zaterdag 1 augustus 2015

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Rowstone


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

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

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

Before this I have interviewed 3 persons – reggae lovers I know, “breddas” (meaning “brothers”, or "friends" in Jamaican parlance) of mine – here in the Netherlands.

I started the series on this blog with a post of June 2012, when I interviewed Abenet. In April of 2013 I interviewed Bill. After this I interviewed Manjah Fyah, in May 2014.


This time, I interview another “bredda” of mine. His name is Rowald Kiene, who is also known as (DJ) Rowstone. I met Rowald in the reggae scene in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It was in a reggae-minded club in Amsterdam, where he was dee-jaying, spinning reggae music at the moment. I believe it was Café Frontline, in Central Amsterdam. If I recall well it was around 2012 that we met, though we might have been in the same place before this.

Rowald was born in 1989, so he is somewhat younger than me (b. 1974), and Rowald is now thus about 26 years old. He was born in the Netherlands, and has lived his whole life in the quarter of Amsterdam known as Amsterdam South East. This quarter has relatively many Surinamese and other “Black” inhabitants, as may be a known fact. Rowald’s parents are however not Surinamese, but from Guyana. Guyana - formerly British Guiana - is of course a former British colony bordering Suriname to the west. Actually, what became British Guiana was for a time a Dutch colony (until 1815), before it became British, but that’s another story.

I have seen and heard him dee-jay with Reggae music, as Selector.. I liked his selection mostly. He varied nicely, I thought. Sometimes he tended to Lovers Rock, then he played some good Roots Reggae, or Dancehall. Besides this, I thought he had a pleasant way of presenting himself at events and parties he hosted: lively yet calm and accessible. Not much else of him I knew at first, besides that he lived in Amsterdam South East, and also liked reggae. I talked with him sometimes since then, about his study (finance/economics) and other more musical activities, and he seemed to have some healthy ambitions.

Yet, I still remained curious to know more about him, his goals and activities, also regarding reggae music. For that reason I asked the questions underneath. Under the questions you will find how he answered them to me (translated from Dutch). This is interchanged (between comma’s) with additional questions or remarks by me.

///Photo above: Rowstone and me in venue Melkweg, Amsterdam in 2013. Rowstone was DJ there at an event..///

Since when do you listen to reggae?

I have been raised with reggae, really. My parents are die-hard reggae lovers. My mother is a fan of Gregory Isaacs. My father fan of Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, and Freddie McGregor. Thus also tending in his (reggae) preference toward Jamaican “lovers-rock”. My father used to buy the Strictly The Best compilation CDs, and every year the Reggae Gold CD. So in my home reggae was played all the time.

(Also when you were a small child?)

Yes as a child, but also Dancehall and Soca. So hearing reggae was, when I was a child, normal for me. I did not value it so much, but saw it as just normal, of something that my parents liked to listen to. Not me, though, at that stage. I liked pop music more back then; the music that came on TV, on channels such as TMF and The Box. Notably hip-hop. I went through my own musical growth and saw reggae as something of my parents. Until I was about 15 years old, I therefore liked hip-hip more. Hip-hop and R&B was up to then more my thing. I listened to it with my brother and sister.

When I was about 15 (around the year 2004), reggae grew stronger as an influence on me. This began more or less with the album Welcome To Jamrock by Damian Marley – released in 2005 – that combined hip-hop and reggae, it was - you can say - hip-hop-influenced reggae. This caused me to listen more to reggae from then on, and in and around 2005 I also listened to Jah Cure (then in prison), and got to know about new reggae Riddims (instrumentals) that appeared in 2005. Many good Riddims, like Drop Leaf and Hard Times, re-used ever since, were released in 2005, and I appreciated these. So I started to listen more reggae, and also started to listen again to the reggae my parents used to play. Then I realized that what I had at home, that reggae influence, was, how can I put it, “special” or “valuable”.

My parents are Guyanese. From Guyana.

(There is indeed a strong reggae influence throughout the Caribbean region..)

Yes, Reggae, Dancehall, Soca, but also Indian music, were influences.

What appealed to you in reggae music?

Reggae is a feeling. When you are “infected” with it, you feel it more strongly. This also because its rhythmic structure differs when compared to standard pop music. In this sense it is “off” from music one is used to, and has an own unique rhythm. Once you grasp that uniqueness and know how reggae music is built up, you just can’t let it go.

Moreover, the more I studied reggae, the more interesting and intriguing it became for me, with all its subgenres. Lovers, but also Conscious Reggae, with (lyrical) attention to the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, pan-African ideas, return to Africa, self-love as the way to well-being. I became interested in this religious/spiritual aspect as well, and found it interesting that reggae had such deeper, conscious subgenres, besides just Lovers, or with lyrics on “boasting”, “making money”, getting girls, expensive cars, or ego. Bob Marley combined different subgenres also well, and set the standard high. With reggae you can go in different ways, and it is as a genre very broad. Before I started to study this and listen more to lyrics, reggae was to me just something that sounded nice.

What music genres did you further listen to then?

(You kept listening to other genres as reggae, also after 2005?)

Yes I do. I am still a hip-hop fan and like R&B. I also listen to House or Soca, all kinds of music at times.. This depends, like for other people, on my mood.. I also keep track with how modern hip-hop evolves: I like what Kendrick Lamar does, and like some Fusion efforts of hip-hop with electronic, and other music. Like Major Lazer, who mixes dancehall, reggae, soca, and electronic music in one whole. That is really something typical and innovative in today’s music.

Do you have preferences within the broad Reggae genre? Does for instance Digital Dancehall appeal to you as much as Roots Reggae?

Yes. It depends on mood and circumstances. As a dee-jay, I find that music lovers differ, but go more with a certain vibe. You have good Digital Dancehall, and not-so-good or bad digital dancehall. The same applies to Roots Reggae. When it’s good I can combine, as a dee-jay, digital Dancehall well with (good) Roots Reggae in the very same set, without this “disturbing” the audience. The emphasis for me is on quality.

(and Lovers Rock you play too, as dee-jay? I heard you play it at times..)

Yes, also. As a dee-jay you can on occasion be like Cupid: bringing people together in a amorous/romantic way. Lovers Rock is part of that. It depends on the vibe, whether I switch from one subgenre to another, and on the audience. If people seem to prefer hardcore Digital Dancehall, I play that for a while, but later I change again to Roots when it is too much and a calm is needed. Varying is important as a dee-jay.

But to further point at a difference between Dancehall and Roots: it is the case that very much dancehall music is released all the time. With new riddims appearing every day, and many artists “busting loose” on them. Not everything is of good quality, however. As a dee-jay/selecter you must go through all this to select what’s good. This can take up quite some time.

With Roots Reggae on the other hand, with a new release, you sense and notice that effort has really been put into it. Just like the difference between Fast Food and Soul Food. With the latter you put more time and love in preparing the food, specific ingredients, seasoning, and everything. Dancehall by contrast is often very fast, aimed at scoring a hit.

(Sometimes too fast?)

Yes. Although I appreciate the “club bangers”, I think the dancehall scene needs more artists with uplifting messages.

(More Dancehall is released than Roots Reggae?)

In my experience, yes. At times it can be too much, so much that some tunes or riddims do not even reach the audience.

(It is more fashionable, maybe, among young people..)

With Dancehall more “hit” songs are made, I think more money is to be made with it.

You play musical instruments? Which? For how long?

Yes. I play guitar. It has been for about 10 years that I have a guitar. At first I tried things out myself, aided by YouTube films or otherwise. About one and a half years ago I decided to approach a good friend of mine – a guitar player – Jah-Irie, who then started to coach me, and up to now still is my guitar mentor and teacher.

I got that inspiration also because it did not go well with my study (in financial economics). I took a sabbatical (a time off) from dee-jaying to finish this study. Yet while working hard I felt I made no progress in this. I started to wonder what would be a good way to enlarge my “mental, intellectual capacity”, as well as my concentration skills. I found that this is, among other things, possible by learning to play a musical instrument.

(Interesting. Seems plausible that it enhances intellectual capacity. I heard that stated before. I even think that with Percussion, which I study, you go to even deeper truths, beyond the reach of Babylon, you go the “heart beat” and such. Chording instruments like guitars are maybe a bit more systematic, but likewise educational for a person..)

Yes. Because to become better in it, you need to work hard, you need discipline, to concentrate..

(Yes, it is a good learning process..)

And it is also very good for your ego. In the beginning you’re not yet very good and make mistakes. But with a musical instrument it is the case that you learn from your mistakes. In a sense, the more mistakes you make, the better you become in time in what you do… It is not bad to make mistakes, in this learning process..

(Just continue and correct yourself, I do that too with percussion.. You perform on stage, actually give concerts as well, with the band DejaVu.. Does that go well?)

Yes, for sure.

(I have seen a concert by DejaVu, with you as guitar player, and it sounded good. I got the idea that you knew what you were doing..)

Haha, that is always nice to hear.. It all comes down to preparation, rehearsing, and perseverance..

Since when are you a reggae selector/dee-jay?


(That’s not very long..)

No, no. Yet I had the ambition to become a dancehall and reggae dee-jay (selecta) for a longer time, even before this. I began with a MIDI Controller, making mixes at home. I was a “bedroom dee-jay”, you might say. I put mixes on YouTube. 2010, I met Manjah Fyah (a Sicilian reggae/dee-jay selector, who then lived and played in Amsterdam). I was at times a MC for him, and in time he showed me how to be a dee-jay, showed me and inspired me about the real technique of mixing, including preparing sets, and how to make songs/tracks connect and flow over into each other. He played and did this back then with vinyl, 12 inch records, with no BPM (beats per minute) counter, but purely through listening,..which is very impressive.

In fact, I was active in it already, experimenting in dee-jaying more or less for myself, but it did not always go so well. Having observed Manjah Fyah in action I realized that that was the level that I wanted to reach in dee-jaying, the level that I needed to strive for. I remember going with Manjah to a gig where the venue only had one turntable. He didn’t complain and found a way to still mash up the place.

(I did not know that Manjah Fyah had a role in you becoming a dee-jay..)

Yes, he and Prof, (90 Degree Sound) are the real deal. Besides their residency at Café Frontline (in Amsterdam, Netherlands) they are very active in riddim production, cutting dubplates and hosting events.

(Some people think it is easy being a dee-jay, just playing records..)

No, because besides technology, you also have to understand people, sense situations, have a good timing.. And that’s only the DJ part of it. After a long period of practicing on my DJ skills, my biggest challenge was to perform for a real audience.

At first I started with YouTube recordings of my mixes and then slowly to organize a monthly party at Café the Zen (a reggae-minded club in Amsterdam, Netherlands). Not long after – around 2013 - I volunteered at a (Internet) radio station, called Hot-o-twenty, based in Amsterdam South East. I had a weekly radio programme on it called Bedrock, later on I also deejayed for another show called LionFace. From then on I dee-jayed more in clubs and bars, like also Café Frontline in Amsterdam, a place that I already mentioned..

So I did not really get Dee-Jay gigs in clubs just through friends who introduced me or knew people, as it often goes.. I “trod the rocky road” myself, you can say..

Do you have a preference for vinyl or digital? As listener and as selector/DJ?

(So you started as a dee-jay playing vinyl records..but now you play digital (mp3/wav) tunes as well as a dee-jay..)

Yes I do.

(Do you have a preference when it comes to sound? I mean, songs on vinyl sound different than digital ones. Is vinyl better regarding “sound” than digital, as some say?)

Vinyl sounds better, in essence. There is a technical reason for this..I am not very technical in this terrain, but I will try to explain it in my own words:.. The bandwith between high and low tones is much larger, with vinyl. So you hear the difference between high and low tones much better. While with MP3 files, to make a MP3 file, you actually have to “compress”, in order to get smaller files..but the sound is compressed in such a way, that you hear the layers between high and low tones less clear..

So, vinyl is basically better regarding sound quality, more potential and possibility sonically.. When you go back to how music is actually recorded, with high and low tones, you’d also want that on a medium.

(That is an interesting explanation and opinion. There are by the way many different opinions regarding about whether vinyl or digital (mp3, wav/cd) sounds better; some say it does not matter, etc...)

There is a logic to it, I find, why vinyl can be considered better.

(You yourself play both..vinyl and digital, I assume?)

Well, I must say, that to play/spin as dee-jay, I prefer tracks/records on digital media. Also, because it is very easy to take with me musical (mp3) tracks on my lap top or on USB sticks, it is easily searchable, I can do more with it.. It is much more practical, really..

I think I myself (born in 1989) am of a generation where we do not hear the difference between vinyl or digital sound, but older generations that were used to vinyl in e.g. clubs when going out, note the difference, and lament the poorer sound quality of digital, compared to the vinyl they knew..

So, to resume: to enjoy music myself I prefer vinyl, but to play as dee-jay I prefer digital..

Why the name (DJ) Rowstone?

Ehm, well.. It is my passion to “found” or “set up” things and projects. To build up and let grow..That’s it, a bit: I like to set up things, even with limited means, such as a party..and “stone” is a building, construction material.. I see the link like this: a stone can be used to build, but it is also something natural, present in nature.. lasts very long, is very durable, sustainable material.. It also is there in the name Bedrock, I gave to parties for instance..

(Odd, I never saw the connection between the names RowSTONE and BedROCK.., but there is one of course..)

Yes, there is. I found the name Bedrock appropriate for a party focussed on Lovers Rock.. Then I had parties with the name Cornerstone…. So I stayed more or less in the “stone” vibe..

(Yes, from the material “stone”..)

Yes, the building’s solid, “solid as a rock”,..massive..

(and Row – in Rowstone - is from your name Rowald, I imagine?)

Yes, from Rowald. I was supposed to be named Oswald after my grandfather. My father’s name is Oswald jr. When I was born, my mom put a stop to it because it became too confusing, and came up with Rowald.

(I thought before a while that it related to “rowing”, as of a boat. I was somewhat puzzled about the name Rowstone.. how can you row with a stone? Doesn’t it sink, unlike wood? I found it creatively imagined..but did not quite get the name. At first, at least..)

Hahaha.. I heard that very often. Or that it sounds similar to Rolling Stones for some reason. (laughs)

(..but in reality it’s from your name Rowald and “stone”..)

True, a stone, which is solid..

(That’s interesting as a symbol, I think.)

Does the Rastafari message in much reggae appeal to you? How does this relate to your own background, or faith or spiritual/religious beliefs?

These are several questions in one.. Let’s see, how to answer... I have been raised Catholic, and actually went to church, but when I reached adolescence, or: puberty, I put that largely aside and started developing myself.

Right now...I do not consider myself really as a Rasta, a Rastafari as such. Yet, I do have very much understanding and respect for the Rastafari faith and philosophy.

(So to some degree you relate, or feel a connectedness with Rastafari?)

Yes, certainly. This relates also to the “natural way of living” Rastas espouse. Not eating meat or fish, respect for all living beings. Also, the similarities with Buddhism, such as regarding the “ego”, letting go of your ego.. I use that as a guide in my life, yes, in my own way..

I also consider Haile Selassie and Marcus Garvey in and by themselves as interesting personalities, who certainly did good works, and set up important things. I would like to read more about Marcus Garvey, a good biography, for instance..

Since not long ago you also have become active as guitar player in a reggae band called Dejavu. How did that come about?

Well, like I told I have been playing guitar for about 2 years. I am active as guitar player in DejaVu since..September, 2014. I joined DejaVu in a later stage…the other members were longer active, actually first as a dance group, ..they danced. That’s how I knew them.. The core members of that group decided at one point to make music. At the moment I’m enjoying every experience. Music is a beautiful thing. Especially if you can make it with others.

(They were reggae-minded, also as dancers? DejaVu is specifically a reggae band, I heard..)

Yes, certainly. They are reggae-and dancehall-minded as well, of course. They used to perform at dancehall parties, for instance..

(Did you hear where the name DejaVu comes from?)

No, not really. That’s just how I knew them. If I think about it, a deja vu is a vision that already occurred. So if you see us performing, you are likely to have a deja vu, because of our different backgrounds as entertainers.

What music do you prefer to listen to in the present? What specific artists? Any new “discoveries” you would like to mention?

I like the new generation of reggae artists, like Protoje, and those under his “wings", like Sevana, Runkus. Kabaka Pyramid I like very much as well. Further.. Iba Mahr, Jah9..

(Sometimes they even use new, original riddims, like Jah9 on songs..)

Yes, and what someone like Chronixx does well is using old riddims, but updating/renewing them to fit the present with the song Tenement Yard..

So, the new cohort, or current of (Jamaican) reggae artists.. Here in the Netherlands I like Rass Motivated very much. Also artists like Joggo, Ziggi Recado.. they also released some good albums and songs recently..

Shout out to all Dutch reggae artists and bands that show passion for the music.. like Rapha Pico, Jeremiah and the World District Band, Tjerk & the Liquid Sunshine, Black Omolo, Verse Ital, Priti Pangi, Heights Meditation, BagJuice, Two Times, Lyrical Benji, Leah Rosier, Fullanny, Rashanto, Iyobel, Nosjeman, Jr. Kenna, Mr. Patze, Censi Rock, Shockmann, Royston Williams, Papeman, Le Prince, Snikone, Jula and Kalibwoy. I find it interesting to see how much talent there is, if you come to think about it.

Any more things you would like to mention?

Well as a see-jay/selector and as a musician.. I must admit that since I play guitar, that my appreciation and respect for musicians increased. Not that I did not have it before.. but I feel that sometimes it is forgotten in the Netherlands reggae scene that musicians, also players of instruments, work hard, put a lot of effort in their art and music. They also work constantly to become better in what they do.. They just don’t seem to always get the respect they deserve, seem to be taken for granted.. So also “backing band” members have their own life stories, not just the normally more well-known singers..

And moreover..well it pleases me to see how Promoters are very active in the Dutch reggae scene, promoting artists and events or parties, organizing in the background..

(I notice that on Facebook and other social media as well..)

Yes, yes. Behind the screens they organize and are very active…Their work is also somewhat underappreciated, I think..

(When compared to “regular” office jobs, let’s say, such jobs are known among some people somehow as “party professions”, like they just love to go out and party and such.. while it’s actually work as well.. Musicians as well, for each concert they have to rehearse, for example. Some do not even realize that..)

True!. And not just before a concert, you have to rehearse constantly, as a continuing process, even without concerts. To keep up, rehearse and practice on new songs. To get it “tighter”, improve on it, this way you are seriously busy with it. Then when a concert comes, you are well prepared..

Further..I would like to thank you as reggae lover and supporter. Shout out to you (Michel)..

(No problem. I love to give attention to reggae and people active in it, e.g. through my blog..)


Well, I reflected and compared already in between the questions, and commenting on what Rowald told me in person. Still, reflecting on the interview a bit more, I can say that I found our talk very educational and interesting for me. I certainly got to know more about Rowald/Rowstone as a reggae lover but also as a person, his life choices for instance. He explains certain things well, I must say, such as the difference between music on digital or vinyl media/carriers. He explained this better than other people I heard and read about it. Also what he told about his musicianship, and selecting as dee-jay was instructive for me, and nice to know.

Compared with the people I interviewed before, there were of course similarities and differences. All “reggae lovers” I interviewed, including Rowald, valued the “conscious” (Roots) Reggae as better, as more positive, and more lyrically uplifting than the “slackness” (violence, sex, ego) lyrics present in a part of Dancehall. This seems to explain in part why Reggae as a genre appealed to them, at least in part (along with the actual musical structure). All interviewees at least respected Rastafari, or (in cases) to a degree seemed to adhere to it.

Funny was further the link between Manjah Fyah, whom I interviewed before, and Rowstone, as Manjah Fyah influenced Rowstone toward dee-jaying, while according to Manjah Fyah himself he as DJ/Selector started around 2004, and Rowstone around 2010. Another interviewee, Bill, like Rowald prefers vinyl to a large degree, but Bill seems to play it more often as Dee Jay as well (combined with digital). Bill, like Rowstone, also plays guitar, by the way. Bill seemed to like Dub more than the other interviewees, while Rowstone seemed to focus relatively more on Lovers Rock. Also in other genres they listen to there were some differences between the people I interviewed, and e.g. in how they came to reggae, as each person is different, of course. They also have different cultural, or “ethnic”, backgrounds that could have influenced them. There were also age differences between the 4 interviewees that could be influential.

Comparing with myself, I recognized some things, because I know the Amsterdam reggae scene too of course. Rowald/Rowstone and me even go to the same clubs and concerts at times. Differences were also there. Rowald’s parents were actually reggae lovers, so he sought other things when growing up at first, different from his older parents, as many children do. Many other reggae lovers did of course not have parents who listened to reggae – or even knew what reggae is – so reggae became something they found themselves, from an “outer world”. In the wider Caribbean region (including in this case Suriname and Guyana), especially English-speaking parts, reggae is quite popular, so there is a chance that parents from there tend to listen it more than Dutch/European parents. This may also depend, though, such as on generation.

In my case, when I was growing up, there was music played sometimes, but mostly Italian songs (my father is Italian), or – more often - Spanish music (like Flamenco) and Latin American (especially Mexican and Cuban) music, by my Spanish mother. Through television, radio, and friends I since the 1980s got to know other genres (soul, funk, Stevie Wonder, reggae, reggae, reggae etc.).. So that’s a bit a different route.

Back to the vinyl issue: I actually started listening to reggae intensely when I was about 12 years old, around 1986: in the vinyl age. So I got into reggae through vinyl (as well as cassette). I also, like Rowald, in a later stage felt the quality of CD was less and too “artificial” when I started to listen to it, in the later 1990s. I saw, also like Rowald, nonetheless practical advantages of easily transportable mp3s and wav files. I even made some attempts at “making mixes” through certain music computer software (beyond just compilations), but that’s as far as I went with my “bedroom deejay-ing” - as Rowald called how he started.

Rowald plays guitar in a reggae band called DejaVu. My brothers also played string instruments (guitar and bass guitar, both acoustic and electric) – albeit with varying intensity - , so I chose something else, first a bit keyboard, later I concluded that percussion attracted me very much, besides singing at times.

The interesting thing about music, like reggae music, however, is of course the combination of different instruments and sounds toward an own musical art, in which rhythm is crucial, along with aspects like tones, melody, harmony, “soul”, culture, lyrics, but also human character or personality.

Either way, I am glad I got to know more about both the activities and the personality of Rowald, also known as Rowstone..

donderdag 2 juli 2015

Veelkoppig monster

Racisme kan beschreven worden als een “veelkoppig monster”. Sommige van deze metaforische “koppen” zijn niet goed zichtbaar. Ook denk ik dat racisme goed te beschrijven is als een “onzichtbaar filter”. Dat laatste vooral in deze tijd, waarin er een taboe is gekomen op (openlijk) racisme. Een dergelijk “filter” determineert heimelijk culturele en sociale voorkeuren en hierarchiëen.


Beide definities zoals hierboven vatten goed samen zoals Philomena Essed racisme beschreef, zoals in haar “klassieke” werk ‘Alledaags racisme’, uit 1984, alsmede in haar latere werk. Het werk ‘Alledaags racisme’ zie ik als klassiek in meer dan een opzicht. Deels door de inherente kwaliteit: het is op zichzelf leerzaam. Daarnaast is het ook goed die inhoud, alledaags racisme, in de tijd te plaatsen, en in de Nederlandse samenleving. In een context waarin racisme in abstracte, ideologische dan wel theoretische zin werd besproken – vooral ook in “vermijdende” zin – was de nadruk op dagelijkse treiterijtjes en ongemakken geenszins triviaal, maar juist concreet, en daarom relativerend en verklarend. Alledaags is elke dag van je leven, immers. Bij het bezoek aan een winkel, in het openbaar vervoer, bij het uit gaan, maar ook op het werk en in omgang met mensen op hoge plekken. Alles wat je zo kunt doen in het leven.

In ‘Alledaags racisme’ heeft Essed het over verschillende vormen van racisme, zoals “cultureel racisme”, “impliciet racisme”, en “institutioneel racisme” die zich wel op wat abstracter niveau lijken te bevinden. Het cruciale van Essed’s werk is dat het de realiteit weergeeft van hoe dergelijke ideeën in de samenleving – verspreid via media, onderwijs, en opvoeding - in het alledaagse leven vertaald worden als mensen van verschillend ras elkaar ook echt treffen en met elkaar moeten omgaan. Dat laatste deelt ze deels in bij ´´individueel racisme´´. ‘Alledaags racisme’ omvat de ervaring zoals verteld door Nederlanders van Surinaamse of Antilliaanse (eigenlijk Afrikaanse) oorsprong, in hun omgang met “witte” Nederlanders. Op werkplekken, bij het winkelen, uit gaan etcetera. Een hoofdstuk, ook ter vergelijking, gaat over ervaringen van African American, zwarte vrouwen, in de VS.

Ten tijde van verschijning van dit boek (1984) was er al een taboe op openlijk racisme – bij veel Nederlanders – dus veel van deze ervaringen bevatten twijfel bij de vertellers. Ze ervaren racisme en discriminerende handelingen, maar weten het soms zeker – eenvoudigweg minachtende en vernederende opmerkingen met een direct geuite raciale verwijzing maken het zeker - , maar soms is het verhulder in slechte omgangsvormen waarbij racisme “vermoedt” wordt: een botte gedraging en opmerking die wat moeilijk te duiden is.

Juist die erkenning van de multi-interpretabele dagelijkse realiteit van menselijke omgang maakt –wellicht ironisch – dit boek waarachtiger. Zelfs lichte paranoia in het hoofd van mensen is realistisch, want menselijk, en verklaarbaar vanuit een levensloop. Iedereen kan zich vergissen in sommige gevallen of situaties verkeerd verklaren. Men kan zich ook slechts deels vergissen of overdrijven, en in enkele gevallen is alleen de paranoia werkelijk, maar het gaat hier op een diepere verklaring. Veel in Nederland - ook in het dagelijks leven – is immers twijfelachtig en onduidelijk, vooral als er pijnlijke waarheden zijn die liever verhuld worden. Met mensen buiten je eigen sociale kring heb je zogezegd ook “niets te schaften”, en heb je noodgedwongen, oppervlakkig contact. Je praat ook niet te “diep” of “openlijk” over wat je van ze denkt en vermoedt, zoals op basis van hun voorkomen (je vooroordelen dus). Dat bewaar je voor mensen in je eigen kring, mensen geselecteerd op basis van je beschikbare tijd, maar vooral levensstijl, en voorkeuren. Tegelijkertijd is het (openbare) taboe op racisme inmiddels sterk verbreid.

Vandaar dus dat ik racisme – zeker ook in de Nederlandse context van 2015 - beschrijf als “onzichtbaar filter”, maar ook als “veelkoppig monster”.

Interessant aan Essed´s boek uit 1984 is dat zij in het inleidende deel ervan stelt dat de grens tussen “individueel” en “institutioneel” racisme niet in elk geval helder is. Een factor die daarbij een rol speelt is uiteindelijk “macht”. Niet iedereen heeft een sturende een bepalende rol in instituten of bedrijven. Om mensen aan te nemen, promoveren, of ontslaan, bijvoorbeeld, dien je een bepaalde positie te hebben. Dat zou je ook klassenverschil kunnen noemen. Historisch ontstane ongelijkheden in hoge posities bevoordelen – in overwegend blanke landen - de autochtone, blanke bevolking. Het boek van Essed, en andere studies over racisme, wijzen op de kleinere kans om aangenomen te worden voor een baan als de sollicitatiebrief – tegenwoordig vaak “motivatiebrief” genoemd –, dan wel het voorkomen van de sollicitant, op een exotische afkomst wijst. Het zal per sector en organisatie wat kunnen verschillen, maar is nog steeds een groot probleem.


Om die reden baart de tendens die zich de laatste jaren afdoet op de Nederlandse arbeidsmarkt mij zorgen. Het draait (nog) meer dan voorheen om contacten en netwerken om een geschikte baan te vinden. Naast een nogal “rechtse” geest die hieruit spreekt – mijn moeder vertelde verhalen over hoge posities in bedrijven die mensen verkregen via connecties in het Spanje onder de Rechtse dictatuur van Franco – is het ook met het zicht op etnische minderheden en migranten discriminerend. “For obvious reasons” hebben veel migranten in Nederland minder familieleden in Nederland die nuttige connecties voor banen kunnen zijn. Die er zijn, zijn vaak gemiddeld lager opgeleid dan veel Nederlandse families. In veel Nederlandse families, zelfs met deels een arbeidersklasse-achtergrond, zitten inmiddels ook veel mensen op een middenklasse-positie, of hebben zich nog hoger opgewerkt (notaris, advocaat, of arts). Contacten/netwerken belangrijker maken, is dan welhaast een cynische, “eigen volk eerst” keuze. Een keuze voor de versterking van het institutioneel racisme.

Ook Essed´s boek uit 1984 wees op bedrijven die bijvoorbeeld geen Surinamers wilden aannemen om de groep werknemers blank te houden, en ook toen speelden contacten vaak impliciet een rol op de arbeidsmarkt, ook in Nederland. Contacten nog belangrijk maken, echter, smoort nog eerder de kans dat gekleurde mensen zomaar ergens komen te werken in een functie die goed aansluit op hun opleiding, en naar hun voorkeuren. Dat is een democratisch recht op sociale mobiliteit dat zo ontnomen wordt. Zo scherp wil ik het wel stellen.


Individueel racisme is deels gelijk te stellen met eigen “vooroordelen” die zich vaak ook onbewust in handelingen vertaalt, ook bij niet-machtige mensen. Het zou wat al te hoopvol zijn om te veronderstellen dat leden van etnische minderheden zich hier niet toe verlagen. Ook donkere mensen, of leden van bepaalde etnische groepen, zullen in gevallen expres vervelend doen tegen iemand die “iets anders” dan hem- of haarzelf oogt: een blanke Nederlander, en/of andere blanken (in bijvoorbeeld Amsterdam lopen bijvoorbeeld ook veel expats of toeristen uit andere Europese landen rond), of andere etnische minderheden, en sluiten deze uit van de “eigen” intieme groep, met name als er genoeg mensen van je eigen groep aanwezig zijn. Groepsdenken is hier wellicht het eigenlijke euvel. Dit kan tot irritaties lijden bij dagelijkse activiteiten, waarbij andere mensen niet echt te vermijden zijn: zoals in het verkeer, op straat, uit gaand, of winkelend. Individueel, alledaags racisme zal door mensen van verschillend ras kunnen geschieden. Vaak ook verhuld via treiterijtjes, of doen alsof mensen in de weg lopen of duwen.

In een drukke, nerveuze stad als Amsterdam merk je dat vaker: je zit dichter op elkaar. Bepaalde culturele aspecten en ontwikkelingen in Nederland – laten we het maar even de Nederlandse of Amsterdamse “volksaard” noemen, ook aanwezig bij niet-blanken – te weten directheid, sarcastische grappen, zeggen wat je denkt, mopperen, of zoals mensen uit een andere cultuur het noemen: “vreemde mensen die me uitschelden”, maken het nog erger. Dit omdat het “goede omgangsvormen” of “beleefdheid” af lijkt te doen als iets van oudere tijden, of frustraties van burgerlijke mannetjes (uit de provincie). Ik kan me niet aan de indruk onttrekken, door mijn meerdere reizen naar Groot-Brittannië en Frankrijk, en door mijn vele reizen naar en familiebanden in Italië en Spanje, dat beleefdheid en omgangsvormen in het openbaar daar meer in acht worden genomen. Soms komt dat neer op je vooroordelen voor je zelf houden, soms (nog beter) heeft dat met meer ruimte voor interesse in de medemens te maken, maar dat laatste is (vaak) wellicht te rooskleurig. De populariteit van xenofobe politieke partijen als het Front National in delen van Zuid-Frankrijk of Lega Nord in delen van Italië, wijst daar bijvoorbeeld op. Maar goed.., in Nederland heb je de PVV.

“Alledaags racisme” kan hinderlijk zijn, en tot op zekere hoogte traumatisch, ook door willekeurige Nederlanders op straat waarvan je verder niet al te afhankelijk bent voor je levensloop. Verhalen van ervaringen van Afro-Nederlandse vrouwen, en van Afro-Amerikaanse vrouwen (in de VS), in Essed´s boek uit 1984 van dien aard (bij het winkelen etc.), geven aan dat ze het deels weg kunnen relativeren, maar met sommige van dit soort dingen (opmerkingen van mensen in winkels of op straat) toch blijven zitten.


Als je jezelf professioneel wilt ontwikkelen en het heikele terrein van de “ambitie” betreedt, is naast het individuele racisme ook het institutionele racisme iets om te vrezen. Deze komen weer voort uit “cultureel racisme”. Die laatste betreft de verspreiding van beelden en stereotypen over culturen van etnische groepen. Niet iedereen vindt een donkere huidskleur mooi - en prefereren fysiek het eigen ras -, maar veel racisme heeft ook te maken met wat die huidskleur zogenaamd symboliseert. Cultureel en sociaal dus. Weer het euvel van het groepsdenken: je wordt “representant” van iets anders (minder, irritanters dan je eigen groep) en minder een mens, en het vaak samenhangende euvel van het teveel geloven in je eigen (voor)oordelen. Zwarte Piet is een bekend voorbeeld in de Nederlandse volkscultuur, maar het is veel breder en dieper dan dat. Het is een minachting van Afrika en Afrikaanse mensen die voortkomt uit het koloniaal verleden, deels uit goed praten of om schuldgevoel te verhullen. Daarnaast ook minachting van vrijwel alles buiten Europa.

Columbus was de eerste Europese koloniaal in die zin, en het verhaal wil dat hij, als Genuees, het Spaanse koningshuis, Koning Ferdinand en Koningin Isabella, echt moest overtuigen van zijn reizen en koloniale plannen vanaf 1492 (om financiele redenen, maar ook moreel had Koningin Isabella eerst wat bezwaren verwoord, tegen de onderwerping en slavernij na de "ontdekking" van Amerika), maar de geest stond er wellicht naar, via Europese superioriteitswaan, en toen en daar vooral ook met een religieuze (katholieke) bekeringscomponent.

Helaas waren eerder ook Islamitische beschavingen bij hun verspreiding en religieuze bekeringsdrift minachtend voor andere volkeren: Arabieren discrimineerden niet-Arabische moslims, en nog meer niet-Moslims, die tot slaaf gebracht mochten worden. Dat is op grote schaal gebeurd met – ook miljoenen - zwarte Afrikanen. Net als bij het Europese kolonialisme maskeerde religie echter wel vaak economisch of ander eigenbelang. Veel Afrikaanse vrouwen kwamen als slavinnen in harems van rijke Arabieren of andere rijke Moslims terecht, ook in het Midden-Oosten. Ook in Moors Spanje hadden zwarte slaven en slavinnen Islamitische meesters (Arabieren, Berbers, bekeerde Spanjaarden/Portugezen), en bevonden ze zich ook anderszins helaas aan de onderkant van dat Islamitische rijk in wat nu Spanje en Portugal is.


Sommige historici stellen dat de vanzelfsprekendheid waarmee Portugezen, Genuezen, Venetianen, en iets later Spanjaarden (en nog later andere Europeanen) zwarte Afrikanen tot slaaf maakten, en deze verhandelden, in oorsprong ook te wijten is aan het beeld van de zwarte Afrikaan als “slaaf” of “knecht” in Moors of Islamitisch Spanje en Portugal (8e tot 15e eeuw). Pijnlijk, en mogelijk deels waar, maar toch wat simplistisch, om dat zo te concluderen. Ook Christenen maakten soms Moslims tot slaaf, en de rollen draaiden zich weleens om. Daarnaast waren er ook vrije zwarten, en ook wel meerdere Moslims met zwart Afrikaans bloed die wat hogere posities in Moslimrijken bekleedden. Bovenal is een praktijk overnemen van een groep die je net verjaagd hebt uit het land (Spanje en Portugal) om het Christelijk te maken, wat tegenstrijdig, hoewel sporen en de nalatenschap van Moors Spanje met name in centrale en zuidelijke delen van Spanje en Portugal wel in meer merkbaar zijn (architectonisch, cultureel, taalkundig, genetisch, en anderszins..).

De slavenhandel en slavernij in Amerikaanse koloniën – die eeuwen duurde – en miljoenen mensen het leven kostten (en nog meer levens verkorten en mensen geforceerd transporteerden), versterkte hoe dan ook het culturele en andere racisme betreffende zwarte mensen. Ook buiten de Europese landen die er het meeste aan deden. Het versterkte ook de Europese, “blanke” superioriteitswaan.

De Zwarte Piet-discussie is nog bezig in Nederland. Er lijkt nu – anno 2015 – wat meer begrip te komen voor de tegenstanders van dit stereotype van zwarte mensen, ook bij Nederlanders. Ook wat betreft ander cultureel racisme lijkt deels winst te zijn behaald. “Lijkt deels” zeg ik nog voorzichtig. Veel vooroordelen en negatieve stereotyperingen over Afrika en zwarte mensen, en over andere culturen of religies leven immers nog voort, en richting sommige groepen zelfs nog meer gegeneraliseerd en versterkt dan voorheen, Moslims met name. Sommige terroristen en moordenaars die zichzelf Moslims noemen deden erg hun best om dat imago zo te krijgen, leek het soms, maar het blijft onterecht voor veel mensen die niet op die manier, maar toevallig wel Moslim zijn, en dan vaak nog als slechts een deel van hun identiteit. Het blijft negatief en loos generaliserend.


Moslims krijgen wat meer aandacht de laatste tijd, maar dat laat onverlet dat ook beelden over Afrika (sub-Saharaans) en zwarte mensen of Afrikanen nog steeds negatief voortleven in culturen in overwegend blanke landen. Een opvallende ontwikkeling is dat Nederland toch ook een land is waar “zwarte” muziek relatief populair is bij veel blanke mensen, net als in Groot-Brittannië. Zelfs bij mensen die verder weinig zwarte mensen in hun kring hebben. Dit komt door massamedia, internationale muziekcultuur etcetera. Dat kan positieve effecten hebben, maar kan ook ridicule effecten hebben. Ideaal gesproken leren meer blanke Nederlanders hierdoor over hoe de zwarte cultuur en het zwarte leven echt is, door de kunst. Positieve bewustwording via Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Public Enemy, Kanye West etcetera. Het moeten dan wel mensen zijn die luisteren naar songteksten en deze proberen te begrijpen. Ik heb al jong ondervonden dat niet iedereen “wil” leren in het leven, en velen zijn zelfs kennisvijandig. Een interessant feit noemen wordt dan al snel als wijsneuzerig beschouwd of roept zelfs agressie op. Ook deze mensen kunnen zwarte muziek om bepaalde reden waarderen (want het is cool, het swingt, de sfeer die het oproept, spannend, nieuw), en het zelfs deel van hun identiteit laten worden.

Ook sommige voorstanders van Zwarte Piet luisteren - geloof het niet - vooral zwarte muziek: het komt voor. Nog stuitender en erger: ook iemand als Benito Mussolini, wier invasie van Ethiopië in Italië begeleid werd met extreem racistische, anti-zwarten/Afrikanen propaganda, zou volgens sommige historici privé weleens naar jazz luisteren, hoewel minder dan zijn zoon Romano Mussolini (die, ook ironisch, jazzpianist werd).

Deze erge en minder erge varianten van die tegenstrijdigheid van luisteren naar zwarte muziek en daarnaast racistische, denigrerende denkbeelden over zwarten hebben of uiten, geven aan dat sommige mensen dat kunnen scheiden. Mogelijk speelt het stereotype van de ”van nature” goed dansende en musicerende zwarte hier ook een rol. Daarnaast denk ik ook dat “jaloezie” op een cultuur een rol speelt bij een negatieve benadering op mensen generaliserend verbonden met die cultuur. Jaloezie is een negatieve emotie.

Een andere culturele tendens in de Nederlandse samenleving: toegenomen na Essed´s boek ´Alledaags racisme´ uit 1984 is precies dit fenomeen. Naar verhouding meer witte Nederlanders zijn zwarte muziek gaan luisteren of zoeken andere zwarte cultuurproducten op sinds de 1980s: ook zwarte comedians, films etcetera. Met name meer jongeren. De generatie ervoor pikte uit zwarte cultuur wat bij hen paste, hen uitkwam, en gebruikte dat als bouwsteen van hun identiteit, de huidige generaties ook ongeveer, maar dan met meer invloeden. Merkwaardig om zaken te overnemen van een cultuur van arme, onderdrukte mensen met zelf ontwikkelde cultuuruitingen, als jezelf een comfortabele, welvarende middenklasse-achtergrond hebt, en plezierig in een verschillende omgeving zit waar je fysiek niet opvalt. Merkwaardig, maar in deze tijd van internationaliserende en globaliserende cultuur onvermijdelijk, want menselijk. Het is ook menselijk om nieuwsgierig zijn naar het “andere” of “onbekende”. Het hoeft ook niet per se kwaadaardig of verwerpelijk te zijn, mits je jezelf relativeert, denk ik. Zelfrelativering maakt het ook minder ridicuul, zoals zelfrelativering wel meer euvels verhelpt. Sommige blanke mensen zijn echt gelukkiger geworden in hun leven, en vinden zelfs troost, door contact met zwarte cultuuruitingen, en dat is – welke cynische draai je er ook aan wilt geven – iets moois.

De recente affaire in de VS, waarbij een vrouw, Rachel Dolezal, onterecht door ging voor zwart, en – vanuit die presumptie - zelfs president van een afdeling van de zwarte organisatie NAACP werd, blijkt achteraf jammerlijk, maar toch vooral ridicuul. Die Dolezal had/heeft issues. Zij identificeert zichzelf als zwart, terwijl haar roots van beide ouders in Europa (Duitsland en Tsjechië) liggen, maar ze maakte zichzelf ook fysiek wat donkerder. Dat haar hogere voorzittersfunctie nu niet ging naar iemand die echt zwart was, is wel een beetje schandalig te noemen. Nog erger zou echter zijn als ze een infiltrant zou zijn geweest, die de organisatie wil controleren of bestrijden: een eerdere zwarte organisatie, de UNIA, geleid door Marcus Garvey, werd geplaagd door dergelijke infiltranten, eigenlijk geheim agenten van de FBI, die meeluisterden bij plannen, toespraken etcetera (al hadden deze intriganten/geheim agenten vaak wel zwart bloed). De zwarte Amerikaanse komiek Dave Chappelle gebruikte ook het woord “ridiculous” aangaande die affaire rond Dolezal (zie: ).

Die “positieve” mening van blanken over de vermeende zwarte cultuur kan ook een positief effect hebben, maar het hangt van het individu af. Zwarte vrouwen in Essed´s boek klagen over blanke mannen die denken – en in hun gedrag lieten merken - dat zwarte vrouwen seksueel wel makkelijker zullen zijn. Wie weet verdiept kennis van elkaars cultuur een biraciale liefdesrelatie – voorbij de spanning van de seksualiteit - waardoor twee mensen een relatie hebben en niet twee “representanten”. Mensen wier eigen culturele achtergronden hen iets unieks doet hebben (je weet meer van ook andere culturen dan de Nederlandse, en hebt er een band mee), maar nog steeds multi-dimensionale, veelzijdige mensen, met dezelfde complexiteit als eigenlijk ieder mens. Daarnaast is niet ieder lid van een volk ook zo bijzonder als de grote kunstenaars en geesten uit dat volk, maar dat is een open deur intrappen.

Een vehikel voor sociale mobiliteit is onderwijs. De laatste tijd is ook aandacht voor racisme “in schoolboeken” toegenomen. Philomena Essed stelde bij haar toespraak in December 2014, bij de Powered by Diversity conferentie in de Vrije Universiteit, te Amsterdam (die ik overigens bijwoonde), verheugd dat sinds haar boek uit 1984 tot 2015, kennis en bewustzijn over racisme als systematisch fenomeen is toegenomen onder zwarte mensen in Nederland. Aandacht voor racisme in onderwijs en lesstof is daar wellicht een uiting van, alsook de verhevigde Zwarte Piet-discussie, en andere toegenomen maatschappijkritiek.


Ik woonde pas de Keti Koti-viering – herdenking afschaffing van slavernij in Nederlandse koloniën - bij van 2015, dit jaar gehouden op het Museumplein. Er waren debatten bij, zoals geleid door Quincy Gario, en deze gingen deels over slavernij: een interessante “slavernij quiz”, maar ook over racisme in de Nederlandse samenleving, en de positie van zwarte mensen in Nederland. Dit jaar kreeg de politiek en de media aandacht, waaronder het beperkte aantal zwarte mensen actief voor de televisie of andere officiële media in Nederland, en andere achterstanden. Dat – slinks en vals – vluchtelingen elders in de stad precies op dezelfde dag, 1 juli op Keti Koti, gearresteerd werden, werd besproken. Je hoeft geen paranoialijder te zijn om dat niet als slechts toeval te zien.

Ook etnische profilering door de politie kreeg aandacht, en ook dat had helaas een actuele reden.


“Profiling” door de politie, al langer erkend in de VS en Groot-Brittannië, krijgt de laatste tijd ook in Nederland meer aandacht. Het gaat om het discrimineren door de politie: eerder, zonder goede reden aanhouden of controleren van mensen uit etnische minderheden. Hardere methoden gebruiken bij het arresteren, is ook aangekaart. Eerder greep de politie fors in, en dreigden arrestanten zelfs te stikken, zoals anti-Zwarte Piet-betogers, door opmerkelijk hard politie-optreden, maar uiteindelijk – kort voordat ik dit schrijf – is er zelfs iemand door een politie-arrestatie overleden. Teveel politiegeweld lijkt dan waarschijnlijk en/of afhandeling, in ieder geval verantwoordelijkheid aan deze dood. Het betrof een Arubaanse man genaamd Mitch Henriquez van 42 jaar oud, die hier op vakantie was, en een muziekoptreden bijwoonde in Den Haag, en – naar men zegt – daar door opvallende gedragingen of kreten hinderlijk was en de aandacht trok van de politie. Het was echter niet iemand die in de criminaliteit zat. In Aruba zelf werd het kort na Henriquez’ dood begrijpelijkerwijs groot nieuws.

Daags na dit tragische feit ontstonden er rellen in Den Haag, en veel mensen vermoeden verhuld racisme als reden voor het te harde optreden van de politie. Weer die onduidelijkheid, zoals ook in Essed’s boek werd genoemd. Wellicht ook het negatieve imago van Antillianen, als relatief vaker betrokken bij bepaalde vormen van criminaliteit.Veel zal nog onderzocht worden. Racisme is in ieder geval mogelijk als motivatie, maar op zijn minst fout optreden..

Een panellid tijdens het debat op Keti Koti dit jaar bekritiseerde het overdreven harde optreden van de politie specifiek tegen demonstranten in Den Haag, na Henriquez’ dood. Ook was er kritiek tegen het feit dat zijn dood niet als belangrijk in het NOS journaal werd gepresenteerd.


Sandew Hira is een van de voortrekkers - in ieder geval een actieve woordvoerder - in de discussie rond het institutioneel racisme in het Nederlands hoger onderwijs, in academische kringen, en op universiteiten. Eerder besprak hij in dat kader de slavernijgeschiedenis, alsook andere racisme-problemen in Nederland. Hira beklaagde eerder, niet geheel ten onrechte, het onder witte professoren gangbare Eurocentrisch, goedpratend perspectief over de slavernij, onder meer historisch door Nederlanders in Suriname en elders. Slavernij wordt gebagatelliseerd, stelde hij, in historische studies van professoren als Piet Emmer, en deels ook andere Caraïbische of slavernij-experts als Gert Oostindie, en feiten verkeerd geïnterpreteerd om de ware aard te verhullen: een misdaad tegen de menselijkheid door Europeanen, voortkomend uit racisme en machtsongelijkheid. Het gesprek in het programma Z.O.Z. met als gasten Sandew Hira, Aspha Bijnaar, en Gert Oostindie, o.l.v. wijlen Anil Ramdas, is zeker het bekijken waard, voor wie het nog niet kent.

Wetenschap, over slavernij of anderszins, aan Nederlandse universiteiten en andere wetenschappelijke instellingen, is daarbij iets internationaals, niet beperkt tot Nederland. Kolonialisme was internationaal, maar ook bij niet per definitie internationale thema´s is de wetenschap internationaal: men houdt uiteraard bij wat in andere landen gebeurt op het vakgebied, ter vergelijking, inspiratie, en ontwikkeling. Kennis van andere talen is derhalve een vereiste op dat niveau, en naast vakbladen zijn er ook internationale uitwisselingen.

Een recente kritiek die Sandew Hira uitte was gericht op een ander aspect dat als deel van institutioneel en cultureel racisme gezien kan worden: de Eurocentrische visie op de klassieke (Grieks/Romeinse) Oudheid binnen de "witte" wetenschap, en hoe deze Europa en zelfs de wereld beschaving zou hebben gebracht. De bijdrage en vergevorderde beschavingen van Egypte, die de Grieken beïnvloedden, wordt hierbij volgens Hira stelselmatig onderschat en ontkend. Hij en anderen pleiten voor een minder Eurocentrisch perspectief op ook deze geschiedenis.

Een andere historische periode, maar de discussie – nu ik dit schrijf net begonnen – heeft qua verloop wat raakvlakken met die eerdergenoemde over de slavernij en historici. Niet inhoudelijk, maar qua type argumenten. Een beetje zoals Oostindie in de genoemde aflevering van Z.O.Z., stellen “witte” wetenschappers dat er niets ontkend of weggelaten wordt, maar dat in dit geval de Egyptische invloed op de Grieken en Romeinen wel degelijk verweven is in hun studies naar de Oudheid. Vernieuwing in academische studies richting een minder Eurocentrisch alternatief (sommigen zeggen “Afrocentrisch” perspectief) achten zij niet nodig.

Enerzijds is de reactie jammerlijk bekrompen, anderzijds ook voorspelbaar. Deze blanke professoren en wetenschappers doen het niet als hobby in hun vrije tijd: hun hele carrière, aanzien/maatschappelijke positie, en identiteit is gebaseerd op hun hoge wetenschappelijke positie op dit specifieke terrein. Het zijn waarlijk machtsposities, hoog binnen instituties. De hele bestaansbasis van hun voorspoedige werkloopbaan, resulterend in hun toppositie, wordt dan in twijfel getrokken als zijnde iets van twijfelachtig en racistisch ideologisch allooi. Voorspelbaar dat ze daar niet aan willen. Ze hebben echter teveel macht om echt slachtoffer te zijn. Voorstellen voor veranderingen zijn ook afgewezen en dan gebeurt er ook niets.

Dat is ook het eigenlijke, onderliggende probleem van institutioneel racisme. Zulke machtsposities worden nog steeds niet of nauwelijks bekleed door donkere mensen of Afro-Nederlanders, zodat andere interpretaties en perspectieven niet eens de ruimte krijgen. Het beste zou zijn als iedereen in de wetenschap objectiviteit nastreeft, maar dat gebeurt (verhuld) niet altijd, en daarnaast is er een grijs gebied in de wetenschap waar objectiviteit en subjectiviteit in elkaar overlopen, via de individuele interpretatie. Als er verschillende perspectieven zouden zijn kom je hierbij tot veel meer waarachtige kennis. Het compenseert elkaar, zogezegd.

Dat er nog steeds geen Black Studies/Zwarte studies departementen/vakgroepen op Nederlandse universiteiten zijn, anders dan in andere landen (Verenigd Koninkrijk, Frankrijk, VS), is een teken aan de wand. Dat terwijl het demografische percentage van mensen van Afrikaanse afkomst in Nederland vergelijkbaar is met dat van bijvoorbeeld het Verenigd Koninkrijk. Ik kwam ook de term Africana studies department tegen, op sommige universiteiten in de VS en Canada: ook een goede term. Daarin kan zowel slavernij, de Afrikaanse diaspora, als het Afrikaanse continent de wetenschappelijke aandacht krijgen die het verdient, vanuit een ander perspectief, namelijk van mensen die er zelf uit voort komen. Objectiviteit en kwaliteit blijft daarbij de norm, maar dat zeggen de genoemde witte wetenschappers ook van zichzelf (deels ten onrechte). Wetenschap wordt dan veelzijdiger, vanuit verschillende perspectieven beschouwd, en dat leidt uiteindelijk weer tot betere, waarachtige over de geschiedenis van alle mensen en rassen op deze wereld, waar we met zijn allen (wit, zwart, Aziatisch e.a.) uit kunnen putten. Dat zou pas echt vooruitgang zijn. Institutioneel racisme, historische achterstand door onderontwikkeling en slavernij, en ook cultureel, impliciet, individueel, of “entitlement” racisme, of nog andere varianten ervan, vormen de obstakels op de weg daar naartoe.

Racisme als “onzichtbaar” filter is de laatste tijd wat zichtbaarder geworden, hoewel verre van geheel te doorzien, zoals alles wat met machtsposities en “taboes” te maken heeft. Je komt er nog steeds regelmatig te laat achter. Een “veelkoppig monster” – aanwezig op hoge en lage plekken, en alledaags en niet-alledaags – is het nog steeds. Dat “monster” is wellicht veranderd, of wellicht zien we sommige “koppen” nu pas, of zijn sommige koppen krachtiger geworden, maar het is er nog steeds..

dinsdag 2 juni 2015

Cultural coolness

Of course “cool” has become a quite well-known "slang" term with a meaning beyond a moderately low temperature. Even another common meaning of “self-control” or “not emotional” in several languages and cultures (including European and Asian ones) is not enough to capture what “cool” as a slang term came to mean.

Cool in the slang meaning came to mean less just “calm”, or not emotional, but more something like “great”, “fine”, or “awesome”. These latter meanings have their origins in African American culture, in turn to be traced back to ancestral Africa. Scholar Robert Farris Thompson speaks of a specific African aesthetic in which the “cool” or “coolness” is important in artistic and social/cultural expressions.


Essentially Farris Thompson describes it in the case of Sub-Saharan Africa as “complex balance”, in the sense of combining contradictions, which includes the mystical and spiritual. Or: the “transcendental”. This makes “cool” as an African aesthetic more complex in its meanings than the meaning in European languages of remaining calm under stress. Especially because this mask of coolness is also there in African expressions relating to “pleasure”, thus combining responsibility and play. The (now South Nigerian) Yoruba and Igbo age-old concept of “Itutu” – or “mystic coolness” – relates to this, and was transported with slaves to the Americas.

Crucially, Farris Thompson also relates the “cool” attitude or pose to a (transcendental) response by Black people to racism.


Yet, in several global languages “cool” has a meaning beyond the literal one of “moderately low temperature”, namely symbolic ones referring to control, calm, or rationality. This might have also affected art. In Italian culture “sprezzatura” – “studied carelessness/nonchalance” - (the expression of Mona Lisa on the well-known painting is an example of this) can be mentioned, as – with some reserve (since it basically is a code against “snitching”) - the Sicilian, more mafia-affected term “omertá”. British aristocratic reserve can be somehow connected to it, and William Shakespeare in his writings mentioned the word “cool” also in such symbolic meanings of “calm” and “rational”.

All this information can be found on the Internet and on the Wikipedia article(s) on this matter, so I think it is useless to repeat this all further. To this knowledge I can add - and recommend - a more specific work I read called ‘Aesthetic of the Cool : Afro-Atlantic art and music' - see: - by the mentioned Robert Farris Thompson, a Yale professor, which is a bit summarized in the Wikipedia article.

I will use this available knowledge, however, as a starting point for the remainder of this blog post. To analyse the complex meaning of “cool” in areas and cultures less studied with regard to it. These include my personal cultural interests and backgrounds, that are partly – but not totally – covered in the Wikipedia article or even Farris Thompson’s book. I set out to fill some voids, so to speak.

I am a reggae fan, for instance. I am also interested in Rastafari. Further I have connections to several European countries: notably Italy and Spain, and I live in the Netherlands.

I think it is interesting how the meanings of “coolness”, which differ widely as already known, can be found in cultures and languages not mentioned so much in the Wikipedia articles.

Reggae, and also other European countries than Italy or Britain, are mentioned here and there in a general sense in the studies of Robert Farris Thompson, who further focuses broadly on African and Afro-American culture. This last focus – the African Diaspora - I find very interesting, and I am going to largely specify on it rather than diverge from this focus.

How is the concept of “cool” mentioned in the lyrics of the African Jamaican music genre Reggae for example? I will analyze that later on.


First, however, I explore if a country like Spain, has cultural “cool” meanings, similar to those mentioned for other European countries, or even to African concepts of it. It sometimes it forgotten that the country Spain is only about 12 kilometres at its closest (the town Tarifa, somewhat south of Gibraltar) to the African continent, thus almost bordering it.

Some similarities with another Mediterranean, “Latin” country like Italy seem however not too far-fetched, though the similarities even here should not be exaggerated.

I also know the Netherlands well. Many, if not all, countries have internal “images” or stereotypes regarding regional/internal differences. These tend to be derogative, often showing that people from other regions feel themselves to be better, but other such “images” are even embraced by the people associated with it. I even suspect that some overly positive images are started by the people stereotyped themselves (industrious, tolerant, artistic etc.).

Dutch people are known as “cheap”, like e.g. Scottish people. Within Spain, the people from Galicia and Catalonia are also known as “cheap”, among other Spaniards.

Some regionals/nationalities called “cheap” do not like this stereotype or find it unjust, while others more or less embrace it and build their identity around it. Such occurred in the Dutch national image, I think. Even individual Dutch people with not very economically “cheap” tendencies may in fact change themselves to fit the national image. The same occurred among some Catalonian and Scottish people.

This can be explained because “being cheap” may seem derogatory, but has something inherently “cool”. It may sound like being tight and boring, but being cheap points at rational self-control – “cool” in that sense – while having to be cheap points at poverty, having to struggle, which gives a “cool” image in another way. Strong Protestant, Calvinist influences may explain this in part in the case of Scotland and the Netherlands (though less in Catholic Galicia and Catalonia), but perhaps “poverty” became “cool” later due to some Socialist movements, or even because of certain music genres with lyrics about it, such as Black music like Blues, or Reggae, especially since the 1970s popular among many Europeans as well.

This is more image than reality, in light of the fact that the Netherlands fares economically relatively well within Europe, and so does Catalonia, being economically one of the wealthiest parts of Spain.

To return to “cool”: another generalizing Dutch self-image, many Dutch people seem to have embraced is that of being “nuchter”, as it is called in the Dutch language. “Nuchter” can be translated into English as sober, but also as “calm”, “with self-control”, “down to earth”, or “reserved". Even more positive it can be translated also as "sensible".

Many Netherlands people see themselves without much objections as “nuchter”, which in some sense can be translated as ”cool”. It is also an extension of the self-control found in the “cheap” image. There is a similarity here with the “reserved” image of the (more aristocratic) British, and in some way with the more slow and controlled Catalonian cultural (dance, music) expressions, such as the serene, brass-accompanied Catalan circle dance the Sardana, known as the “national dance” of Catalonia.

This calm, seemingly “formal” Sardana seems a world apart from the “fire” in the Flamenco of South Spain/Andalusia, or from the lively and - for European standards - relatively percussive, castanets-using “Jota” or “Fandango” music/dance from other, central parts of Spain.

Yet.. can these self-images (just or not) really be in some way compared to the “aesthetic of the cool” as found in traditional African culture? Not realistically, I think. The South of Spain is closer to Africa than Catalonia, while the “nuchter” image is said even more of Netherlands people from the North of the country (provinces Groningen, Frysia etc.), when compared to the busier Western parts (Amsterdam etc.) or the Catholic South Netherlands. It is another type of “cool” we are dealing with here, I think.

I mentioned Andalusia and the Flamenco. Andalusians are not seen as “cheap” in national Spanish stereotypes. On the contrary, some even joke that Andalusians do not only spend what they have, but even what they don’t have. This stereotype of (financial) irresponsibility is also applied to South Italians by wealthier Northern Italians. Also the Greek got such accusations recently. Northern vacationers noticing the long siestas – afternoon “naps” - in these regions seem confirmed in their prejudices, ignoring that offices/workplaces close later than in Northern Europe… and that the climate is hotter.

Neither are Andalusians or Southern Spaniards known in stereotypes as “calm” in and by itself, but rather as “temperamental”. Positively they are known as “humorous”, or, less positive, as boisterous and exaggerating.

Within the Flamenco music genre, originated in Andalusia among both gypsies and non-gypsies, however, some cultural “coolness” can be found, even a kind of “mystic coolness”, a bit like in some African cultures. A certain demeanour in singing, dancing – or even social behaviour – by persons is termed “tener arte”, literally “having art” in Andalusian Spanish, meaning a person “has art”, or is in other words “graceful”. “Tener gracia”, or “having grace” is also said of persons, often in similar instances. “Having art/tener arte” is often applied to the performance of a graceful Flamenco dancer or singer on a stage, who maintains a kind of control and seriousness even in joyful or lively dances or Flamenco subgenres. This kind of contradiction comes closer to the meaning of “cool” as found also in African aesthetic culture.

Perhaps this is in part what appealed Miles Davis – himself according to many associated with the artistic Black “cool” – to Flamenco, as evident from the song title ‘Flamenco sketches’ on Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959) album.


The origins of “cool” in the other meanings of “great” or “nice” have thus their direct origins in African American speech and culture, probably via jazz. The deeper origins can – as explained – be found in several sub-Saharan African cultures, the most of sub-Saharan Africa actually. It would be interesting therefore to analyze this “cool” concept with regard to Afro-Jamaican culture. This is also the case because Caribbean cultures are known to have more African, or less-dilluted, African retentions, when compared to the US. I am going to focus especially on reggae music, its lyrics, and related culture. Reggae originated in Jamaica around 1968, out of older forms ska and rocksteady, and included African, local folk, as well as African American influences.

The lyrics of reggae music are in Jamaican variants of English, or in English-influenced Patois/Jamaican Creole. The word “cool” recurs therefore regularly. In light of the above I find it intriguing to analyze this usage of the word “cool” regarding its meaning: is it used in the common, English meaning of “keeping control”, staying calm under stress, only used by other people (black Jamaicans) in other contexts (e.g. the Kingston ghetto)? Or is there in Jamaican music a reference to the age-old African, traditional/cultural meaning of “complex balance”, with a place for the mystical and spiritual – or ancestral (as Robert Farris Thompson describes it)? Indeed, reggae is strongly influenced by the Rastafari movement, which of course has mystical and spiritual elements, as well as “ancestral” aspects, being after all an Africa-centered movement.

Several reggae songs are, in fact, titled ‘Mystic Man’, such as by Peter Tosh, and the Ethiopians, referring to the Rastaman as a mystic man. This seems to refer to a related cultural complex to “mystic coolness”, at least partly. The word “cool” itself recurs quite often throughout reggae lyrics. Relatedly, it is found in Jamaican parlance as well. The expression “cool runnings” became especially known because of the movie on a Jamaican bobsled team, and is also found in Bob Marley’s song ‘Blackman Redemption’, and in the song ‘Cool Runnings’ (1981) by Bunny Wailer. In these lyrics this expression has a similar positive meaning as in African American parlance: “cool runnings” means here that everything goes well or smooth.

Several songs – by several artists – have in the lyrics “cool down (your temper)”, referring to “hot foot heads” like certain policemen, criminals, or rude boys wreaking havoc in the community with their violent, aggressive ways. Some lyrics advise Rasta brethren to remain “cool”, and don’t let the system make them crazy, but also to stay true to themselves. The Heptones’ ‘Cool Rasta’ (1976), for instance.

Lyrics can further be mentioned by Jacob Miller (‘Mr Officer’), Gregory Isaacs (‘Mr Cop’), and more literally song titles ‘Cool Down Your/The Temper’ by Linval Thompson, Freddie McGregor, U Roy, Freddie McKay, Jah Stitch, Al Campbell and others (all original songs, by the way, with more or less the same title).

Other titles or lyrics with “cool down” or “just cool”, or “cool it” or “play it cool” in them can of course be named – too much too mention perhaps – generally referring to “cool down” in the sense of: take it easy, not so hot-headed and be calm. A meaning, therefore, comparable to the standard meaning in English of “keep cool”, “control your emotions”, and “have self-control”. Yet, hints of the “African” aesthetic meaning of “complex balance” and “positivity” are present in these lyrics here and there as well, beyond just another way of saying “relax!” or “stay calm”. In fact, it is intertwined with it in some lyrics. Israel Vibration’s ‘Cool and Calm’ is a good example of this. Here “cool” does not just mean: rational or calm, but also “true to oneself” or “in balance”. Something preferably to be continued, or, as stated in the lyrics: “so wi a gwaan”.

The debut single (1967), in the Rocksteady era (label Studio One), by Earl Lowe – later better known as artist Little Roy - was called ‘I am gonna cool it’. Here ‘cool’ means also more than just “keeping calm”. Lowe or Little Roy, by the way, was one of the vocal influences on a young Bob Marley. I mentioned this influence already elsewhere on my blog (but is not well-known).


The Jamaican term “easy”, likewise has a broader meaning than the same word in standard English. “Easy” approaches “Irie” a bit in meaning in Jamaican linguistic usage. Both “easy” and “Irie” mean “okay”, “nice/good”, or “balanced”, and is used in response to a question like: “How are you doing?” (“easy”, or “Irie”). Comparably, originally among Afro-Surinamese in the Netherlands the expression “rustig” (meaning in Dutch literally “easy” or “calm”) is answered to the same question: “how are you doing?”. This became part of street slang and is now also used in that sense by white Dutch youth, just like white British youth before adopted Jamaican expressions in their street slang..

Several Jamaican reggae lyrics and song tiles thus have ‘Easy’ in that sense, sometimes combined with Nice, as in ‘Nice and Easy’ (a catchy Horace Andy tune). Also ‘Easy’ a fittingly mellow song (from the album with the same title) by Gregory Isaacs can be mentioned.

Here, and in other reggae lyrics, “easy” – like “calm” - gets comparable meanings as “cool”, sometimes more similar to the standard English meaning of “take it easy” (not too fast or busy), but sometimes more “culturally” as a positive, harmonious state of being, showing with this meaning more direct African retentions.

Reggae knows several odes to marijuana, though some artists have these more than others. These include some nice tunes, that even non-smokers might like. Yet, to return to the topic: the expression “Cool collie” (“collie” being a term for marijuana/ganja herb) is mentioned, and is used also a song title. This gives thus a positive connotation through “cool” to the herb and its effects. Hopeton Lewis has a nice, older (Rocksteady) song with this title (‘Cool, cool collie’).

Use of the term “cool” as “positive” or “”nice/good” is also found in the expression “cool operator” in Jamaican reggae, such as in a song of that title by Delroy Wilson (referring to a “cool” girl he fancies).

Of course, it is not unthinkable that the term “cool” in the sense of “nice” or “good” is an influence from Black US music or culture (soul, jazz, hip-hop) to which Jamaica remained exposed throughout. I argue, however, that - independent of this - similar meanings of “cool” are found in Jamaican culture and speech, be it literally “cool” (such as in the expression “cool runnings”), or in related meanings and uses of terms like “easy”, “calm”, or the own term - originally from Rasta speech - “Irie”.

Also, the nickname of the already mentioned artist Gregory Isaacs, the ‘Cool Ruler’, also the name of one of his albums, has “cool” meaning something positive as part of a balance: “ruling” yet “cool”, combining a seeming contradiction, that conveys – as explained before – an African cultural/aesthetic aesthetic, retained in the West. Earlier, Jamaican singer Jackie Edwards also was said to have a “cool” performative side, being in that sense a precursor to Isaacs.


The “cool” in these latter cases refers mostly to love or “not-so-spiritual” songs, but the “mystic coolness” can, I opine, also be noticed in Rastafari-inspired reggae music and songs. The stage presence, and natural charisma of several Rastafari reggae artists, including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and others have this mystique, quite literally a “mystic coolness”. They embody it, you can say. Musical “joy”, excitation – even magic -, but at the same time keeping control, keeping cool, a seriousness in bringing the art. That is part of the (African) aesthetics of the cool.

Besides performing artists, also other, true Rastafari adherents tend to convey such “ancestral” mystique in their spiritual and/or “conscious” way of being in daily life. Jamaicans are stereotyped by many as being laid-back, but can be quite temperamental (e.g. in traffic, yelling: “you blocking de road mon!”) – and often living conditions make this temperament understandable - , but even those at times temperamental tend to balance it with some type of “cool”. This balance was also my personal experience with at least part of the Jamaicans, including Rastas, I met and knew in Jamaica itself, when I went there.

Also the main inspirers and personalities of Rastafari seem(ed) to embody this “cool”. Haile Selassie’s biography shows he “kept his cool” in several crucial instances: when Fascist Italians invaded Ethiopia, and shortly after this when Italian delegates at the UN whistled and bullied him when he pleaded for support at the UN head quarters: he remained calm and dignified. This was also the case when other Ethiopians fought against him, before he rose to the throne, and when the Communists forcibly removed him from power in 1975. He could “rise above” such difficult situations and the all-too-human rancour it could provoke, maintaining his cool and control, indeed as a “mystic coolness”.

Marcus Garvey seemed to be known as more temperamental in character, at least partly. He also, however, showed “control” and dignified calm in crucial instances, though not always (he at times got angry when he felt betrayed or belittled and showed this openly, and sometimes not very tactically). Overall, he showed effective and “cool” determination throughout, however, in setting up the first large Black mass organization in the US and elsewhere: the U.N.I.A. Against many odds, you can safely say. He was “intelligent” then, and is that in this sense not also “cool”, after all also defined as “complex balance”?

Besides these activities, Garvey liked to write, and also created artistic works. He even wrote a “pop song”, or “popular song”, in 1925, to bring across his message of Black upliftment. This song was named: ‘Keep Cool’. So we come back to the “cool”, literally.

How did Garvey mean “cool” in this song? The expression “keep cool” is standard English, and Garvey of course grew up in a society that was still British colonial. Indeed, as could be expected, part of the meaning is the standard one: “keep cool” or “stay calm”, as a recommendable response to stress and worries. Yet, there is more to it, noticeable when you look at the entire lyrics of this song written by Marcus Garvey. see:

He indeed opposes “cool” in the lyrics to “hot”, but also associates being “brave” and “true” with the "cool" one should keep, despite troubles. True to oneself, in other words.

The song ‘Give Rasta praise’ (1975) by the Twinkle Brothers refers to the lyrics of this Garvey song/poem. A “cool” song, in more than one way..

Both these cases and life stories, of Selassie and Garvey, furthermore, validate Farris Thompson's description of Black, African "transcedental coolness" being a mental response to racism and oppression.

zaterdag 2 mei 2015

Drums of Defiance : Jamaican Maroon music

The Maroons are descendants of escaped enslaved Africans who went to live in relatively inaccessible, mostly mountainous parts of Jamaica, since the later 17th century. The “power vacuum”, temporarily left when the British captured Jamaica on the Spanish in 1655, partly caused the development of these Maroon communities. With the coming British victory, remaining Spaniards fled to Cuba, mostly leaving their slaves behind: these then took to the mountains, instead of being enslaved by new masters. Plantation slavery intensified strongly under British rule, so much more slaves were imported since then. Some of these could escape to the formed Maroon towns.

There – after some wars – the Maroons could fight the British forces off, who then had no other option than to recognize these Maroon towns’/communities’ autonomy, which was even laid down in treaties granting them land in the 18th c. Thus these Maroons secured their freedom. This is an impressive story of rebellion by Africans who were made slaves, but resisted and fought strongly and wisely against a powerful British army. One Maroon woman, called (Queen or Granny) Nanny, was very brave and successful against the British, and became a legendary, and eventually “national” hero of Jamaica.

The treaties between Maroons and the British in Jamaica were made in the 18th c., at the height of plantation slavery. Most Africans/Blacks in Jamaica were at that time, and well into the 19th c., still enslaved, mostly in a (sugar or coffee) plantation setting.

This history is very interesting and has received quite some scholarly attention. The same applies to comparable Maroons (escaped enslaved Africans), elsewhere in the region: Suriname, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, and other territories with relatively inaccessible areas. Geography of course played a role. Maroon communities in Cuba, for instance, developed mainly in the mountainous East (Oriente) of Cuba, for that reason.


Maroons in Jamaica largely retained a relatively pure African culture, with several interesting aspects and dimensions. In this post, however, I will focus on one (important) aspect of Maroon culture in Jamaica: music. Jamaica is of course known for one international genre, called Reggae. It put Jamaica internationally on the map, you can safely say. Especially Bob Marley’s international fame stimulated that since the 1970s, and made it part of common popular music. Granted, reggae is overall still more a niche market than a very commercial one, but it has a wide fan base globally, and specialized markets is a price you have to pay if you want to remain authentic.

Because of Jamaica being the place where the popular music genre reggae originated, around 1968 (following on predecessors ska and rocksteady earlier in the 1960s), I think it is interesting to analyse Jamaican Maroon musical traditions.


Another reason is that in Jamaica also the Rastafari movement originated, earlier in history in the 1930s. Also Rastafari spread internationally in a later stage. Rastafari is anticolonial, focussed on the African roots and repatriation, and foregrounds an own African cultural identity against the enforced Western/European one. The same type of rebellious spirit as found among the Maroons, you might say, and symbolic inheritors thereof.

Jamaica is quite a small island, so interchanges among cultures, peoples, and communities seem inevitable, especially in more modern times and with modern means. Indeed the Maroon communities, or “towns”, located in both Western and Eastern parts of Jamaica, got to interact more and more with the rest of rural and urban Jamaica, adopting practices, adapting them, while maintaining those of themselves as well. This interaction increased since the postemancipation period (after slavery), for obvious reasons. Christianity, but also Kumina, a mainly Central African music and dance, and other Afro-Jamaican practices like Pocomania and Burru are found in rural areas as well, also nearby what are known as Maroon towns. Rastafari is also spread throughout Jamaica, as is reggae and other popular music.

How has this all impacted Jamaican Maroon music over time? Is the latter still maintained as a distinctive tradition? The answer is yes. However: it is not realistic to expect that in a small island, with Maroon towns being in this time more accessible, this Maroon music would remain unadulterated or “pristine”. Indeed it has not remained totally isolated or “pure” in that sense.

It is true, notwithstanding, that certain cultural/musical traditions have remained quite pure, and stood the test of time, also within the traditional music of the Jamaican Maroons. There are gradations of this, though.

As a purer “memory” and tradition from Africa, this Maroon culture has inspired some Rastafari adherents in Jamaica, who sought African retentions to counter an enforced, Europeanized identity. This has also happened with musical (drumming) traditions of the mostly Congo-based Kumina traditions in Eastern Jamaica, influencing Nyabinghi drumming patterns of the Rastafari. Burru and Pocomania likewise influenced (hand and trap) drummers in Jamaican popular music like reggae, and this included Rastafari-inspired musicians. The Kete drums used in Rastafari Nyabinghi drumming directly derive from Burru drums, and further back from Akete drum types from what is now Ghana.

Can the same be said of drums that the Jamaican Maroons traditionally use? That they spread to outside, non-Maroon groups in Jamaica? Not so much. One can conclude that the Maroons were able to maintain certain traditions for themselves in their towns and communities, exclusively taking place in the own, “closed” Maroon context.

A look at the most common instruments used among the Jamaican Maroons will prove this point. We can also look at the deeper meanings and structure of music, of course. In that sense Jamaican Maroon music has many direct African retentions, including in the role of different types of drums, and the presence of drum patterns and songs meant to invoke spirits of ancestors, used in spirit possession, alongside “recreational” music, accompanying specific dances and ceremonies.


This ancestor spirit invoking and possession music is the most “secretive” or “exclusive” you might say, most restricted within Maroon communities, also linguistically (an African Akan/Twi-derived language survived among part of the Maroons). Partly this exclusivity within the community might have been prolonged because it was at odds with the strong Christian and Biblical influence in the rest of Jamaica. Even groups who called on Africa, and indeed incorporated several African traditions, such as the Spiritual Baptists, Revival Zion, or many Rastafari, stopped short of the “spirit invoking and possession” music/dance, soon deemed “devilish”, divisive, or backward.

After early experiments and tolerance for such practices among some of the early Rastafari adherents, in time the Bible became a more powerful guide for Rastafari spirituality, albeit in an own way (with some other influences), and with a “Black” or Afrocentric interpretation. This inhibited very tight connections of Rastafari with much Maroon music and beliefs, or for that matter with the parts of Kumina that also deal with ancestor spirits and/or possession. Some cultural or musical aspects were appreciated and copied by Rastas though, such as the mentioned Kumina musical influence on Nyabinghi drumming, There is also a proven influence from Maroon folk medicine on folk medicine by Rastafari. However.. is there also any musical influence of the Maroons on for instance the Rastafari, or vice versa?

Kumina did influence part of the Maroon traditional music, especially in the Maroon towns in Eastern Jamaica where Kumina was also nearer, Kumina being mostly found in the parish of St Thomas (see map). This influence has been documented and proven. This is for instance noticeable in drumming patterns: a typical mid-tempo to fast, rolling “heart beat” rhythm is therefore found in Kumina, as well as in some Maroon music.

Other aspects are shared and similar as well, but relate more to common African roots and general traditions in Africa, continued in different traditions in the West. One can think of the general polyrhythmic and percussive structures, drums with different pitches, with either leading or improvizing or basic, supportive rhythmic roles, the “call-and-response” principle, the custom of naming drums either male or female – with ritual functions -, the importance of “purity” among players of sacred drums or music etcetera etcetera.


The most common drums among Jamaican Maroons differ a bit across different Maroon towns. In any case, they include the Gumbeh and Printing (also called Grandy). The Gumbeh (or: Goombay) drums have a small, square, table-like form and has a goatskin. It can be considered a bass drum. It most probably has its origin in the Akan (Ghana-area) “Gome” drum, with a similar (if bigger) form, still found in Ghana today. The longer, thin, and cylindrical Aprinting – or Printing - drums are also common. Though the name is similar, the Apinti drum among the Maroons in Suriname is not cylindrical (and broadens in its lower part) and is less tall, though it has a similar tuning method.

Other percussion instruments commonly used among Jamaican Maroons include an instrument made of bamboo hit with sticks – called Kwat -, and a metal piece of percussion. Also used are wind instruments, most notably the Abeng, made from cowhorn. The Abeng is a sort of “national instrument” of the Jamaican Maroons, and has a strong sound. The Abeng horn was used also in the wars with the British, to communicate across long distances and across the mountains. The Abeng has essentially two pitches (tones), but was creatively used to communicate even complex messages. Pitch is changed of the Abeng through the use of the thumb.

The Maroons in Moore Town (parish of Portland) mostly use(d) the Printing drums, while other Eastern Maroons, such as in Charles Town or Scott’s Hall, also use the Gumbeh frame drum, also found in the Western Maroon town of Accompong, generally combined with the Aprinting/Grandy type drums.

Though the Printing drum has to a degree some similarities with the Kete drums used for Nyabinghi (and Burru), the use of either the Gumbeh and Printing drums in strictly Rastafari contexts has not been reported very much, although there are Rastafari-led percussion groups in Jamaica that play on occasion also these and other African drums.

The (Burru/Nyabinghi) Kete drums, but also Afro-Cuban or internationally better known percussion instruments such as the Conga, the Bongos, the Guiro, or the Djembe, have been used by session percussionists in reggae (Scully, Bongo Herman, Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, Sticky, Sky Juice, and others), and are still regularly used by younger percussionists. The more experimental among these percussionists also use specific African or Afro-Jamaican drums that are less known. It seems to fit well with the African, culturally rebellious focus of especially Rastafari-influenced reggae.

I would love to give you some examples of reggae songs with the Gumbeh or Printing used as part of the percussion, but this is unfortunately difficult to research. In liner notes of reggae albums, in most cases is just mentioned: ‘Percussion by…’ etc. (then names: Bongo Herman, Sticky, Scully or others), with rarely more specifications. There are some exceptions of more specific information given (beyond just: “percussion(s)”), such as the sleeve notes for Israel Vibrations’ song ‘Mighty Negus’ (on their 1996 album Free To Move), that percussionist Sky Juice uses a talking drum on it, while another plays the Ket(t)e drums, on this Nyabinghi-based song.

Written down in sleeve notes or not, it is in any case known and documented that several well-known percussionists in Jamaican reggae use different type of drums (beyond the more common Kete, Conga or Bongos), also to broaden their range. Maroon instruments might just be among them, even if Maroon communities long remained relatively somewhat “closed” from Jamaican society. Maroon culture has in any case “symbolic” power, one can say, also for Rastafari adherents.


Thus contextualized, it would be interesting, to further discuss, or “review”, an album or CD I have, which assembles Maroon music from several Jamaican Maroon towns. It is called ’Drums of Defiance : Maroon music from the earliest Free Black communities of Jamaica’, and was released in 1992. The music fragments on it are collected by ethnomusicologist Kenneth Bilby.

In an earlier post on this blog (August 2013) I discussed/reviewed a broader Jamaican “folk music” CD, called: ‘Jamaica Folk Trace Possession’ (2013), see here. This had a similar scholarly, anthropological focus as this ‘Drums of Defiance’ one, including also many “excerpts” or “field recordings”. It included examples of several older Afro-Jamaican folk music, but had no examples of Maroon music: this “Drums of Defiance’ album thus fills that void, you might say.

Sound quality is hereby not perfect: it involves music in a certain social or ritual context, that happened to be recorded: it was not popular or commercial music, perfected in a studio according to certain norms, for the market. The same applies to this CD on Jamaican Maroon music. The sound quality is mediocre, and many “songs” (or excerpts) last only about a minute. These are mainly meant to give impressions of different styles and variations within Maroon music. Subgenres you might say.


The recordings were made in the period 1977-1978. Most of these in Moore Town, a town in Eastern Jamaica where relatively more Maroon musical traditions continued to be practiced, at that time, while being a bit less present in the other towns known as Maroon towns. Musicians of traditional Maroon music could be found in these other towns, but often had to be specifically sought and gathered. Traditions were perhaps not dead, but dormant, and hopefully not dying.. Other recordings were made during actual community ceremonies (public or private).

The liner notes are a bit general but good, explaining well main types of Maroon music and their cultural context, based on research by Kenneth Bilby. Bilby studied and wrote about other Jamaican percussion traditions as well, including a very interesting study of the influence of African and Afro-Jamaican (Burru and other) hand drum traditions on percussion and percussionists in reggae like Bongo Herman and Sticky. Kenneth Bilby has also done some very insightful research of Maroons elsewhere, namely in Suriname, and other comparative research.

The liner notes, and the names Maroons themselves give to songs and genres within their music, are very instructive as well. The Kromanti dance ritual – involving spirit possession through dance – is the most serious as well as exclusive, as non-Maroons are (safe exceptions) not allowed at these Kromanti dances.

While “Kromanti” refers to Ghana (or: “Gold Coast”) and Akan-speaking slaves (also: Coromantee) etymologically, and also other terms I mentioned point at Akan or related Akan Fanti/Ashanti roots, it is too simplistic to conclude that these Maroons descend only from slaves brought from what is now Ghana or from Akan/Twi-speaking areas. A common misconception is, by the way, that most Jamaicans descend from slaves brought from the Ghana/Gold Coast area. A similar misconception I found among Afro-Surinamese people, by the way. In reality, African slaves in Jamaica came from several parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is true, however, that Akan-speaking, Coromantee, Fanti, Ashanti and related groups, were a large part of the slaves brought to Jamaica, but not a large majority. It is studied, and documented that probably about 45% of Africans brought to Jamaica were from the Ghana region, so not even a majority or about half, though it was the largest among ethnic groups. A similar proportion applies in Suriname, by the way. Quite some slaves ending up in Jamaica further came from the Igbo area (now Southeast-Nigeria), from Central Africa (Congo and Angola) – the latter Bantu-speaking Africans estimated at about 20% of the total, and further from Ewe-speaking areas (around what is now Benin and Togo), or from the Senegambia and Guinea region and elsewhere.

There is a strong Akan/Ghana influence on the Maroons in Jamaica – also linguistically -, and the Gumbeh drum is almost certainly a cousin to the Ghanaian Gome, as I already explained, but influences from other parts of Africa are found in Maroon culture as well. Besides from the ethnicities I mentioned, some historians also point at Yoruba (an ethnic group in what is now SW Nigeria and Benin) influences among Jamaican Maroons. The Maroons were slaves that escaped the slave-based plantations, and they came from different African ethnic groups, of course not only specific ethnic groups thought about escaping such a dehumanizing and oppressive system.

The Jamaican Maroons themselves recognize all this as much, in naming specific dances and songs after different African ethnicities. This is the case with specific Kromanti pieces meant to invoke ancestor spirits from specific ethnicities or parts of Africa. These are named by Maroons themselves Kromanti, Papa (referring to Ewe-speaking groups), Ibo (Igbo), and Mandinga (ethnic area around Sierra Leone).

According to the anthropologists/ethnomusicologists, however, this does not mean that a specific Kromanti piece called, say, Mandinga, has actual direct roots in music from Mandinga-speaking parts of Africa. It is a partly symbolic designation, combined with own creative interpretations by musicians, with Mandinga but also other African influences. African musical cultures thus were most probably mixed, and reworked in an artistic way.

Lighter, recreational forms of Maroon music are called Jawbone, while “Tambu” refers to Maroon music showing Kumina influences, as I mentioned before. Examples of all these genres and types are found on this CD/album.

The CD includes examples of both the Windward and Leeward Maroon towns mentioned: especially Moore Town, but also Charles Town, Scott’s Hall, and in Western Jamaica: Accompong. The latter has similarities, but also differences with the Eastern Jamaican Maroons. Spirit invoking is for instance different among Accompong Maroons, the latter paying more attention to funerals and burials. Another aspect, by the way, which many Rastafari eschew: funerals are by many Rastas criticized for impurely celebrating death, a disdain with also origins in the Bible (Levitical code, Nazarene Vow). Besides this, musically and culturally there are further many similarities of the Accompong with the Moore Town and other Maroons.

Apart from the explanatory liner notes, the CD “songs” and excerpts are interesting to listen to in and by themselves. Some background information helps with such a scholarly or intellectual focus though. I can get “in the groove” easily even with complex, drum-based music, but more knowledge about it adds to the experience. At least for me.

In the liner notes it is pointed out that certain types of songs among Maroons have a constant pulse throughout, while others are more “talking drum”-like, mimicking speech, and therefore have more meandering and varying rhythms.

The Maroons refer to a basic rhythm or pulse - mostly by the mentioned Printing drums - as “rolling”, while “answers” and variations on it are called “passing”. The latter “passing” rhythms are often by the lead drums: Gumbeh or other Printing drums or other percussion instruments. Crucially, these separate rhythms “interlock”, as common in the African polyrhythmic tradition.

The examples from Tambu (Kumina-influenced) are dynamic and show clear echoes of the “fast heart beat” rhythm found in Kumina. Jawbone and Kromanti examples often sound just as nice. The Aprinting drum also has an in my opinion a nice, “round” and deep sound.. This drum’s skin diameter is comparatively small (10 inches or less), but it has a “long” shape, affecting of course its sound, making its pitch somewhat lower and deeper than one might expect. Players of it on these excerpts play well and creative. I thus surely “got in the groove” – despite the mediocre sound quality and often short fragments - , even on the songs said to have less of a “constant pulse”. Most songs are certainly danceable, and I liked for instance some of the Ibo songs, and some of the Mandinga songs, while the opening Tambu song is very catchy, also because of the singing.

The Kwat (kind of a bamboo block) or metal percussion further add interesting support – or counter-rhythms - to the whole. The Gumbeh is heard a bit less through all these examples than the Printing, but the Gumbeh drum is also included in several examples, and sounds good and well-played too. The Gumbeh sounds a bit “clearer”, when compared to the Printing/Grandy. The Abeng also appears now and then, and this cowhorn adds a distinctive, atmospheric feel to the music. With the Abeng sound it reminded me (superficially) a bit of the Haitian Rara tradition, also including drums and horns (albeit in Haitian Rara mostly cylindrical bamboo or metal trumpets).


What I further found very appealing were the vocals. Characteristically sub-Saharan call-and-response singing, with a solo singer (often a male, though not always), alternated/answered by group singing by mostly females. Linguistically, variants of Creoles or African/Akan-derived languages are spoken/sung, and I often did not understand what is being sung. Parts I understood from my knowledge of Jamaican Creole (“wah mi gwine do?”, in standard English: “what am I going to do?”). Titles and liner note explanations further gave me clues.

It sounded nice and catchy though: both groovy and atmospheric, as all good call-and-response singing. That the female voices often provide the “choir” or “response” part of these vocals is interesting. In African music this is quite common, and in some areas of Africa traditionally the norm, but in the Jamaican context it has another dimension. In reggae music for instance, as in other Black popular music genres, call-and-response recurs as African retention, but in a modern form. With some differences though: the “response” choir vocals are in e.g. reggae, and other popular genres, often also by men. This reflects the fact that the “commercial music” scene (White or Black music, by the way) in the Western world, is a male-dominated industry. Reggae also to a large degree.

Call-and-response and harmony vocals in reggae (or in soul, salsa, kaseko, and other African Diaspora music genres) are not always less-beautiful or nice because of this, but it is a bit of a change. Not that male (or mixed!) “response” choir vocals are absent in traditional African music, it was present, but female ones (contrasting male “call” vocals) are overall more common. This is indeed also the case in this Maroon music: in it you will therefore hear many female voices singing. Even this aspect, “gender”, adds a nice touch, haha.

Likewise in Reggae, female background vocals do also occur, as well as mixed groups. Bob Marley and the Wailers had of course the female I-Threes as backing singers. Several albums by other artists, like Culture, the Congos, or Burning Spear, include(d) one or more female background singers (often alongside males), while several artists also have mainly female backing singers, also in the more recent New Roots subgenre (Sizzla, Luciano, Tarrus Riley, Jesse Royal etcetera).

It was however stated, by some writers, that the choice of the female ‘I-Threes’ backing singers of Bob Marley and the Wailers, was an adaptation to Western, European tastes. That can be disputed, I think, in light of what I described above: the important (choir) vocal role of women in traditional African music, and in relatively pure African-based music, such as by the Maroons.

The CD ends with a Nyabinghi medley. This Rastafari drumming had apparently by then acquired a place in Accompong, the Maroon town. Already then (this was recorded in the late 1970s), the Rastafari had influenced Maroon communities. Indeed, history shows that over time also many people in Maroon families in Jamaica became adherents of the Rastafari movement. Interestingly, the Accompong Nyabinghi players do not use the usual Kete drums for it. This can be heard, as the drum patterns (heart beat, varying Repeater etcetera) are typically Nyabinghi, and the chosen songs “classic” Nyabinghi songs ('Never Get Weary', 'New Name' a.o.), but the drums sound is quite different from common Nyabinghi:. Here you hear the sound of the Maroon drums Gumbeh and Printing, sounding a bit less ”sharp” than the commonly used Ketes. It gives, however, this Nyabinghi example on the album something unique, as also do certain Repeater patterns varying around the “heart beat” rhythm. These specific patterns probably reflect the Maroon music’s much more polyrhythmic structure (when compared to the somewhat more singular/linear Nyabinghi rhythms).


The recordings of the ‘Drums of Defiance’ album were as said all made in the years 1977 and 1978, and much may have changed since then. It seems probable, though, in light of the past cultural resiliency, that many of these Jamaican Maroon musical and other traditions are still maintained even today, in 2015. Even if partly evolved (as most cultures do).

The influence of Rastafari, reggae, and other Jamaican cultural expressions, on Maroons has increased since the 1970s. That is documented and proven. Some aspects of Maroon culture remained “closed” to outsiders (Kromanti spiritual dance/music, notably), inhibiting perhaps it spreading or influencing other Jamaican expressions, although such influence on non-Maroon Jamaican expressions can somehow still have occurred: in the percussion aspects of reggae music for example: just like Nyabinghi drumming included Burru and Kumina influences (and Nyabinghi in turn influenced reggae).

Reggae is of course in its origins influenced by traditional African music - as all Black music at least partly is. In addition, more direct African musical influences have always entered reggae (or ska and rocksteady) music since the 1960s, through percussion and otherwise, noticeable more directly in certain songs, think for instance of the percussive song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos, and these might in cases well be influenced by “purer African” music retained among the Maroons, alongside influences from Burru and Kumina. In fact, this song ‘Congo Man’ by the Congos - on their 1977 Heart of the Congos album - reminded me of some Jamaican Maroon music on this album, and might well be influenced by it.

Either way, the symbolic importance of Maroons escaping from and resisting slavery is often expressed by Rastafari-inspired reggae artists, as noticeable in several reggae lyrics, mentioning Queen Nanny for instance.

As could be guessed, the entire album ‘Drums of Defiance’ can be found on YouTube as well, albeit without the informative liner notes (these can be downloaden on the earler link I gave). The video underneath (on the Traditional Music Channel on YouTube) is in fact this whole album I just discussed, and opens (as said) with the Kumina-influenced Tambu music by Jamaican Maroons in Moore Town, continuing then with recreational Jawbone, spiritual Kromanti, and other examples, also from other Maroon towns. It ends in Accompong, and the very final part (after about one hour) is the mentioned Nyabinghi medley in an own “Accompong Maroon” way..