donderdag 1 augustus 2019

Reggae music lovers (in the Netherlands): Sound Cista

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOUND CISTA

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

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

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

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

Where were you born and did you grow up?

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

Since when do you listen Reggae music?

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

What attracted you to it, then?

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

What other music genres did you listen to?

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

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

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

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

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

Is there really no Dancehall you like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the selecta name Sound Cista?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFLECTION AND COMPARISON

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

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

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

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

COOPERATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinsdag 2 juli 2019

Young, Gifted, and Black

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

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

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

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

TROJAN RECORDS

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

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

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

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

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

EARLY REGGAE

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

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

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

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

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

SKINHEAD REGGAE

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

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

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

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

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

EARLY INTERNATIONALIZATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

zondag 2 juni 2019

Flamenco and I

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

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

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

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

The answer is yes, I like and appreciate Flamenco.

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

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

MY KNOWLEDGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GUITAR

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

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

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

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

RHYTHM

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

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

SINGING

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

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

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

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

AFRO-LATIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN CONCLUSION

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

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

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

donderdag 2 mei 2019

Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture: a book review

It is a book I have had in my possession for quite some years now. Over ten years, I imagine. I vaguely recall having bought it at a book section of a record store in central Amsterdam, a record store now out of business. This might even not be the case, being so long ago. It does not matter that much, of course, but it illustrates that I bought it long ago, and cannot remember well.

Yet, I never got around to read it up to recently. During those years, there was one thing that dissuaded me from reading it. The title and theme were appealing enough - “Jamaican warriors” - as was the subtitle and short summary, and the cover photo. Its author was Stephen Foehr, a travel writer from the US, living in Colorado.

What discouraged me, was a review I read once that was partly negative about it, describing the book as one clearly written by a non-Rasta, or someone disapproving of it, so even anti-Rasta. Since I was entering and later entered the (Rastafari) Livity around that time, I felt an apprehension to delve into this book. I heard that anti-Rasta, quasi-intellectual (quasi-, not really intellectual) critique a bit too much, consisting often of gratuitous observations, and irrelevant if historical facts, missing the spiritual and fundamental importance of Rastafari.

Recently I read it, and I’ll start positive: I was pleasantly surprised by this book ‘Jamaican warriors”. It was not noticeably written by an anti-Rasta zealot, but rather by a travelling journalist, sincerely interested – and appreciative! – of Jamaican culture and music. The way he wrote he seemed to me to be a Reggae fan. These nonetheless still can – of course – have some critique of aspects of Jamaican culture, or of Rastafari. I know Reggae fans, even some self-proclaimed Rastafari-adherents here in the Netherlands, that do not see Haile Selassie as divine, thus disagreeing with most Rastas on that, for instance. Others, even worse, reject Selassie as an outdated, absolute and undemocratic monarch.

The pleasant thing about Foehr’s book, however, is that such criticism on Rastafari does not seem to be a main focus. That focus seems more positive and investigating. Open-minded, neutral reporting, so to speak, on his experiences in Jamaica, and with its culture and music industry. He is used to writing travel stories, and the book can be seen as a travel account, centering on various experiences and aspects of Jamaica, but emphasizing music and culture.

NEGRIL

I have been to Jamaica too, and recognize some places he describes, so I can compare a bit with my own experiences. The book was written around 2000, and I went there in 2006 and 2008, so not that long apart. He describes his stay in Negril, which I have visited too: a tourist centre on the West Coast of Jamaica. I did not like it there. The days before, elsewhere in Jamaica, in much less touristy Kingston city and areas of the St Ann’s parish, I enjoyed much more.

This has largely to do with Negril being a very commercialized tourist resort of the more cynical type: poverty, inferiority complexes due to a colonial past, racial obsessions, and, well, commercial greed, all combined to having Jamaicans acting like manipulative gangsters approaching you, often – like a pimp - using a girl to lure White men, and when with the girl, a guy comes along to help rip you off. These were hardened criminal hustlers, with too much “street savy” and psychological, intimidating conning skills, built up over time.

Some offered cocaine to me, even after a semi-friendly – or quasi-friendly – conversation. I was as good as my money there, whereas the Jamaicans I met in Kingston were sometimes hustlers, but more often trustworthy, pleasant people, who might even be friends, with in some cases even character similarities with me, even though I’m a Dutch-born (originally Italian-Spanish), Amsterdam-residing European. You could even talk quite openly and personally with Jamaicans there, something which I not even always achieve well up to today with many (of course not all) Dutch people, or other Amsterdam residents.

Negril was on the other hand not so pleasant, I found. I walked the streets, entered a few bars, and talked with some Jamaicans in Negril. The few conversations with some substance (i.e. actually getting to know someone personally, and learning something new) – with a girl – was still in the context of manipulation: her “pimp” wanted her to make money off me (through sex, became clear), not have a loose conversation, and he became impatient and intervened. So I stopped that whole relationship – a manipulative threesome, as I can describe it -, before it was too late and I was robbed, after following eventual sexual arousal: a common trick. Cute and funny how she opened a bottle with her teeth, that I must admit, but the guy kept intervening, even slapping her at times. Brr.

Not very nice, all this, and a beach resort, like Negril is, can be nice, but was too corrupted. I had enough nice beach experiences elsewhere in Jamaica (Portmore, near Kingston), Cuba, or even in parts of Andalusia, Spain where I moreover had family living.

Well now, Foehr describes the offering of cocaine, the commercial, “artificial”, touristic atmosphere, and the general untrustworthy environment in Negril quite well, including a promised “concert of reggae stars” that never came. He even sets out consciously to find a female companion, as other hedonistically minded tourists there did too. Without success. That is however just one chapter in the book.

MAUSOLEUM AND MUSEUM

Chapters before it and after it, dealt more directly with music and culture, and related trips in different parts of Jamaica. These included again some places I also visited, such as Bob Marley’s mausoleum in the parish of St Ann’s (Nine Miles), close to the North Coast, or the Bob Marley museum in Kingston. The author seems really interested in Bob Marley as artist and person, plus he describes it well. It was – predictably – touristy, that mausoleum in Nine Miles, but without the cynicism and hardened criminal hustlers as at Negril. One a bit more persistent hustler wanted me to buy a spliff (marijuana joint) of him. Not that bad, nor disturbing.

Foehr had a similar guided tour through the Bob Marley museum (in a relatively wealthy, “uptown” part in Kingston: where Bob went to live as he got more successful), as I have had in 2006. Other epochs describe Trench Town (that I visited too), and other parts I went and not went.

He had a coffee-related trip, that is not really in my field of interest, although Jamaican coffee is known among experts for its distinct quality. He describes that trip engagingly enough, but I would not have made that effort, I think.

Later in life, I found out that there are only a few types of coffee I really got to like (the real, original Ethiopian coffee, with a nice taste), perhaps some cappuccino, but most often coffee was something I had to, rather than liked to, drink.

RASTAFARI AND LEONARD HOWELL

Foehr, in other chapters, investigates the history of the Rastafari movement, and the pioneering “first Rasta” personality Leonard Howell, and his life. He travels to the community Howell set up at Pinnacle Hill in the 1930s, using Jamaican contact persons to gain access, knowledge, broadened with historical documentation. Foehr gives an historical contextualization with those trips, including about Rastafari’s development over time and Marcus Garvey, that seems mostly correct, though not always. Howell sought to promote the worship of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, as African saviour for Black people, spreading flyers and such. Foehr comments that Marcus Garvey did not allow spreading these leaflets by Howell at his headquarter. I do not know if this is true, but I read in other, objective and academic historical sources, that Howell and Garvey as persons went along well, met sometimes amicably, and shared ideas. They maybe disagreed at points, but were not foes.

INTERVIEWS

As a journalist, Foehr further not only travels through parts of the island, but also talks and has interviews with several people, important in Reggae, Rastafari, and folk culture. These include important and interesting personalities like Mortimmo Planno, a Rasta elder and teacher, scholar Kwame Davis, musicians like Skatalite Lloyd Knibbs, Toots Hibbert, Freddie McGregor, President Brown, Sugar Minott, Yami Bolo, U Roy, David Hinds, Ken Booth, Marcia Griffiths, the Wailing Souls and others, thus representing different generations in Jamaican music. Foehr does not really devote separate chapters to each interviewee, but rather spreads the conversations out through the travel accounts, and historical and general descriptions.

This might seem haphazard and chaotic, yet he keeps all this quite readable, I must say, showing he can write well, in an engaging way. Moreover, he did not criticize Rastafari so much as I feared. He is seldom disrespectful, but rather objectively descriptive, expressing some skepticism here and there, but reserving the same skepticism for established Western religions. Overall, he sees Rastafari, and the Roots Reggae it influenced, as a positive force, when compared to other “influences” in Jamaican society and music, before and after: the history of anti-African colonialism and slavery, as well as - increasing since the 1980s -: Western materialism values in Jamaica, gun crime, shallow or negative “slackness” lyrics in Dancehall music, moving away from the positive, edifying message in earlier Roots Reggae.

DIGITAL

Also, musically he discusses the change toward more “digital” Dancehall riddims since the late 1980s. Again, Foehr takes on a quite neutral approach, even arguing that there is “quality Dancehall” too, while deploring the general trend of moving away from acoustic or live instruments. That shift was never absolute of course, but a part of Jamaican music became digitally made in the Late 1980s and 1990s, while live musicians were likewise active.. Foehr, and most interviewees, favour a return to music with real instruments, and with more conscious lyrics.

This return already started with the rise of DJ’s with more “conscious”, Rastafari-influenced lyrics, turning away from their slack lyrics from before, like Capleton, or other upcoming artists (DJ’s and singers) with more conscious lyrics. This book was published in 2000, so some artists mentioned in it are still “rising” stars in this book, while more known or “household names” nowadays (Luciano, Buju Banton, Sizzla, who started around 1990, and others). 1990s developments are certainly included in this book, though.

FOLK BELIEFS AND TRADITIONS

Another strain throughout this work is “folk tradition” as such, of African heritage, surviving in Jamaica. Nearby Caribbean islands are well-known for such belief systems, notably Vodou in Haiti, and Santería in Cuba. In Jamaica, similar African-based “spirit possession” and ghost-related beliefs exist and live on, but became less an “export article” as for instance Vodou, including as simplified stereotypes (Vodou dolls) in popular culture and even Hollywood films.

There are several books I have meanwhile read about Reggae and Rastafari, and their history., including some scholarly ones . The same I can say for other themes Foehr treats in this book: the Maroons, colonial history. These segments largely repeat information from elsewhere, in that sense. He explains well the differences between Maroon communities within Jamaica: the one, with Queen Nanny, more rebellious and less complacent than the other one, that just secured its own independence, while at times even capturing escaped slaves to give back to English masters. Not everyone knows of these differences, I imagine. It has been written elsewhere too, though.

Foehr, however, makes his book a bit more unique by paying attention to such folk beliefs, even among common Jamaicans. He speaks with adherents of Kumina, a spirit-based faith found especially in the St Thomas parish in Eastern Jamaica, but also discusses Myal and Obeah, as other “spirit”, “magical”, or “healing” traditions, with African origins. “Obeah” is the magic that has a worse name – more used for evil “casting spells” on enemies or foes – whereas Myal is more known as good and healing.

While African retentions, the Rastafari movement largely took distance from most of such practices, especially the negative aspects of Obeah, as can be heard in many Reggae lyrics. Some aspects, musical (drumming) patterns from Kumina and Burru, and folk medicine for instance, found a way into Rastafari, though.

Besides this, Foehr, also points at a common belief in “duppies”, by at least a part of the Jamaicans. Duppies are ghosts out to get you, when you are least prepared, preferably on straight roads, it seems. Another African retention: in some parts of Africa today, roads and paths are still deliberately made winding, because straight paths may invite evil ghosts.

This all might seem superstitions by uneducated people, having no more intellectual sources to make sense of their world. This might even be true, but devalues it too as less culturally, perhaps unjustly. All cultures have this kind of “magic”, sometimes connected to the natural environment, such as the ancient Celts of Europe, for whom for instance the oak tree was “sacred”, and these trees and other natural aspects harboured “special powers”.

It is in a way interesting that all these beliefs and cultural legacies coexist, I find, in Jamaica. Interesting also, how Jamaicans developed an own culture out of all this. The good and bad. The colonial history with dehumanization and cultural deracination, or attempts of it, of transplanted Africans brought by force to the West, losing their names, and part of their culture. Persisting poverty of the majority in Jamaica, up to the present. Christianity as a colonial legacy, but reinterpreted as an African consciousness arose in Jamaica, returning to the roots, and centralizing an African Emperor in the case of Rastafari. These other beliefs (Obeah, Myal, Kumina, etcetera) only confirm that an Africanness lived on in Jamaica, on which Rastafari was founded, even if many Rastas, ironically, reject certain aspects (spirit possession), or translate other aspects differently, more symbolically (“ancestor worship” for instance).

CONCLUSION

All this combines to make Foehr’s book well readable, and quite unique. He can write engagingly, I must admit, but he does not just “repackage“ well the same information, found in other (scholarly and other) sources. That is a quality that should not be underestimated, by the way. Complex themes or histories are explained better by some than by others, as one may know from own experience. The didactic “now I get it!” effect.

Beyond this, though, Foehr’s book ‘Jamaican Warriors : Reggae, Roots & Culture’, published in the year 2000, adds an unique quality because of the time of its release, and dealing with happenings/developments in the 1990s, giving insight in that specific period in Jamaica.

A time of crossroads in music (digital versus real instruments, slackness versus conscious lyrics), culture, social developments (increased violence and crime in Jamaica since the 1980s). Foehr intertwines these various dimensions skillfully through his travel accounts and interviews, interrelating his own impressions as a White US “outsider”, with interesting and knowledgeable descriptions by Jamaicans themselves, who know best from their experience. As in the better traditions of journalism..

Therefore I am glad I - finally! - read this book, not just because I felt I had to, as a task to be fulfilled or a burden to bear, but because I actually enjoyed it: also due to recognizing, or expanding on what I knew - .. and I even learned a few things from it I did not know yet.

And no, it was not an anti-Rastafari book as such. Foehr openly questions in one chapter some assumptions Rastas have about Haile Selassie, and also is slightly skeptical elsewhere, but it does not go much beyond that, and remains quite objective.

Some things Foehr wrote I considered not really correct, or had a few mistakes, though not often. He had mostly good sources, apparently. I mentioned already that Garvey and Howell in fact were not enemies, as Foehr seems to imply.

Regarding Jamaican music and lyrics, I largely agree with him and especially with what the ”conscious” artists say about the need for more positive lyrics, and “realer” music.

That the “African heritage” in Jamaican music got limited or to the background with the rise of Digital Dancehall is tempting to believe, but a bit simplistic. Purely looking at “rhythm”, Danchehall – even with digital sounds – kind of revives African polyrhythmic musical traditions, you can also say. Many do in part, at least. Not dissimilar to the Funk James Brown started to make, with more rhythmic patterns than in earlier R&B. More modern, yet with retained African, polyrhythmic traditions.

These are overall, however, minor points of critique to an overall well-written, readable book, with quite some information, though largely repeated from other sources, many of which I happen to know or have read already. This information is however placed in another context, making it even for me somewhat relevant in the whole.

The interviews I found also interesting, all the more because some of these were with artists not or rarely interviewed in other “Reggae books or documentaries”, like President Brown, Yami Bolo, the Wailing Souls, and others.

Moreover, a few of the places in Jamaica he visits – not all – I visited too. Some, on the other hand, I did not get to go to, so those descriptions were insightful for me.

Worth the effort and pleasant enough, perhaps even recommendable, reading this book ‘Jamaican Warriors’.

dinsdag 2 april 2019

Romantic love in reggae lyrics

One good thing about Reggae Music – in fact of course one of many – is that it has a large proportion of “conscious” lyrics, or “cultural” lyrics. In Reggae terminology this more or less means: about social issues, including social commentary, often including also a spiritual connection, mostly through Rastafari messages. Critique of the social and political situation in Jamaica, including issues like inequality, violence, and poverty, are thus common themes, along with Black history, and the African roots.

That is good, because it is necessary. Most musical genres, after all, pop, folk genres and classical ones, tend to focus lyrically too dominantly on what is known as “romantic love”. That has become a safe, accepted theme, even among the mainstream and cultural “gatekeepers” in many societies. Reason enough to mistrust it..

SAFE

Romantic love is a “safe” theme also politically of course, as in dictatorships and similar political systems with censorship, such romantic love themes are personal, small-scale human trivialities, not impacting upon the status-quo or affecting power relations. It is therefore stimulated. As an “opium for the people”, so to speak, not unlike big sports, or the “bread and games” of Ancient Rome.

It passes censorship in dictatorships or authoritarian societies, yet also in formally democratic societies, like in North America and Europe, there is an overall greater acceptance and support in popular music for romantic love lyrics. It is certainly more (potentially) commercially successful. It is in that sense also safe, but also recognizable/relatable for/by many people, as a pleasant, diversionary, and light theme, thus avoiding heavy themes like social inequality, poverty, exploitative bosses, corruption, etcetera etcetera.

Reggae, with its rich legacy of socially conscious lyrics, clearly counters that.

BOB MARLEY

Even the internationally most famous Reggae artist, Bob Marley, continued with socially conscious lyrics, even at the height of his international/crossover fame. I always admired that. It is simply hard to accuse Bob Marley of being a sell-out. Adaptive maybe, but never really selling out. Songs like Is This Love or Waiting In Vain are indeed about safe, “romantic love”. Did Bob have a broader audience in mind? Maybe a bit, but not so much.

When Bob Marley’s album Kaya was released, it got criticized by many for having too much “lovey dovey” lyrics: where was the social rebellion of previous albums? Also the non-love songs on that album were mostly about marijuana (like the title track) or other light themes as music and dancing itself (Easy Skankin’). Bob defended this as a needed break from the militant vibe, toward mellower vibes. Again: difficult to simply characterize as “selling out”, or just thinking commercially. There is some genuineness there.

Public reception is another thing, though. Songs of Bob that were love songs, Is This Love or Waiting In Vain, were among his biggest hits internationally, as was No Woman No Cry, which “seems” a love song lyrically. Granted, protest songs like Get Up Stand Up are well-known too, but a bit less, it seems.

What I like about Bob’s songwriting, though, is how it had a versatility lyrically: No Woman No Cry as well as another big hit, Could You Be Loved, seem superficially love songs, but in fact contain social criticism when you listen to the entire lyrics.

HOW DISCUSSED?

This all raises a question I find interesting: to what degree represents the “romantic love” theme in Reggae lyrics a diversion from the “social protest” or “spiritual norms”? Equally interesting: is romantic love discussed differently in Reggae lyrics, compared to other genres?

Being a Reggae fan over 30 years now, I should have some ideas and knowledge about that.

WHAT KIND OF LOVE?

A distinction is first in order. Notably between “love” and “romantic love”. The latter referring more to personal relationship issues between a man and a woman, the former more to a basic human need and desire, or connection between people, besides just “lovey dovey” hugging and kissing of those in love.

This last aspect is also found in Reggae, of course. Despite my slightly ironic phrasing I do not think there is something wrong with that, per se. It is a part of all our lives, we fall in love with some persons, have romantic relationships etcetera. It’s nice when someone describes eloquently passionate or lonesome feelings we also seem to recognize in ourselves. It can be a pleasant recognition I myself also found in Reggae love lyrics. Johnny Clarke’s I Wish It Could Go On was such a song I enjoyed especially when I myself felt in love with someone, once in a time. Also “heart break” or lost love songs I recognized and “felt”, such as the almost too beautiful “Closer To You” by Ijahman Levi. Gregory Isaacs – who had also “lonely lover” as a nickname – had also nice lyrics in this regard.

Also these lyrics (song One Who Loves You) by Everton Blender I related to, when I heard them: in my life then I had the dubious honour of being the good male friend a woman (actually a few women) talked to about problems with other men, only without the intimate advantages she or they allowed these other men, apparently.

The other “love”, though, is more about human unity in the world, or within the Black community, or among different races, which is more part of social issues, albeit with less “militancy”. This love is also a "higher" love, one can say, often also connected to spirituality or divinity (Jah/God). Seemingly less militant, believing in this higher love can be actually quite rebellious in many social contexts. That is also alluded to in many Reggae lyrics: Freddie McGregor’s song self-explanatorily titled We Need More Love In the Ghetto, or Israel Vibration’s Live In Jah Love, Culture’s Peace and Love (in the Dancehall), or Dennis Brown’s Love and Hate (can never be friends) etcetera. And of course Bob Marley’s One Love: a song of Bob I hear too much, when compared to others of him.

Current New Roots by people like Protoje, Chronixx, Lutan Fyah, Iba Mahr, Queen Ifrica, Sizzla Kalonji, Buju Banton, Morgan Heritage, Luciano, Richie Spice, and others, continue this “love as social rebellion” strain in some of their lyrics, usually interchanged with more militant lyrics, spiritual lyrics, and, yes, on occasion also lyrics on “romantic love”, also by these artists. Also part of human life, of course.

I like that Reggae lyrics are about everything in life: Rastafari, social conditions, injustice, but also human relationships: backstabbing friends, betrayal, parasitic behavior, fake people, and also romantic relationships that offered some relief from the struggles, or that ended, unluckily for the lover still in love.. Reggae lyrics have the whole versatile “pallet” of human life and needs, you can say.

LOVERS ROCK

More specialized within reggae is the subgenre of Lovers Rock. This especially became strong in especially British Reggae around the 1980s, for some reason. Well.. “for some reason..”, some sociological explanations have been given for this. The different lives and economic situations of Caribbean migrants in Britain, when compared to Jamaican ghetto or “poor rural” life, with an almost inevitable adaptation of British Jamaicans to the, one might say, “bourgeois” lifestyles of white people in the Western world: working to pay the bills, settle down in an own house with a loved one, etcetera etcetera.

This does not explain all of this popularity of Lovers Rock in Britain, though. Being Black and of Jamaican descent in a “White man country” like Britain is not easy. Britain seems open, modern, multicultural, and democratic, but the racial discrimination and exclusionary mechanisms are likewise there, only more hidden and perhaps confusing. British Reggae acts like Steel Pulse and Misty In Roots therefore have mainly socially critical and Rastafari-inspired lyrics, and to a lesser degree also Aswad (whose band names means after all “Black” in Arab). The biggest hit in the “mainstream” of Aswad was, predictably, a (romantic) love song: Don’t Turn Around.. An “okay” song, certainly better than much that was high in the pop hit parades, but hardly their best song.

The origins of Lovers Rock, however, are rather Jamaican, showing how the “romantic love” theme has never been neglected, sidelined but never abandoned, in Jamaican music. Not even with the rise of Rastafari-inspired Roots Reggae, since around 1973. Gregory Isaacs, is more or less seen as the originator of Lovers Rock as such, although Alton Ellis, Freddie McGregor, Ijahman Levi, and Dennis Brown also influenced it.

Many Reggae artists, like Freddie McGregor, Half Pint, Cornell Campbell, Ijahman Levi, Don Carlos, Horace Andy, the Mighty Diamonds, and Ini Kamoze have quite some love lyrics – about love relationships -, as do later artists like Chronixx, Junior Kelly, Tarrus Riley, Romain Virgo, Bushman, Sizzla, Jah Mason, or Lutan Fyah. Even as these do not “specialize” in them as such (as e.g. Beres Hammond).

More “Rootical” or spiritual artists like Burning Spear, the Abyssinians, the Congos, the Wailing Souls, the Gladiators, or Culture, are less known for such romantic love lyrics, but even of these there are some (exceptional) examples, on some of their albums.

This brings me back to what I mainly want to discuss in this particular post. “How” are the romantic love lyrics in Reggae discussed, especially when compared to other music genres world wide?

I have a Spanish-speaking background (Spanish mother), and understand Spanish since I was a child (in fact before I learned Dutch, even if born and grown in the Netherlands). For that reason I can compare with lyrics in Spanish pop (Julio Iglesias for instance) or folk genres like Flamenco music, having a rich poetic legacy. Moreover, I understand lyrics in Latin American and Spanish Caribbean genres too: Cuban music, Merengue, Salsa, Colombian cumbia and other genres.

This knowledge of languages – I also understand many Italian, French, and Portuguese lyrics for instance – gives me more “material” to compare with. This besides the fact that have been listening to varied Reggae music (old and new) since my early teenager years, and already knew English quite well then.

MAINSTREAM

Well, romantic love lyrics tend to be more commercial, better for crossing over to other audiences, or the main stream. Reggae artists experienced this, although not always due to a conscious, commercial strategy. Rastafari and socially rebellious lyrics of Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs – of which there are many examples too, of course – never became (relatively) big hits for them like Brown’s Money In My Pocket (his biggest hit, overall, commercially, ranking e.g. high in British charts), or Isaacs’ Night Nurse. The same applies to an artist like Ras Shiloh, whose biggest hit up to now is still Are You Satisfied, while he arguably has better (but more conscious) songs.

I consider myself more or less a Gregory Isaacs fan, but admit that I by now have heard Night Nurse too much; I grew tired of it. Its lyrics are perhaps more sexual than “romantic love”, but either way not “conscious”’.

With romantic love you reach the mainstream, because supposedly is more recognizable by “others”, outside the musical culture or scenes. They seemingly represent universal, human traits beyond a specific culture (like in this case Jamaica’s..).. or does it?

To a degree, I think, yes. Being in love is being in love universally, a largely biological, human need and behavior, with similar effects across cultures and races.

SPECIFIC CULTURE

There are, however, cultural specifics that I find must be emphasized. There are many cultures in the world where “boy meets girl in a social setting, flirting, and eyes meet etcetera” is not the norm. Arranged marriages through parents are there the norm, leaving actual “love feelings” to the hidden, clandestine areas. In the more strict Hinduist and Islamic interpretations this is still the case. Earlier in history also in Europe: my mother told me a story about (landowning) parents in her village of birth in South West Spain, objecting to and trying to keep their son from having a love affair with a very poor, peasant girl in the same village.

Also “macho” cultural norms and historical male privileges in culture and society can disturb such “love relationships”, as certain insecure men actually expect women to be more their servants or concubines, rather than another equal person that you have warm feelings for, and share minds and hearts with, on the basis of equality.

Most Jamaicans are of sub-Saharan African descent, a cultural heritage inevitably mixed with slavery and colonialism with European culture, mostly of the Anglo-Saxon type in Jamaica.

The cultures and areas where enslaved Africans were taken from to Jamaica, relatively many from the Ghana, Nigeria, and Congo areas, had historically no lesser place for women than in Europe of the time. In some areas, African women even had more rights, up to around the 19th c., than in countries like Britain at the time, with a Protestant rigidity, or Spain and Portugal, where Catholicism combined with remnants of an Islamic past to keep women as subservient to and dependent on men in society and families, resulting in a “machismo” cult.

I think a reason why this “backward” myth of African gender roles still persists, is the place of “polygamy” in African societies. This tended historically to be formally rejected in Christian Europe (but hiddenly practiced, and more or less accepted if by men, a bit more openly in the “Latino” countries), while it was more openly present and accepted in African societies, in the same period (around the 18th c. AD). In many cultures, such as in Ghana before Christianity really became influential there, and in the area of Nigeria and Congo too, men and women of mature ages tended to live apart in their own, separate dwellings, occasionally “visiting” male or female partners for amorous encounters: mostly “visiting” several women (and men!) in the same life period. Among the more isolated (African-descended) Maroon communities in Suriname this practice is still maintained up to the present, by the way.

There is however a strong Christian influence in Jamaica too, so these remnants of this variant of “equal” polygamy – differing from the male-directed one in Islam – are discarded for single partners, marriages, exclusive relationships, etcetera, i.e. family values from European Christianity.

Womanizing or polygamous tendencies are certainly strong in Jamaica, to be sure, fathering children with several women in fact quite common, for example. These are however influenced also by the slavery past, when White slave-owners tended to have (then mostly forced) sexual relationships with several female slaves, even when having a wife at home (many slave-owners were single men, other had wives in England). A bad example on the former slaves, so to speak.

THEMES

All this somehow shapes the “romantic love” lyrics in Jamaican Reggae, partly having similar “tropes” as in Anglo-Saxon or many Latin “pop” love songs (do you love me, give me love, please be faithful, and I saw you with another man). There are for that reason similarities between such romantic love lyrics, in content, between Reggae artists, and those in quite other genres, such as Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, French “chansons” like of Jacques Brel, or songs by artists like Van Morrison, songs in Salsa, Merengue, Bossa Nova, Rock or Blues, or even of Country artists. There are different accents per genre, that is true, but also similarities in treating themes like being in love, wanting someone, heart break, breaking up, cheating, lost love, etcetera.

If you would translate lyrics by, e.g. Latin crooners like, for instance, Juan Luis Guerra (Dominican Republic), Julio Iglesias (Spain), or his son Enrique, from Spanish to English, some lyrics would resemble superficially some of those you hear in Reggae “you don’t love me and I know..”, “what I won’t do for your love”, “for the love of a woman”, “don’t be afraid of my love”..such themes. So do, of course, many Soul music lyrics since the Motown days, even influencing some Reggae artists.

On the other hand, some themes recurring in Reggae love lyrics are more unique to the genre though, and there it becomes interesting..

PRINCESSES AND EMPRESSES

After comparing, there is one aspect of male-female relationships that are more common in Reggae than in other genres. One is the referring to women as “African Princess” “(African) Empress”, “Lioness”, or “Roots daughter”, as part of the Africa-centered movement, that Rastafari is. There are love lyrics praising a loved woman with proper Rastafari values, or those lamenting women lacking them.

This was all there since the 1970, way before Tarrus Riley had his big hit She’s Royal, with such respectful lyrics. Another song that is fine, but I have heard too much by now..

GOLD DIGGERS

“Gold diggers”, or women seeking money through relationships with men, are very common too. Several Reggae lyrics lament women only wanting or faking love to get money from them as men, thus playing games. These exist in Reggae already since around the 1970s. Understandable, perhaps, in a socioeconomic context with much poverty as Jamaica’s. Women in such contexts search ways to “hustle” too (like men), to get by, using like other skilled hustlers weak spots, such as those of men. Such opportunistic behavior got and gets quite some attention in Reggae lyrics. It is not the only genre where one finds this, it is also heard in Hip-hop. The term “Gold Digger” from Hip-hop also reached Jamaican lyrics in more recent times.

SENSUAL

Some lyrics can be categorized under “romantic love lyrics”, but are rather more “lewd” or sexual and sensual in main focus. This cheeky “double entendre” has quite a tradition in some Caribbean genres (calypso, mento a.o.), including in Cuban or Dominican music. Of course there is an obvious interrelation as love can be expressed sexually in healthy, or more meaningful relationships, but some songs – also in Reggae – focus more on the sensual/sexual part. In Dancehall this is often more “slackness”: explicit (more “pornographic”) lyrics, more sex-focussed, and often degrading to women or consisting of empty “machismo” boasting. Literal references to body parts, i.e. genitalia, tend to recur there too. Shabba Ranks’ (in my opinion mediocre) dancehall hit song Bed Room Bully, that for some reason is lately played a lot in clubs here in the Netherlands, is one such song.

In Reggae and Lovers Rock, lyrics are less explicit and more sensual, especially Gregory Isaacs was good with that. Often it combines with humour. Night Nurse is best known, but there are several other examples among his songs: sexual, but not cynical: Soon Forward, the self-explanatory If You Feeling Hot, I Will Cool You, Private Beach Party, the funny Bang Belly, Welcome To My Room, Rosie, etcetera, etcetera.

Other old and new Roots Reggae artists on occasion also make a “lewd”, sensual song to interchange the more conscious or social lyrics. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, Junior Delgado, the Twinkle Brothers (It Was A Vision I Had), Junior Reid, Romain Virgo, Lee Perry, Sizzla, Buju Banton (Batty Rider, for example), and others.

Then there are more Lovers Rock reggae artists, both in Jamaica and Britain, whose lyrics became mainly about romantic love, with an occasional conscious tune. So, they became specialized in romantic love, lyrically. The other way around from other (Rootsy) Reggae artists, let’s say. Beres Hammond being a main example, Jah Cure another, or Tanya Stephens, and to a lesser degree also artists like Glen Washington, Sugar Minott, Etana, Sanchez, Gyptian, or Busy Signal.

Humour or explicitness is sometimes there, when these Reggae artists have romantic love lyrics, but seldom cynicism. Rarely are they also degrading to women: degrading in whatever sense: as a “religious” keeping down of female freedoms or denying their rights when compared to men, or the other sense: as treating women like primarily sex objects or pieces of meat.

In Dancehall Reggae this is more often the case, though often more “close to it”, because the women’s equality in the whole is seldom denied. Stupid or aggressive macho boasting, perhaps, but glorifying forced sex or rape is hardly there, even in the “slackest” Dancehall lyrics.

CONCLUSION

As an universal and biological human need, feelings of romantic love and male-female relationships, have much in common. Being in love is not stimulated in all cultures in this world, but remain inevitable, or – more poetically put – indestructible. So are longing for a significant other, sensual feelings, missing a partner, or having a heart broken and being left alone, after strong feelings developed.

For that reason, many lyrics on this theme of “romantic love” in Reggae, and its precursors Ska and Rocksteady, from the 1960s to the present, share tropes or emotions with many other genres: Do you really love me? Don’t leave me for another.. I am glad I met you.. and other such themes.

In Roots Reggae, such love lyrics tend to be sidelined relative to conscious and spiritual lyrics, but still recur, with some artists more than others.

The male-centeredness of Christian-influenced Rastafari, but also of the reggae music scene (as other pop music genres), might have caused a male bias, or a mysoginist tendency. Luckily, this is not really there in Reggae. Here and there one notices disdain of (too) independent women in some Reggae lyrics, but the same (and worse) can be heard in, e.g. Country or Bachata lyrics.

Lyrics tend to be sensitive, and present the women as equal, not as uppity slaves or disobedient children, as would do men who see women as unequal beings. Sex and love are after all a thing between adult and equal people. The critique of female gold diggers is more from a “male” perspective, but understandable. Of course, it can be vice versa too, occurring in the Caribbean too: local “good time guys” on beaches starting hot affairs with female tourists from wealthy countries, often at the same time having another Jamaican (or Cuban, Barbadian, or Bahamian etc.) girlfriend. Those are gold digging men, one might say.

That’s a positive thing in Reggae lyrics: the equality between sexes is mostly respected. Another positive thing, at least in my opinion, is that love lyrics overall are not overly “prudish” in Reggae. Sensuality is openly discussed, and playfully so, avoiding the “heavy sacredness” some main religions (Christianity, Islam a.o.) claim to propagate. Hypocritically, often. There is room for “lewd” and sensual lyrics in Reggae.

Furthermore, there are many nice “romantic love” lyrics in Reggae, with recognizable, eloquent lyrics for many people, even able to support or console people listening with similar feelings. By Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, Ijahman Levi, the Mighty Diamonds, the Gladiators, Beres Hammond, Glen Washington, Half Pint, and, more recently, Jah Cure, Chronixx, Fantan Mojah, and many, many others. Too many to mention, simply.

Enough, but luckily not eclipsing the important conscious and “message” strain within Reggae, at least not among real Reggae fans..

I made a mix of Reggae songs I played as (vinyl) selecta with such romantic love lyrics, from somewhat earlier artists (around the 1980s), but this is just one of the mixes/selections that can be made, based on my taste and collection, of course..

zaterdag 2 maart 2019

Fonko and soul definition

I recently saw the quite recent documentary film ‘Fonko’ (2016), which was about the “new” Africa told through its current music. Its screening was organized at Café the Zen in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), on the initiative of the organization Soul Definition: a platform with real-life films for a better society (https://souldefinition.net).

Whatever the context of its screening, I found it an engaging documentary. It was narrated by Fela Anikulapo Kuti, of course a well-known Nigerian musician, who died in 1997.

Fonko was in fact more about the new Africa, socially and politically, than about music as such. Sure, newly developed modern music genres – combining traditional and modern (foreign) influences – in several African countries, Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Senegal, Burkina Faso, South Africa, got some attention, for instance certain hip-hop artists, and some artists involved in what is called Afro-House, similarly mixing influences.

The lyrics and messages of the musicians seemed of more relevance, though. This was in line with Fela Kuti’s narrations throughout the documentary, about the need for Africa to find her own answers and identity and get united, away from Western colonialism and its legacies, capitalist neocolonialism still dividing Africa today, or from Islam, wanting to turn Africans into Arabs, just like Christianity wants to turn Africans into White Americans or Britons/Europeans.

The musicians and others in the documentary expressed their views, and certainly had an idea of an own African identity, albeit modernized in this computer age, through digital equipment. This modern, by definition Western, technology, was used by these African musicians for their own musical explorations, but using African musical idioms, departing in that sense from “traditional African music”, yet still maintaining an Africanness, even in Techno/Digital or House-like music forms.

IRONY

There is an inherent irony in this, of course, but the history of Black music – also in the African Diaspora – is full of such ironies. Western technology, modern instruments, might mostly be Western inventions – or dominated by Western companies –, but played all central roles in the development of genres, and in spreading Black music. It was a welcome means made use of for self-expression, in that sense a case of “fighting them with their own weapons”.

Lack of money often inhibited and inhibits poor people – certainly also in Africa – from buying these modern studio equipment and instruments. Yet, this was circumvented in various, creative ways, though not always in the interest of companies wanting to sell their products. For instance, through illegal copying. A musician in the documentary Fonko funnily turned it around: he argues that those companies should consider it a “privilege” for them, that their computers and other equipment got used in developing modern African music. An interesting way to look at it: culture over money.

That self-expression as an African, remained the most important theme in the documentary, indeed through current music genres, and accompanying dances, especially among the poorer people in several countries, like Ghana, Burkina Faso, or Angola. Also in South Africa, after all, as musician Hugh Masakela pointed out, after Apartheid’s end and the arrival of democracy, the poor Black South Africans remained just as poor and limited, only with a bit less police harassment, and now with the ability to vote.

Music became thus a main vehicle for rebellion, and the expression of an African identity, and not just a way to copy Western culture, which was a positive aspect of pride and self-expression in the documentary.

Again, there is nothing new under the sun here. Looking at Black music in the Americas, one notes throughout history a similar trajectory, in Blues, Rhythm & Blues, Reggae, Funk, Hip-hop, and other genres musical instruments and equipment were used, that were all – in those forms at least – Western inventions and products, part of a capitalist system to make profit out of other people’s hobbies or professions.

This is, however, purely the material aspect of it. The “soul” of the music is something else of course. When a cooking pit is made in Germany, for instance, it does not mean one must only prepare German food, or if one drives a Fiat car one must not by necessity “drive as an Italian” (whatever that may be). No one makes that ridiculous assumption. As Bob Marley once eloquently said: “the White man has the technology, the Black man has the wisdom..” combining it thus in producing current music.

Relatedly, in a Reggae lyric of the Gladiators, in their song Looks Is Deceiving, there is the line: “don’t watch the tool the work it can do, watch the man that behind it..”

SOUND

An aspect that me, as a percussionist, intrigues me overall most, though, touches on the very essence of music: sound.

Actually, I myself have got to known MIDI - simply said digital “samples” of real instruments -, quite early on in my life, mostly through music software, in my early adolescence. We are talking about the later 1980s and Early 1990s, now..

In fact, I remember even using it (with my brother) on an “old-time” Atari computer, before the PC and Internet days. On the PC I continued with it, making songs with instruments that were copied sonically in MIDI. Standard "band instruments" like bass, guitar, and drum, or piano, but also instruments regarding which I did not know yet what “the real thing” looked like (Shamisen?), from different cultures in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, also beyond known European instruments (At least more known to me, growing up in the Netherlands).

I have always been quite rhythmically focused, and paid quite some attention to drum patterns, in Reggae and other genres, and also when I tried to make songs myself. I even added an occasional MIDI-sampled bongo, conga, scraper, bell or other percussion sounds to the “groove”.

REAL PERCUSSION

Years later, especially after some Cuban trips, I expanded my latent interest in “real-life” (acoustic, natural) percussion. I think those Cuban trips of mine (I took these, also having friends Cuba, between 2001 and 2006) played a role because Cuba has a rich musical culture and life – as some may imagine – but with the added distinction that mainly “acoustic” regarding instruments were – and still are – used in Cuba. These included the conga’s and bongo’s, timbales, scrapers, bells, maracas, and other percussion instruments – being quite prominent in (Afro-)Cuban music after all – but also different types of guitars, and an occasional trumpet, flute, or old piano.

Elsewhere on this blog, I remarked that I do not recall having seen much “drum kits”, as we know them from Western pop groups, in Cuba: mostly percussion had their function there. Yet, neither do I recall having seen many electric guitars in Cuba.. only a few times a semi-acoustic – or semi-electric - (standing) bass or guitar. Since the norm was acoustic in Cuba, maybe there it is better to say “semi-electric”, than “semi-acoustic” as said in Europe and North America with so many electrical instruments, seeming thus the norm. In some special centers, there were also electronic keyboards, alongside the acoustic instruments.

Anyhow.. experiencing many live performances in Cuba with real percussion instruments – not the “faux-MIDI” hand drum or percussion sounds I already knew –, I developed a love for acoustic drums/instruments, sensing it as “realer”, more natural music somehow.. “Purer” music, perhaps even..

Not long after these experiences, I started actually playing percussion instruments – including taking lessons -, starting with hand drums like the bongos, and conga’s. Soon after this I started to play also djembe, ashiko, talking drum, and “small” percussion like shakers, scrapers, bells, rattles, woodblocks, flexatone etcetera.

I make my own compositions (including percussive-based ones) and play with other people now (as a percussionist), resulting from this trajectory. This can often be found on my YouTube channel, like this video.

I had before that of course also my acoustic “fix” during live concerts, with actual drum kits by live drummers, and often added percussion sets, such as during many Reggae concerts I visited. I enjoyed that very much. Even Dancehall of the more digital kind got played at times with a live drummer and drum kit.

DIGITAL

I heard about drum machines, synth drum, or MIDI drum, and heard what some did with it, such as in Hip Hop, House, Drum & Bass, Techno, and even some modern Reggae and Dancehall. Some digital drums were used in Caribbean genres like Zouk and Reggae and Dancehall, creating a somewhat disorienting – or experimental – feel. Sometimes I thought it was okay, especially when rhythmically creative and groovy, and sometimes I missed “the real thing” (the acoustic, natural drum sound). There are catchy, groovy Digital Dancehall riddims/instrumental, even if sounding “bleepy” and unnatural, or with digital drums, as long as it is rhythmically strong. I still enjoyed them, or could appreciate the creativity, despite my personal interest in (and, in many cases, preference for) acoustic drums and percussion.

Something of that I saw and heard in the documentary Fonko, mostly focused on young Africans in different African countries making this mostly digital music (easier to make after all: needing less equipment and instruments), derived in part from local music genres. The digital, nontraditional sound might at first be disconcerting and slightly artificial – especially when one, like me, knows and is inspired by the rich percussive legacy in traditional African music. Still, a good rhythm is a good rhythm, being thus the African “soul” remaining stronger that a mere “computerized”/digital sound, however “bleepy” or technological and unnatural it superficially sounds.

CULTURAL IDENTITY

In that sense, it represents a good metaphor for Africa’s also social and political development in these modern times, using more and more modern technology, having to keep up with the Europeans and Asians.. but in an own way, and with an own cultural legacy, identity, and pride.. That need not be betrayed, as had occurred too often before, during colonialism, and as outside forces, as Fela and others pointed out, tried to Europeanize or Arabize Black Africans culturally and religiously.

As someone in Burkina Faso said in the documentary: “know your history, even if it is your misery”.. One of several memorable phrases and oneliners uttered in the documentary.

Technology is in that sense like money: useful as a means, if used well and intelligently, but in the end with negative effects when it becomes an” ideology” by itself. Then one is selling one’s soul. An ideology, moreover, of power differences, as of course the Western world, and places like Saudi Arabia, Japan and China, have obvious advantages over a continent like Africa, in both money and technology. This results in, besides a false sense of superiority, also in more and continued exploitation.

COMPARISON TO CUBA

This has to do – of course – with international capitalism (or: neoliberalism) reaching (and exploiting) Africa, explaining also some differences with the situation in Cuba, I discussed before. Cuba remains formally Communist, and with relatively limited connection to international capitalism or the market place, but also limited access to some of its few advantages, such as modern technology, or the Internet: Internet access is even limited when compared to the poorer parts of Latin America.

Failed or oppressive states/governments in parts of Africa, especially after the leaving of inspiring political leaders like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana) or Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), led to the necessity of popular rebellion and inventiveness, whereas the very strong, but overly present and authoritarian (censorship, lack of free speech, etcetera), state/government in Cuba at least formally supports local musicians educationally, albeit with more meager funds than could be applied. Plus, the added disadvantage of being censored or otherwise controlled.

Inequality between a rich elite and the poor masses, is unfortunately also a reality in Cuba, despite idealist images of the Cuban reality some may hold. A Dutchman from Brabant I spoke in Cuba summarized it well, I think, when he said (something to the effect that): “the bottom is a bit less low than elsewhere in the developing world – with some, if scarce, state-funded securities - , but that bottom is much more broad..”

COMPARISON TO JAMAICA

I am a Reggae fan, and have also visited Jamaica a few times. I love mainly “live-band” Roots Reggae, and got overall less into the Digital Dancehall or Ragga. Only over time I can say that I got to appreciate some Digital Dancehall, especially rhythmically, combined with a certain energy. The modern technology entered Jamaica too, and more than in Cuba, due to its connection to the capitalist world. Electric bass guitars helped shape Rocksteady and Reggae in a sense, as with amplification it could make bass lines more dominant in music pieces. Electric guitars or electronic keyboards also came to Jamaica since the 1960s, and later also synthesizers, and synth drums, especially since the 1980s. So came digital innovations. One of the first Digital Dancehall Riddims was “Sleng Teng” for the song Under Mi Sleng Teng by Wayne Smith in 1984. This was actually based on a pre-programmed pattern in Casio keyboards, thus creatively used or “upgraded”, one might say.

The rhythms that developed since then in Dancehall – also the digital ones – departed from existing rhythmical structures (a faster version of the Rockers drum pattern for instance), and included further influences older folk traditions, and even some added polyrhythmic aspects, making it closer to the African roots of Afro-Jamaican culture than one might think. This later mixed with modern, foreign influences (such as from hip-hop or R&B).

In that sense, there is a strong parallel with the musical expressions in Fonko, as capitalist influences in both Jamaica and parts of Africa included this access – albeit troubled – to new technologies, music software, and other equipment sold as products on capitalist markets. Products that for that reason do not reach communist Cuba so much.

CONCLUDING

Musical and rhythmical – or broader cultural – characteristics are all shared throughout Afro-Cuban, Afro-Jamaican, and African music, as part of the African Diaspora. Polyrhythm and “call-and-response” as basic recurring components, with added variations in different countries. Many enslaved Africans ending up in Africa, also came from the countries featured in the documentary Fonko: relatively many Africans in Cuba came from the Congo region and the South of Nigeria, and relatively many in Jamaica from the Ghana region, albeit with also a sizable percentage of African slaves from the Congo region in Jamaica historically too: estimated at about 25%, compared to about 40% in Cuba. As slaves from the Congo/Angola region were quite widespread throughout the Americas, by the way, the “Congo” influence on the music in the African Diaspora, or Black music, should not be underestimated.

The musical characteristics travelled with these enslaved Africans, when they were forcibly brought to the West. These remain at the “soul” of the music, through whatever instruments expressed (acoustic, electric, or digital).

Perhaps that was what the engaging documentary film Fonko was essentially about: the strength of music itself – as culture and art – or specifically: as way for poor people to express an own (African) cultural identity - to maintain that in the current, modern global arena, despite global Western-led, exploitative capitalism, mass inequality and poverty, or (capitalist or communist) oppression.

SOUL DEFINITION

This positive, motivational messages expressed in documentaries, seems to fit the wider purpose of the (Dutch-based, but internationally oriented) organization Soul Definition, responsible for Fonko’s public screening, when I saw it last 24th of February 2019 in Café the Zen in Amsterdam. It has as motto, after all, ‘Edutainment for a better society’. The specific documentary Fonko even had as a theme, in a sense, "soul definition", like the organization's name.

Soul Definition – founded and led by Dutch-residing Greek Dimitris Meletis - has for those interested its own website, and on it you will find more information about the international documentaries it screens and promotes, and its goals (the latter under the Join section). See: souldefinition.net.

As of the 1st of March of 2019 (just before I wrote this!) these documentaries will be available worldwide through Soul Definition and its site (souldefinition.net). I saw a few of them, including thus Fonko, and enjoyed them and learned from them: it was truly “edutainment”.