woensdag 5 februari 2020

Nobel prize for the other Bob?

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

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

CRITERIA

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

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

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

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

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

LITERATURE

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

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

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

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

BIAS

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

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

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

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

SONG LYRICS

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

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

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

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

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

BOB MARLEY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOB MARLEY'S LYRICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOKESPERSON

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

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

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

RHYME

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

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

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

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

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

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

INFLUENCES AND CONTEXT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUDING

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

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

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

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

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

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

COUNTERING BIAS

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

LITERARY AND ARTISTIC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinsdag 7 januari 2020

African continuities

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

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

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

DERACINATING

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

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

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

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

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

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

CREOLIZATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

RASTAFARI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NATION OF ISLAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REGIONAL DIFFERENCES

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

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

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

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

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

BACK TO AFRICA

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

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

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

SAVISHINSKY

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

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

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

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

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

MARIJUANA

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

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

DREADLOCKS

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

donderdag 5 december 2019

J. Rentes de Carvalho's 'Waar die andere God woont'

In een kringloopwinkel dichtbij waar ik woon in Amsterdam, trof ik een boek aan dat ik nog kende van mijn jeugd: ‘Waar die andere God woont’, geschreven door de in Nederland woonachtige Portugees José Rentes de Carvalho, eerst verschenen in 1972. Rentes de Carvalho is een schrijver, geboren en opgegroeid in Portugal. Dat boek bevatte zijn beschouwingen en ervaringen met Nederland en Nederlanders, sinds hij in Nederland kwam wonen in 1956, dus tot de vroege jaren 70 van verschijning.

Memory lane: in mijn tienerjaren, nog wonend in Nieuw-Vennep, had ik het boek ook al eens gelezen. Dat was in mijn meest nadrukkelijke “boekenwurm” periode, volgend op een “voetbal” periode. Natuurlijk heb ik het geprobeerd te combineren, maar dat lukte mij in de sociale contexten die ik aantrof moeilijk: al te belezen en intellectueel kon je in voetbalkringen niet zijn en toch “meedoen”. Die werelden lieten zich niet combineren.

Ik was toen al – als voetballer en als boekenwurm - een Reggae fan, dus las boeken uit de bibliotheek over muziek, het Caraïbisch gebied, maar ik had ook veel interesse voor Afrika, wereldwijde geografie en wereldgeschiedenis.

Ik spitste deze brede interesse waar passend later ook wel toe op mijn achtergrond. Ik had een Noord-Italiaanse vader en een Zuid-Spaanse moeder. We gingen regelmatig naar Italiaanse feesten – vooral in het nabije Haarlem, waar mijn ouders trouwden en eerst woonden - met ook Italianen uit andere delen, zoals Zuid-Italië, en waren ook bevriend met deze Italianen. Mijn moeder had vriendinnen uit andere delen van Spanje, alsmede uit verschillende Latijns-Amerikaanse landen. In Nieuw-Vennep en omgeving. Deze kwamen redelijk vrijelijk bij ons thuis, dus zo groeide ik op.

Vandaar dat een boek over een Portugese migrant in Nederland en zijn bevindingen iets van “herkenbaarheid” voor me had. Een buurland van Spanje, met volgens velen wat raakvlakken met Spanje, en daar vandaan migreerde iemand, net als mijn moeder en eerder mijn vader, naar Nederland. Ik wilde wel even lezen of wat hij ervoer een beetje lijkt op wat ik aantref, of op wat mijn ouders als wezenlijke verschillen tussen hun en de Nederlandse cultuur zagen.

ALS ZE ER NIET BIJ ZIJN

Wat voor Surinamers geldt, geldt ook voor andere migrantengroepen: als er geen Nederlanders bij zijn worden er, soms minachtende, grappen over Nederlanders en hun cultuur gemaakt. Het lijkt mij onzinnig om daar naïef of schijnheilig over te doen. Dat grensde inderdaad af en toe aan (omgekeerd) racisme, wat afhing – net als bij racisme in het algemeen – van het relatieve empathisch vermogen van iemand, de hoeveelheid haat in iemands hart en hoofd, of diens groepsdenken: de mens blijven zien en niet alleen diens afkomst of etniciteit. Hoe dan ook: er werden ook bij mij thuis grappen over de Nederlandse cultuur gemaakt die soms minachting of zelfs afkeer verraden, net zoals in Surinaamse, Marokkaanse, of Turkse gezinnen. Er waren immers toch geen Nederlanders bij.

Het was terugkijkend denk ik echter niet excessief qua haat. Ik merkte met name bij mijn moeder een beetje dat ze niemand – geen individu – alleen vanwege afkomst wilde ontmenselijken, wat een goede, mooie trek was, natuurlijk. Dit was mogelijk een reactie van haar op haar onderdrukking onder de Spaanse variant van het fascisme: de Franco-dictatuur, waaronder ze moest opgroeien en nare ervaringen had: vooral als praktisch rechteloze en laaggeschoolde arbeider. In Nederland had ze wat meer rechten, dus ze zag ook de goede kanten van Nederland. Ook mijn vader zag wel wat goede kanten van Nederlanders en Nederlanders, en had meer Nederlandse vrienden dan mijn moeder: hij sprak beter Nederlands.

Toch is dit besef denk ik goed. Minachting voor andere volkeren wordt onderhouden in gesprekken als de “ander” er niet bij is. Vooroordelen worden zo onderling versterkt, aangescherpt, en mogelijk zelfs haat gevoed. Dat geldt voor racistische Nederlanders onderling, alle witte, Europese racisten, maar ook voor anderen (migranten, mensen met een kleur) die dat botte racisme overnemen omdat dat nodig lijkt in deze samenleving. Helaas zit daar niet de macht aan vast die witte Nederlanders wel in hun eigen land hebben, maar even negatief is het al wel.

CULTUURVERSCHILLEN

Bevindingen over een andere cultuur hoeven echter niet altijd heel negatief te zijn, of zonder (zachtere) relativering of humor. Dat wist ik ook van thuis. Ik hoorde echter ontegenzeggelijk kritiek thuis, ook van mijn moeder: Nederlanders hebben saaie feesten waarop niemand danst en er alleen maar gepraat werd, hebben lauwe, losse familiebanden. De taal is lelijk, ze eten slecht en beperkt (eenvoudig bereide aardappelen bijvoorbeeld). De bekende Zuid-Europeze/Latino kritiek op die stijve, kille, niet-verfijnde Noord-Europeanen, zou ik bijna zeggen. De Protestantse geloofsbeleving werd ook weinig begrepen, hoewel mijn moeder ook kritisch was over de historische Katholieke corruptie en onderdrukking in haar land Spanje. Dat is Rentes de Carvalho ook wel, maar zegt desalniettemin over het Nederlandse Godsbeeld (die hij zowel bij katholieken als protestanten trof) en de geloofsbeleving, als somber, vreugdeloos. Hij zegt niets te begrijpen van “dit kille geloof vol zonde, schuld, en ontzeggingen” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 93), en plaatst het onder meer tegenover het vrolijke zondagse uitje dat een kerkmis in Portugal was, met zelfs gangbaar geflirt tussen de geslachten.

Deels waren die kritische bevindingen ook wel waar, maar altijd subjectief: smaken verschillen, en culturen ook. Ik hou zelf van dansen en muziek, maar een goed gesprek op niveau op een feestje is af en toe ook wel fijn.

De Nederlandse eigen keuken – als die al bestaat – heeft mij inderdaad ook nooit weten te overtuigen, vind ik eveneens fantasieloos, maar biedt in ieder geval wat ruimte voor groente. Minder smakend of rijk dan andere keukens (zoals de Franse, Spaanse, en Italiaanse), maar nog steeds beter dan die fast-food rage, zoals die later opkwam (of overkwam uit de VS).

Rentes de Carvalho zegt hierover: “De Nederlander is nu eenmaal geen ‘gourmet’, geen fijnproever. Hij beschouwt alles wat aan eten wordt besteed en verder gaat dan een simpele maagvulling als verspilling, ‘zonde van het geld’” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 62).

Dit boek is van 1972, net vóór mijn geboorte, en ik merk dat er bij de jongere generatie wel wat veranderd is. Met name hoger opgeleiden Nederlanders lijken zichzelf soms zelfs meer in de Italiaanse of Spaanse keuken verdiept te hebben dan ik, terwijl mijn voorouders olijf- en vijgengaarden bezaten.

HERKENNING TOEN EN NU

Rentes de Carvalho’s boek volgt dus een beetje deze zelfde bekende Zuid-Europeze kritische patronen omtrent het onbegrip met de Nederlandse cultuur, die ik eerder hoorde van mijn Spaanse en Italiaanse familie en familievrienden. Vandaar dus die “herkenning” bij mij. Rentes de Carvalho kwam in 1956 en dit boek verscheen eerst in 1972. Mijn moeder kwam zo’n 10 jaar later dan Rentes de Carvalho naar Nederland (rond 1966), mijn vader iets eerder, rond 1963. Ik ben geboren in 1974.

In ieder geval dus nabij en deels overlappend in tijd. Wat van het boek stond me nog bij, van toen ik het decennia geleden in mijn ouderlijk huis lag, maar toch herlas ik het recentelijk weer na mijn aanschaf (het kostte welgeteld een euro). Ik ben in die tussentijd (zo’n 30 jaar later!) ook veranderd en ben andere levensfasen in gegaan, verhuisd naar Amsterdam, dingen meegemaakt, “trials and tribulations”, persoonlijke aanvallen, decepties, gebroken harten, etcetera, etcetera.

Interessant is dat mijn mening over de Nederlandse cultuur niet zoveel veranderd lijkt. De verschillen met Zuid-Europa blijken niet slechts tijdsgebonden, maar vaak bijna tijdloos. Rentes de Carvalho noemt de vergadercultuur, de regelzucht in Nederland, de directe, onomslachtige manier van praten zonder versiering, en het meer algemene gebrek aan sier en gratie in de omgangsvormen. Hij noemde in het boek veel Nederlanders bot en onbeleefd. Elders bekritiseert hij de gelijkhebberigheid en morele superioriteitswaan van Nederland.

Inderdaad resulteert dat niet in een algemeen goed of positief beeld van deze Nederlanders. In verschillende min of meer thematische hoofdstukken bespreekt hij aspecten van de Nederlandse cultuur en wat dat zegt over het volk: keuken, gezin, vergadering, geloof, ontwikkelingshulp, Amsterdam, pers, en ook een tijdsbeeld vanaf 1968: de religieuze en seksuele revolutie.

Naast de kille, ongevoelige omgangsvormen – zoals in het openbare verkeer als het ergens druk is – noemt hij tussendoor ook wel vriendelijke Nederlanders en positieve eigenschappen, veeleer eigen aan een democratische samenleving. Zeker democratischer dan het Portugal onder de Rechtse, fascistische dictator Salazar (vriend van Franco), dat Rentes de Carvalho verliet.

Wat betreft de omgangsvormen en “manier van zijn” van Nederlanders (koud, bot, betuttelend) blijft de teneur overwegend negatief. Rentes de Carvalho geeft daarbij wel toe dat het zijn persoonlijke opvattingen zijn.

Zo zegt hij hierover: “Voorkomendheid in de omgang is hier (in Nederland) beslist geen alledaags verschijnsel. Het wordt beschouwd als zwakheid, het brengt risico’s met zich mee. Wie voorkomend is wordt opzij geschoven..” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 70). Toe maar.

Verschillen met Zuid-Europa zijn er wat dat betreft, denk ik wel, hoewel mijn ouders me wel waarschuwden voor de oppervlakkigheid ervan. Bot wegduwen of in de weg staan – of beledigende grappen naar vreemden - zijn in Zuid-Europa minder geaccepteerd in het onderlinge verkeer dan in Nederland, dat wel, maar Rentes de Carvalho veralgemeniseert het als Nederlandse cultuurtrek, terwijl ik dat botte gedrag altijd persoonlijk en dus discriminerend opvatte ("doen ze niet bij een Nederlander of familielid"). De waarheid zal wel ergens in het midden liggen.

Dit boek dat ik pas kocht is een uitgave uit 1982, met een nawoord over de periode 1972 tot 1982 (tien jaar na de eerste uitgave). Mogelijk zat dat er ook al bij toen ik het boek de eerste keer las, ergens begin jaren 90, of was dat een andere uitgave, maar dat herinner ik me niet meer.

Rentes de Carvalho stelt in dat voor de druk van 1982 toegevoegde stuk, over Tien jaar veranderingen, dat hij en de Nederlanders elkaar nog steeds slecht begrijpen, ondanks sommige maatschappelijke veranderingen. Hij is er al die tijd blijven wonen, wat een keur aan persoonlijke redenen kan hebben die hij natuurlijk niet verplicht wereldkundig hoeft te maken. Dat mag hij zelf weten.

VERGELIJKINGEN

Wel ga ik weer vergelijken met mijn ouders, mijn tante, en anderen die het grootste deel van hun leven in Nederland doorbrachten en ook bezwaren bleven zien. Dat zegt iets diepers over migratie en aanpassing. Het zegt iets over migranten, maar naar mijn mening ook over de toegankelijkheid van een samenleving en cultuur.

Maar eerst over de kritiekpunten van Rentes de Carvalho over Nederlanders, vergeleken met wat ik hoorde van mijn familie en vrienden. Deels dezelfde kritiekpunten en irritaties, nogmaals dus die herkenning. Er was echter een nuance. Niet omdat het mijn moeder was, dat ik alles goed praat, - alle liefhebbende zonen eigen, haha - maar ik geloofde niet dat mijn moeder veel haat had of wilde hebben in haar hart. Minder althans dan andere mensen die ik tegen heb moeten komen in mijn leven.

Mijn moeder vertrouwde me toe dat ze alleen door gebrek aan kennis van het Nederlands zo weinig intieme Nederlandse vriend(inn)en had, en dus vooral Spaanstaligen en enkele Italianen en Portugezen. Ondanks haar grappen, zei ze dat ze op zichzelf niet veel had tegen de meeste Nederlanders. Ze had weliswaar wat slechte ervaringen met Nederlanders (seksueel opdringeringe mannen, discriminatie, pesterijen) maar zei geen hekel te hebben aan het hele Nederlandse volk. Of dat gemeend was of diplomatiek weet ik niet: dit zei ze tegen mijn broer en ik, geboren in Nederland, en mogelijk zag ze ons ook als Nederlanders, of in ieder geval vernederlandst. We praatten echter open genoeg, dus ik denk dat ze de Nederlanders wel degelijk een kans gaf.

Mijn vader sprak beter Nederlands, en had enkele Nederlandse, intieme vrienden.

Mijn ouders stelden zich in ieder geval – blijkt daaruit - open voor de variatie onder Nederlanders, en vielen gelukkig niet in de “omgekeerd racisme”-val waar andere migrantengroepen soms inliepen en inlopen. Ik ben leden van etnische minderheden in Amsterdam en elders tegen gekomen die (willekeurige!) Nederlanders – of blanken – als vieze beestjes die uit hun buurt moeten blijven behandelen, of deze treiteren.

Ik ben – eerlijk is eerlijk – ook meerdere Nederlanders tegen gekomen die mij als “buitenstaander” zo hard en racistisch behandelden en treiterden, als kind al, maar het wordt niet beter met een kleurtje, zeg maar. Waarom zou je slechte dingen overnemen van blanken? Of het is die haat aangepraat als Nederlanders er niet bij zijn, met ook het principe “onbekend maakt onbemind” en wellicht (religieuze) superioriteitswaan?

PRATEN

Mijn ouders vonden Nederlanders niet eens altijd onbeleefder en botter dan hun “eigen” mensen, in het geval van mijn moeder ook vanwege slechte ervaringen van mijn moeder met vooral Rechtse/fascistische Spanjaarden, zijzelf als wat vrijer en linkser denkend iemand. De Franco dictatuur in Spanje had ook iets bots en grauws in de sociale sfeer, en ze vond zelfs dat in Nederland meer mensen haar op straat vriendelijker en opener groeten dan in een afstandelijke, ieder-voor-zichzelf stad als Madrid, waar ze de laatste 4 jaar voor naar Nederland te gaan woonde. Nu woonde ze wel in een dorp in Nederland – Nieuw-Vennep – dat wel, minder anoniem dan een stad. Ook vond ze Nederlanders wat "doorzichtiger", zelfs als gemeen, dan andere volkeren, of veel van haar eigen mensen. Dat is wel een groot compliment, maar ze had niet veel intieme omgang met Nederlanders.

In de Italiaanse cultuur van mijn vader, ook als in het hoge noorden van Italië (Trentino, nabij Zwisterland en Oostenrijk – Alpien/Dolomieten Italië - waar hij vandaan kwam), is veel en grappig praten belangrijk en gestimuleerd in het sociale verkeer. Deel van het Mediterraanse buitenleven. Mijn moeder herkende dat ook wel, maar stelde toch dat ze daarnaast ook opvallend veel introverte, zwijgzame Spanjaarden heeft gekend. In Italië is veel kunnen praten belangrijk, dus zwijgzaam of rustig zijn zag hij – deels onterecht – als Nederlandse cultuurtrek. Ikzelf denk dat Nederlanders vooral “anders” praten – minder opsmuk zoals Rentes de Carvalho zei, weinig “gratie” of handgebaren ook – maar vaak niet minder spraakzaam met vrienden.

Rentes de Carvalho zegt daarover: “Ze (Nederlanders) kennen de kunst van het praten niet, van het praten om het praten, plezier hebben in woorden. Ze praten wel, zeker, als Brugman zelfs, maar het wordt allemaal zo gauw belerend, deftig” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 42). Dat is zijn ervaring.

Een interessant cultuurverschil noemt Rentes de Carvalho niet, maar mogelijk is dat een verschil tussen Spanje en Portugal: Spanjaarden praten harder en met luidere stem, openbaar en privé, dan Nederlanders. Mijn moeder praatte soms ook op een manier – soms niet eens negatief of “boos” bedoeld, eerder opgewonden – die sommige Nederlanders als “schreeuwen” kunnen karakteriseren. Het viel haar al snel op dat Nederlanders zachter en discreter praten, wat ook andere Spaanse mensen in Nederland opvalt, inclusief als familieleden langskomen: “Wat praten die Nederlanders hier zacht!”..

Rentes de Carvalho noemt dat niet echt in zijn boek, waardoor dat harde praten mogelijk minder voor Portugal geldt, of is het niet zo’n aandachtspunt. Dat is het ook niet meer van mij trouwens: door die cultuur en praatverschillen heb ik mijzelf aangeleerd om op de inhoud te letten, en minder op toon en volume. Volume van praten zegt niets over het karakter van mensen heeft mijn leven mij geleerd. Harde praters konden liefdevol zijn, zachte praters de meest haatdragende dingen zeggen. In de Italiaanse cultuur is het zelfs zo dat hatelijke dingen soms wat zachter (geniepiger) worden gezegd, net als bij sommige Nederlanders met ook haat en rancune in hun hart.

Die regelzucht van Nederland herkenden en bekritiseerden mij ouders ook, net als Rentes de Carvalho. Echter, ze prezen het ook wel, Nederland immers dat goed georganiseerde, welvarende land makend dat het is. Hetzelfde geldt voor het sterke economische vermogen voor een klein land, strak organisatievermogen, en de werkdiscipline. Relatieve complimenten, dat is waar: dat iemand een bovengemiddeld goede accountant is, maakt nog niet dat je met hem wilt gaan feesten van het weekend.., maar nog steeds complimenteus.

VERANDERINGEN

Sommige Nederlandse cultuurtrekken, ook de wat minder sympathieke, blijken hardnekkig de tand des tijds te doorstaan, naar mijn opvatting. Sinds 1972 is er me dunkt echter wel veel veranderd bij de Nederlanders. Het is allemaal wat internationaler geworden: via de media, meer migranten, en het meer kunnen reizen van Nederlanders. Zo botsten de Nederlanders op andere culturen, inclusief keukens, muziekstijlen, zelfs verspreid buiten hippe, hoogopgeleide Randstedelingen. Dit verscheen daarom ook in Nederland, en maakte het multicultureler.

1972 is ook een interessant jaar, want toen ik in Amsterdam kwam wonen (2003) ben ik veel Surinamers, of Nederlanders met een Surinaamse achtergrond tegen gekomen. De Surinaamse cultuur is wat geslotener dan die lijkt – ondanks het imago van “gezelligheid” - maar iets opener dan de Nederlandse, waardoor je mensen wel leert kennen. De Surinaamse gemeenschap heeft veel invloed gehad in Amsterdam, hoe je het ook wendt of keert. Okee, op sommige terreinen wat sterker dan op andere, maar redelijk wijd. Rentes de Carvalho was vanaf het begin woonachtig in Amsterdam, en noemt Surinamers weinig in dit boek. Andere migranten (Turken, Arabieren, Portugezen e.a.) wat meer. Misschien waren ze er tot die tijd (1972) nog niet zoveel, of waren ze minder nadrukkelijk aanwezig.

Hij noemt wel Surinamers en Antillianen, maar in een weinig vleiende beschrijving, bovendien ontsierd door het gebruik van het "n" woord, dat nu terecht in diskrediet is geraakt.

In het hoofdstuk over 'Gezelligheid. Manieren.' schrijft hij aldus, helaas weinig politiek correct: "Het is vermakelijk te zien hoe de jonge negers uit Suriname of de Antillen deze gewoonten meteen door hebben en er profijt van trekken, in de zekerheid dat de Hollander alles slikt uit angst voor racist uitgemaakt te worden.. De Surinamers lachen om de rijen wachtende mensen, dringen voor, brutaal-nonchalant, hun 'takki-takki' pratend dat niemand verstaat" ('Waar die andere God woont', p. 71/72).

Zoals gezegd is deze passage ontsierd door tegenwoordig incorrecte termen (ook 'takki-takki' is een verouderde - en denigrerende - term voor de taal correcter bekend als Sranan Tongo of (misschien) Creools of Surinaams. Het beschrijft bovendien vervelend gedrag, al zegt hij erbij dat ze het van de Nederlanders in hun omgeving overnamen. Iets van de spanningen tussen de bevolkingsgroepen wordt eruit nog wel duidelijk.

WIT OF ZWART

Dit alles verklaart deels waarom ik mij – tot verbazing van sommigen in mijn huidige vriendenkring – opgroeiend, nooit als “blank” of “wit” heb gezien, al ben ik een Europeaan. Deels wordt dat ook verklaard doordat ik in een vooral blank Noord-Hollands dorp als Nieuw-Vennep opgroeide. Het is ook niet te verklaren uit een “wit privilege” waardoor ik mij raciaal geen zorgen hoefde te maken, wat sommige lezers nu mogelijk denken: autochtone Nederlanders zagen mij en mijn familie toch wel degelijk als “anders” en buitenstaanders, want buitenlanders.

Uit wat ik hierboven vertel blijkt immers dat we bij mij thuis vooral bezig waren met de verschillen met Noord-Europeanen als Nederlanders vanuit onze Italiaans-Spaanse culturen (proberen) te “ontcijferen”. “Nederlanders doen dingen anders dan wij”, dat werk. Dit had geen raciaal component, hoewel we wisten dat Nederlanders meestal blonder, langer en lichter waren. Dat laatste ook maar deels: zowel mijn vader als ik werden net als Nederlanders roodverbrand van de zon (mijn moeder eerder bruin) als we familie in Andalusië (Zuid-Spanje) bezochten, en mijn haar is donker, maar met een rodige gloed, en een van mijn broers is zelfs nog blonder dan ik (men dacht altijd dat hij Nederlander was).. Toch: we waren bezig met cultuurverschillen, niet met ras.

Achteraf ben ik daar blij om, en zie ik dat zelfs als een zegen. Ik vind het bijna zwakzinnig om zo te denken in wit en zwart. Je komt uit een Europese cultuur, of je hebt een Afrikaanse afkomst, al dan niet gemankeerd en verstoord door meer dan 400 jaar slavernij en onderdrukking, maar nog steeds met een eigen Afro-gebaseerde cultuur.

Gelukkig dacht ik niet, toen ik voor het eerst naar Reggae-songteksten luisterde (ik leerde al jong Engels), rond mijn 11e levensjaar: ik ben wit, zwarten hebben een andere belevingswereld: dit snap ik toch niet. Mijn eerste impuls was om te proberen te begrijpen wat deze persoon zingt, en of ik me ermee kan identificeren. Gewoon als medemens.

Tegenwoordig hoor ik blanken wel zo praten (de muziek klinkt leuk, maar die teksten van die zwarten uit het ghetto snap ik toch niet: we hadden het thuis goed en ik ben wit). Mijn ouders waren arbeiders en zeker niet rijk, maar we kwamen rond en woonden betrekkelijk comfortabel. Toch kon ik me meteen met teksten identificeren.

Daarom zeg ik nog altijd dat cultuur belangrijker is dan ras, en dat ervaar ik ook echt zo.

RACISME

Rentes de Carvalho zegt dus weinig over gekleurde of zwarte mensen in Nederlanders, en niet veel meer over licht-getintere types, die er vaak zelfs uit zien als donkere Zuid-Europeanen (Arabieren, Turken), maar zegt wel wat interessants over racisme in Nederland.

In het extra hoofdstuk bij de uitgave van 1982 (dus over de periode 1972-1982), zegt hij iets dat nu, bij schrijven (2019) nog even relevant is.

Ik heb al eerder geschreven dat het racisme een gezwel is dat een groot aantal Nederlanders heeft aangetast, maar nu moet ik er helaas aan toevoegen dat het aantal is toegenomen, terwijl de minderheid die het veroordeelt kleiner en onverschilliger is geworden” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 167)..

Even verderop, en goed verwoord: “Ik voel het hoe langer hoe meer als een factor die gewicht in de schaal legt bij gesprekken en voorkeuren, een dagelijks verschijnsel”.. (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 167).

Vooral, zo zegt hij, het “geniepige racisme, het moeilijk aantoonbare, waar je constant op stuit maar dat, op heterdaad betrapt…wegkruipt” (‘Waar die andere God woont’, p. 167/168) in Nederland baart hem (in 1982!) zorgen, meer dan het karikaturale, openlijke racisme van marcherende (neo-)nazi’s wat niet zoveel voorkomt in Nederland.

Dit schreef hij dus in 1982, toen Surinamers en Antillianen nog niet eens zo zichtbaar in Nederland aanwezig waren, en waarna nog veel Marokkaanse migranten naar Nederland zouden komen, ook wel meer Zuid-Amerikanen, en nog later asielzoekers en vluchtelingen uit verschillende Afrikaanse en Aziatische landen. Veel mensen om dat type geniepige racisme op toe te passen en uit te proberen, kun je cynisch stellen. Het invloedrijke boek ‘Alledaags racisme’ – met name over ervaringen op de werkvloer van zwarte vrouwen in Nederland – geschreven door Philomena Essed, verscheen dan ook voor het eerst in 1984..

J. Rentes de Carvalho’s ‘Waar die andere God woont’ (1972/1982), is ook om deze reden zowel een tijdsbeeld als tijdloos..

TIJDSBEELD EN TIJDLOOS

Een tijdsbeeld en tijdloos lijkt tegenstrijdig, maar hoeft dat niet te zijn. De "hippie-jaren" kwamen vanaf ongeveer 1967 tot de vroege jaren 70 ook in Amsterdam en Nederland op, en dat is een beetje de focus van tijd in Rentes de Carvalho's boek. Vandaar zijn aandacht voor veranderingen in geslachtsverhoudingen, de seksuele "revolutie", alsook andere maatschappelijke, progressieve stromingen, die toen - modieus of dieper - invloed hadden. Hij wijdt er zelfs een hoofdstukje aan. Hij schrijft dat hij niet tegen verandering is, maar uit wel scepsis over wangevolgen van de verandering, zoals de sexshops. Ook dit verbindt hij aan de culturele context waarin deze plaats vinden, namelijk het calvinistische, vooral botte en fantasie-arme Nederland.

Die Nederlandse volksaard blijkt daarentegen wel tijdlozer, in veel opzichten, niet alle. De wat botte manieren, omgang met buitenstaanders, "calvinistiche koopmansgeest", gebrek aan sier en opsmuk, wat stijf en rechtlijnig. Op zich "neutrale", historisch gevormde karaktertrekken, die echter anders zijn dan die in Portugal en andere Zuid-Europeze landen. Het vele reizen naar Zuid-Europa van veel Nederlanders, of de EU, verandert dat in essentie weinig: ze gaan in drie van de vier gevallen als Nederlander naar Spanje, niet als iemand die wil "verspaansen". Voor de zon en wat andere attracties wellicht.

Rentes de Carvalho stelt zoals al gezegd dat het racisme erger is geworden in Nederland, tussen 1972 en 1982, en uitsluitender. Die stijgende lijn kan te maken hebben met de aanwezigheid van meer en andere typen buitenlanders, een andere tijdsgeest, belangen, en nog veel meer. Hij heeft daar in ieder geval denk ik wel een punt.

Het boek is prettig leesbaar, en zoals reeds gezegd "herkenbaar" voor mij, maar dus in zekere mate ook "leerzaam", juist omdat het zowel een tijdsbeeld als het tijdloze beschrijft.

zondag 10 november 2019

Tribute to Vaughn Benjamin (from an Amsterdam perspective)

Reggae fans were recently, the 5th of November of 2019, shocked by the news of the death of Vaughn Benjamin, iconic singer/frontman of the St Croix Reggae band Midnite, later renamed Akae Beka. He was only 50, and planning concerts and tours. While St Croix has a quite extensive Roots Reggae scene – for a small island -, with great artists like Dezarie, Pressure Busspipe, Batch, Army, and others, Midnite/Akae Beka became a figurehead of St Croix Reggae. Midnite with Vaughn Benjamin reached an international popularity in Reggae, and even got respect out of Jamaica.

The appreciation of Vaughn Benjamin-led Midnite, later Akae Beka, can be attributed to these bands very, distinctive and unique sound, setting it largely apart from contemporary Reggae from Jamaica, harkening – according to many – back to the Golden Era of Classic Roots Reggae of the 1970s, including the general “mystical vibe”. As with all matters of taste and art: opinions differed, as some loved that sound, and others – also within reggae - disliked it. Overall, however, there were many specific Midnite fans among general Reggae fans in several countries in the Caribbean, in the US, and Europe.

AMSTERDAM

I would like to pay tribute to the - in any case - unique artist that Vaughn Benjamin was from the perspective of Amsterdam, Netherlands. I live there, and am part of the Reggae scene in Amsterdam, so that seemed appropriate to me. Moreover, besides speaking for myself as just one person, with my own tastes and opinions, I decided to ask others I know in the Amsterdam - and Netherlands - Reggae scenes their opinions on Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite’s contribution.

AS FOR ME

Admittedly, I may not have been the biggest fan of Midnite in the Netherlands. On an online social forum, a Dutch Reggae fan commented to me, a few years ago: “Midnite: you either love them or hate them”..

I knew what he meant, but would not go that far: I actually found a middle ground: some days I was in the mood for Midnite, other days I was not. Their mystical, intense sound, was a bit “empty” and sober, which lends itself to certain moods. Moods of a reflective, “purifying” nature. I did not always need that, as playfulness, humour, and, well, “riddim” could teach and “purify” me just as much.

Jamaican Reggae, also of the Rastafari-inspired New Roots, was in my opinion overall more playful, richer in instrumentation, and more varied than Midnite’s style, as to a lesser degree others in the St Croix school. This is no disrespect to St Croix Reggae. That is how musical art and culture works. The best Flamenco, with all knowledge and nuances, is still made in Spain, the best Samba in Brazil, the best Soukous in DR Congo, the best Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago, the best Blues in the US. And the best Reggae in Jamaica. “Best” in this case meaning also “authentic” from a cultural viewpoint. A culturally defined quality norm, so to speak.

Other uses from outsiders can still be artistically nice and creative (pure or fused with other genres), of course, as music is free and internationalizes. Even some white, European or US people can play or make Reggae reasonably well: there are nice Reggae songs by Gentleman, Alborosie, or Soldiers of Jah Army. It can even be the case that practitioners from ”outside” approach the authentic level, more often the case when the cultural distance is not so far to begin with.

SAINT CROIX

The latter is certainly the case with St Croix: just like Jamaica, a Caribbean island with a mainly Black, African-descended population, a history of plantation slavery, and with once a Protestant, North European colonizer. And in time a local Rastafari community.

St Croix and the now called US Virgin Islands (besides St Croix, also including St Thomas and St John) were once a Danish colony, bought – yes: bought – for a sum by the US in 1916. The Danish government apparently wanted or needed that money. Nearby Puerto Rico also became part of the US before, but in another way: after a war with Spain. The Virgin Islands further have an historical connection to the British Empire (it was also a period French), and an English-based Creole is spoken there, as in Jamaica. Maybe at one point in history even Africans spoke Danish, but an English Creole developed over time.

In addition, similarities in the history of slavery, colour distinctions, poverty, ghetto life, emigration, etcetera, between St Croix and Jamaica, are certainly there. Even the slave population had once some cultural similarities: enslaved Africans came in both places from different parts of Africa, but both in Jamaica and St Croix, slaves with a Akan/Ghana background were relatively numerous.

Still, St Croix Reggae artists created an own sound and style, representing an unique sound, to differing degrees distinct also from Jamaican contemporaries (still: the “benchmark”).

While other St Croix artists like Pressure Busspipe, or (Ras) Batch, connect in their “feel” well to Jamaican New Roots, Midnite seemed more unique, even incomparable.

Vaughn Benjamin’s distinct singing style shaped in part that uniqueness, plus the somewhat sober, yet steady, bass-focussed instrumentation.

SINGING AND INSTRUMENTS

Vaughn Benjamin had undoubtedly a songwriting talent, and a knack for writing catchy melodies. To be honest, though, personally I did not fall in love immediately with Vaughn’s singing voice, as I did for instance with those of Bushman, Junior Kelly, Richie Spice, Iba Mahr, Dezarie, or - earlier - Ijahman Levi, Mykal Rose, Hugh Mundell, Alton Ellis, or the Mighty Diamonds’ Tabby.

While not outstanding, I found Vaughn’s singing still okay and pleasant enough, but at times somewhat monotonous and “flat”, at least on some songs. His wavering with his voice creates a mystical vibration, aided further by his extensive, “deep reasoning” lyrics, synthesizing Rastafari spirituality broadly with world history, global affairs, and philosophy. This created a very intense, spiritual mood, that many Reggae fans appreciated. I only some of the time, but still could easily understand its appeal. I did on the other hand appreciate the wisdom in Benjamin’s lyrics, though finding them at times hard to get at once: Vaughn Benjamin tended to tell a lot in each song, haha.

As a percussionist, I missed percussion in Midnite’s music, that could – besides my personal focus - also be fuller instrument-wise, in general, with also for example more use of horns or flutes. It sounds a bit too sober and guitar-oriented, I find sometimes. The drumming on Midnite could also be better, in my opinion, making me myself prefer Jamaican Reggae more, having – thank Jah! – mostly high and maintained standards of drumming, alongside room for percussion. On some songs of Midnite I liked the drumming better, and even heard some percussion here and there (though relatively limited and soft in the mix, but still audible). They used relatively often “fresh”, original riddims, that is on the plus side, but these have to be of high quality too.

Sometimes I also felt in the mood for Midnite/Akae Beka’s “mystical”, deep style for a while, appreciating especially its “hypnotic” effect. I noticed this during some concerts of Midnite I visited, where the sober band sound, and Vaughn’s singing, during the best moments, seemed truly spiritual and engaging, taking me somewhere else, as if enchanted. Not the best concerts I ever saw, but great and engaging enough.

As far as I recall, I have seen Midnite and Akae Beka live a total of 4 times: once in Amsterdam, once in Amstelveen, and – earlier in time - during the Garance Reggae festival in Bagnols, the South of France (2011), and during Reggae Sundance near Eindhoven (South Netherlands) in 2014. Especially that last one left a big impression on me, leaving me almost “hypnotized” or mesmerized (in a good way).

In conclusion, I am not the biggest fan in the Netherlands of Midnite/Akae Beka, but neither do I hate or dislike them, and can/could appreciate them partly and on occasion. But that’s personal.

AS FOR OTHERS

On Facebook and other online social fora, I noticed how Dutch and Amsterdam Reggae fans responded to the death of Vaughn Benjamin. Shocked by the news and sorry for the loss, but in many cases also far beyond mere humane courtesy. Some in the Amsterdam and Netherlands were sincerely sad and deeply shocked, since they considered themselves big Midnite fans, and knew many of their (many) albums and songs. They loved Midnite as band and Vaughn Benjamin as artist and personality. He touched their heart and soul. That is a beautiful, positive thing by itself. Others had a love for Midnite and Benjamin that was perhaps less strong, but still present, Midnite being often among their favourite artists in the genre.

Since this is a tribute, I will further focus in this post on such positive opinions I encountered, while I am fully aware that there are probably many among Dutch reggae fans disliking them, or more neutrally “sensing no special connection” to Midnite.

No manipulation of truth will follow now, however: I just report why other people in the Amsterdam reggae scene appreciate Midnite/Akae Beka/Vaugh Benjamin, including specific songs or lyrics they liked most.

LYRICS

I heard several in the Amsterdam Reggae scene praise the deep, insightful lyrics of Midnite/Akae Beka, even according to some (like my selecta/dj friend Bill) able to get people out of depression and away from suicidal thoughts; that much of a life-saving effect. Some named especially certain songs for their lyrics, containing good and educational, even life-changing lyrics, aside from their musical qualities. Loddy Culture (Lorenzo), another more vinyl reggae selecta, said to me, regarding this: ”He (Vaughn Benjamin) left us so much knowledge. If u study his lyrics u understand..”

Specific songs named, with regard to lyrics were: Midnite – No Blanco (“pure lava”, said Loddy Culture, a Reggae selecta in Amsterdam), the track Bless (by Midnite), named as such by musician Rootzlion (quoting the lyric: “Babylon a curse, when they could have blessed”). Ras Tariq, a selecta and organizer in Amsterdam, named specifically Midnite’s song Propaganda, describing it as the “Irieginal message..”.

Loddy Culture further named the songs by Midnite: Bombs Away and Mr Joy, but as much for their musical qualities. Specifically, Bombs Away was musically in the Steppers mode, as not many of Midnite (preferring basic One Drop riddims, mostly), but to good effect according to Loddy Culture. Loddy has a liking for this Steppers style within Reggae.

Another one I know from the scene, also a selecta in Amsterdam, mentioned particularly the song Due Reward, by Midnite (from the 1997 album Unpolished), because of its lyrics regarding each one getting what one deserves, finding this text relevant in relation to the “call for unity”. Musically, he also likes the song because it is engaging and relatively groovy.

Another one I know from the Amsterdam Reggae scene, Dimitris (selecta Smoking Salmon), said he liked Midnite’s song named Drifters.

Carol, also known under her selectress name Sound Cista, mentioned a few songs she likes: Batter Ram Sound, Lianess, Live The Life You Love, and Rasta To The Bone. She also said, however, that she in fact likes all of his (Midnite’s) songs..

Interestingly, different people still name different “favourite” songs, showing different preferences also by what they choose to upload on Facebook. Each person has an own taste, of course.

Midnite and Akae Beka have a quite extensive album list, so there are much songs to choose from. Interestingly, some are named or uploaded more than others, though it still consists of a varied list, of both “faster” and slower”, and “fuller” and “emptier” songs. Songs uploaded relatively often included the already mentioned Drifters, Midnite’s biggest “hit” Live The Life You Love, Kaaba Stone, and Drought. Kaaba Stone I like too, because of its interesting lyrics. Roll Call was also uploaded by some.

Personally, I can add that I also like the song Due Reward, and further Bazra (relatively “fuller”), Babylon Dem Copy, and Great Zimbabwe Walls, combining content and groove.

SIGNIFICANCE

Besides his “uplifting” lyrics that could help you out of a depression, as my man Bill said, others in the scene attributed more qualities and meanings to Vaughn Benjamin’s role in Reggae music.

Midnite and Akae Beka (since 2015) left many albums between 1997 and 2019. The debut being Unpolished from 1997. Up to more than 60 (!) albums followed since then. These are appreciated by many reggae fans globally, leaving an important legacy that can never be taken away. In that sense, Vaughn Benjamin was an important artist.

These are just numbers, though. Culturally or intellectually he also left a legacy and influence.

Strictly musically, it is difficult to say, because the instrumentation follows the quite basic, dubby One Drop St Croix patterns, that seem only partly innovative, in my opinion: a bit more sober and bass-oriented than the Jamaican contemporary or earlier models, but still nice and groovy. Midnite might have helped shape this St Croix feel of Reggae. Further, Vaughn Benjamin’s distinct singing style might have influenced other singers like Dezarie, or even outside the St Croix scene. Dezarie has a “prettier” voice than Vaughn, but has something of the same mystical vibe.

Benjamin’s Rastafari spirituality is shared with many of his bredren and sistren within Reggae, but he has an own touch regarding his relatively extensive, “scholarly” lyrics, including “connecting” references to world and African history and socioeconomic and philosophical currents, even at a times quite abstract level. Some deem his lyrics even “cryptic” at times. Spirituality as connected to daily reality, but also somehow “above” it.

Some in the Amsterdam reggae scene seemed to appreciate such deep lyrics. I myself too, to a point, although I became in time weary of “too much information at once” (also learned that when I tried to write lyrics myself). An advantage with recorded music is however that you can always listen a song again, to get other parts of the lyrics: it helps to make it more enduring. This was one of Vaughn Benjamin’s undeniable strengths.

Besides many songs with perhaps “too much information at once”, you still hear soon some wise sentences by Vaughn Benjamin like “The paradox is in the ugliness of vanity” (from song Kaaba Stone) or similar wise, insightful phrases in several songs. I noticed that different people in the Amsterdam reggae scene appreciated different lyrics of Vaughn Benjamin, for their own spiritual or personal reasons, which is okay and even good: art remains a personal experience. It further shows how Vaughn appealed to many different people.

Ras Tariq, selecta in Amsterdam, called Vaughn the “Carbon Messenjah”, and the “original black messiah who come to teach humanity on Iniversal principles and inner and overstandings”.

Another selecta I know from the scene (who liked the song Due Reward), said that Vaughn Benjamin "had a unique, almost mystical charisma, that he could also hear and feel in his music". In addition, he describes how Midnite’s live sessions helped him find “inner peace”, something few other bands/artists achieve with him.

Carol, selectress Sound Cista, commented to me that Vaughn Benjamin’s singing/chanting has a “meditative” effect on her. She has seen him 3 times live, and noted that he was really a strong, charismatic personality, standing there on stage.

Carol also mentioned having prepared his dressing room for a concert, and noticing his strict diet, compared to other artist rooms: no candy and chips, but instead fruit, water and organic tea.

Mau Kappar, owner of Reggae-minded Café the Zen in Amsterdam (where Carol and other people mentioned here also play), confirmed this strict Rastafarian stance, having met and worked with Vaughn Benjamin. Café the Zen helped organize Midnite/Akae Beka concerts in Amsterdam and around (e.g. Amstelveen). Mau of Café the Zen – in a radio interview – also indicated how Vaughn continued to work hard for his music, inspiring him in this regard.

Another one, Ronald, I know from the Amsterdam Reggae scene, told me that he had become the last years an avid Midnite/Akae Beka fan, starting to visit as much concerts of them as possible, and considering Vaughn Benjamin’s bands as one of his favourites. Consequently, he really felt the recent loss of Vaughn strongly, as if a family member died.

He enjoyed his songs and albums, and moreover found Vaughn Benjamin’s live concerts magical and enthralling, hypnotizing experiences, of an unique kind. I knew what he meant. He even saw other audience members around him being intensely moved with closed eyes, like happens in what is called Classical Music. Vaught did during such concerts not talk directly with or to the audiences, as other artists do (“can you say: “yeah!”). Rather, Ronald argues, “Vaughn communicated with the audience through the magical bond created by the music”.

Well put.

zondag 13 oktober 2019

Igbo and Udu

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

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

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

IGBO

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

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

UDU

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

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

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

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

IGBO IN THE AMERICAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INSTRUMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YORUBA AND IGBO

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

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

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

UDU AGAIN

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

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

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

INTERNATIONAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REMINDER

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