, de macrobioten, vegetariërs en veganisten, de “raw food” scene etcetera.

India is een interessant geval van religieuze groepsidentiteiten omdat er veel Islamieten en Hindoes wonen, naast mensen met andere religies (veelal door elkaar): sommigen eten varkens en geen koeien, of koeien maar geen varkens. De Sikhs hebben weer andere eetgewoonten, en er zijn ook de nodige vegetarische groepen in India.

Afrika is zeker ook interessant, bijvoorbeeld een land als Ethiopië: daar is paardenvlees eten bijvoorbeeld taboe. Behalve de Islamieten en joden, hebben ook Orthodoxe Christelijke Ethiopiërs het taboe op het eten van varkensvlees, alsook schaalvissen. Anders dan de Christenen thans in Europa dus.. In andere spirituele systemen in Afrika - waarbij geesten of voorouders tijdelijk bezit nemen van mensen – spelen specifiek(e) voedsel en drank ook een rol bij de spirituele rituelen, vaak via complexe en uitgebreide standaarden en richtlijnen. In de Yoruba-religies in Nigeria, Benin en omgeving (ook voortlevend in de Amerika’s) horen bij de verschillende godheden/geesten – en verschillende rituelen - ook verschillende voedselwaren.


Zowel bij de meer georganiseerde religies: zoals Islam, Christendom, Hindoeïsme en andere, als ook wel bij “de keuken als deel van nationale trots”, en bij meer sektarische nieuwere bewegingen (New Age e.a.) komt een andere, onprettige variabel om de hoek kijken: macht. Dergelijke systemen worden al snel onderdrukkend ten opzichte van de individuele vrijheid.

Iets wat met je eigen lichaam te maken heeft (voedsel om in leven te blijven en fit genoeg te zijn) wordt iets waar anderen iets over te zeggen krijgen: ouders of zelfs de gemeenschap. Iemands seksualiteit is ook zo´n lichamelijk, individueel iets waar machtswellustelingen graag controle over hebben. Met name als de factor angst of mysterie een rol speelt. Denk aan de controle over vrouwen en hun seksualiteit in de grote religies het Christendom en de Islam (en andere), veel meer dan over mannen en hun seksualiteit. Derhalve zei de Jamaicaanse denker en dichter Mutabaruka dat de Bijbel en andere heilige boeken van grote religies geschreven zijn door onzekere mannen. Arnon Grunberg schreef verder bijvoorbeeld in zijn stukje op de voorpagina van de Volkskrant dat mannen angst voor de vrouwelijke seksualiteit hebben, maar ook dat vrouwen zelf die angst hebben geïnternaliseerd.

Al zouden machtige mannen die eetregels ooit hebben bedacht, beide ouders – ook moeders - kunnen hun ideeën hieromtrent doorgeven aan hun kinderen, vaak met goede bedoelingen, en soms echt gezonde gewoonten, maar soms ook ongezonde eet- en drinkgewoonten doorgeven.

Macht is er ook bij de symbolische betekenis die bepaalde luxueuze etenswaren kregen bij rijkere Europeanen: levens- en genotsmiddelen uit koloniën en veelal door uitbuiting en slavernij verbouwd, zoals rietsuiker, tabak, rum, bepaalde vruchten en groenten etcetera. Later verspreidde de consumptie zich breder onder de bevolking in Europa, maar het gaf status aan.

Los van de machtskwestie kan eten een middel zijn om een eigen identiteit te ontwikkelen, en daarmee connectie met andere mensen te zoeken: een diepe menselijke behoefte. Die identiteit kan ook juist van relatief machtelozen in een samenleving zijn.


Een goed, ouder voorbeeld van een bewuste, alternatieve identiteit - van arme, machteloze mensen - waarin voedsel en levensmiddelen een rol spelen is de Rastafari-beweging. Deze is in de 1930s op het eiland Jamaica ontstaan. Het begon als een op Afrika-gerichte zwarte trots (Black Power) beweging, met een spirituele component: Haile Selassie – in 1930 gekroond als keizer van het onafhankelijke Afrikaanse land Ethiopië - werd een symbool van Afrikaanse trots, en ook als goddelijk gezien. Uit rebellie - en als uiting van een Afrikaanse identiteit en origine – begon een groep Jamaicanen in de Engelse kolonie Jamaica Selassie te vereren in plaats van de Britse koning. De ideeën van zwart zelfbewustzijn en Afrikaanse trots van Marcus Garvey (geboren Jamaicaan) vormden deels de basis van Rastafari-beweging. Garvey zou ook de kroning van Selassie voorspeld hebben en geduid hebben als een teken van wereldwijde Afrikaanse/zwarte bevrijding.

Dit is de diepere historische kern: Black Power, Afrika, eigen identiteit, en antikolonialisme als identiteit. Een directe relatie met voedsel lijkt er zo niet te zijn, anders dan dat het “spirituele” gedeelte grotendeels op het al bekende Judeo-Christelijke gedachtegoed gebaseerd werd (en dus met die genoemde Bijbelse eet-richtlijnen).

Al vroeg kwam echter ook “voedsel” als specifieker voor de eigen identiteit bij de Rastafari-beweging kijken. Dit had deels te maken met het idee van “zelfvoorzienend” willen zijn – los zijn van het systeem -, maar ook met de kwaliteit van eten: de balans met de natuur die gezocht werd: om gezond te blijven, maar ook als een soort spirituele bevrijding van het Westerse systeem, “Babylon” genoemd. Het natuurlijke, organische werd hierbij geprefereerd boven het kunstmatige van Babylon. Er ontstond een vegetarische, onbewerkte keuken die veel Rastafari eigen werd: hoewel niet uniform over de hele beweging: sommige groepen onder de Rastafari aten/eten weleens vis of vlees. Evenwel werd de vegetarische, natuurlijke keuken deel van de Rastafari-identiteit: eigenlijk al sinds ongeveer 1940. Daarmee werd, zoals in het recent verschenen boek ‘Congotay, congotay : a global history of Caribben food’ (2014) (zie: http://www.amazon.com/Congotay-Global-History-Caribbean-Food/dp/0765642166) stond: “the Rastafarian cuisine.. one of the world’s first antiglobalization diets”.

In andere woorden: een voorloper van de “groene (eet-) beweging” en de enigszins verwante macrobioten in Japan of Westerse landen. Voorloper, want Rastafari eetgewoonten ontwikkelden zich zo vanaf ongeveer 1940, en de macrobiotiek kwam vooral in de 1950s op. Deze laatste beweging verschilt echter wat dit betreft ook weer in sommige opzichten van de Rastafari-beweging. Zo is de macrobiotiek vooral op zenboeddhisme gebaseerd, inclusief aspecten als de Chi (energiestroom) en het Yin en Yang-principe. Soms gebruiken Rastafari de term Yin en Yang wel, maar niet als norm. Zo wordt het gebruikt als sommige Rasta’s toch een beetje tabak mixen (eigenlijk taboe voor Rasta’s) met de marijuana die ze roken, en dit dan toch legitimeren met het Yin en Yang principe: het goede (marijuana) wordt versterkt door het slechte erbij. Meestal hanteren de Rasta’s echter een terminologie aangaande eten die deels bijbels (Nazarite vow e.d.) en deels Afrikaans of Afro-Jamaicaans/Creools is. Daarnaast dus af en toe een geleende Boeddhistische of Taoistische term.

Reggae-muziek is sterk door de Rastafari-beweging beïnvloed, en in songs van Rastafari-aanhangende reggae-artiesten komt voedsel als thema regelmatig terug. Hierbij wordt natuurlijk, vegetarische eten bepleit tegenover de “junk food” en gemanipuleerd supermarkt-voedsel, en worden “deadas”, zoals Rasta’s in Jamaica vlees van vermoorde dieren noemen, afgekeurd.

Dat laatste wijst ook op de vanzelfsprekende maar doorgeredeneerde band met “leven” dat eten voor Rasta’s heeft. Hoe dan ook moet je eten om te overleven – zie de Nederlandse term “levensmiddelen”- , maar "beter" leven door beter eten zeg maar.. Iets dergelijks pretenderen macrobioten ook (ook de term “macrobioten”, is afgeleid uit het Grieks en betekend iets van “meer” of “langer” – macro – leven). De invulling ervan verschilt, ook wat betreft wat wel en niet gegeten mag worden tussen beide bewegingen; ook al is er schijnbaar een vergelijkbaar doel.

Daarnaast zijn er ook symbolische aspecten die verschillen. Schijnbaar vooral gericht op kwaliteit van het leven en lichamelijke gezondheid, worden door sommige Rastafari ook symbolische waarden aan voedsel gehecht. Vooral specifieke levensmiddelen. Onder de Rasta’s die wel vis eten worden schaaldieren, maar ook de grotere “roofdieren” onder deze vissen juist niet gegeten: dat zou een goedkeuring zijn van de grote vissen die kleine vissen eten en van de roofdieren in de mensen: aspecten die ze bij het kwaadaardige Babylon vinden horen en waar ze zich nu juist van willen distantiëren. Denk aan de regel “These are the big fish who always try to eat down the small fish”, in de songtekst van Bob Marley’s fijne song ‘Guiltiness’.

Deze symboliek mengt zich met cultureel/generationeel overgeleverde kennis van wat gezond is, vaak gestaafd door de huidige wetenschap, en het ook spirituele geloof in de helende kracht van de natuur. Ook marijuana als natuurlijke plant wordt derhalve als een genezend kruid gezien door Rasta’s, naast de kennis die gehanteerd wordt als toepassing van natuurlijke behandeling van ziekten, via passend geachte botanische middelen, zoals specifieke vruchten, kruiden, groenten, en sappen. Het genezende van de natuur hangt ten diepste samen met het basale wereldbeeld van de Rastafari, samen te vatten als “I-and-I consciousness”, als volgt te definiëren: “the merging of the individual with all life forces, the realization that all life flows from the same source , and the collapse of the distance between internal and external, subject and object” (bron: ‘The structure and ethos of Rastafari’ door Ennis B. Edmonds, artikel in bundel ‘Chanting down Babylon : the Rastafari reader’ (1998).

De overeenkomsten met de macrobiotiek zijn er dus, maar eigenlijk alleen oppervlakkig: de sociale context van het ontstaan is echter duidelijk een andere: de een onder armere, onderdrukte mensen in een arm land, de ander ontwikkeld door een Japanner en vooral populair geworden in andere rijke, westerse landen, onder selecte “intellectuele” groepen: vaak meer midden- of hogere klasse dan lagere klasse. Deze laatsten hadden er vaak minder kennis over, alsmede minder geld voor.

Omdat de meeste Rastafari-aanhangers in Jamaica tot de lagere sociale klassen behoorden, werd het I-tal Rastafari dieet zoals hierboven genoemd vooral een “ideaal streven” voor hen, maar in de armoedige praktijk – met weinig keuzes – lastiger consequent te hanteren. Er moest vanwege de armoede wel eens mee geschipperd worden om toch genoeg te kunnen eten. Overleven dus.


Een interessante, boeiende roman die ik pas heb gelezen gaat deels over macrobiotische eetgewoonten. In de roman ook verbonden met een bepaalde levensopvatting en spiritualiteit. Het is de roman ‘Kwaad Daglicht’ (2013) van de Nederlandse schrijfster Marleen Schefferlie (zie: http://www.bol.com/nl/p/kwaad-daglicht/9200000011356167/).

Schefferlie is een bekende van me, en ook daarom las ik het graag. ‘Kwaad daglicht’ is haar tweede roman.

Vanuit het perspectief van het kind wordt erin het verhaal van een kind, Lena geheten, verteld (14 jaar oud) en haar macrobiotische moeder, Marijke, gescheiden van haar vader (die het kind ook regelmatig bezoekt) die daar minder in gelooft. De moeder pretendeert daarnaast paranormaal begaafd te zijn, helderziend, maar ook “heldervoelend” (wat dat ook wezen mag), en helpt daarmee mensen te “genezen”. Ze probeert haar wereldbeeld - door zenboeddhisme beïnvloed - aan haar opgroeiende kind over te brengen. Daar komt het op neer. De dochter houdt van haar moeder, maar denkt er toch het hare van. Het macrobiotische eten dat ze standaard van haar moeder te eten krijgt vindt ze vaak niet lekker.

Het speelt in de jaren 80 van de 20ste eeuw, wat mij wel relevant lijkt voor het tijdsbeeld. Het is immers niet lang na de hippie-tijd, en was nog steeds een ideologisch bevlogen tijd, waarbij zelfbenoemde progressieve en alternatieve bewegingen relatief wat meer opkwamen en populair waren. Krakers waren bijvoorbeeld ook erg actief in die jaren 80, en die waren vaak anarchistisch ingesteld.

Het speelt ook in Nederland, en toch vooral in een middenklasse-milieu, hoewel niet van heel erg rijke mensen. Mensen die in ieder geval wel wat te besteden hebben en genoeg opties hebben in hun samenleving. Genoeg winkels – ook als alternatief ten opzichte van de supermarkten – naar hun macrobiotische of biologische gading, zeker in de stad.

De moeder in Schefferlie’s ‘Kwaad daglicht’ combineert macrobiotische ideeën met een spiritueel, symbolenrijk wereldbeeld, waarin paranormale gaven, en de terugkeer van “geesten”, alsmede “goede en kwade energiëen” voor komen. De specifieke focus van de moeder heeft dus niet alleen met een voorkeur voor gezond eten te maken, maar ook met spirituele of paranormale aspecten. Dat lijkt mij een redelijk wijdverbreide combinatie in westerse landen: macrobiotisch of biologisch eten en “New Age”- achtige spiritualiteit losjes gebaseerd op Aziatische ideeën (uit Hindoeisme, Boeddhisme e.a.), maar in een geïndividualiseerde vorm.

Daarentegen: een combinatie van biologisch eten met Afrikaanse of Afro-Amerikaanse ideeën (zoals Vodou, Winti, of Rastafari) komt minder voor, zeker buiten de zwarte gemeenschap, hoewel het wel voor komt (blanken beïnvloed door Vodou of Afrikaanse rituelen bijvoorbeeld, gecombineerd met New Age). In Latijns-Amerikaanse landen als Cuba en Brazilië komt het overigens vaker voor dat mensen (vooral) van Europeze afkomst toch met Afrikaanse spiritualiteit (zoals Santería of Candomblé) bezig zijn, maar dat zijn raciaal uiteraard “gemengdere” samenlevingen (zowel sociaal als biologisch) dan de Europeze.

In een persoonlijk schrijven met mij gaf de schrijfster van ‘Kwaad Daglicht’ – Marleen Schefferlie dus – aan dat behalve het fictieve plot de rest van het boek veel autobiografische aspecten uit haar eigen jeugd bevat, wat het voor haar soms moeilijk maakte om het te schrijven.

De moeder lijkt mij een relatief wat streng en bazig type, hoewel ik van ergere voorbeelden heb vernomen. Dat New Age denkbeelden soms kil en ongevoelig kunnen zijn, dat wist ik al. Vooral door geïndividualiseerde varianten van zenboeddhisme-achtige ideeën. Die individualisering geschiedt door specifieke individuen, met hun eigen zwaktes, frustraties, vooroordelen, ontkenning, zelfoverschattig, rancune etcetera. Pervertering van ”mooie” maar abstracte denkbeelden door individuele ego’s lijkt dan bijna onvermijdelijk.

Die kans op corrumpering geldt voor alle spirituele en religieuze bewegingen – denk bijvoorbeeld aan moslimterroristen en ook iemand als Christopher Columbus vond zichzelf een Christen -, maar de sterkere nadruk binnen New Age op “je kunt zelf dingen sturen en oplossen” - een mentaliteit gangbaar onder de Westerse, liberale middenklasse (vooral VVD- en D66-stemmers zeg maar) -wordt uiteindelijk kil en hard als er geen gemeenschapszin is. Zoals ik ooit ergens zei: het probleem met individualisme is dat het vooral op kwam onder mensen die zichzelf al belangrijk genoeg vonden: welgestelde, goed opgeleide Westerlingen dus..

Hier wreekt zich dan ook het middenklasse of hogere klasse-karakter van die Westerse New Age beweging: het kent de onderkant niet: de uitsluiting, armoede, en vernedering. De machteloosheid ook niet: om het eerder genoemde aspect van “macht” er maar weer bij te halen. Samengevat: het kent – uitzonderingen daar gelaten - dit type wanhoop doorgaans niet echt, dus ook niet het echte belang van iets als “troost”. Daarnaast nemen veel New Age-aanhangers (niet allemaal) een wat kille houding aan als mensen iets overkomt. Ik heb mensen horen betogen dat kanker of andere ziekten in mensen komen omdat diegenen willen geloven dat ze het hebben, en ook omdat ze hun immuniteit tegen kwade energie verwaarloosd hebben. Ook andere (onterechte) varianten op ‘eigen schuld, dikke bult’ zijn gangbaar in de New Age-beweging.

Je staat dan met New Age toch vaker alleen in je pijn. Rastafari-aanhangers, maar ook bijvoorbeeld Winti-aanhangers of zelfs sommige Christenen of Moslims hebben die intermenselijke verbindingen en gemeenschapszin sterker. Die “troost ”veel sterker. Warmte en liefde tussen mensen – of op zijn minst gedeeld onvermogen – verzacht individuele pijn. Mensen zijn uiteindelijk toch sociale dieren.

Die individualistiche interpretatie van New Age komt naar mijn idee inderdaad ook naar voren in Schefferlie’s roman, zelfs in gezinsverband. Een fenomeen – of beweging zo men wil – die naar ik meen ook sterk vertegenwoordigd is in veel moderne Europese steden, in relatief sterkere mate in Noord- en West-Europa, Californië, en delen van Japan. De roman kwam daarom realistisch op me over.


Daar Marleen Schefferlie wees op autobiografische aspecten uit haar jeugd, bracht de roman me ook aan het denken over mijn jeugd, levensloop, specifiek in verband met voedsel en ideeën daaromtrent. Hoe voedden mijn ouders me op rond eten, wat zeiden andere familieleden daarover? Welk eten werd in mijn ouderlijk huis gestimuleerd, zoals de moeder in ‘Kwaad Daglicht’ bij haar dochter dus macrobiotisch voedsel stimuleert.

Hoe sta ik er op dit moment zelf in? Laat ik beginnen te zeggen dat ik denk (of bang ben) dat ik vooral een rationeel type ben. Ik vind ook soms troost in het rationele, in meer kennis of wetenschap over bepaalde thema’s. Een ongebreideld verliezen in irrationele emotionaliteit ervaar ik als beangstigend voor mezelf, en vermijd ik daarom. Emoties verlammen je, maken je kwetsbaar.

Ik heb daarnaast wel wat gevoel voor spiritualiteit, en vind er soms troost in, maar veelal gecombineerd met kennis en bewustzijn. Om diezelfde reden vind ik “wetenschappelijke” kennis rond voedingswaarde, waar tegenwoordig veel websites over bestaan, interessant. Het is dan een biologisch bewezen feit. Tegelijk besef ik dat ook hier belangen en corrumpering een rol spelen: die kennis lijkt vaak objectiever dan het is. De industrie, voedselbedrijven, en wetenschappers (zelfs als schijnbaar onafhankelijk) hebben zo ook hun belangen.

Kennis over de biologische voedingswaarde en effecten van bijvoorbeeld avocado of kaneel - beiden als gezond beschouwd/bewezen - vind ik hoe dan ook vaak interessant. In dit geval bevestigt het immers ook “traditionele” kennis in niet-westerse samenlevingen, die ook zonder die Westerse wetenschappelijke onderzoeken vaak goed wisten wat gezond voedsel was.

Dan kom ik via een omweg toch bij mijn eigen opvoeding. Mijn ouders kwamen uit Italië (vader) en Spanje (moeder). Ze kwamen in de jaren 60 van de 20ste eeuw naar Nederland als gastarbeider. Arbeidersklasse dus, en afkomstig uit landen met redelijk gevarieerde culinaire culturen. Mijn moeder had achteraf bekeken redelijk gezonde kook- en eetgewoonten: ze voegde regelmatig avocado’s, kiwi en basilicum of andere kruiden toe, maakte vaak afwisselend rijst en pasta, en ook aubergine, en verder doperwten en broccoli, at ik regelmatig in mijn ouderlijk huis. Ook gebruikte ze veel olijfolie. Niet alleen was ze geboren en opgegroeid in een streek met veel olijfgaarden (provincie Badajoz, vlakbij de grens met Córdoba), maar ook haar familie zelf bezat daar sinds generaties land met olijfbomen. Standaard at ik in mijn ouderlijk huis ook regelmatig een gemengde groente-fruit salade. Meestal met kiwi, zoals ik nu ook vaak doe. Mijn moeder was geen fanatieke vleeseter, en we aten het meeste kip. Met varkensvlees had ze minder dan met rundvlees.

Het kon er qua gezondheid en voedingswaarde al met al mee door, kun je zeggen, alleen: biologisch eten was toen niet zo gangbaar en ook niet zo bekend bij mijn ouders. Mijn ouders kochten in normale supermarkten, en vonden EKO-producten naar verhouding te duur, wat hun het ook deed wantrouwen. Het wijst nogmaals op het hogere-klasse karakter van het biologische of EKO-eten. Jammer natuurlijk, dat die producten duurder zijn dan gangbare supermarktproducten.

Wel zijn mijn ouders van een eerdere generatie dan ik. Beiden groeiden op in rurale omgevingen: mijn moeder diep op het platteland van Extremadura (provincie Badajoz): ver van de stad en industrie, mijn vader in een wat stedelijker, geïndustrialiseerder gebied in Noord Italië, maar net buiten de stad, met een stuk land om dingen te verbouwen en zo. Beide waren daardoor beter op de hoogte van landbouw, natuurlijke groei, hoe gewassen groeien in de natuur, in welk seizoen etcetera.

Per definitie aten ze in hun jeugd, zeker mijn moeder, nog vooral biologisch: wat het land opbracht. Chemische middelen waren toen veel minder gangbaar in de landbouw.

Exemplarisch is derhalve deze anekdote: rond 1996 bezocht ik in mijn eentje de stad Madrid in Spanje. Een flink deel van mijn familie in Spanje was verhuisd van het relatief arme en agrarische Badajoz naar de grote stad Madrid. In het huis waar mijn oma nog woonde (toen inmiddels overleden) in Madrid, woonde mijn tante, een jongere zus van mijn moeder. Ik bezocht haar toen ik rond 1996 naar Madrid ging.

Op zo’n mooie, warme en zwoele Madrileense zomeravond zaten we toen een keer buiten in het tuintje even te praten over hoe het nu ging in mijn leven. Ik vertelde dat ik aan het HBO studeerde en ook een stage liep: dat was bij de Alternatieve Konsumenten Bond (nu heeft het een andere naam: Goede Waar & Co, zie http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goede_Waar_%26_Co). Die lette op EKO en groene producten, en mens- en milieu-vriendelijke productie, en ook op voedsel: een groene consumentenbond zogezegd. Dat de organisatie de Alternatieve Konsumentenbond (gevestigd in Westerpark – de Staatsliedenbuurt -, Amsterdam) – ook qua spelling – een restant van de ideologische jaren 70 leek vond ik toen juist leuk. Ik geloofde ook wel in “natuurlijk eten”, dacht ik. Ik vond meer natuurlijk voedsel ook wel lekker (ik at veel fruit), en was niet zo’n zoetekauw. Ik was toen ook al redelijk maatschappelijk betrokken.

Afijn, ik vertelde mijn tante wat dat voor organisatie was, waar ik stage liep: voor mens- en milieuvriendelijke producten, tegen genetische manipulatie en ook voor meer biologisch eten. Zij vertelde daarop over “el pueblo” (het dorp) waar zij (en mijn moeder) opgroeiden: in Extremadura dus, ver van de stad en industrie. “Ik heb altijd biologisch gegeten”, zei ze.

Dat vond ik toen wel een grappige en treffende observatie. Relativerend vooral. Het is natuurlijk ook zo dat die macrobiotische beweging, en andere groepen die bewuster, biologisch willen eten in rijke, westerse landen, ontstonden als reactie op de moderne tijd: met steeds kunstmatiger en massaler gemaakt (goedkoper maar ongezonder) voedsel, mogelijk gemaakt door industriële ontwikkeling en wereldhandel.

Laten we echter niet vergeten dat de Rastafari-beweging er met het “alternatieve natuurlijke eten” al eerder was..